'You Were Born in America, So Why Does It Matter?'

Monday, August 5, 2013 / 5:59 PM

This 1886 propaganda poster shows Uncle Sam
booting a Chinese man back to China. The
poster claims, "The Chinese Must Go!" and is
meant to assure Americans that washing machines
would easily replace Chinese laundry washers.
In the summer of 2000 during the Sydney Olympics, I remember sitting in my living room with my mother and asking her why the phrase "Chinaman" was bad. We'd been watching a men's diving match, and I had meant to ask Mom about one of the athletes from China, but instead of asking about "that one Chinese man," I accidentally said, "that one China man."

"Don't say that," my mom responded quickly.


She explained it was an offensive term, used once-upon-a-time as an insult to Chinese immigrants. We talked a little about how Americans treated Chinese immigrants in the past, and about how she and my dad both experienced racism as children when they came to America in the '60s.

Up until that point, I was aware of the concept of racism, but at 11 years old, I hadn't been entirely aware of its reality. But as I got older, I began looking back at and learning more about the environment I grew up in and what being the daughter of an immigrant family really meant.

Why didn't Asians stand up and protest too? I remember thinking after a lesson in the Civil Rights Movement in junior high. I was starting to get angry about racism and injustice, but in the early stages of my teenage years, I had no way to really express what I felt. My friends in school didn't share the questions I had, and most just didn't want to talk about it.

"You were born in America, so why does it matter?" somebody asked.

It mattered. But I stayed quiet. And then in college I learned what "model minority" meant, and I didn't want to stay quiet anymore for the reason that Asian Americans were, and still are, expected to stay quiet--to be a good worker, to keep our heads down.

I often wonder if that's why some feel it is okay to make remarks at or about Asian Americans--because rather than lash out or speak up, the belief is that we'll look the other way and just keep our anger to ourselves. I've been stopped multiple times by strangers on the subway, in elevators, on the street, in stores--all so they can ask me what my ethnicity is, what "kind" of Asian I am, or if I speak Mandarin (or Korean or Japanese or, occasionally, English)--that's all they want to know: if I speak the language. They never need help translating or anything like that; they just want to know if I can speak it. A man once literally grabbed my arm as I was walking up the stairs from the subway to ask me if I spoke Mandarin. When I pulled away and said I had to go, he called me a "rude chink."

Another time in the grocery store, a man called me a "Jap" and ranted at me about how "my people" ruined everything. He followed me around the store and screamed at me about how I should "go back home" because I didn't belong, and threatened to "finish the war" right then in the produce section.

He was most likely crazy, as I had noticed him earlier talking to himself in one of the aisles. I left and didn't look back--but what bothered me the most was not that this man had threatened me like that. What bothered me was that nobody in the store full of people said or did anything. They all looked, some whispered. Nobody intercepted.

When I started writing this blog post, I wanted to talk about several things: the fake Asiana pilot names, the completely racially insensitive song "Asian Girlz," the community of people angry that a business owner changed his restaurant's name in order to remove the word "chink"... and I realized there were just too many things I wanted to say about all of it.

But now is absolutely the time to not stay quiet.

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  1. This past year, the Supreme Court case that stands out most in my mind (that I didn't already know about) is Lum v. Rice. All Asian-American children in the U.S. should be required to know about this case. (+ Heart of Atlanta Motel v. United States)