A Note To Asian-American Activists About New Arrivals

To us, they are very Asian. To them, we are very American. But it need not be “us” versus “them."
03/18/2017 08:57 am ET Updated May 23, 2017
A woman in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco.
Robert Galbraith / Reuters
A woman in the Chinatown neighborhood of San Francisco.

I write to you as my long-time friends, those who have fought not only for civil rights but also to include Asian Americans in all progressive causes. I know from working alongside you that it has not been easy to persuade African Americans, Latinos, Jews and others who have been dedicated to social justice that their principles extend to Asian immigrants and their American-born children and grandchildren. Some have been skeptical, others hostile.

Yet I send you a note now to express a different concern. It is as sensitive if not more so, but it also is even more serious a potential barrier to your bridge-building efforts. It could signal the end of the project altogether.

Here it is. The most recent set of newcomers from Asia, in particular those arriving from China, do not share our commitments. I implore you to reach out, to listen to them respectfully and to try to persuade them. That requires that you — and I — not assume they need educating by us, as if we were self-appointed teachers, they permanently students. They will have none of that. They have experienced it enough.

Everywhere I encounter them, whether in suburban Southern California; the “Avenues” of western San Francisco; Silicon Valley; on the East Coast; or in communities that have developed seemingly overnight where there once were virtually no Asian faces to be seen, they complain. They are frustrated. I am familiar with the source of that sentiment: the literal historic exclusion and the tangible ongoing denial of equality.

But here is what worries me. While I have hesitated to call out the problem, waiting makes it worse. They seem to be as angry about Asian Americans, those who call themselves by that name and who are more assimilated, as they are about whites and blacks. They tell me so.

We do not represent them. We are not sympathetic to them. We have betrayed them. We cannot even communicate in the language they deem ours. One of the common words for “Mandarin” in Mandarin itself translates as “the national language” ― though I am advised they’d prefer a dialect such as Toisan in any event.

The greatest ironies are always in the mirror image. To us, they are very Asian. To them, we are very American. We are not quite one another’s people. Waiting for the kids to grow up won’t work. (Yes, more than one of you has said that, only partly in jest.)

The truth is we are different. They come from an ascendent Asia. They can continue to maintain contacts with “the homeland,” thanks to technology. They identify, as our forebears did, not as “Asian” but by their ethnicity, clan, province, religion and circumstances. They are American on their own terms.

We are as foreign to them as they are to us, despite others telling us we all look alike. And they are aware of our condescension, even if we would deny it. As with other groups of every color and creed, those who settled, if only slightly earlier, invariably imply they are better than their country cousins. As much as the phrase is appropriated and ironic, even hip, there is a stigma to being “fresh off the boat.” The stereotype is repeated: too much bling, not enough lining up in an orderly manner; nose-picking, spitting, bad driving, passive-aggressive conduct and, let us hope, at least no dog-eating.

We have to give [new arrivals] space too. We would be hypocrites otherwise.

You have explained to me privately your concerns, with which I do not disagree. Some of our cousins, distant kin who have shown up here, are alarming. They are bigots who do not care about democracy. They believe themselves to be better than other people of color ― it hardly is worth pointing out since it is so obvious. They even suppose, not all that secretly, that they will surpass whites. They also might be corrupt albeit by our standards. There is no telling.

They are only starting to assert themselves. They do not claim disadvantage. Just the opposite. They attack, as Asians are not stereotyped for doing. On issue after issue, ranging from diversity in higher education to “illegal” immigration, LGBT rights, police brutality, corporal punishment and capital punishment, they are prepared to line up as a token Asian face on the other side of whatever protest you are organizing. Even on the environment, they feel persecuted for their taste for shark fin soup or exotic delicacies involving endangered species. And good for them. Their accent does not hold them back.

I have heard Asian Americans who have urged civic engagement lament that they find themselves surrounded by Asians who will stand up and speak out, albeit for themselves. They will be only more infuriated if you suggest they are pawns being used. They sense your embarrassment. They are self-serving for survival.

If we do not win [new arrivals] over or ally with them, they will overtake us numerically and render us politically irrelevant.

Be that as it may, I offer two reasons why we should embrace them. It need not be “us” versus “them,” especially since others cannot distinguish. The first reason is that it is important to sustain coalitions. We fought for a “seat at the table.” It would be wrong for us to be any less than wholeheartedly welcoming to those who look like us. We have to give them space too. We would be hypocrites otherwise. If we do not yield, we will be shoved aside. There is room for all, or so we ourselves proclaim.

The second reason is that there are more of them than there are of us. They keep coming. The majority of Asian Americans are foreign-born, not native-born. Immigration patterns ensure that this demographic balance of power will favor the former over the latter, at least for our lifetimes. If we do not win them over or ally with them, they will overtake us numerically and render us politically irrelevant.

If Asian Americans want the concept of “Asian American” to last another generation, we must figure out how to engage with all who belong to an artificial, fragile category. The failure of the movement will be on us. We must come together.

Addendum. To make clear that I regard Asian immigrants as equals, I wrote this follow up. It explains I repeated a stereotype to attack the stereotype, not to promote it, and it emphasizes that I am critical of Asian American activists who are critical of new immigrants.

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