To start off, I’d like to address the question posed by @iluvcows: “Where do you think most of these harmful stereotypes [towards Asian Americans] originated from?” This, in itself, is a loaded question, as no singular answer could define where such widespread discriminatory practices originated. However, my general answer is as follows: most Asian American stereotypes have had their basis in historical events, during which non-Asian Americans sought to draw contrast between themselves and these “foreigners”. Like discrimination against all other groups, Asian American stereotypes came about as a form of “othering”, to be employed by those who were made uncomfortable and upset by foreign-looking people entering into a white country. What’s interesting however, is that the perception of, or connotations associated with, Asian Americans have varied so much throughout history, fluctuating from labels such as the ‘Yellow Peril’ in the 1800’s to the “Model Minority Myth” in modern day. The common thread throughout these monikers, however, is that the mere existence of Asian Americans is somehow damaging to the country as a whole - a thought process which has only been exacerbated by COVID-19 recently. Whether it's Californians disliking the arrival of Japanese farmers pre-WWII or 1980’s Detroit auto-workers opposing Asian immigration out of fear that jobs will be stolen, this attitude has been present throughout our country’s history. Regardless, I firmly maintain the belief that the presence of Asian Americans has never harmed, and continues to not harm, any group within the United States. But, as we know very clearly from the past year, some always seem to feel that they do.
Asian Americans differ from other minority groups within the US in one crucial way: while other groups have undergone centuries of continuous subjugation and neglect (enslavement of Black Americans, conquering of Hispanic/Latinx Americans, genocide of Native Americans), Asian Americans have, for the most part, immigrated to the US by free will. Through analyzing the two major eras of Asian immigration (Gold Rush era & Cold War to Modern era), it’s clear to see that the main reasoning behind such waves of migrants was the search for new opportunities and better living conditions within a foreign country. These circumstances are important to note because they drastically affected both the types of Asian immigrants who arrived in the US, as well as their perception by others in the country.
In the Gold Rush era, many Chinese immigrants flocked to the US in pursuit of gold (obviously), which they could then convert into wealth to distribute to their families back in China. This process, however, was fraught with uncertainty and danger; thus, this wave of immigration consisted of young, low-class Chinese citizens, who had nothing to lose in making the journey to California. These people were open to performing manual labor for little cost, making them cheap alternatives to American workers. It is also during this era that Chinese, and overall Asian, American discrimination and xenophobia begins. Many viewed such Chinese laborers with contempt, seeing them as nothing more than disgusting, low-class foreigners. As lynching's and mob-killings became more frequent, this period of hatred culminated in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which effectively stopped large-scale Chinese immigration for the next half-century. Nonetheless, other Asian groups, such as Japanese and South Asian immigrants, soon filled the void of cheap laborers left by the Chinese Exclusion Act; needless to say, they faced similar amounts of violence and racism.
By contrast, Asian Americans faced very different challenges in the Cold War to Modern era of immigration. In this era, many Asian immigrants came to the United States in search of educational and job opportunities. After World War II, America firmly established itself as the sole global superpower, a status which drew many’s attention. Meanwhile, as this was happening, many Asian countries were experiencing the negative effects of Communist regimes: places such as Korea and Vietnam were struck by warfare, China by poverty, Japan by the effects of losing WWII. For these populations, Capitalist America became appealing, as it represented the opposite of their environments. As a child of such immigrants myself, I’ve heard countless stories from my father about his trials and tribulations over his journey to America. He explains that during this time, America was very hesitant about giving visas to hopeful immigrants, many of whom could not afford to live within the States. To overcome this, young adults sought to apply for scholarships from American colleges, many of which would only accept a tiny amount of Asian applicants for ‘full-ride’ scholarships. These tough circumstances for entering the country meant that the Asian Americans who had succeeded in fighting their way through the system were more than well-equipped enough to integrate into American society and acquire mostly-STEM related jobs as a result of their college degrees. This ties in directly to the creation of what is now known as the “model-minority myth”. Instead of facing the outright persecution and xenophobia which challenged Asian Americans over a century ago, new-age Asian immigrants became the gold-standard for what “living out the American Dream” meant. Many white Americans used such a group for exhibiting how a POC group can indeed succeed within the country. As these immigrants grew older and started families, their second-generation children, influenced by the values which brought their parents into America, were pushed and pressured towards high-achievement within their schools, further conforming to the stereotypes of Asians being “inherently smart”. While it’s important to note that not all modern Asian American immigrants entered the country in this manner (most notably, refugees of the Korean/Vietnam Wars), the process itself does explain a lot about the drastic shift in Asian American perception over recent history.
Although I’ve spent a great amount of time discussing the contrasts between different forms of anti-Asian discrimination, it’s important to note that nearly all of these historical stereotypes continue to exist today. The low-class perception of Asian Americans, including the view that Asians are “unclean” or “disease-ridden”, remains as a last-over from the Gold Rush era. In recent times, it’s apparent that this connotation has gained more steam, as China became the epicenter for the COVID-19 virus, leading to a plethora of increased prejudice. The most shocking part of this, however, is the willingness of many to make highly offensive remarks regarding the topic. A quote taken from the Human Rights Watch article regarding COVID-related xenophobia states as follows: “The governor of the Veneto region of Italy, an early epicenter of the pandemic, told journalists in February that the country would be better than China in handling the virus due to Italians’ “culturally strong attention to hygiene, washing hands, taking showers, whereas we have all seen the Chinese eating mice alive.” Given the outbreak of cases within Italy last March, it’s safe to assume that the governor likely regrets his statement. Nevertheless, it doesn’t draw any focus away from the shocking truth that even government officials are willing to generalize an entire Asian country under a singular statement. Brazil’s prime minister hilariously suggested that the COVID pandemic was part of China’s plan to seize world domination - and of course, how could we forget the words of our very own President, who so eloquently coined the term, “China virus”. Rhetoric of this type was nowhere near as prevalent against African countries for the Ebola virus, or against Mexico and Latinx groups for the Swine flu. Fair treatment towards Asian populations has been neglected for too long - it’s seen as something which should not to be taken as seriously as making a racially charged statement about another ethnic group. For Asians, it’s “just a joke”. For others, it’s outright racist.
