Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys
Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - The Meaning of Home
For Asian Americans, the concept of "home" is complex and ever-changing. Our understanding of home is shaped by our family histories, cultural values, and lived experiences navigating between Eastern and Western worlds. Home represents the physical places we come from, the ancestral lands of our parents and grandparents. It also encompasses the cultures and traditions we grew up with. But home is more than just bricks and mortar or customs and cuisine. Home is also found within - it's the feeling of belonging, of being embraced in community, of being seen and understood.
My parents emigrated from Taiwan in the 1970s, settling in a small town in middle America. As a child, I felt the push and pull between wanting to fit in with my American peers, yet also longing to connect to my Taiwanese roots. Home for me was the intersection of both - celebrating Lunar New Year and eating my mother's dumplings, then going to football games and birthday sleepovers with friends from school. As an adolescent, I rebelled against my Asian upbringing, wanting to distance myself from the Tiger Mom stereotype. But as I grew older, I began to appreciate the value of my dual cultural identity. I made peace between my American individualism and Asian collectivism.
For Grace Bae, a Korean American writer, food became her bridge back to understanding her mother's culture. Though they clashed over expectations, cooking traditional Korean dishes together strengthened their bond. Preparing galbi and kimchi jjigae transported Bae to the Seoul of her mother's childhood. The smells triggered memories more visceral than any photo album. Through food, Bae found home in her heritage.
Generational differences also factor into the shifting meaning of home. Many young Asian Americans feel disconnected from their ancestral homelands compared to older family members. But pilgrimage travel to places like China, India or the Philippines offers an opportunity to honor one's origins. Journeying to a parent or grandparent's birthplace provides perspective on their stories of immigration and sacrifice. Standing in the same streets and cities where they once walked reaffirms the truth that home transcends geography.
What else is in this post?
- Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - The Meaning of Home
- Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Navigating Between Cultures
- Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Food as a Bridge Between Past and Present
- Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Travel as a Search for Identity
- Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Being the Perpetual Visitor
- Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Languages that Shape Experiences
- Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Bringing Loved Ones Along
- Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - How Immigration Shapes Travel Habits
Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Navigating Between Cultures
For Asian Americans, navigating between Eastern and Western cultures is a constant balancing act. We walk a narrow line between embracing our ethnic roots and assimilating into the broader American landscape. How we traverse this path differs based on individual circumstances, but the push and pull between affirming our Asianness while fitting into mainstream society is a common chord.
Rachel DeAlto, author of Relationship Reboot, describes the difficulty of straddling two worlds as a Chinese and Jewish American. At home, her family celebrated Chinese New Year and ate cultural dishes. But at school, she concealed these traditions, afraid of being seen as a FOB (fresh off the boat). DeAlto writes of the "endless energy required to keep up my all-American front while denying half of who I was.” For years, she compartmentalized her identities, keeping them separate.
As adults, many Asian Americans still feel pressure to choose one side over the other. Leadership coach Jane Hyun writes about the perception that embracing Asian values means forfeiting individualism. But Hyun asserts one can be both compassionate and competitive, both direct and diplomatic. She encourages finding joy in being “100% Asian and 100% American”.
Third culture kids (TCKs) also hold insight into bridging cultures. Born in Asia but raised in the West, TCKs navigate multiple cultural influences. For Korean-Canadian Stephanie Voong, travel helps her honor both sides of her identity. Living abroad connects her to the Korean half she never fully experienced growing up overseas. But exploring Asia also reminds Voong how Canadian she is. Globetrotting allows her to celebrate her hyphenated self.
Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Food as a Bridge Between Past and Present
For Asian Americans, food represents a visceral connection to history. Cooking and eating traditional dishes transports us back to the lived experiences of previous generations. The aromas, textures, and flavors we savor tell stories of immigration, adaptation, and the passing down of cultural knowledge. In a sense, food functions as a bridge between the past and present, allowing us to touch, taste and digest our ancestry.
Los Angeles Times columnist Jenn Harris writes of how the simple act of making dumplings with her Chinese grandmother connected her to long-ago memories. Kneading the dough, watching it transform in the steamer- Harris felt she was glimpsing into her grandmother's girlhood in 1930s Shanghai. Though continents and decades apart, they now shared this sensory experience. Each crimped edge and chewy bite bridged eras and cultures.
