The Impact of Acculturation on Ethnic Identity Development of Young Chinese American

Chinese American girl with other children
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United States (U.S.) is a country where it accepts a great diversity of races and various cultures. A lot of Chinese have moved to United States since the restructuring of immigration policy in 1965. Descendants of Chinese immigrants are fostered in the U.S. as years go by. This paper focuses on how acculturation influences young Chinese Americans, American-born Chinese (ABC) and U.S. young immigrants, ethnic identity developments and formations. The research deeply discusses the effects of the four acculturation perspectives (assimilation, integration, separation and marginality) on ethnic identity development of young Chinese Americans.


As a minority group in the United States, youngsters of Chinese Americans may encounter confusions while they are blending into the America society. They experience cultural differences between the dominant culture in U.S. and their original culture heritage. They come across with cultural contraries which may vary them about their own feelings towards their ethnic identities.

This paper focuses on ethnic identification development and formation of the young Chinese Americans who are U.S. born or immigrated to U.S. when they are under 18 years old. The ethnic identity formation of the two groups of people will be evaluated in the aspect of four outcomes of acculturation. In-depth exploration will be denoting the relationship between results of acculturation and the ethnic identity establishment. To indicate linkage between acculturation affecting the ethnic identity formation of young Chinese Americans, actual experiences will be given to present clearer explanations.

The discussion in this case study is divided into three parts. The first part is the acculturation of young Chinese Americans to the America society. There is a phenomenon among ABC and young Chinese immigrants. They do not have strong ethnic bonds with their original roots and are unconscious of their Chinese identity. They are born and raised up in America. They are unfamiliar with their race’s customs and beliefs due to the fading of ethnic ties. The second part is the association between acculturation and ethnic identity formation. The last discussion is the ethnic identity development and ethnic identification form of young Chinese Americans due to acculturation.

The discussions in this case study hope to show a solid evidence that accurately describe the reasons behind acculturation deriving formation of ethnic identities on young Chinese Americans.


Acculturation involves contact between two cultures, a process that an individual learns customs of a different cultures and adapts to a new cultural environment (Mendoza 1989).

There are four approaches interconnected to acculturation when ethnic minorities interact into a new diversified cultural environment (Berry 1991). Assimilation is the first one which is a time phase of acculturation (Redfield et al 1936). Assimilation refers to individuals prefer to recognise themselves to the dominant culture and reject their ancestral culture (Berry 1991) which affect comprehensively on both their own values and conducts(Redfield et. Al 1936). Assimilation is considered as a range from low to high continuous acculturation development (Suinn et al 1995). Integration is another attitude when ethnic minorities encounter acculturation. It depicts people who relate themselves to their original culture while they are willing to merge into the major culture (Berry 1991). Separation is the third alternative way of ethnic minorities cope with acculturation. It is a rejection towards mainstream social customs while attaching themselves with own cultural heritage. Marginality is the last act may eventuate in occurrence of acculturation. It refers to not enough social participation to both the host culture and association with one’s traditional traits (Berry 1991).

Ethnic identity

Ethnic identity can be defined as a sense of belonging and commitment to an ethnic group, a strong awareness of the meaning to one’s membership, affirmative stance toward the ethnic group and the acquaintance with its customs and history (Phinney l990). Ethnic identity is the tactic in which ethnic minorities group members negotiate with their original group as seperate section of the dominant society (Phinney 1990).


To research how acculturation affects the ethnic identity formation on young Chinese Americans, I collected data that are secondary information including academic papers, articles and books. For academic papers, they introduces me theoretical concepts on how young Chinese Americans form their ethnic identity based on acculturation. The information is detailed and credible. The papers provide in-depth explanation of how acculturation and ethnic identity formation are related. For articles and books, it includes real life experiences on how acculturation affects the ethnic identity formation of young Chinese Americans. It provides brief understanding of the current situations of ethnic identity formation of young Chinese Americans. It helps me to identify what acculturation causes implications on ethnic identity formation of Chinese Americans.

The paper also contains reflections of my observations on young Chinese Americans and my own experience as a Chinese American who grew up as a minority in the America society and how acculturation shaped the ethnic identification on us.

