Asians have been coming to the United States for over two centuries, and many of today's Americans of Asian descent have families that stretch back five, six, or more generations. Nevertheless, in the minds of many other Americans, there's still something "foreign" about an Asian American.
In Managing Multicultural Lives, Pawan Dhingra's sociological study of Asian Americans in the "professional" workplace, a Korean American office worker named Judy describes several encounters:
I had a lot experiences there that were surprising. Like, vice presidents would run around the hall, one of them in particular making those Chinese noises for fun without realizing what she was doing. Things like that, but it was mainly out of ignorance.
One time I got a comment from someone, because I had to go home early, about how my husband must control me or something. And then I had another incident where a girl was talking about a Korean guy she had met at one of the trade shows, and she didn't know how to say thank you to him. So, she did one of these things [puts her palms together and bows her head], and it was like she didn't realize she was doing it.
As Judy's reported experiences suggest, and as the video above also suggests through satiric exaggeration, the accumulation of such incidents can make Asian Americans feel as if they're generally seen as non-Americans--as foreigners. No matter how they might speak or act, or where they were born, or how long their families have been in America, other Americans repeatedly remind them in subtle and less-than-subtle ways that they're still not fully "American" somehow.
Law Professor Frank Wu calls this racist phenomenon the "perpetual foreigner syndrome." Non-Asian Americans should listen to such insights and reported experience, and then catch themselves when tempted to enact these exclusionary and often unconscious behaviors:
Whenever I have had the privilege of appearing in a public forum discussing a controversial topic--and any issue worth discussing in a public forum is likely to be a controversial topic--I receive letters, phone calls, and e-mails from people who disagree vehemently with my perspective. I enjoy the 15 minutes of fame, but I am taken aback by a few of the messages. They run along the lines or, "Yeah, and what do they do in China?"
I have been told, for example, that because it would not be easy for a white person to become a Chinese citizen, it is obvious that all countries value their sovereignty. Thus, according to this reasoning, the United States is no different in making it hard for a Chinese person to become an American citizen.
When I have spoken up in favor of affirmative action for historically underrepresented minority groups that continue to face racial disparities, I received hate mail that asked questions such as whether they have affirmative action in Japan.
I am tempted to retort, "How would I know?" Or with too much cleverness for my own good, I could come back with, "What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?"
The put down of opinions held by Asian Americans through an allusion to their presumed homeland is an ad hominem attack in its classic form. It has nothing to do with the substance of an argument and everything to do with the identity of the person advancing it. The writer who asked me about Japan had it wrong, doubly. I am Chinese American, not Japanese American. But even though my parents came from China, I have never even set foot on the Asian continent.
I have heard the point as a direct taunt. It comes as the heckler's jeer: "If you don't like it here, then go back where you came from!" Or it comes as the snubbed host's uncomprehending whine: "Don't you like everything this country has given you?"
The perpetual foreigner syndrome also can be expressed as empathy. Now and again, people introduce themselves to me by speaking pidgin Chinese. Or they make an elaborate show of bowing that is so inept that it might as well be a parody. They don't realize that I speak English perfectly well and am accustomed to shaking hands.
I have listened to people explain to me, trying their patience as much as mine, that they appreciate how I as an Asian American may face discrimination here, because when they as Americans were traveling as tourists in China or Japan they, too, felt prejudice. As much as I value efforts at mutual understanding, even these kindly people are offering up an analogy that is frustratingly inappropriate. . . .
Hate crimes against Asian Americans are a brutal form of the perpetual foreigner syndrome. The 1982 murder of Vincent Chin is only the most notorious example. The Chinese American engineer was clubbed to death in Detroit by two white autoworkers who, accusing him of being responsible for their woes, took a baseball bat to his head. The case only became more widely known when the judge sentenced the perpetrators to probation and a $3,780 fine.
Numerous other cases have been recorded around the nation, with attackers such as the "dot-busters" in New Jersey who assaulted Indian immigrants and killed two in their violent spree, and others who have taken guns, knives, and fists to Asian Americans as they recall Vietnam or kung fu movies.
Yet I am an optimist. I know I am a citizen whatever others might think. And I believe that by working together cooperatively and constructively, we can forge a sense of community that also allows dissent, a unity that contains diversity. By engaging in the continual process this challenge requires of us, we will make the promise of our nation the reality of our lives. At a minimum, an open society requires that each of us accept all of us as equals.
As the questions about "where are you really from?" demonstrate, many of us sometimes think about race without even realizing that it is on our minds. We are unconscious of our own stereotyping, despite our insistence that we are striving for an ideal of color-blindness. Yet it happens to Asian Americans often: our civil rights are violated twice over when even incidents such as assaults that involve racial epithets--"chink" or "jap" or "gook"--are regarded as something other than hate crimes.
The perpetual foreigner syndrome can be addressed through public policy. Most importantly, the perpetual foreigner syndrome requires that we acknowledge our own feelings and actions.