Cookbook author Andrea Nguyen also explores generational connections through food. For her family's Tet celebration, Nguyen labors over Vietnamese dishes like sugarcane shrimp and Banh Tet cakes. Though born in America, preparing these feasts fills Nguyen with a sense of continuity. She writes, "I taste what my forebears ate and absorb their worldview.” This mindful eating ritual allows Nguyen to inhabit her ancestors' perspectives, transcending linear time.
Beyond the direct line of descent, food also builds pan-cultural Asiatic ties. The glutinous rice cakes eaten during Korean New Year mirror the Banh Tet of Vietnamese Tet. Dishes like lumpia and spring rolls suggest the shared history of trade and migration across Asia. For TCK Stephanie Voong, eating street food from different Asian nations evokes a feeling of regional kinship. Though her specific ethnicity is Korean, pan-fried gyoza in Taiwan and fish head curry in Singapore speak to a larger connectedness.
Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Travel as a Search for Identity
For Asian Americans, travel can represent a journey of self-discovery, a search to understand our complex identities. Many grow up pulled between Eastern and Western cultures, our sense of self fractured between worlds. Seeking experiences beyond the familiar provides perspective to integrate the pieces into a coherent whole. When we venture outside our usual environments, the contrasts reveal insights about who we are and who we want to become.
Lisa Ling, journalist and host of CNN’s This is Life, writes of how exploring foreign lands enlarged her worldview. As a child of Chinese immigrants, Ling knew little of her cultural heritage. But traveling to China and Taiwan in adulthood allowed her to immerse in Asian communities still novel to her. Walking crowded night markets, hearing rapid-fire Mandarin all around, Ling glimpsed the landscapes and street scenes of her parents’ youth. These vivid sensory experiences awakened a dormant part of Ling’s identity, integrating her Asian roots into her self-concept.
For others, it is the alienation of living abroad that brings clarity of identity. Parag Khanna, author of The Future is Asian, reflects on his years studying in Germany and working in Singapore. Surrounded by homogenous societies, Khanna felt his brown skin acutely. But this heightened awareness of his ethnicity enabled Khanna to finally embrace his hybrid Indo-American identity. Only when transported far from the familiar did he recognize and affirm his Asianness.
Asian American adoptees often undertake birth country trips to explore lost origins. Separated from their native cultures as infants, many adoptees struggle with identity questions: Who would I have become if I had stayed? Will this place feel like home? Traveling to places like Korea, India or China provides adoptees the chance to potentially reconnect with their ethnic identities.Though the experience can be emotionally complex, many find birth country travel healing and affirming. They return recognizing heritage as only one part of identity; the rest is shaped by lived experiences.
Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Being the Perpetual Visitor
For many Asian Americans, the sense of being a perpetual visitor arises from the questions and comments we repeatedly encounter that challenge our belonging. “Where are you really from?” and “Your English is so good!” imply we are foreigners despite being born and raised in the West. The subtle questioning of our identity as Westerners reinforces our outsider status. Travel can exacerbate this feeling of not truly being from anywhere.
In her memoir Where the Past Begins, writer Amy Tan reflects on how a trip to China made her examine her national identity. Having grown up in America as the daughter of immigrants, Tan saw herself as wholly American. But walking the streets of Beijing, she felt an unexpected familiarity that shook her concept of self: “In China, I was Chinese...an Asian face in a sea of Asian faces.” For the first time, Tan experienced racial mirroring. But passing as a local also left her with a sense of detachment. She was visible, yet still unseen: the perpetual visitor.
For Singaporean American Sharon Chin, travelHeightened her chameleon tendencies. Chin writes of how she transforms herself like a cultural shape-shifter, adjusting behavior and accent to fit each new environment. In America, she performs her East Coast personao;; in Singapore, the local Chinese girl emerges. Though these costumed personas facilitate fitting in wherever she goes, they also leave Chin without a center. She wonders, “If I contain multitudes, who is the baseline me?” Chin’s continual code-switching leads her to feel no setting is home, no identity intrinsic. She remains the perpetual visitor.
Asian Americans who grow up Third Culture Kids also experience this outsider status when visiting their ancestral homelands. Though their Asian features allow them to racially blend in, cultural behaviors often mark them as foreign: language and etiquette do not come naturally; mannerisms reflect their Western upbringing. For TCKs, traveling in Asia reveals they cannot pretend to truly belong there either. Neither here nor there, they remain perpetual visitors.
Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Languages that Shape Experiences
For Asian Americans, language represents a core element of cultural identity and a tool for navigating different worlds. The particular languages we speak growing up shape our experiences and perspectives in profound ways. Whether maintaining native tongues or losing connections to heritage languages, the words we wield influence how we walk through the world.
Journalist Jay Caspian Kang writes poignantly of how English became his primary language by necessity, though it never felt completely his own. Born in Korea and adopted to America as a child, Kang lost his birth language in the process. He describes English as a utilitarian tool, stripped of the emotional resonance and sense of belonging that comes with a mother tongue. Kang explains, “I think in English, write in English, dream in English, but my English feels conditional.” He remains aware that the language that defines him was not his first.
For others, retaining cultural languages provides a touchstone to origins despite growing up abroad. Second generation children may converse in English with peers, but speak Cantonese or Tagalog with parents and grandparents. Code-switching between Eastern and Western tongues allows them to inhabit both cultural spaces. The ability to linguistically travel back and forth across the Pacific denotes an adaptability and cross-cultural literacy.
Losing connection to heritage languages also severs links to elder family members. Journalist Lisa Ling shares how not learning Chinese created a relational distance from her grandmother. Lacking a shared language made conversations impossible, with words and stories lost in translation. Yet for her own children, Ling now seeks to rebuild those bridges through Mandarin lessons. She hopes to spare them the same linguistic gaps and isolation she experienced.
Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - Bringing Loved Ones Along
For many Asian Americans, the opportunity to bring family members along on travels back to their ancestry's native lands serves as a profound point of connection across generations. Being able to provide aging parents or young children experiences that offer glimpses into their heritage forges an invaluable bond through shared memories. Elders find joy in watching the places of their youth come alive again in their grandchildren's eyes; the younger family members gain perspective on the stories that shaped their families' histories.
Journalist Cathy Erway writes of how touring Taiwan with her Taiwanese mother allowed them to traverse time and culture together. Though Erway grew up in America speaking English, walking night markets with her mother and sampling oyster omelets brought her closer to understanding this other facet of her identity. For Erway's mother, revisiting childhood sites reminded her of all she had accomplished in her life's journey between Taiwan and the States. Their travels through modern day Taipei juxtaposed against her mother's recollections of the past offered Erway a richer glimpse into her family's narrative.
Including aging grandparents on ancestral trips also provides themsweet closure through reconnecting with their birthplaces. Long after immigration separated them from their native countries, many retain deep attachments. Journeying back one last time accompanied by family allows them to come full circle. For Indian Americans, taking grandparents to the Motherland serves as the ultimate expression of honor and appreciation for their sacrifices in building a new life abroad. Touching their aged hands to Indian soil represents the completion of an immigrant's dream.
Exploring Asian American Stories Through Travel: How Home and Identity Shape Our Journeys - How Immigration Shapes Travel Habits
For Asian American immigrants and their descendants, the process of immigration profoundly shapes travel habits and motivations. The circumstances under which one arrives in their new country, as well as the ability to return to one's nation of origin, influences how travel factors into the immigration experience.
Many immigrants flee war, persecution, poverty or tragedy in their homelands. This displacement ruptures connections to their places of origin. Travel back may be impossible due to danger or lack ofresources. Over time, descendents may know little of their ancestors' lived experiences. But as conditions improve, later generations often feel drawn to finally visit the lands their parents or grandparents were forced to leave. Pilgrimage fills missing pieces of family history and pays homage to the struggles that enabled their lives in America.
For refugees who found shelter on US soil after harrowing escapes, especially Southeast Asians who fled conflict zones like Vietnam and Cambodia, return travel carries deep emotional weight. Touching down in places that hold such painful memories brings closure. Many visit sites of wartime atrocities or detention camps that once held them or loved ones. Retracing these steps helps make sense of the past, while celebrating how far they've come.
Other immigrants voluntarily chose to depart their home countries seeking better opportunities. They maintain strong connections with their native lands. Frequent visits back allow them to nurture these lifelong bonds. Whether annual family reunions or milestone events like weddings, return travel enables transnational engagement. Their journeys reflect flexible citizenship and fluid border crossings.
Their American-born children grow up hearing wistful stories of the old country. Travel there represents a chance to finally experience the people and places that occupy such nostalgia. They eagerly seek to taste the flavors of street food, hear the music at festivals, and embrace distant relatives they know only through their parents' recollections. Venturing through bustling cities and sleepy villages provides firsthand encounters with their heritage.