Revealing Asian American Ethnic Identity Through Different Images


The article seeks to investigate the challenges related to the development of national and ethnic identity in immigrants through the works of Asian American writers. The concept of migration encompasses the experience of stress and adaptation to a new cultural environment, leading to a loss of identity and a sense of belonging. Using a semantic analysis framework, this research focuses on the role of cultural practice in the acculturation and identity development of immigrants. A significant focus is dedicated to culinary traditions in food preparation and consumption as one of the most meaningful and symbolic aspects in both cultural studies and literary representation. Findings suggest that first and second-generation immigrants use cultural practices such as food. It is used to cope with acculturative stress by developing self-identity, which may have negative implications for welfare depending on the extent of adherence or avoidance of such cultural activities.


Ethnic identity is expressed through a variety of forms such as activities or objects. Food and skills are often used for the association and defining culture. Immigrants face a challenge when entering a new country, facing imminent cultural change as a minority trying to integrate while also facing potential discrimination and stereotyping from majority cultures. However, ethnic minorities in the United States continuously attempt to sustain their identity and rights. There remains a need to find a balance between immigrant heritage and a newly acquired national identity, resulting in a competition between the two, observed in attitudes toward ethnic traditions and practices. Ethnicity is one of the most widely recognized methods of investigating personality (Kim, 2012). Ethnicity can be described as conventions, traditions, and heritage practices which are commonly used to reinforce a sense of belonging or ethnic identity. Food and eating habits are commonly important and symbolical for diverse ethnic groups as part of developing an individual identity. Stano (2016) identifies food as a system of communication which uses images, symbols, protocols, contexts, and behaviors in a socio-cultural context.

Another aspect of cultural individuality which will be explored is gender identity that is defined by personal relationship and social behaviors. Different cultures have varying perspectives on femininity and masculinity based on the political or religious elements that define identity based on an individual’s agreement to follow with socio-cultural prescriptions of gender. The context of acculturation is vital in understanding the identity conflicts of Asian American immigrants. Scholars have identified two distinct models of identity formation: linear and two-dimensional (Frable, 1997). Though the use of cultural semiotics framework, an investigation is conducted regarding links between distinct representations of Asian American immigrants’ national identity and cultural identity. Analyzing images of cultural practices in primary source writing allows tracking the process of immigrants’ identity formation within a dominant culture. The formation of a national idea against the background of cultural, racial, religious, and other disagreements with the local population is most of those authors’ central thought. In addition, the use of various images, for example, food ones, are made with the purpose of displaying ethnic identity and is the technique that is typical for that era.


Literature Review

Since the 18th century, immigration has become central to American society as people sought to escape the turmoil and seek opportunities in a rapidly developing economy. Ethnic, cultural, and racial diversity are integral to American society, creating a melting pot with unique ideologies and traditions. Diversity has allowed for the introduction of a new culture, including culinary arts, religion, and languages. Therefore, the process of immigration not only allowed people to achieve political and economic stability in the United States but also helped Americans learn about and assimilate various ethnicities and cultures, ways of life from all over the world.

Despite the benefits offered by cultural diversity, there are politically conservative communities which oppose immigration. They hold strong beliefs and ideologies which reject immigration at its core, fearing the consequences which they perceive to be endangering their traditions, values, and behavior, something they consider penultimate and superior to other ethnicities and cultures. This school of thought holds that there should be no diffusion in the local culture, protecting their own interests and fear that change will reduce the power and authority of the conservative groups. Cultural diversity in resistance to the system undergoes a different process and may lead to conflicts. It is these types of scenarios which may pressure immigrants and create cultural and emotional anxiety when, being a minority culture, surrounded by a society with a much more dominant culture.

When a society demonstrates flexibility towards cultural diversity, a variety of mediums exist which define ethnicity and ethnic identity. One of these is food, which is the main focus of this paper. Food defines ethnicity as it is often directly associated with a specific race, nation, culture, or heritage. Ethnic food is an aspect which identifies certain norms, eating habits, and tastes (Dwyer & Bermudez, 2018). In the modern day, societies and ethnic identities developed in various ways, resulting in interactions and transformations to take place, resulting in the adoption of various mediums and habits by people (Hurst, 2003). For example, a variety of “Asian” food available in the US has diverse ethnic origins, but the dishes only have a passing resemblance to the original cuisines with some basic staples, which allows visualizing the process of ethnic identity development and transformation in America (Pilcher, 2012). While as a commodity food is evaluated based on nutritional value, in culture, food is a mode of communication which conveys traditional values and a repertoire of identity and uniqueness.

Food is symbolic in being a medium to communicate ideas, meanings, and perceptions among groups of people, as well as distinguishing ethnicities from one another. This component of the national culture is a significant link among generations. According to Xu (2008), “food operates as one of the key cultural signs that structure people’s identities and their concepts of others” (p. 2). The culture of cooking is described in the novels by Tan, Chen, and other representatives of the Asian American writing school. This can be explained by the desire to preserve those aspects of national identity, which are gradually erased due to a new lifestyle.