The Effects of Acculturation on Young Chinese American

There are two types of young Chinese Americans. One is the American-born Chinese who are locally born and grow up in the U.S. and the other one is immigrant Chinese American which they are foreign-born and being raised up in the U.S..

The four approaches of acculturation are assimilation, integration, separation and marginality. The acculturation preferences of American born Chinese (ABC) tend to be assimilation. Assimilation refers to people who attach themselves to the host culture in the society and reject their own culture. People with assimilation have lower cultural maintenance and higher cultural adoption (Lickel 2017). ABC ties American societal culture together with Chinese family culture, developing a completely change of life comparing to common Chinese. ABC was born in the U.S.. It is ordinary for them to grow and live in an all rounded American way. ABC are nurtured under the U.S education system. They embrace beliefs and values in a more westernized way as this is what they are being taught. Despite they are mainly raised up by foreign-born parents who immigrated to U.S from Hong Kong, Macau, Taiwan and mainland of China, etc, as a minority group in the U.S., they always interact with the majority group in the U.S. in different scenarios on a daily basis. ABC grows up with the American peers group which they share similar social norms and values. Although ABC have an Asian appearance, they grow up in a western environment. ABC can be related to “White-washed Asians” as they get in touch with inadequate extent of Chinese customs. For example, ABC prefer to obtain sufficient amount of vitamins and minerals by intaking supplementary pills. In contrast, Chinese prefer to obtain enough supplements by eating balance diets. ABC incline to a westernized lifestyle which they have limited interactions with the Chinese cultural heritage. They are not familiar with their initial culture. They have lower level of attachments to their own culture and a closer bonding with the American culture. They assimilate into the America society and culture.

Another group of young Chinese Americans are usually immigrants. The acculturation preference of immigrants young Chinese Americans is integration. It means people who keep their original culture and incorporate with the prevailing culture. People with integration have high cultural maintenance and high cultural adoption (Lickel 2017). As young immigrant Chinese Americans grow up, they are profoundly affected by their immigrants parents practices (Zhou and Lee 2004). Chinese immigrants parents gather support and gain resources from their own communities such as Chinatown in Manhattan, 8th avenue in Brooklyn and Flushing in Queens. In addition, some of them may have lived in homelands with Chinese background before they immigrated to the U.S.. Immigrants of young Chinese Americans are grown up with certain level of acknowledgement of Chinese cultural heritage. Comparing to ABC, they have a higher level of awareness in keeping their ancestral culture.

Moreover, many immigrant Chinese parents give up their middle-class status in homeland and move to the U.S. to strive for better opportunities for their descendants. Young Chinese American immigrants see their parents are trying to fit into the United States. It is normal for children to follow their parents’ behaviour. Their parents are inclining to the America society, they do the same. Besides, the act of immigrating to U.S. is an evidence that shows Chinese immigrants are highly adjusting themselves to the U.S. as they choose to settle in the U.S which is a new environment for them. Therefore, young Chinese American immigrants are having higher degree of engagement into the America society while they preserve a higher level of awareness to their own culture than American born Chinese. They integrate to the America society and culture.

The Ethnic Identity Formation and Development of Young Chinese Americans Based on Acculturation

The young Chinese Americans formation and development of ethnic identity are influenced by numerous causes. Ethnic identity is basically a choice disregarding the context of ethnic identity development. Research has proved that the ethnic identity of young Chinese American vary in different perspectives through acculturation such as the place of birth, gender, generational status and racism point of views. These are significant factors that alters the ethnic identification of young Chinese Americans (Zhou and Le 2004).

Other than the mentioned factors affecting the ethnic identification formation of young Chinese Americans, there are studies proving that expectations of the dominant group members on what meant to be the ‘model’ minority group affect how ethnic minority group members acculturate into the society (Lickel 2017). The ethnic identification of young Chinese Americans can be explained by a quote written by Joane Nagel. She mentioned that the own perception of ethnic minorities group members consider their own status versus outsiders’ opinion of what is ethnic minority identity. Young Chinese Americans are intensely aware of how people see them as a minority which affect their attitude towards identifying their ethnicity.

