06/17/2013 08:57 am ET Updated Aug 17, 2013

When the Chinese Became Irish

In the Tony-nominated Beauty Queen of Leenane by Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, there is a wonderful bit of scenery that explains the power of the American Dream the world over. The hardscrabble family of this contemporary drama set in County Galway looks to an iconic photograph of the Kennedy brothers, JFK and Bobby, as they consider how much better their lives might be if they moved to Boston.

"The Yanks do love the Irish," the put-upon daughter says to her overbearing mother.

I wonder if the Chinese ever will be accepted equally.

The Irish and the Chinese have followed different courses of assimilation. Significant numbers of people from each background started arriving in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Many of the Irish were refugees from the Great Famine, when potato crops failed again and again. Some of the Chinese were recruited to the Reconstruction South, in fantastical schemes to replace freed African Americans.

The two groups labored together to build the transcontinental railroad that symbolized Manifest Destiny. Chinese crews started from the West, Irish crews from the East, supposedly the subject of betting as to their respective productivity, as they connected the continent.

The Irish faced discrimination, egregious and subtle, at home and abroad. Even as late as 1960, when John F. Kennedy was a candidate for President, there was the lingering concern that a Catholic could not be loyal to his country. A war hero as commander of torpedo boat PT-109, he was maligned with the slur of "Papist" on the conspiracy theory that he would always remain under secret orders from the Vatican.

Over time the Irish as a community famously came to be accepted as white. Historians have documented in detail the acceptance of the Irish into the category that consolidated into whiteness. Ethnic identity turned out to be less significant than skin color. The Irish also became beloved figures in public life. On St. Patrick's Day, everyone aspires to be Irish because it is a signal honor to join the parade.

The Chinese as a group were barred from continuing to come, thanks to the 1882 Exclusion Act, and prohibited from naturalizing, because they were deemed not "free white persons." Those restrictions have since been repealed. Yet Chinese Americans -- without distinction as to those who are adopted, mixed, sixth-generation Californians, or Christian -- remain perpetual foreigners who cannot quite be trusted. They must "really" be from someplace else no matter what they insist about their own allegiance.

The supposed sojourner status of immigrants doesn't explain the disparate treatment, since return migration to the land of origin was just as high for European and Asian populations historically. The Irish and the Chinese are not perceived as the same.

I have seen many a t-shirt that says, "Kiss me -- I'm Irish," or signs that declare, "Parking for Irish only," but never a counterpart for the Chinese. Books that explain how the Irish created civilization or saved it are feel-good best-sellers. Any book with similar claims about the Chinese would be alarming or offensive. Even Irish criminals in the movies belong to our traditions. Chinese gangsters stand outside it.

To be Irish is to be proud. To be Chinese, not so much.

Thus the Irish diaspora celebrate the Kennedys as they should. Their doing so does not compromise the brothers' essential role in the great myth of an American Camelot.

Perhaps we are changing. The current Ambassador from the United States to China is Gary Locke. The former Governor of Washington State, a pragmatist who could not have been elected by Asian Americans alone, Locke happens to be of Chinese ancestry. Although from time to time he faces grumbling from observers who wonder whom he represents, he used to give a stump speech about his family taking three generations to travel the mile from where his grandfather worked as a houseboy to his swearing in at the capitol in Olympia.

The Irish and the Chinese, as well as the Irish-Chinese (they exist!), have the opportunity to make themselves anew in a nation of immigrants. There could be a Broadway play called Beauty Queen of Yunnan in the future. Its protagonists might admire a very different picture.