Perpetual Foreigners

The first Chinese immigrants built the foremost railroads to connect our country under harsh and sometimes inhumane conditions. Asian workers were massacred by union workers, and these murders were disregarded by authorities. From China, only men were allowed to sojourn to the Beautiful Country, the Chinese name for America. Women were excluded so that no Asian families would take root on U.S. soil. Chinese enclaves called Chinatowns, better known for their tourism today, segregated the Chinamen from the more civilized Americans. In 1882, the United States Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which banned immigration of these undesirables, until it was finally lifted in 1943. Despite the contributions of Asian migrant workers, they were seen as foreign, exotic, and ultimately seen as unable to assimilate. All of these efforts in the past were to ensure that Asians did not join the civilized melting pot of America.

This past summer, the Pew Research Center’s report, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” stated, “Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.” The report shows that the Asian American community is flourishing…but a question continued to pester me. Why is that, despite Asian American prosperity, they are so alienated?  For a community that is so educated, Asians are still seen as an Other. People still praise me for my accent-less English, despite being a native-born American. We get asked “Do you speak English?” or “Where did you really come from?” We are still perceived as our ancestors were – perpetual foreigners.

Many other articles have been unhappy with the Pew Research Center’s report because they feel the report perpetuates the Model Minority myth, which was created by white America during the Civil Rights movement. They pointed to the Asian community that was doing better statistically (in a similar way to the Pew Research Center) than other minorities to signify that minorities can overcome any perceived discrimination and excel in America if they just worked hard and stopped complaining. I’m sure there are some who question why the Model Minority stereotype is such a bad thing – especially compared to the negative stereotypes of other minorities, such as those about Latinos and African Americans. So Asian Americans are seen as hard workers who value “marriage, parenthood…and career success” according to the Pew. How can that be a bad thing?

Photo by Alice Li

I find that all stereotypes, positive or negative, are harmful in their own way. For instance, I was uneasy about the Pew highlighting how “Asian Americans have a pervasive belief in the rewards of hard work” because the myth suggests that hard work will triumph over any and all injustices. However, just because Asian Americans value hard work does not mean we should not examine some of the prejudices that force them to perhaps work as hard as they do in America. Hard work has not stopped the media from consistently portraying Asians with broken, barely discernible English (odd, considering we are considered “most educated”). There have also been questions raised about the Asian American emphasis on education actually harming them when applying to the top schools. While I agree that it is debatable whether or not Ivy Leagues are actively biased toward Asian Americans, there certainly seems to be a trend. I can just imagine the admissions officer glancing over “yet another” 4.0 GPA, 2400 SAT Asian student, wondering, “So what makes this kid any different from the thousand other straight-A Asian students?” The Pew points toward the success of the Asian in America, but never how this very success still undermines them in the eyes of “normal” America.

Moreover, the way the Pew has structured its comparisons within its report pits Asian Americans against other minorities. Although the Pew report glowingly highlights how well Asian Americans racial relations (with their high percentage of interracial marriage), there have been long-standing friction between racial groups. The Model Minority, with its severe insinuations of racial differences, promotes a deeper tension between groups that Pew’s survey may only exacerbate.

Asian Americans truly live a better life than before. There are stereotypes that seem to work in their favor, such as their underlying cultural pressures for education and hard work, and aid them unlike their minority counterparts who, like Trayvon Marin, must suffer through different prejudice typecasts. However, not all the difficulties have vanished into thin air, despite collective amnesia. Despite Asian American success, we are still alienated – always Asian before American – and the idea of our success only serves to reinforce this outsider stereotype.

A group of four walks into a restaurant. “Three?” the waiter asks twice. I have no real idea what he thought, but it sure seemed like he couldn’t quite wrap his believe that a Chinese-American girl was at this restaurant with this white family (my boyfriend and his parents). Obviously, I have no real idea what was going on in the waiter’s mind, but it sure seemed like he couldn’t quite wrap his mind around the fact that I, a Chinese-American girl, was at this restaurant with this white family. We weren’t in some rural area of the United States where “it makes sense” that people are still a little bit racist, but in Boston. Either the waiter never realized what he implied with his statement or he chose to try to ignore his error, but either way he never apologized. The boyfriend’s family and I ended up laughing about the ridiculousness of his actions, because after all, what else were we going to do? Make a huge deal about his mistake? Everyone tries so hard to pretend we’re in some colorblind world, and if we even bring up race then we’re the “troublemakers” and we’re the ones who are “sensitive.”

