As a young Chinese American growing up in suburban Chicagoland, I remember my father initiating several conversations with me in which he warned that “the Americans will never truly accept you as one of their own,” and that “you’ll see when you grow up.” His remarks were reflective of the Asian Immigrant generation’s view of self. They were formed primarily through experiences in the Old Country, as well as how Asian Immigrants and Asian Americans are viewed as “perpetually-foreign” by both White Anglo-Americans and other People of Color. In light of our present-day political atmosphere of immigration and border disputes, pandemic-related job losses, and racial tension, I contemplate how the tensions caused by sentiments of “foreign-ness” have been exacerbated into alienation, animosity, and racial violence.
From 2020 through early 2021, approximately 3,800 anti-Asian hate incidences have been recorded within the United States. However, discrimination and racial violence targeting Asian Immigrants and Asian Americans is not a new thing.
The “Perpetual Foreigner” stereotype is a form of racism which has significantly impacted the Asian American community. The “Perpetual Foreigner” stereotype refers to an assumption that Asian Americans have a better relationship with the country of their ancestral origin than they do with the United States, that they will never fully assimilate/adapt to life in America, and that consequently, they ought to be treated as second-class citizens. This logical fallacy ignores statistical data indicating that while members of the initial immigrant generation (like my father) may have stronger ties to the Old Country, over a multi-generational basis, later generations of Asian Americans increasingly acculturate and almost completely integrate socioeconomically into surrounding cultures by the third generation (while still retaining some residual ties to their ancestral origins).
It is important to note that the Perpetual Foreigner stereotype is not experienced only by Asian Americans, but also by other ethnic minorities, commonly manifesting in verbal altercations wherein that individual is prompted to “go back to (China/Mexico/Africa, etc.),” but can also rise to assault, battery, and/or homicide. For Asian Americans, however, this stereotype plays a disproportionate role in how we relate to neighboring communities, and what happens when those relationships are tested in times of uncertainty.
The Perpetual Foreigner stereotype has been applied to Asian Immigrants and Asian Americans by the “mainstream” White Anglo-American culture ever since immigration from Asia first began in the latter half of the 19th Century. Much of this can be attributed to wider themes of imperialism, expansionism, and nationalism in which that era is steeped. However, early Asian immigration was focused primarily the import of cheap, Chinese laborers to undercut White American workers at railroads and gold mines throughout the American West (the Chinese toponym still commonly-used for San Francisco is still “Jiujinshan” (舊金山) or “Old Gold Mountain”), and also resulted in considerable resentment culminating in a series of racially-motivated killings (the Los Angeles-based Chinese Massacre of 1871, the San Francisco Riot of 1877, the Rock Springs Massacre of 1885, the Seattle Riot of 1886, and the Snake River Massacre of 1887), and discriminatory legislation, including the Page Act of 1875 (banning the immigration of Chinese women) and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (which extended that immigration ban to Chinese men). Asian peoples’ negative association as external competitors continued in White Anglo-American eyes through the turn of the 20th Century after Japan’s victory over a Caucasian-led nation in the Russo-Japanese War (the first time an Asian nation would defeat a Western military in modern, conventional warfare), through World War 2 (where “disloyal” Japanese Americans were forcibly put in internment camps), and even as Asia industrialized and professional-class immigrants began arriving on American shores during the Cold War era.
With Asia’s 20th century post-war economic ascension, existing fears of cheap Asian labor undercutting American blue-collar workers combined with fears that Asian manufacturers would overtake American industry and that Asian professionals would displace white-collar Americans in boardrooms and executive suites. These types of fears have been borne out over time with intimidation and violence such as the 1982 Highland Park, Michigan slaying of Vincent Chin (who was targeted due to job losses stemming from the Japanese automotive industry’s dominance over Detroit automakers), and much more recently, within the context of the People’s Republic of China emerging as a serious geopolitical competitor, with “China-virus” narrative-heightened violence perpetrated against elderly Asians and Asian American women, such as a string of incidents in April 2021 where Michael Vivona harassed 7x U.S. Karate Champion and Olympian Sakura Kokumai and physically assaulted an elderly Korean couple.