Another long withstanding issue regarding the treatment of Asian Americans is the unwillingness of many to distinguish amongst vast ethnic groups and populations. In short, too many people still live by the mantra of “All Orientals Look the Same”, even adding on new additions such as “All Orientals Must Act the Same Way” or “All Orientals Must Carry Coronavirus”. In the Los Angeles Times article, we see first-hand accounts of Asian Americans recounting instances (pre-lockdown) of people targeting them for carrying the virus. A TSA agent jeered at mask-wearing Aida Zhu, stating “I hope you’re not ill”. Andrew Nguyen recalls an experience during which a customer asked for a new mask, simply because Nguyen had brushed the surface with his finger. Stories like this are not only sickening to hear, but also outrageous acts of stereotyping. It absolutely amazes me that in pre-COVID times, when the United States positive case count numbered in the mere thousands, so many people could associate the disease with just any Asian face that they see. While it’s tremendously saddening, it also speaks volumes about the innate thoughts of many Americans regarding people of Asian descent. Katherine Lu summarizes this perfectly in the LA Times article, saying “The coronavirus is an opportunity for [people] to safely express their racist thoughts in a way that can be excused.” The pandemic has highlighted that century-old stereotypes are very much alive and well today.
The truth is, the heart of the problem within Asian American perception is the perpetual lack-of-understanding for their culture. While this most certainly is an issue that all ethnicities face, it’s frequently highlighted within Asian populations as many seek to collectively associate Asian faces with the one country which apparently represents all of Asia, China. The term “Chinaman” has been used in America to mock not just real Chinese men, but any person who may resemble or be associated with an Asian thing. Furthermore, Americans seem to be unwilling to accept that Asian American culture differs from their own. While millions of US citizens proclaim that they love eating orange chicken and chow mein, they demonized Chinese people for eating “dogs and bats”. Some people say that Asian languages sound ugly and loud, without considering how English might sound to a non-native speaker. Misrepresentation and misunderstanding has challenged all groups of people. The issue, once again, is that people feel at ease with perpetuating such connotations about Asians specifically. They make fun of that which they don’t understand, including the culture, customs, and traditions of Asian Americans. Nor does it help that recent socioeconomic factors have strained US-China relations, with the most notable of such factors being, of course, the rhetoric of Donald Trump. The POTUS has been avid in his rejection of China since pre-pandemic times; even now, he refuses to relent, and continues to enforce trade blockades with China. “History is resurfacing again, with China becoming a stronger country and more competitive and a threat to U.S. dominance today, just like Japan was a threat in the second world war.”, states UC Berkeley researcher and lecturer Winston Tseng via Berkeley News. Regardless of how you feel regarding the political affairs at-hand, this marks grave trouble for Asian Americans, many of whom are already feeling the effects of President Trump’s words.
Given all that we now know regarding the history of Asian Americans, one fact has become clear. The issues and plights of this group have long been ignored for a simple reason: Asian Americans have not struggled enough to be taken seriously. I must first disclaim that by no means do I disregard the issues which Asian Americans have faced in the past, nor do I mean to disrespect the real struggles which other POC groups are facing; the point which I mean to make by this statement is an overall perception of Asians which seems to apply to our nation. Asian Americans have, for the most part, been relatively successful within the United States. This ethnic group boasts the highest-average income of any demographic, even higher than white Americans. Asian Americans have low unemployment rates, and their children continue to maintain high-achieving status in schools. In short, they’ve integrated themselves into American society very successfully, further perpetuating the “model minority myth”. Yet in this success of the mean, some people seem to forget that Asian Americans face real struggles, similar to that of other POC, in their day-to-day life. However, this fact is brushed aside because they don’t need the support and advocacy which other groups do. This in turn alienates Asian Americans not only from white Americans, but also from other minority demographics within the US. As an Asian American myself, this fact has become clear to me since childhood. One of the most striking works which I’ve seen regarding the Asian American experiences comes from the artwork of Lisa Wool-Rim Sjöblom. This picture, depicting a presumptively Asian boy, shows a child dusting his face with white powder, representing an attempt by many Asian children to conform in American society. It’s a very real and accurate experience: one which I, many of my peers, have undergone because our country puts Asian American experiences on the back-burner, and doesn’t seem to value us as much as other groups. This needs to change.
Asian Americans have long been neglected within our country for reasons which were absolutely out of their control. The United States, as a whole, has become so acutely unaware of discrimination towards Asians that it passes unchecked from the mouths of our President, our peers, and sometimes ourselves. To address another question posed by @user1234, “what are some ways in which we can be up standers and fight against Asian discrimination?” Asian American experiences need to stop being brushed over - treat Asian American tragedies with the same horror with which we treat the enslavement of Black Americans or the genocide of Indigenous peoples. Furthermore, instead of Asian American, why not utilize terms such as Chinese-American, Japanese-American, Korean-American, Vietnamese-American, Indian-American? Break the cycle of misrepresentation, misunderstanding, and ignorance through educating yourself regarding the rich and diverse cultures of the “Orient”. We must all adapt our attitudes, and make sure that our efforts in creating a better America don’t overlook this portion of our nation.
My question is, as tensions grow between the United States and China, how do we separate the perception and treatment of Asian Americans from political affairs which they have no relation to?