A couple of radio “personalities” in New Jersey seem to think that Asian Americans are not “real” Americans. Sammy and Taku have written their thoughts on the matter and they have expressed eloquently virtually anything I would have to say on the subject. Of course, I have already expressed my concern about racism, but that was almost a year ago. My views then–how people, without believing they are being malicious, can manifest racial sentiments–elicited responses that expressed attitudes that underscored my very concern; and not all of them were non-Asians. So it is not surprising that these New Jersey Radio guys said what they said. If well-intentioned folk don’t get it, then how the fuck are idiots going to get it.
But there was one thing that Sammy mentioned that was actually the topic of something I was going to write about last week but never got around to it: Why aren’t Asian Americans active in politics? Actually, my thought was more along the lines of: Why is it that Asian Americans–specifically East Asian Americans–don’t seem to wield any political clout.
This was the topic of a conversation I had with a former student of mine, a Korean American, now attending law school in the DC area, and we tentatively concluded–and I should stress that these conclusions are personal and anecdotal, based on personal observations with have no hard evidence to back it up–that Asian Americans don’t manifest poitical clout because we can’t unify. Of course, this begs the question, why…
I should write a paper on this–and perhaps you should too–but I think there are two basic reasons for this situation.
- History dies hard.
- The lack of a shared “American experience” does not arouse empathy for each other, an important ingredient to solidarity.
First, the history and the resulting baggage each individual group often still carries prevents people from connecting at a significant level. I am an American of Japanese descent and am sometimes reminded by Korean Americans (KA) and Chinese Americans (ABC)–usually first or rarely second generations–that I still carry the sins of my fathers. Yes, the Japanese raped Nanking. Indeed, Japan colonized Korea. I recognize this and as an instructor of Japanese literature (and culture) I take every opportunity to relate this to my students as well. It is not a matter to be brushed aside and forgotten. But this has nothing to do with me personally. When I am reminded that my ancestors were guilty of these sins, I can’t help but think that those reminding me of this probably view me as “the other”, rather than someone with whom they feel a connection. Don’t get me wrong: These people are polite and very decent. There is nothing about them that suggests that they hate me or Japan (usually), but this attitude–you (your predecessors) injured us and I won’t let you forget it–is not conducive to solidarity.
Indeed, I never get this attitude here on Xanga–well maybe once or twice. As I have never been made to feel this way with other Asians. I can’t help but think that it is a reflection of the official stance still taken by the Chinese and Korean government, as the latest brouhaha over the most recent textbook controversy would illustrate. But as I said, this is usually expressed by first and, on rare occasions, second generations, and the number of these comments is generally declining.
And this is a good thing.
Perhaps more importantly is the lack of a shared experience in America. As individual groups, Asians in America have a completely different “American experiences” and it might be difficult empathize with each other and ultimately rally under one common cause. Chinese were perhaps the first Asians to “officially” come American and they led a very difficult life building railroads and generally living the life of paid slaves. The Japanese had their own struggles, but they were the only Asian group to be incarcerated in detention camps during WWII. Indeed, comparisons between the friendly Chinese and the “dirty Jap” were common and hardly promoted mutual support among Asians. Koreans came later and their history in America is centered in an urban setting with racial tensions not only with whites but with other urban minorities. So, since our collective experiences are rather diverse, it could be hard to rally effectively for solidarity.
Indeed, we are all treated differently by mainstream society. I’m sure virtually all of my Asian readers have been asked at one time or another, “Where are you from”? China? Korea? Japan? Vietnam? And the mainstream will often react differently depending on the answer. In contrast to this, how often do we make similar distinctions with Hispanics? I’m sure–no, I know–that they differentiate among themselves which Latin American countries they come from, but do we? I may consider significant the difference between someone from Cuba and Mexico, but between Honduras and El Salvador, I make little–if any–distinction. If we see a Spanish speaking person, do we unwittingly insult them by lumping them together as denizens from “south of the border”. I am ashamed to admit this, but I sometimes find myself doing just this. And when it comes to second, third and fourth generation Hispanics, even the pretense of distinction is virtually gone. So these Hispanics–insulted by the likes of me–have a shared experience in America. They may express there differences among themselves, but they can unite in the face of racial discrimination and mistreatment, an experience that is more often shared than not among them.
So the first thing that Asian Americans must do–What WE MUST do–is find common ground. Without it, some amorphous “Asian” solidarity will never work.