Tuesday, October 14, 2008

think of asian americans as foreigners

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.


  1. recent study on this:

  2. What's really interesting id the flipside with Africans. White people meanwhile tend to put Africans and black Americans in one category and wonder why one group isn't more like the other. I like this link. I'm going to link from my blog.

  3. The article does explain that even black Americans are seen as less "American" than, say, western/northern Europeans.

    And it's interesting, ultra micah, that you mention that Africans and black Americans link. I was just explaining to a friend from Nigeria the other day that blacks in America do keep an eye on what's going on in Africa, because what ever happens there reflects on us, negatively or positively.

    Mostly negatively, but you get my gist.


  4. It’s sad to see this racial categorization taking place, even when Blacks from Europe or South America, come to the United States. Somehow, any black person from Britain, France, Brazil, Peru to Costa Rica must be in denial of their African-American roots or they were born to African American military personnel living overseas. Even if they could prove that they are 3rd or 4th generation British, French, Brazilian, etc, they are still automatically be categorized in one group, the Black group.

    Back when I went to college. I had two roommates, one was 1st generation American and his parents were from China. The other roommate was 2nd generation American, one of his parents were born in America, while, his father was born and raised in South Korea. Somehow, I was constantly asked what it was like having two Chinese or Japenese roommates! I would kindly explain the cultural differences between my roommates and yet some their common cultures, considering that Asia is a continent that consists of different races, cultures and foods. Sadly, I was wasting my time; somehow, fish and rice, Pao Pao Chicken and Kung Fu seemed to dominate their (those who were so-called interested) failed attempts to understand the misfortunes of racial categorization. While at the sametime, my cousin from France came to visit, and him being black, just added more racial misfortune. They were surprised that he didn’t eat Grits!

    Americans! You need to travel and get out into the world!

  5. i used to be so bothered by the assumption i wasn't from the states. but as i developed my own critical analysis of my surroundings, i think it bothers me less.

    because i am the child of immigrants, and if i had to choose between extremes, i would choose to embrace that and all it means rather than to "assimilate."

    i think as i got older, i felt less of a desire to be recognized as american, at least while in this country. i also recognize though, that when interacting with people who are not americans, it's important to represent that part of myself too, or else they will assume all of us are war-loving cowboys and such.

  6. You know, at this point, giles, I kinda like disowning "America" at times, too. I like to stress the hyphen in African-American.

  7. La Legione di Resistenza - I think you misinterpret the reasons for peoples ignorance. The issue at hand in this article doesn't have as much to do with mean spirited racism as it does to do with perception and expectation.

    America is a far more diverse place than any country I have been to (and I have been out of the US a lot). The point here is that Asians inparticular are more often assumed to be foreign than any other minority in the US.

    I think there are multiple reasons for this. One of the main ones I think though has to do with the culture of the minority race.

    Asian cultures differ more significantly than do any other culture that comes to the United States. This has caused these cultures to be more closely knit and guarded.

    I am certainly not blaming hatred or bad behavior against Asians on themselves, but throughout immigrant history it has taken time for the cultures to mix and then become recognized more commonly as American.

    This was true of the Irish, Italian, Slavic, German, etc. They all were close knit and stayed mostly within themselves when they first got to the US. The big advantage for them, however, was that they were white and were cultures that were less exotic.

    African Americans are still often regarded as not American even though they have been here pretty much since Europeans have.

    It certainly sucks for Asian Americans to have to deal with ridiculously ignorant actions and statements, especially when it is probably hard to get mad at them because the people aren't trying to be rude and may not even realize they are being rude.

    More and more people stop making generalizations and assumptions and every generation it gets better and will get better as kids grow up. Its much harder to break a stereotype in an adults head then it is to prevent one from forming in a childs.

  8. anonymous

    It doesn't have to be "mean spirited." If it has a negative effects on the person life, even if just for a moment or two, it's prejudice.

    And you don't have to be hateful to be racist. You just have to think that others don't matter as much as Europeans and European descendents.

  9. As a black Canadian I can compeltely relate to this. In the same way the American equals white so does Canadian. Any black person is automatically assumed to be from somewhere else despite the well known of existence of the under ground rail road. We have been here for generations and yet we are always considered recently arrived.

    To me this has to do with ownership and power. White people actively want to claim American or Canadian identity to have power to shape social discourse. If North Americans are always white then only their needs have to be addressed.

  10. "To me this has to do with ownership and power. White people actively want to claim American or Canadian identity to have power to shape social discourse. If North Americans are always white then only their needs have to be addressed."

    Renee, I agree completely.

  11. "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."

    Macon D, maybe now you are starting to understand the racism of your post that claimed that white people "shake hands our way" and that people of non-white races shake hands differently.

  12. Well I think most people in britain think of all races when they think of americans these days, but I think we used to think of americans as mostly white. I think now because of better representation in the media, this view Is now consigned mostly to the past.


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