The formation of ethnic identity involve several processes. Unexamined is the first phase. It means people are not treating their original ethnicity and traditions as something that is significant (Chae and Foley 2010). Using the dimension of commitment and exploration, the first phase is known as a “foreclosure” (Ying and Lee 1999). The second phase is the moratorium (Chae and Foley 2010) which is related to people profoundly understanding and discovering their cultural norms and values (Ying and Lee 1999). It is a procedure of in-depth discovering one’s identity before making commitment (Ying and Lee 1999). Achievement is the final phase (Chae and Foley 2010). It refers to commitment and exploration of people recognizing themselves (Ying and Lee 1999). Individuals at this stage should be assertive with their own feeling as a member toward their ethnic group (Chae and Foley 2010). The three progressions are consecutively carried out to shape different forms of ethnic identities. Yet, it is not mandatory for people to go through three stages to form ethnic identity (Chae and Foley 2010). The ethnic identities of young Chinese Americans do not build up linearly, their ethnic identities develop over time by encountering of different scenarios (Chae 2001).

There are several ethnic identity can be formed on the ethnic identity formation of young Chinese Americans (Kiang 2008). Ethnic Identity formation is actually the mode of connection of oneself to both ethnic and dominant culture (Ying and Lee 1999). According to Kiang’s theory, there are mainly three types of ethnic identifications on young Chinese Americans.

Pan-ethnic identification is the first one type of formation (Kiang 2008). It refers to people who consider themselves having a collective ethnic identity that they are not acquainted with or unconscious of the distinctions and uniqueness of being Chinese. “Western identified” is another saying of pan-ethic identification (Chae and Foley 2010). “Western identified” individuals decline morals and customs of their Chinese heritage. In the meantime, they selected to integrate the behaviours, traditions and values of the American culture.

On the contrary, heritage national identity is another form of ethnic identification (Kiang 2008). People who recognize themselves specifically to their ethnic ancestry are categorized to this form of ethnic identification. Heritage national identification refers to intimate bonding to one’s homeland and indicated an attentiveness of what means specially as Chinese. In this case study, young Chinese Americans may attain this type of ethnic identification when they connect themselves more to the Chinese culture than the American culture. “Chinese identified” is an alternative way to describe heritage national identification.

A “Chinese identified” members is people who attach themselves to their own culture. This group of people retain practices and beliefs of the Chinese culture. Meanwhile, they are rejecting or not altering themselves into the western society and culture.

Last but not least, bicultural identification is the third form of ethnic identity. It is difficult for ethnic minorities to retain their original culture due to lack of cultural ties and low consciousness of the original ethnicity. Participants with bicultural ethnic identification associate themselves with both the broader Asian culture instead of Chinese culture only as well as with the host America culture (Kiang 2008). People with bicultural identification are combining the pan-ethnic identification and the heritage national identification. Bicultural identification maintain beliefs and customs of their of ethnic group while integrating with the dominant culture in the perspectives of values and behaviors.

Growing up in America as a minority, American born Chinese may encounter negotiations on their own identification as they are encouraged to put in their efforts, time and energy to be “Americanized”. American born Chinese tend to attain the pan-ethnic identification.