As a result, food contributes to communication and strengthening of relationships. There are tangible benefits and opportunities from interaction with individuals from various ethnicities and cultural backgrounds. Food is able to bring people together in an exploration of each other’s cultures and finding common ground. Despite food having different practices, emotional representations, and symbolic meanings from culture to culture, it is a concept which different ethnicities can find common ground on while maintaining a level of identity and personality. It is an integral component of this research to highlight that ethnic identity and its acknowledgment are vital for every individual. Ethnic and racial identity defines people and emphasizes their commitment to religious and traditional values depending on ideology. Therefore, it is critical to recognize these differences which culminate as the main elements and consequences of immigration, leading to cultural diversity and the exchange of culture, including in culinary arts and diets.

In addition to referring to food as one of the components that reflect national identity, some authors draw attention to the personal perception of culture. According to Drake (1999), the characters of Asian American novels often “interact and identify with new American;” nevertheless, the habits and traditions of these people are distinctive from those that their peers lead, largely due to the differences in upbringing (p. 82). This explanation is justified because the work of individual authors is closely related to the interaction between the members of their families who, in turn, support national cultural trends and customs. For instance, as Deeb and Deeb (2015) note, Amy Tan’s creative heritage is based not only on the historical assessment of the cultural aspects of her development as a writer but also a personal perspective and experience. In The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Tan (2001) remarks that “so much of history is mystery,” and this statement emphasizes her desire to learn various prerequisites that influenced her family’s lifestyle (p. 68). As a result, creativity is based on individual experience, which is a valuable source for describing the foundations of ethnic identity in non-standard conditions.

The concept of ethnic identity is the one that may be confused with other similar theories. In particular, the trend to preserve cultural background is the phenomenon that is typical for different ethnic groups. At the same time, Rivas-Drake et al. (2014) state that there are the concepts of ethnic and racial identities, which, despite similar and intersecting nuances, are different. In the first case, the interests of cultural and traditional aspects are affected, in particular, literature, cuisine, painting, and other topics. Racial identity implies the broader assessment of the individual from the standpoint of his or her development in society in the face of differences in origins. The application of the concept of ethnicity is more suitable for creative art since this theme gives authors more freedom of expression and description of their ideas and experiences. Therefore, in this work, the manifestations of ethnic identity in Asian-American literature are the key object of analysis.

Asian American Primary Literature

This part of the research attempts to introduce and examine in detail a variety of Asian American primary literature which focuses on the concept of immigration and identify common themes in the context of the protagonists. The literary pieces are all focused on issues of ethnic identity and cultural practices within the context of immigration, based on the experiences many of the authors undergone themselves. America has always been and remains a land of multiculturalism and opportunism, driven by the powerful forces of capitalism, industrialism, and the Manifest Destiny which has attracted immigrants for centuries and allowed these ethnic groups to develop the country’s economics (Motomura, 2007).

The fictional novels by Asian American authors focus on the themes of immigration, ethnic identity, and food culture (Questia, 2018). The writers reflect on the lives of immigrants and implement the transition into their stories. A common theme is homesickness with memories of their origin country and a struggle to adapt in a new society with differing values and culture. Unfamiliar conditions in living and work, as well as new foods, languages, and other cultural aspects pose significant challenges to the way of life, with depression and nostalgia creating a burden for immigrants (Chen, 2007). However, the key theme is that while bonding together and finding the similarity among traditions such as religion, food, and festivals, immigrants can form communities and enjoy comfort. By doing so, they also offer creative benefits and contributions to the country while driving the emotional factors that push them to achieve success and innovation.

Many of the novels focus on different aspects of immigrant life, ranging from individual to social aspects. There are subthemes of self-hatred and adaptation, parental-child relationships, gender roles, cultural deterrents, self-discovery, and others which in one way or another impact personality and ethnic identity development. The works offer a diverse set of subthemes which tend to emphasize actual challenges experienced by immigrants concerning their ethnicity and identity crises as part of the process.

One of the most vivid representatives of the writer-immigrant generation is Amy Tan who grew up in the United States. In her works, she addresses the issues of the formation of her peers’ ethnic identity. These are the children of the first-wave immigrants born and raised in the country that is far from their original homeland. One of the main means of expressing cultural differences in the novel The Joy Luck Club by Tan (2006) is language. Bilingual impregnations, primarily in the form of proverbs and sayings, create the effect of mothers staying between English-speaking and Chinese culture. At the same time, the author recognizes language as the instrument of intergenerational dialogues (Tan, 2006). The daughters understand Chinese but speak only English, and this creates some barriers between them and their parents. On the contrary, mothers speak a mixture of Chinese and English, which often confuses the daughters. While observing the older generation, June, the main character, notes: “My mother and I never really understood one another” (Tan, 2006, p. 109). This interpretation suggests that, despite the common life, children’s ethnic identity is less developed than that of their parents.

