Asian-American Diaspora Blues

by Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda

1, 1.5, 2, 3, 4…. It is a tradition among immigrants in the United States, particularly those of Asian descent, to measure generational distance from their homeland in terms of numbers and, more recently, decimal points.

1 is the immigrant, born and raised in the home country, who arrives in the United States as an adult. The naturalized immigrant, the trail-blazer, “1” stands for “first” in their family to do, to go, to leave. 1 is the immigrant of action, the one often saddled with guilt for for leaving the familiar behind. “1” stands for sacrifice.

1.5 is the immigrant who is born in the home country but raised in the United States. The “in-between,” who, when asked where they are from, is torn between the laws of autochthony (claiming their place of birth as their place of origin), and the laws of memory, which may have few if any associations of the homeland, immigrating as they did to the United States as a child. Perhaps they have no recollection of their arrival here except through narrative inheritance, the stories their parents recounted to them years later.

And then there are the 2’s. 2’s are born here. 2’s are from here, though they may not always be treated that way. If 2’s travel to their homelands, it will not be as a return, but as an arrival. Their passport, if they have one, is a clean slate. They are a guest in the homeland. They may not necessarily speak the language of their homeland, though from all outward signs they may be expected to.

0, of course, implies no distance from the homeland. Immigrant 0 is the non-immigrant. Ideally, the one who speaks and breathes the same language she dreams in. Generation 0 is the one who, presumably, has true claim to an “authentic” homeland, has perhaps never left the homeland, who is the guardian and repository of tradition, who 1’s, 1.5’s, and 2’s look to as the “source.” The native speaker. The non-exile. Generation 0 is always at home--supposedly.

What function do these numbers play for us? How do they, in their numerical hegemony, reinforce a hierarchy of authenticity among immigrants in the United States today, particularly those of Asian descent? What does it mean to organize the diaspora--a horizontal concept--as a measuring stick?

And who do these numbers leave out? Measuring immigration in terms of generational distance from the homeland relies on a number of assumptions--most notably, the assumption of a nuclear, heterosexual (reproductive) family.

Can international adoptees, for example, be considered “immigrants” at all, when the conditions of their arrival do not depend upon the kind of biological continuity that the generational-numerical complex assumes? When their departure from the homeland was a kind of trauma, enacted against their will?

And what of the queer immigrant, who decides not to have biological children? Or, if they do have children, do not look or speak like them? Do they, in their refusal of biological notions of continuity, implicitly break the numerical order of things? And what of their mixed race descendants, whose appearance may threaten racial notions of continuity?

I write this to put my finger on the discomfort I feel in the numerical system of thinking and speaking about what it means to be an immigrant in the United States. I write this as a queer, mixed race, 1.5 immigrant, who is unsure about my debts and inheritances here.

What, if any, alternatives might we imagine to this numerical system? Alternatives that allow for a connection to the homeland, but which refuse to frame the homeland as the “originary source,” of which we, as 2nd, 3rd, 4th, and 5th generations, are the increasingly diluted forms? The increasingly fraudulent, or “fake" forms?

What, if any, alternatives might we imagine beyond the binary of cultural fidelity and assimilation? And at which number on the generational timeline do we cease counting altogether? When does the homeland become so distant in the generational imaginary that it ceases to be a relevant part of our identity at all?

This isn’t a prescriptive essay; it’s an exercise in imagining alternative forms of belonging, alternative ways of talking about belonging. A way of thinking about my relationship to Japan that doesn’t rely on hegemonic notions of authenticity, one that recognizes my experience as an equally, but alternatively, authentic way of being Japanese.

I’m sure that I am not alone in this desire. If there’s one thing I’m sure of, it’s that I’m not alone in the feelings of discomfort, embarrassment, anxiety, and shame that accompany my trips to the homeland. Who, among Asian-Americans, has not experienced a degree of shame when asked about their relationship to the homeland?

Maybe I’m interested in this affect of shame and the way in which it shapes the immigrant experience so centrally. What is it? What work does it do? Is it useful?

In an alternative universe, I imagine a way of de-centering the homeland without erasing or eliminating its importance to me. I imagine a way of being Japanese that doesn’t center Japan as such, in its current form. For example: I imagine a person of Japanese descent living in Brazil; one living in the UK; one living in the Netherlands; one living in Taiwan; and one living in Japan itself. And none of these modes of being Japanese are more or less authentic than any of the others. Just as, for example: I imagine a person of Japanese descent who lived in the 8th century, and one who lived in the 16th century, and one who lived in the 21st century would all have vastly different understandings of what it meant to be Japanese.

Too often, I think, we imagine the homeland as an unchanging structure. What would it mean to think of the homeland itself as always in an identity crisis? To think about the homeland as an unstable entity, always in flux, just as I am. What would it mean to think of the Zero Generation (my grandmother) as herself having an uncomfortable relationship to her homeland? A complicated one, just as mine is complicated?

What if we imagined identities beyond the current configurations of nation-states and borders? What other possibilities might lie beyond them?


Lisa Hofmann-Kuroda is a queer, mixed-race writer, academic, and activist living between Berkeley, California, and Tokyo, Japan. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in the Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures at UC Berkeley. In her writing and activism, she thinks broadly about queer alternatives to institutionalized forms of belonging. She is committed to queer liberation and decolonizing mixed race narratives. Follow her on Twitter @lhkuroda.