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Asian-American Families

Religion And Cultural Values

Asian immigrants arrive in the United States with many religions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity. The kinds of interpretive frameworks provided by religion, as a central source of cultural components, become particularly important when people are coping with changing environments (Zhou and Gatewood 2000). Immigrants make sense out of their new environment by utilizing cultural components from traditional religion and subtly altering them to reflect the demands of the new environment. The diversity of Asian immigrant religions include Theravada Buddhism, Mahayana Buddhism, Shamanism (Hmong), Christianity (primarily Koreans and Filipinos), and forms of Hinduism, Sikhism, Jainism, Sunni and Shiite Islam, and Syro-Malabar Catholicism (primarily Asian-Indian and Pakistani) (Zhou and Gatewood 2000).

It is through organized religion and family modeling that values and beliefs are inculcated in the younger generation. Although there are distinct differences among the Asian ethnic groups, some of the commonalities in worldview include: group orientation (collectivity); family cohesion and responsibility; self-control and personal discipline; emphasis on educational achievement; respect for authority; reverence for the elderly (filial piety); the use of shame for behavioral control; and interdependence of families and individuals (Hildebrand, Phenice, Gray, and Hines 2000).

In the East Asian Indian worldview there are no individuals; rather, each person is born with a distinctly different nature or essence, based upon his or her parents and the specific circumstances of birth. This makes people fundamentally different, rather than same (or equal), and this nature changes over time (Bacon 1996). This holistic worldview makes Asian-Indian identity tied to social relationships, and the inherent inequality gives rise to social rankings based upon social relations. The caste system can be visualized as a system of concentric circles in which the social groups that encompass others are ranked higher than those they encompass, rather than a ladder system of inequality. As a result of this traditional worldview, for Asian Indians social relationships are the building blocks of society. In the Western perspective, individual choice is the foundation of group affiliation (Bacon 1996).

Traditionally, ethnic enclaves such as Chinatowns served as self-defense mechanisms to insulate the Chinese from racial conflicts, and were home to tongs, or tight-knit fraternal organizations, which provided justice, economic stability, and social services (Chow 1998). Thus, Chinese culture was maintained. Later, in contemporary settings, the ethnic churches are where culture and language are passed on through language schools, summer camps, youth groups, and conferences. The ethnic church is also the place where the development of ethnic identity and socialization of peers (and future mates) play important roles. In some Asian cultures where intermarriage is taboo, or at least greatly discouraged, ethnic churches become the primary venue for friendship and dating.

In the United States, the church has become a major and central anchoring institution for Korean immigrant society. Facing discrimination, Korean Americans find in the close-knit religious community a place where their bruised identity can be healed and affirmed (Ryu 1992). Korean churches, whether they are Christian, Buddhist, or based on Confucianism, provide for the holistic needs of their members, including social services, education, language classes, or simply socialization in an accepting environment. Approximately 78 percent of Korean Americans belong to a church, making it a social evangelism. Well-to-do Koreans come to the English-language services and feel a sense of belonging that they do not feel in the corporate world of their daily lives. Whether they belong to an organized religion or not, Koreans have always seen their lives in somewhat religious terms (Ryu 1992).

The cultural differences and difficulty of the Hmong to adjust to Western society illustrate the diversity of life experiences and traditions of Asian Americans. The Hmong were slash-and-burn farmers in Laos and came to the United States with few skills for urban living. What was legal and socially acceptable in Laos, such as opium production, polygamy, bride kidnapping, coining, and wife beating, is condemned and illegal in Western society. Values based upon the worldview that what is good for the family supersedes individual interest, and what is good for the spirit supersedes material interest, need to be altered to adapt to the individualism and materialism of American society (Faderman 1998; Hones and Cha 1999). Voluntary placement agencies called Volags received $500 for each refugee they aided and included many Christian religious organizations (Chan 1991). Thus, many of these refugees found themselves being inculcated by well-meaning sponsors with religious beliefs that contradicted their native religions, such as belief in the power of Shamanism for the Hmong. For some, elements of the traditional beliefs such as Chao Fa, or Angel of the Sky, and new religions are creating a Christian religion with a distinctive Hmong flavor (Hones and Cha 1999).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaMarriage: Cultural AspectsAsian-American Families - Varied Immigration Histories, Family Structures And Gender Roles, Religion And Cultural Values, Regional And Generational Differences