ABC normally adopt Americanized lifestyle than a Chinese living way. For instance, they would consider English as their mother togue rather than Chinese. They have a higher language proficiency in English rather than Chinese. Their eating habit also differs from traditional Chinese style, they prefer hamburgers, tacos and pizza instead of rice, Dim Sums and steam meat pancakes. In addition, they uphold with western values and behaviours. For example, someone sneezes near you, they say “bless you” to the person. Traditional Chinese kids do not practice this behaviour at all. Values of ABC towards family relationship point out clearer distinctions that they have higher awareness of being American than Chinese. In the aspect of westernized thought, family is independent. When Chinese American youngsters are grown up as adult , they tend to live separately from their parents. They leave parents’ houses as soon as possible when they are old enough, it is common for them to move to another state or country to live their lives. When it comes to starting a new family of their own, ABC would absolutely build their new unit with their own rules. At the same time, it sometimes happens that they disagree and argue a lot with the elderly as both parties hold opposing point of view. In Chinese culture, family is an extend where the oldest members are the most respected ones and people treasure the intimate tie within a family. Yet, it is not a must for all members to live together. It is an inappropriate act for that younger family members disobeying parents and grandparents even if they live in different places. These differences between two cultures cause them to face unknown struggles and double consciousness toward their own identity. Moreover, the America society classified American born Chinese into a group of Asian Americans instead of specifying their origins. When ABC come across with official papers, documents and statistics, they always categorizes ABC into the boarder group “Asian”. This illustrates a vague sign for ABC to related themselves toward the Chinese culture. They pan-ethnically identified themselves because of the social norms. (Kiang 2008).
Furthermore, racialism and discrimination are also reasons for American born Chinese self-categorizing themselves pan-ethnically. They are able to gather more support when it come to issues related to minorities in the society. The pan-ethnically identification promotes and assists American born Chinese to shout out on political and social topics as they acculturate into the U.S. society and culture.

On the other hand, the immigrant Chinese American youngster tend to identify themselves to the bicultural ethnic identification. A lot of them come to U.S. when they are in the progression of compulsory education, they have certain level of acquaintance to the Chinese customs and beliefs. They experience Chinese lifestyle in the homeland with Chinese background before. They comprehend clearly about different Chinese festivals such as the Mid-Autumn Festival, Dragon Boat Festival and The Double Ninth Festival rather than their understanding towards American festivals such as Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and the Columbus Day. They have stronger linkage toward the Chinese culture comparing to ABC.

Meanwhile, young Chinese American immigrants also face the strivings between traits of the U.S. and traits of the Chinese. They are assumed to blend into the western culture in the U.S. as they are receiving education here to learn the western values and behaviours while they are also expected to execute the Chinese traits when they are at home. Immigrant Parents may want their offspring to retain the Chinese heritage by speaking Chinese to show respect and obedience toward the family based on the Chinese culture (Chae 2001). The solution to solve the two-way struggles is that they consider their ethnic identity biculturally.

The Relationship Between Ethnic Identity Formation and Acculturation

With the above information, there is a relationship between ethnic identity formation and acculturation. There is an association between three forms of ethnic identifications and four forms of acculturation (Suinn 1992).
The first form of acculturation is assimilation. Participants of assimilation prefer to recognise themselves to the host culture and refuse their ethnic culture. At the same time, pan-ethnical young Chinese Americans perform values and behaviours that are connecting more to the dominant culture rather than the Chinese culture. American born Chinese is an actual example for this scenario as they are “White-washed” Chinese.

Integration is another form of acculturation. Members of integration refer themselves to their original culture while they are willing to incorporate into the major culture. They share show up with beliefs and behaviour in both Chinese and American way. Immigrants born Chinese can be explained in this conjuncture.

The remaining ethnic identification form is heritage national identity. Separation and marginality of the acculturation can be related to heritage national identity. Heritage national identity refers to people who understand thoroughly of a viewpoint of an ethnic heritage. People who carry out separation and marginality are biased to an ethnic culture. Individuals attach themselves to either Chinese traits or the U.S traits. They can be categorized with the heritage national identification.


The cohesive American society is formed because America welcomed wide range of people of various races. Acculturation is an important process when ethnic minorities blend into the mainstream culture of the society. This paper deeply explores the impact of acculturation on ethnic identification formation and development on young Chinese Americans. The first discussion is the effects of acculturation on young Chinese Americans. There are four forms of acculturation, assimilation, integration, separation and marginality. Specifically assimilation and integration are the two effects that mostly influencing young Chinese Americans.

The second discussion is the ethnic identity formation and development of young Chinese Americans based on acculturation. This case study finds out that assimilation and integration impacting the most on young Chinese Americans ethnic identification. Examples are provided to support the ethnic identification based on acculturation. Pan-ethnic identity and bicultural identity are the most likely formation of ethnic identification on young Chinese Americans.

The third discussion is the relationship and association between acculturation and ethnic identity. There is linkage of assimilation and pan-ethnic identity as well as the connection between integration and bicultural identity.


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