‘Becoming American’ Presents Challenges to Many Immigrants

Amy Hirsch

The psychology of immigration in relation to Asian-Americans coming to America was the theme of a talk by psychology Professor Mike Dulay Oct. 22 in Kreider Hall.

“Becoming American: A Psychological Analysis” incorporated slides with other audio-visual elements into a highly interactive presentation style, which apparently motivated the audience to explore this subject to a greater depth.

This lecture was part of the series One Book/One Glendale, a citywide reading event, co-sponsored by GCC and the Glendale Library. The month-long event features the book “Shanghai Girls,” a recently published historical novel by the acclaimed author, Lisa See.

The book relates the story of two Chinese girls forced to leave their native city in 1937 after the Japanese invasion that led to the Nanking Massacre. They girls immigrate to Los Angeles, but the path is filled with many difficult challenges.

Dulay began his talk by stating that “psychologists are people who help others adjust,” and combined this theme with an examination of Asian-American immigration history. He indicated that he would focus on what it means to become an American with See’s work as a guiding connection.

The internal challenges for a person leaving the familiar surroundings of home and family for the strange and unknown environment of a foreign land were addressed by Dulay.

According to Dulay, “the issue of ‘who is an American’ is internally defined, but the question of ‘what is an American’ is externally defined.” The concept of ethnic, political and gender identity was introduced.
Describing the adjustment challenges faced by the new immigrant in psychological terms, Dulay explained that, according to the principles of identity theory, the full development of identity achievement depends on a combination of commitment and active exploration. This is the “basis for self-esteem, integrity, resiliency and coping.

“The internal definition of self is something you have control over – we call the internal definition of self ethnicity,” said Dulay. “Identity answers the questions ‘who am I’ and ‘where am I going.’ Your answers to these questions defines your identity.

“When you know who you are and where you came from, your ability to determine where you are going is much more manageable,” said Dulay.

As an illustration of the challenge of discrimination, Dulay showed the sports story headline, “American Beats out Michelle Kwan.” This ignored the fact that the champion figure skater was born and raised in Torrance (her parents were Chinese immigrants).

Dulay pointed out that Kwan responded successfully to the barriers before her and was appointed by both presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to serve in the position of “public diplomacy ambassador.”

Several examples of laws discriminating against immigrant groups were cited by Dulay: The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited the entry of most Chinese into the U.S. until its repeal in 1943.

Japanese-Americans were forced into internment camps for the duration of World War II solely on the basis of their national origin. Laws prohibiting interracial marriages were not repealed in California until 1948. These laws were not declared unconstitutional at a national level until 1967.

Dulay asked, “What happens when you lose those things that validate our identity? When someone first moves to the U.S. there is culture shock – there are a lot of rules they didn’t know about. The next step is disappointment, this is followed by grief, this turns into anger and resentment, which can turn into depression or physical illness.” Potentially, these difficulties can be overcome by mobilizing support from emotional and financial family resources, said Dulay.

In conclusion, Dulay said, “Who is an American, what is an American – the answer to that question is ‘who am I,’ in developing that self-awareness and identity we are able to respond [to the challenge.]”

The series will conclude Thursday, with a noon presentation and book signing by See in the auditorium. She will discuss her 1995 book “On Gold Mountain: The 100-Year Odyssey of a Chinese-American Family,” in which she recounts stories of her ancestors and their immigration to California.