Learning to be Chinese American: Community, Education, and Ethnic Identity

reviewed by Chang Pu - October 10, 2011

coverTitle: Learning to be Chinese American: Community, Education, and Ethnic Identity
Author(s): Liang Du
Publisher: Lexington Books, Lanham, MD
ISBN: 0739138480, Pages: 141, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

Identity is a verb. In the book Learning to be Chinese American, Du does an excellent job illustrating the complexity of identity production issues among Chinese American immigrant youth in the United States who live in the era of globalization. As the number of linguistically and culturally diverse students increases dramatically in the United States school system, our teaching forces still remain homogeneous (Hadjioannou and Fu, 2007). To provide appropriate educational services to immigrant students, it is critical for K-12 teachers to understand identity construction and its impact on learning and teaching. Moreover, as Du points out in his book, “Chinese Americans’ identity construction process in contemporary social, economic, and cultural contexts and through the daily practices of the people involved is shockingly in lack” (p. 10). Hence, this book is important and timely.

The book is divided into five chapters. Chapter 1 provides an overview of the study. Du discusses how he adopted the central concepts, such as identity formation and racial consciousness, to frame the study. He then raises his research questions, details the research methodology, and provides a road map of the book. His main goal is to investigate how the ethnic identity of Chinese American youth was sustained and/or (re)constructed through interacting with the broader social and cultural contexts at local, national, and global levels. In line with the flexible notion of identity (Hall, 1996) and class ethos and habitus (Bourdieu and Passeron, 1977), Du argues that Chinese American youths’ identity formation was ongoing, heterogeneous, and diverse, and that their identity formation and racial awareness were influenced by social power, domination, and hegemony at both micro and macro levels.

Chapter 2 presents an in-depth look at racial consciousness in the local Chinese American community through individual and collective practices from two levels: the existence and the shaping influences. Through interviews with parent participants and Chinese American youth who were attending the community-based Chinese language school, Du illustrated that racial awareness of mainstream society and Chinese Americans was occurring on a daily basis among participants. For them, “Americanness was assumed to be equal to ‘Whiteness’ ” (p. 31). Especially, the consciousness of being “seen as others” in their schooling experience among Chinese American youth still depicts the racial hierarchy in American schools. However, Du argues that, despite the existing racial hierarchy and social mobility limitations, Chinese Americans’ high social and economic aspirations were not affected. Du explains that this was due to their obtained middle/upper middle socioeconomic class status, highly educated backgrounds, and social and cultural capital, as well as cross-border mobility between the U.S. and China. Further, Du takes on a thorough analysis of interview data, carrying out insightful discussions on the influences of global changes and China’s growing economy on local Chinese Americans’ development of positive attitudes towards Chinese heritage and language.

Du launches his robust inquiry of ethnic identity, especially in relation to the community-based education, in Chapters 3 and 4. The author’s focus is on demonstrating how the ever-changing and constantly negotiated identity was (re)construction through drawing boundaries and/or imagined boundaries between the group and “others.” More importantly, the boundaries existed in multiple levels, such as Chinese language proficiency, socioeconomic status, and immigration status. Du’s reanalysis of the model minority identity becomes one of the significant strengths of this book, and leads to a higher level of understanding of this given identity. Filled with the rich interview data on participants’ understanding of the model minority, these two chapters argue that although the model minority was regarded as positive to some extent at the surface level among participants, the efforts towards academic excellence in school were actually made to fight against the institutional racism within and outside the American educational systems, as well as in the society. Further, the ideology of the model minority indeed leads to “the blocked channels of mobility in other aspects” (p. 57). The internalized concept of social advancement and mobility through education could bring advantages to Chinese Americans; meanwhile, it reinforced the stereotype of Chinese Americans, shaped their identity construction, “othered” them from the mainstream society, and led to marginalization and exclusion in other fields such as sports. This further heightens the need to look at limitations that the model minority identity brings to Asian immigrants.

Du also aptly depicts a vivid picture of Chinese heritage language schools in the U.S., and of the struggles this type of community-based school was facing. Chinese heritage language schools aim to help immigrant youth maintain Chinese language and culture and achieve academically; however, they are positioned at the peripheral position in the American educational system. As this study showed, the school, by adding the SAT Chinese class, tried to negotiate with the dominant power to gain a recognized status in the American educational system so as to “meet the needs and expectations of the local Chinese American community” (p. 86). Unfortunately, in order to accommodate the testing requirements, it had to restructure the curriculum and content to prepare for the test. As a result, the school digressed from its original goal, and became a contesting site between the local community and the dominant shaping forces that influenced the identity production process.


Another important contribution Du made to enhance our understanding of Chinese Americans in the local Chinese community is his discussion in Chapter 4 on the hybrid culture, the imagined Chinese culture as a result of cultural reconstruction shaped by globalization and the dominance of Western culture. Although Chinese culture was emphasized in the ethnic education and among Chinese immigrant families, what aspects of Chinese values should be maintained if they conflict with mainstream values was not clearly understood by Chinese American immigrants (both adults and youth). Such an uncertainty, as Du suggests, caused the internal tension within ethnic identity and perplexing reactions. Du should be applauded for this unique and persuasive analysis.

Du brings readers back from practices to theory in the last chapter. Taking from the experiences of middle-class Asian immigrants, he gently challenges the third way of adaptation as part of the segmented assimilation theory (Portes & Zhou, 1993). Portes and Zhou explained the adaptation paths immigrants usually take, claiming that the third type associates preservation of the immigrant community’s values and tight solidarity. However, Du argues that Chinese Americans’ active involvement in their local Chinese community was an example of “a protective mechanism against racism in the broader society” (p.118) and power struggles as they remained the “other” in the society; meanwhile, the upward assimilation (the first type) like the early European immigrants is impossible for them, and their educational and economic success prevented them from the download mode of assimilation (the second type).

Overall, Du weaves identity theories, literature, and data seamlessly in this well-written and informative book. He pays attention to a group of highly educated and skilled new wave of Chinese immigrants who have not been sufficiently portrayed in literature. However, most of the data collected and analyzed came from in-depth interviews. The analysis can be richer if using various data types such as field notes taken from observations on ways participants interacted inside and outside the local Chinese community. This data-driven research study effectively addresses the complexity of identity construction and production among immigrants in a milieu of globalization. It adds depth to the literature of identity and language minority education, and is an excellent book for educators who work with immigrant students, graduate students, researchers, and any scholars who are interested in identity. In the meantime, Du offers a detailed description of the research design, researcher’s role, and methodology, which provides a good model for graduate students who are interested in conducting educational ethnographic research in school and/or community settings.  


Bourdieu, P., & Passeron, J. C. (1977). Reproduction in education, society and culture. Richard Nice (tr.). London: Sage.

Hadjioannou, X. & Fu, D. (2007). Critical Literacy as a tool for preparing prospective educators for teaching in a multicultural world. NERAJ: New England Reading Association Journal, (43)2, 43-48.


Hall, S. (1996). Who needs ‘identity’? In S. Hall & P. du Gay, (Eds.). Questions of cultural identity (pp. 1-17). London: Sage.

Portes, A. & Zhou, M. (1993). Interminority affairs in the U.S.: Pluralism at the crossroads. Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 530, 74-96.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 10, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16560, Date Accessed: 5/27/2022 11:38:45 AM

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