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Asian Americans often treated as lesser citizens because of appearance | COMMENTARY

Jessie Chen, of San Francisco, and first-year medical student at Loyola University Chicago attends the Stop Asian Hate rally, at Chinatown'sSquare, Saturday, March 27, 2021. Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune
Jessie Chen, of San Francisco, and first-year medical student at Loyola University Chicago attends the Stop Asian Hate rally, at Chinatown'sSquare, Saturday, March 27, 2021. Abel Uribe/Chicago Tribune (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

In 2017, I saw a wonderful Canadian musical in New York, directed by an American resident in Canada. At a post-performance discussion between the audience and the Canadian cast, moderated by the American director, I asked a question. Before he would answer my question, the director wanted to know where I was from. After I told him I was from Maryland, he persisted in questioning my geographic origin. He said he was hoping I could expound on China’s theater policy. I left China when I was a child.

Some years ago, the political scientist Francis Fukuyama wrote in an op-ed piece about a New Haven, Connecticut, taxi driver asking him where he was from. Mr. Fukuyama mentioned a place in the United States. The driver then asked where his parents were from. That line of questioning finally stopped after Mr. Fukuyama told the driver that his family had been in the United States for generations.

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Recently in Manhattan, Maura Moynihan, daughter of the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, told an Asian American woman to “go back to China.” I am sure Ms. Moynihan would be outraged if another American told her to go back to Ireland. But Ms. Moynihan is white, and unless you know her, you cannot tell from where in Europe her ancestors immigrated. So perhaps that is why Ms. Moynihan, and other Americans like her, have been spared the casual racism that she so readily flung at her Asian American victim.

I have lived in the United States for more than 50 years. I have been a citizen for more than 40. I served the country as a foreign service officer for more than 25, working in Washington, the Caribbean, Asia and Europe. I swore my oath to support and defend the Constitution when I became a citizen. I swore another oath to do the same when I joined the Foreign Service. However, many Americans, and some foreigners, judge Americanness by what they think an American should look like. When some foreigners I encountered in my career told me that they wanted to speak to a “real” American official, I attributed it to their ignorance of this country. But when a fellow American impugns my Americanness, I want to know why.

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If you are a white or Black American, nobody questions your Americanness. Few Americans know the country of your ancestral origin to enable them to use it to denigrate you. We Asian Americans wear our ancestral origin on our face. Our appearance makes us easy targets for other Americans who want to attack us, to diminish our Americanness. To these Americans, we are never quite American enough, or American at all, because of our appearance.

The actor Daniel Dae Kim, in his recent appearance before the House Judiciary Sub-Committee, told of a political pollster describing Asian-Americans as “statistically insignificant.” These “statistically insignificant” Asian-Americans helped to get out the vote in Georgia that led to the historic election of two Georgia Democrats to the U.S. Senate. Their contribution was hardly acknowledged. President Biden has put together the most racially diverse Cabinet in U.S. history. Asian-Americans are barely there. In the spike of violent and other attacks against Asian Americans across the country, especially against Asian American women and the elderly, law enforcement authorities, including the FBI, are reluctant to prosecute some of these crimes as hate crimes. Would they be as reluctant if the victims belong to a statistically significant minority?

So, Mr. President, Madam Vice President, please act on your Atlanta messages against anti-Asian American bigotry in our country. I urge you, as well as Members of Congress, governors, mayors, state and city legislators, to emphasize to all Americans that Asian Americans are part of the cloth from which the vast American flag is cut. Please draft legislation to better define hate crimes against Asian Americans. Explain to our law enforcement that a crime against Asian Americans is as much a hate crime as that against any other American minority. Update school textbooks to educate our children on how the diverse American people have built our great country. We will not be able to remove the bull’s eye on Asian Americans until our children learn that Asian Americans are as American as any other American in this country.

I am an Asian American woman. I am an American woman.

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Soching Tsai (stdak20166@gmail.com) is a retired Foreign Service officer in Maryland.

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