Sites of Belonging, Sites of Empowerment: How Asian American Girls Construct "Home" in a Borderland World

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Tokunaga, Tomoko
Finkelstein, Barbara
This ethnographic study explores the ways in which nine first, 1.5, and second generation Asian American high school girls imagine, search for, and construct home-like sites. The study revealed that "home" for the girls was not only the place where the girls sleep, their families reside, or the country from where they came. Instead, "home," was multiple, literal, and imagined spaces, places, and communities where the girls felt a sense of belonging, empowerment, community, ownership, safety, and opportunity. In order to examine the behaviors, meaning, and perspectives of these girls, I conducted participant observations, interviews, and focus groups at an Asian American youth organization as well as in the girls' homes, schools, and neighborhoods. I also had online communication with the girls and collected supplementary materials and sources. The study revealed that the girls had creativity and improvisational skills to invent various "homes" as they linked the many worlds in which they lived. The girls carved out multiple "homes" --through imagining belonging globally while building belonging locally. They imagined an expansive understanding of "home" in the deterritorialized world. They idealized their countries of origin, acknowledged the United States as a possible "home," portrayed a third possible homeland where they had never lived, and fashioned a pan-Asian consciousness. The girls not only imagined "homes" outside of their immediate view but also co-constructed a home-like community in their everyday lives. They named it the Basement Group, after the place where they hang out in school. They developed a group identity which honored five characteristics: 1) expansion of who is family to include friends, 2) pride in diversity and inclusivity, 3) celebrations of cultural fusion, 4) value of "natural" girlhood beauty, and 5) shared interest in Asian popular culture. They constructed a borderland community in which they could collectively celebrate and nurture their in-between lives. This study illuminated the power and complexity of their lives in-between as well as expanded the terrains of agency that the girls possessed. The study also revealed intersectional differences among the girls. It provided lessons for youth organizations and schools to create spaces where immigrant youth can thrive.