Being Asian Americans

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.

The Struggle

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. 

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

There is no EZ Pass to Racial Harmony

Rodney King, pleaded, “Can’t we get along?” after being severely beaten by a group of police in Los Angeles that caused the uprising for 6 days in 1992.  The truth is, we all want to get along.  However, I do not believe getting along means just being nice to each other but keep a blind eye to injustice or maintain silence when we do see it.

George Floyd’s death has prompted protest and call for police reform.  But this is not the first time a black man was killed by the police or the protest.  I am sad to say that this will not be the last time either based on the historic patterns in this country, as long as majority of us stay on the sideline.

Eric Garner died because the police used the illegal chokehold on him.  His uttering of “I can’t breathe” became a rallying cry for justice since 2014.  Freddie Gray was injured in the police van and died of spine and neck injury in Baltimore 2015. This year, Breanna Taylor was shot dead in her own house while the SWAT team applied the “no knock” policy and broke down her door in Louisville.  And then amidst the protest for George Floyd, Rashard Brook was shot and killed from the back in Atlanta.  The list goes on and on. When Black Lives Matters movement first started, some people insisted that all lives mattered.  If that were true, why do studies predict that unarmed blacks would be killed 5 times at the rate of unarmed whites?  If we are all equal, why do black and brown people get stiffer sentence than whites for the same crime? Reverend Sharpton pointed out in his eulogy for George Floyd; black people had white people’s knees on their necks for 400 years.  Do not forget this country’s ugly past goes back to when White Europeans stole the land from the Indians and caused the first genocide of these native and indigenous people. The grievance is so old and painful. Running away from history and pretending everything is in the past without truly healing the wounds, we will never get to what this great country has promised to be. Just because we believe that being color-blind is the best way to get along, that does not mean colors do not make any difference.  Black Lives Matters movement has become a worldwide movement because we finally have acknowledged that Race matters in this world.

From Individual to Group Identities

Systemic racism is not just about police brutality, which is one of the symptoms. Our entire criminal justice system and economic system have failed people of color for centuries and we allowed them to happen.  We are part of this system. We cannot wait for politicians to fix the system.   While changing the system might feel insurmountable task, each of us individual selves have a role to play to help the change. 

To take on our individual role, we first must examine our level of awareness. A group of researchers put up a mirror in front of a group of Black women and asked them what they saw.  They said they saw Black women.  When they ask a group of white women what they saw, they said they saw women.  Lastly, they asked a group of White men, they said they saw themselves.  This test clearly pointed out where different groups’ attention is. And lack of awareness and attention is a privilege.  If we do not know anything then we can go on to claim our innocence and refuse any responsibilities. But we are not just individuals on this planet.  To solve the systemic illness of our society, we must understand and own up to how our membership of specific groups has impacted our social experience.  Being White, men, heterosexual, Christian, or upper social class give someone the power and privilege they often have not earned. 

From Microaggression to Racism

While we have less awareness of our own group membership, we do have opinions and images of other groups.  All we have to do is to close our eyes, we can name all the images we have when it comes to Blacks, Latinix, Asians, Middle Easterners, Native Americans, etc.  we do not have to believe these images, but we are carrying them.  With our lack of awareness and our unconscious images, it is easy to see how our views and bias can manifest into everyday microaggression that shaped the environment we live in.   Let me give you some examples of these microaggressions:

A group of White workers commented on how the Asians are so cliquish while they forget to notice they often meet as a group of Whites too.

Black man in an Italian suit with three security clearance badges walking behind some White women underground inside a national security agency, noticing these women clutching their purses tighter.

Ordinary black shoppers would often get followed by the clerks in the store but not offering any help.

A person with dark hair and facial hair would often get called out of the line at airport check point.

White women often asked to touch a black woman’s hair.

Black men often get stopped and padded down by police without any reason.

“I am not racist.  My best friend is Black.”

“People are just people. We should be just color-blind.”

When I first came to this country, I would have White people speak slowly, and loudly using simple sentences to me. 

A woman sitting next to me on the plane said, “I love you Orientals especially your eyes” while she pulls up both sides of her eye lids.

A White man in my congregation called me China Doll.

All these seemingly small occurrences add up to what we call “cumulative impact.”   There is an emotional and physical toll on groups of people for no other reasons except they are different from the Whites.  Almost every black mother would have the talk with her black sons when they get ready to leave the house.  They reminded their sons how to dress and walk.  And they taught their sons how to talk to the police.  Mostly they taught their sons not to run. They fear that today will be the last day they would see their sons alive.  Generations after generations of people never had a chance to relax their shoulders in this supposedly multi-racial and multi-cultural society.

Race is a social construct invented by early White Europeans and Christian churches to discriminate against the Indians and Africans by seeing them as biologically inferior and less than a human.  Until we root out this deep-seated bias and belief, no amount of laws can make us a just society.   And when we carry microaggressions, unconscious bias and even blatant bias into any institutions, we now have created systemic racism. 

Change starts at Personal Accountability

During one of my race matters workshops, a white man said to a black man, “can we forget about this race thing and just get to know each other?”  The black man said, “being black is part of me.” I wonder what the white man was not willing to look at.  To see the black man as black, he would have to see himself as white. Sometimes it is not lack of knowledge but self-denial that stop us from truly being informed.

Change has to start with ourselves.  Are we willing to look inward and face up to our own bias before we put the responsibilities on others?