The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Leslie K. Wang is an associate professor of Sociology at the University of Massachusetts AT Boston and the author of “Chasing the American Dream Abroad: Chinese Americans in the Ancestral Homeland.” She is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network. This column was produced for The Progressive magazine and distributed by Tribune News Service.
The brutal, random attack on a 65-year-old Filipino woman on the streets of New York City has drawn strong condemnation, not only for its sheer violence but because security guards nearby watched without intervening. The assailant, later apprehended, yelled “You don’t belong here!,” along with racial slurs, in the March 29 attack.
Unfortunately, this was just the latest addition to a long list of incidents targeting those assumed to be Chinese in the wake of COVID-19, which former President Donald Trump and others blamed on China, using racially charged terms like “China virus” and “kung flu.”
Hate crimes against Asian Americans skyrocketed by 150 percent in major U.S. cities last year. Asian Americans are being treated as foreigners and blamed for causing the coronavirus. As an Asian American, I have been called racial slurs on the streets several times. Others I know have been told, “Go back to your own country!”
Some do, or at least make an attempt. I have spoken to many American-born Chinese professionals who, like me, have at some point relocated to China, lured by exciting economic opportunities and a deep yearning for racial belonging which they have not found in the United States.
But even in China, they still feel as though they do not belong. They may find that they are expected to speak perfect Mandarin and express more loyalty to China than the United States, as is summed up by a question they are often asked: “If China and the United States went to war, which country would you support?”
In searching for racial acceptance in their ancestral homeland, some U.S.-born Chinese people feel as though their American identities are completely erased. As one person I spoke to explained, “People here definitely see you as Chinese first, not American.” In essence, moving abroad provides no escape from stereotypes that classify them as Chinese.
Compared with other immigrant groups, many Chinese Americans occupy a privileged status in regard to income, education and integration into mainstream society. However, they grow up without a clear sense of where they fit within the U.S. racial system, which tends to be defined by Black-white relations.
Viewed as racially and culturally “other,” Chinese Americans are slotted into two limiting stereotypes: either economically successful “model minorities” whose strong work ethic and family values are deemed superior to other racial or ethnic groups or “forever foreigners” suspected of bearing disease or being loyal to China’s communist regime.
No matter the political climate, U.S.-born Chinese people are often not recognized as “real” Americans.
The current wave of hate crimes against Asian Americans is part of a long history of anti-Asian exclusion fueled by a simplistic view of race that reduces identity and belonging down to physical appearance.
Once we begin to consider the fight against anti-Asian racism as a key part of dismantling white supremacy, the sooner that Asian Americans can find a sense of belonging in their own country. For now, many feel caught between two countries, with no real home.