One of the most profound differences between Western and Eastern cultures is that of national identity. Put simply, in a Western country, an immigrant can (and is encouraged to) adopt the national identity as their own. In East Asia, however, immigrants – no matter what they do to assimilate – are never accepted as a “true” citizen.
Speaking from my own experience in the United States, being a citizen there is not viewed in racial terms. To be an “American” is not to be black, white, native American, or any other race. Anyone who believes in the basic principles of the nation and contributes to society can become an American. Racial identity is seen as a separate, yet important, part of one’s experiences. One can be an African-American, Asian-American, or any other group, but in the end, he/she is still seen as an American.
I have observed quite a different perspective in China and Japan. There, the notion of a non-East Asian immigrant “becoming” Chinese or Japanese is almost unheard of. Certainly, one can obtain citizenship in these countries by living there for a certain period of time and renouncing his/her previous nationality, but this is ultimately irrelevant to social acceptance.
From a Western perspective, one might think that cultural ideals and practices are most important to acceptance – if you wholeheartedly embrace East Asian culture, why shouldn’t you be considered “truly” East Asian? In reality, however, that mindset is missing from a majority of East Asian people. I have met a number of immigrants to East Asia who have made a tremendous effort to embrace East Asian culture, but they were still seen as outsiders.
The famous case of Debito Arudou illustrates this cultural mindset. Debito (birth name David) is an American-born immigrant who became a naturalised Japanese citizen in 2000. At the time, he had been living in Japan for seven years, had a Japanese wife, and spoke the language fluently. But he was not allowed to enter a Japanese-only bathhouse, even after showing proof of citizenship. He took the case to court and won.
Things are similar in China, especially among the older generation. The reality is that a non-Asian immigrant could speak the language fluently, marry a Chinese citizen, revoke their original citizenship, and convert to a Chinese religion, but they would still not be considered “truly” Chinese. In East Asia, nationality and race are viewed as the same thing. Chinese people are ethnically Chinese. Japanese people are ethnically Japanese.
Statistically speaking, this might make sense. The number of non-East Asian people who have truly tried to become East Asian is small – insignificant one might even say. But this does not mean that East Asians should disregard the few who truly want to become part of the country.
In an increasingly globalised world, people are going to move to many different places, and the West won’t always be the most popular destination. As more people move to East Asia (and elsewhere), the question of national identity will become even more relevant, and the cultural conceptions of East Asians will be deeply challenged.