One night my neighbor, after having several shots of gin, decided to call me and wanted to talk to me about China. Through her slurred speech, she asked, “I read that the Chinese government has been trying to spy on the U.S. and steal our technology. Since you are Chinese, how do you feel about this?” Then she added, “my ancestor was Danish, who never was an enemy of the U.S. So, I would not have to worry about them.”
This is not just a curiosity question. You see, the real question behind her curiosity was “Are you loyal to the U.S. or China?” She was not the first White person to ask me this question. This dragged out the whole history of how Asian Americans had been treated in the U.S. Since the 1800s when Asian immigrants started to arrive in the U.S., they had never been fully accepted into this society. No matter how many generations of Asians had been born and raised in this country, they are always seen as foreigners. This is also the reason that the question “Where are you from” is particularly sensitive to us Asians.
Asian’s Journey to U.S.
In the 1850s, the Chinese came to work on the railroad. While their contribution was never fully acknowledged, the U.S. established the Chinese Exclusion Act to prohibit them from taking roots here in the new land. The men could not bring their families here. Neither could they marry an American citizen. During the World’s Fair in St. Louis 1904, a group of Filipino tribal people were brought in under the banner of protecting the U.S.’s brown little brothers as the result of American colonialism and put on display called the Living exhibit. Whether being treated as less than human or cheap labor, this laid ground to Asian’s journey in the U.S.
When World War II broke out, over 120,000 Japanese Americans were rounded up and sent to the internment camp. Their properties were confiscated, and personal liberty was trampled. Young Japanese American men wanted to prove their loyalty to the U.S. and enlisted to fight for the U.S. (442nd Infantry Regiment) while their families were rounded up into camp.
In the 1950s, the Korean War between South Korea, supported by the UN and the United States, and North Korea, supported by China and Russia, led to McCarthyism’s anti-communist witch hunt and inquisition. Regardless of how many generations of Asians had been in this country, they continued to be seen and treated as foreigners and suspected as spies and enemies. This question of loyalty cuts like a knife.
From the import of better and more efficient Japanese cars to globalization where China became the biggest supplier to American industries, Americans blame these Asian countries for stealing their factory job. No one bothers to recognize it is capitalism that prompted businesses to freely move around the globe chasing cheaper labor, that cost American manufacturing jobs.
I share these stories just to remind us that the race issue in the U.S. is more than just black and white. Asians are people of color too. Of course, we Asian Americans have a special struggle between privilege and oppression. Often, we are called the model minority. Nowadays, many of us have enjoyed the opportunity to get ahead in society and gained material success just like Whites. But we are often used by Whites as a shield to deal with racial injustice. They would say, “Look, Asians made it in this country. They do not seem to have any problem getting ahead, why can’t you Black and Brown people do the same?” Some of us Asians learned to hide behind this label and keep silent because we think we can pass in a white society. We thought at least we would not be dragged out of our cars and get shot to death by the police. But Covid-19 has opened the scab and exposed the ugly wound of the past. We do not get a pass at all.
Wondering About The Future
Throughout history, authoritarian leaning leaders often create an external enemy in order to consolidate their power at home. It is easy to blame all our misery on an outsider. This way we do not have to look inward to see how we have been responsible for our own fate. When others become enemies, they are no longer human beings but cartoon caricatures that make them easy to hate. Ordinary people do not bother to learn the difference between hating a government and its people. China seems to have become the latest “enemy” of the U.S. But since non-Asians often cannot tell the difference between different Asian groups, anyone who looks Asian, regardless if they or their ancestors are from China or other Asian countries, are all target of hate.
Ever since my neighbor asked me that question, Covid-19 had become a pandemic in the U.S. Daily reports of harassment and violence against Chinese or any Asian Americans had increased dramatically. Ordinary Asian Americans got beat up on the streets. Working on the front line, many Asian American doctors were told to go back to where they came from and nurses got spit on. This anti-Asian sentiment is just skin-deep and ready to flare up at any moment. Calling it the Chinese or Wuhan virus just added fuel to the fire. This reminded us that as Asian Americans, our belonging to this country is always conditional.
We love this great country as its citizens. We just wish that this country will love us back.