In addition to a linguistic focus, considerable attention is also paid to cultural background as the platform for preserving the national identity. In her novel The Bonesetter’s Daughter, Tan (2001) tries “to express a deep concern over the identity crisis of Chinese immigrants as ethnic minorities in American society” (Jing, 2016, p. 313). Many Asian American writers often resort to the genre of autobiography, telling their story of survival and development in the United States.

At the same time, most of them, as a rule, touch on the theme of the national identity and belonging to a particular culture that has been assimilated into the American way of life. In an effort to emphasize the need to know and remember the history of her ethnos, in her novel, Tan (2001) notes: “You can have pride in what you do each day, but not arrogance in what you were born with” (p. 127). A special role is played by the narration based on personal reflections and experience since readers have an opportunity to evaluate the writer’s experience and her ideas regarding specific problems. Faced with the lack of the understanding of individual concerns, the author gives the following thought: “But I don’t have anything left inside of me to figure out where I fit in or what I want” (Tan, 2001, p. 138). This judgment means that adaptation to society may be difficult even if a person is born and grown up in one country but has the distinctive features of cultural background.

The relationship between children and their parents is one of the most reliable factors stimulating the preservation of ethnic identity. According to Yüksel (2016), communication between mothers and daughters is a separate topic in the works of Amy Tan who, in turn, reflects many aspects of her life in the status of a cultural minority citizen. The author of The Bonesetter’s Daughter writes: “…mother knew what others were saying about me. Perhaps she might see these good qualities in me as well” (Tan, 2001, p. 138). This attention to loved ones’ opinions is the leitmotif of the work devoted to the description of personal experiences and ideas on the topic of preserving ethnic background. An opportunity to keep in touch with family members is revealed through dialogues, communication, and the sharing of experiences. As a result, parents’ love is quite a strong driver prompting Tan and other representatives of Asian American literature to describe their thoughts in an autobiographical vein. Therefore, the theme of the connection of generations is an essential factor that reflects the characteristics of ethnic identity and its manifestations.

A significant amount of the Asian population in the United States is foreign-born, leading them to strongly remain with their identity, including food culture which has penetrated the American cuisine (albeit in its Americanized commercial forms). This is an example of a holistic relationship between cultures, driven by Asian Americans through sharing and integration (Mclean, 2015). Food images and symbolism are present throughout the novels examined in the paper, as culinary arts are displayed as a metaphor for dreams and the immigrant’s changing ethnic identity. Food maintains a critical role in framing a country’s social character. Thus, ethnic personality and attitudes are reflected through food where immigrants will either attempt to safeguard traditions or adopt new practices, reflecting their perspective on assimilation. This is seen in the majority of the novels examined. Finally, food inclinations portray far more than familial or ethnic conventions, but to some extent, demonstrate an individual’s mentalities towards themselves and ethnic identity.

Major Themes and Semantic Analysis

Semantic analysis is a vital tool in literary criticism and scholarship, which allows researches to identify a combination of textual and extratextual symbolism. Furthermore, it highlights the relationship between the content of the text and the context in which it was written. The author’s personal experience, biographical information, and cultural perception contributes to the meaning of the written work. The evaluation of secondary literature focuses on the issues of immigration, ethnic identity, and the impact on people’s lives through the exploration of subjective experiences, motivations, and behaviors in fictional characters.

A number of themes were identified through a semantic analysis of the selected works. Identity conflict is a central theme as it appears when immigrants are faced with cultural dislocation, the phenomenon of being removed from one’s familiar cultural environment and placed in a completely distinct climate where values and cultural practices differ. Many immigrants moving the United States face barriers with acculturation-associated distress. A strict preference or adherence to traditional ethnic lifestyles or beliefs can be a challenge towards full integration into the American culture. This occurs primarily in first-generation immigrants with highly conservative cultural backgrounds. Second-generation immigrants commonly experience greater flexibility. However, their identity conflict is based on disconnection from the ethnic background and encountering conflict perspectives on such issues as gender roles in the culture of familial heritage in comparison to the host American social norms.

The semantic analysis demonstrates that cultural practices play a role in all immigrant generations. Asian American novelists often emphasize food imagery as an element with powerful symbolism and meanings while describing food-related activities as an aspect which promotes familial ties and a sense of belonging to an ethnic community. Through the experience of first-generation immigrant protagonists, cultural practices are used to maintain a connection to their homeland and origins, while second-generation immigrants use this to become aware of familial heritage in the exploration of ethnic identity. The difference among regarding food is examined through works such as The Bonesetter’s Daughter where parental and children’s opinion regarding the choice of food come to a disagreement. Generations after the first immigrants have trouble accepting some of the traditional Chinese foods, viewing them as gross due to the American cultural influence that has been embedded from birth, lacking acceptance for certain culinary traditions or textures of foods (Tan, 2001).

