IMMIGRANT AS SOCIAL ANTHROPOLOGIST
All through high school and college upon arriving in America, I thought of being an ‘immigrant,’ compared to being a native, as a handicap and a disadvantage to be compensated and overcome.
I wanted to become like a native, and the gap between being an immigrant and a native was to be closed through my conscious will and effort. I wanted to speak like a native. I wanted to choose a field of study and a profession, not dictated by the fact that I came to this country as a teenager, with English as my second language, but as if I was born in this country.
I considered it a greatest compliment when someone mistook me as a ‘native,’ born in America.
It wasn’t until I came upon the subject of Social Anthropology in my third year of college that, in fact, being an immigrant — or more precisely, having a perspective of being at the threshold of being an outsider and an insider at the same time — could be considered an asset.
In Social Anthropology, the ‘distance’ that a new comer has to a society is critical in being able to ‘see’ things about the society that a native, who has never stepped out of the society and therefore doesn't have a comparative perspective between societies, wouldn't be able to see. Social anthropologists used this ‘distance’ and a 'comparative perspective' to delineate larger patterns and phenomenons about cultures and societies.
I realized that by virtue of having been an immigrant, I had already become a ‘social anthropologist’ without myself realizing it. I had been a ‘participant observer’ ever since I arrived in America.
Instead of trying to become like a native and become an insider from being an outsider, I started embracing this position — being at the threshold of being an outsider and an insider at the same time. And since then, I never stopped occupying this position — or rather, I found myself occupying this position everywhere I went — as a student on my university campus, as an academic teaching out in the Midwest, or as an expat living in Berlin, Germany. I was observing the Midwest as compared to the East Coast, I was observing German culture as compared to Korean culture, and American society as compared to German society. In this sense, I felt 'at home' everywhere I went, because being at the threshold was my home.
I remembered my Japanese-American friend in college complaining of always being pushed into the role of the ‘token’ Asian in class, with the whole class, including the professor, turning to her for an ‘Asian perspective’ or a ‘minority perspective.’
What the society was interested in hearing was a representation of different perspectives — particularly the under-represented and marginalized ones, the voices that were not heard. It was important to throw the dominant norm into multiplicities of perspectives. For example, it was important to hear a gay perspective as a straight person wouldn't understand what it was like being gay. It was important for a majority person to hear a minority perspective to understand what it was like being a minority — to inhabit the other's perspective and understand what it was like being the other.
But what representation also did was homogenizing the entire group into one perspective as if all Asian-Americans shared the same perspective. What this did, also, was to not allow any other race to step into another race and dare to 'represent' it, without being accused of cultural or racial appropriation, because it was considered a violation of the other's territory. What this did was to polarize groups and remain divided along racial and cultural lines.
If the society was interested in a shared understanding of a shared issue, wouldn't it be more helpful to have a roomful of individuals with unique perspectives of one's own — each inhabiting a comparative perspective between cultures, races and classes, rather than a roomful of individuals each representing one group or another? Could there really be such thing as a 'group perspective' or only individual perspectives?
I realized that claiming a position of being a social anthropologist as my own was my way of avoiding being pigeonholed into a group perspective, before anyone turned to me looking for an 'Asian perspective' or a 'minority perspective.'