Tiffany Yip, Ph.D., assistant professor of psychology, grew up in many different places—some more ethnically diverse than others.
Born in the United States to Chinese immigrants, Yip spent part of her youth in California, Texas, Illinois and Hong Kong. With the exception of Hong Kong, she was often one of very few Asians in her school.
Needless to say, Yip’s ethnic identity wasn’t always easy for her to understand.
“During that important time in my life, when I was trying to form a sense of self, I was going from a place that didn’t have a lot of Asians to a predominantly Asian place and thinking, ‘What does that mean for who I am?’” she said.
Yip’s childhood questions about race and ethnicity have led her to study ethnic identity in Chinese-American teenagers and young adults in the New York City area.
Ethnic identity is the extent to which someone’s ethnic background plays a role in his or her self definition. “It’s a complex sense of self, and yet few studies have examined whether feelings of ethnic identity fluctuate over time,” Yip said. “I wanted to know how and when ethnic identity is most salient [for these young Chinese Americans]and about the psychological implications of that identity.”
Yip recruited 100 first- and second-generation Chinese-American students from 16 New York City-area high schools to complete daily diaries for two weeks. The diaries contained checklists on feelings and behaviors, including those relevant to ethnic identity. Students also were asked to rate how they felt about their ethnic pride and psychological well-being.
She found two significant trends. Feeling “Chinese” made the adolescents feel good about themselves, but only if they considered their ethnic identity central to who they are. She also found that the adolescents’ sense of identity increased as they participated in ethnic activities. For example, the more they spoke Chinese or participated in ethnic events, the more Chinese they felt.
“A lot of it has to do with parenting,” Yip said of the results. “Some parents raise their kids in a way that is all about their national origin; they have to speak the language, read Chinese magazines, eat Chinese food and watch Chinese television. And some parents are much more about assimilating [to U.S. culture].”
Yip also pointed to the neighborhoods of Chinese-American teenagers as contributing to ethnic identity. “Are there opportunities to have a Chinese meal or read a Chinese newspaper where they are growing up?” she said.
Yip said that someone’s social environment—such as friends who encourage diversity—also play a factor. “If you’re the only minority in a context, you might not be comfortable exploring your identity or you may feel ashamed of it, or feel like an outcast,” she said.
Though Yip was able to confirm that ethnic salience and psychological well-being can change daily, she wanted to go further. “I wanted to see if it changes within a particular day,” she said. “Indeed, it does.”
Yip collected experience sampling reports several times a day for one week from first- and second-generation Chinese-American college students whom she outfitted with PDAs. The devices beeped randomly six times a day and asked the students questions about their ethnic salience, their psychological well-being and the situation they were in at the time.
“The phenomenon we were trying to tap was, ‘When do people think about their identity?’” Yip said. “If you’re with your family, for example, is your identity heightened? How about when you’re in the classroom—is it not as salient for you?”
She found that if a college student was with his or her family or with peers, or Chinese was being spoken, ethnic salience was at its highest. But that’s not surprising, she said, since the Chinese language is more likely to be spoken in settings that include more Chinese people.
“The main finding from the PDA study is that you can put two individuals in the same objective environment, but they’ll see different things depending on their ethnic identity,” Yip said.
In other words, Yip found that ethnic identity can serve as a lens for interpreting the world. “So if people have a heightened sense of ethnic identity, they are more likely to pick up on cues in their environment that are relevant to their identity. But people who are like, ‘I’m Chinese, but it doesn’t really mean that much to me; I don’t really think about it that much,’ might not pick up on those same cues in the same environment.”