Since the topic of cultural minorities is touched upon not only in the context of food but also the ethnic group, it is possible to draw parallels with the various nuances of Asian American writers’ creativity. Oyserman and Sakamoto (1997) argue that in contrast to the mid-20th century, the attitude toward other nationalities in America has changed, and the trend for loyalty has become more apparent. Some manifestations of these changes may be observed in the novel by Tan (2006) who writes: “I won’t be what I’m not” (p. 57). This desire to preserve unique self-awareness and prevent the loss of personal world perception suggests that in the Asian-American literature of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, authors feel the importance of cultural background, despite their environment. In addition, the description of life, communication, and the problems faced by such families are additional evidence that the authors deliberately address this topic and strive to present all the nuances of their lives in as much detail as possible. Such an approach proves the course towards the preservation of ethnic identity in Asian American literature and its manifestations in contemporary conditions.

In this context, Bourdieu’s Theory of Cultural Exchange states that national identity is an aspect which is learned, not given by nature. When a change in an environment occurs, perceptions, thoughts, and behaviors are altered as well, largely through immersion and actively participating in the surrounding culture (Farrell, 2010). This can potentially allow an immigrant to psychologically detach from their origin nation and become assimilated into a new culture.

Some authors pay attention to the official status of ethnic minorities. For instance, Okada (1976) writes in his No-no Boy: “But it is not enough to be American only in the eyes of the law and it is not enough to be only half an American and know that it is an empty half” (p. 16). This statement describes the tacit principle of bias to those who are not born in the United States and, thus, cannot be considered full-fledged citizens. At the same time, relationships with loved ones are one of the possibilities to feel support and understanding. In Interpreter of Maladies, Lahiri (1999) mentions one of the character’s mother as the only guest and writes that “she cooked dinner every night, drove herself to the supermarket, washed their clothes, put them away” (p. 9). Such expressions of love confirm that regardless of the official status assigned to immigrants, their relatives are ready to help them.


This study contributes to existing research on Asian American literature regarding immigration and ethnic identity by identifying challenges faced by first- and second-generation immigrants. Furthermore, the critical role of cultural practices in the development of self-identity and individual well-being was outlined. Culture can be defined as “collective propositions inculcated (internalized) through normal developmental channels to become dispositions that determine perception, organize thinking and shape behavior” (Dajani, 2018, p.18). In each ethnic group, traditions are learned from early childhood, allowing a person to become a part of the collective and function socially by adhering to norms and participating in cultural practices.

Culture becomes an attachment, shaping psyche and perspective, which is challenged in the context of immigration and multiculturalism where cultural contrasts are evident, and an individual is forced to find a balance. Food and culinary traditions are an integral part of a culture, having emotional significance as an expression of identity and traditions daily. People form connections to food, and it can evoke pleasant memories, driving one’s integration and purpose in society, sometimes fulfilling gender roles while doing so as well. For immigrants, culinary practices hold a special meaning in soothing anxieties and emotional fears when facing exposure to a foreign place with a different dominating culture.

Fictional narrative examples examined in this paper suggest how food is used for various means such as cultural connections, comfort, the positive acculturation process, and a sense of belonging. It aids in achieving a cognitive and psychological cultural flexibility helping to adapt. Immigrant form a healthy identity by finding a balance between nationality and ethnicity as a minority culture. This process of personal flexibility is a multifaceted aspect which depends on the facilitation of acculturation and social integration, dependent on a range of factors (Bhugra & Becker, 2005) Eventually, in a supportive and friendly environment of a host country, immigrants can assimilate while maintaining some aspects of their unique cultural identity and contribute to the multiculturalism of the local community. Recognition of social and psychological needs of immigrants in the context of ethnicity and nationality allows for a healthy development of identity and society which values its members.


The use of the semiotic analysis framework in the examination of texts as sign and symbol systems can be deemed successful. It allowed to comprehensively understand and answer the formulated questions and develop the thesis around the topic of investigation. A triangulation method for research validation was used to ensure credibility. A limitation of this study is the fictional nature of the selected primary sources, which are novels by Asian Americans. Although measures were taken through critical analysis to identify and fill the differences between the real-world and fictional characters, it is difficult to determine the extent of the generalizability of the findings and how applicable they are to real immigrants when it comes to ethnic identity development. Therefore, it is recommended to conduct further research on the same immigration-related issues using biographical data and personal interviews. This will allow establishing a credible connection between Asian American ethnic identity development in a dominant culture and its accounts in primary source novels examined in this paper.


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