Asian Americans can be viewed as perpetually-foreign not only by White Anglo-Americans, but also by other People of Color. Similar to historic African American neighborhoods and other racial enclaves, American Chinatowns and Japantowns were originally created as ethnic ghettos to isolate its residents away from the rest of America. This isolationism of the community, when combined with a distrust of outsiders borne out of victimization, and an ethno-centrism heightened by the “Model Minority Myth” (a Post-War racial narrative praising Asian immigrants as distinctive from other ethnic minorities due to their productivity, compliance, and political-silence) has caused community relations between Asian Americans and neighboring communities (including communities of color) to often be fraught.
Proprietors at Asian-owned restaurants, convenience stores, and beauty supply shops adjacent to these neighboring communities can view their patrons with suspicion, and Asian immigrants’ political objectives (such as removing racial quotas in elite university acceptance formulae which handicap Asian applicants) can at times put them at odds with these neighbors. When racial tensions rise, these fraught community relations often erupt, as they did during the 1992 Los Angeles Race Riots where 2,200 L.A. Koreatown businesses were looted, damaged, or destroyed. Similar eruptions are apparent in today’s racially-tense political atmosphere after the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, where attacks on Asian women and elders are also being perpetrated by People of Color (such as Antoine Watson in the fatal attack on Vicha Ratanapakdee or Daryl Doles attacking two Asian women repeatedly with a cement block).
President Joe Biden signed Anti-Asian Hate Crime legislation into law in May of 2021. However, studies show that incidents of Anti-Asian racial violence continue to rise and more must be done. Specifically, communitarian, “solidarist” solutions not generally considered by the decision-makers currently in charge can do much to protect the Asian American community and heal broken relationships.
These solutions would require everyone (Asian, White, BIPOC) to confront some uncomfortable truths about their histories, and in-part require Asian immigrants and Asian Americans to take some new initiative to engage their neighbors. Asian Americans, especially those from the Immigrant generation, must be willing to engage with others within their ethnic enclaves – especially those with limited English language-skills, to recognize that their past isolationism, distrust, and ethnocentrism have contributed to broken relationships with other ethnic communities, to convince them of the importance of extending their personal networks to those of other ethnicities, and providing skills and opportunities to build friendships with neighboring communities.
At the same time, White Anglo-Americans must do their part in acknowledging their complicity in “China-virus”-related fear mongering and other People of Color must recognize that at times they too can be “oppressors” and “bullies.” Cross-community neighborhood watches must be organized to report and defend against attacks on Asian elders and women as well as improve the quality of life in surrounding areas. The American Solidarity Party believes in promoting “a more peaceful world,” but that work needs to begin here at home in America before extending out into the world, and by working together, we can ensure that none of us are perpetually-foreign, so that each of us can live in dignity and safety.
Tai-Chi Kuo currently serves as Secretary for the American Solidarity Party of Illinois. He previously served on the ASP National Committee from 2018-2020 and as an ASP-Midwestern National Convention Delegate in 2019 and 2020. Tai-Chi is an Evangelical Christian and serves with his church, as well as with The And Campaign, a faith-based non-profit organization advocating for biblical values and social justice. Tai-Chi holds a Juris Doctor from Loyola University Chicago and a Master of Business Administration from the University of Illinois. He also attended the University of Illinois as an undergraduate where he majored in Advertising and minored in East Asian Languages and Cultures. His interests include U.S. and Greater China politics, advocacy on Asian American issues and on Religious Freedom and other First Amendment issues, the Martial Arts, the Opera, Comic Books, and NCAA Basketball. Tai-Chi and his wife Tiffany live in Chicago, and they have family in Illinois, Michigan, Tennessee, Georgia, Hawai’i, Taipei, Fuzhou, and Beijing.