Maybe the waiter hadn’t seen me – or him, or his mother, or his father and truly only saw a group of three. But the fact we all were immediately drawn to the idea that the waiter was somehow treating me differently demonstrates that, regardless of whether the waiter was or wasn’t being racist, my race somehow still separates me from them. The truth is, it’s just easier to laugh it off instead of bringing up the possibility of dealing with someone racist. Should I have made a big deal about it? Should my boyfriend’s family? Would you have?

There’s still a long way to go until they are no longer regarded perpetual foreigners, like the Chinese migrant workers who traveled overseas to strike gold before returning to their homeland, but rather that we are simple Americans just like everyone else.

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3 thoughts on “Perpetual Foreigners

  1. Carla says:

    this post reminds me of w.e.b. dubois’s concept of “double consciousness” in which he talks about both the gift and curse of black americans being perpetual insider-outsiders, both black (& thus, other) and american (insiders). there definitely is a value within this liminality in that there is the power of heightened perception & understanding intrinsic to both existing within american culture and yet being excluded from it. this is not a justification for the exclusion, but i do think part of why asian-americans (& other insider-outsider ethnic groups) are often marginalized within neat little categories of stereotypes is that there is a perceived danger in this liminality. there is a real power that comes from knowing both mainstream american culture while having knowledge from the outside.

    the u.s., being largely a country of immigrants, is one of the few places in the world, if not the only, where dual cultural identity (and thus, “double consciousness”) can genuinely exist. in france, for example, you are either french or you’re not. now, of course, that’s a bit of an oversimplification, but the lines between insider and outsider in western european countries (and i can only speak from experience on france & portugal) are much more rigid than in the states. in the u.s., there is a blurriness in that line and because many people like the idea of black & white, having difficulties dealing with any intermediate gray, i think that in turn helps to perpetuate a lot of the harmful and hurtful stereotypes that much more neatly draw the line, marking the “ethnic” as purely “other.” as this article points out, even seemingly positive stereotypes have the effect of being harmful to persons of non-standard ethnicity because it denies the genuine dual identity, the double consciousness of the individual.

    that’s what all stereotypes do: it’s the erasure of individuality which is complicated and not neatly arranged in order to create an expansive generality that often has few or only cartoonish ties to reality. i think this article does a good job of pointing out this effect and notes also a very important thing in american culture, which is that ethnicity is always put out the forefront of one’s identity. in one way, this can be a good thing in that american culture, at large, does attempt to place value on different identities in a way that i’ve found is refreshingly more accepting and tolerant than other countries. it’s evident in the way that the u.s. still has no national language; english, of course, predominates, but that we have not yet passed a law making it the exclusive national tongue does say something about the internationality of the united states. so, yes, cultures beyond the mainstream are given consideration in the u.s. in a way that seems particular to this country. however, in doing so, there are always two big dangers that emerge: xenophobia and cultural fetishism. both are patronizing and ignore the fact that asian-american should be seen as equally asian and american. as a high school teacher once told our class, “only american? . . . that just means you’ve been here long enough.” there’s no such thing as a “true american” because american, by the very nature of america, denotes a person who can be from anywhere. and as this article points out so well, it’s due time that the stereotypes that keep drawing a line between “american” and “other” need to be erased.

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  2. The philosophical side of me is tempted to say that this is the state of the world, a product of human nature. Perpetual unfairness we’re doomed to fight forever. Even if we all looked identical, wouldn’t we find differences to pick on? Still, I think despite the fact that we will perhaps never rid our societies of “Otherness” doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

    Anyway, I enjoyed reading this! Thank you for writing it. It made me think 🙂

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