This piece is written on behalf of Asian Students in America (ASIA) at Carleton.
There is a story that comedian Hasan Minhaj recounts in his standup special, Homecoming King, where he remembers his family’s car windows being smashed in the days after 9/11. He described the image of his father hunched, sweeping up the glass shards quietly.
Many Asian Americans who have immigrant parents or are immigrants themselves can recall something similar, though perhaps not as dramatic or heartbreaking as Hasan Minhaj’s experience. It is a sentiment many of us are familiar with. You can’t pronounce our names? No problem, just call me [insert generic English name here]. There is a restaurant in New York called Joe’s Shanghai, whose Chinese name means the fawn announcing the arrival of spring. Can’t stomach authentic Chinese food? No problem, we’ll invent new dishes like General Tso’s Chicken for you. That’s a dish invented in 1952 in New York City. Don’t see us as part of the community? No problem, we’ll stay quiet, out of your elected offices and polls and protests. Asian Americans have consistently been the least likely to vote or run for public office out of any ethnic group in the U.S.
Many of us do these things because being an immigrant is tremendously difficult. “It is the price we pay,” to paraphrase Minhaj. Pay your dues in smashed windows, small dick jokes, and fetishization in order to give your children a better life. When you are on top, then no one can laugh at you anymore. Or so the story goes.
But like many aspects of life, COVID-19 has forced Asian Americans to rethink the truths in the messaging of our parents. For over a year, Asian Americans have seen violent hate crimes from those who we consider our neighbours and fellow compatriots, our fellow citizens. This has culminated in the senseless and violent murder of six Asians in Atlanta, Georgia, weeks before the state legislature voted to pass voter suppression laws. Every day, more hate crimes against Asians get reported from every corner of the country, and every news headline makes us a bit more likely to buy pepper spray, take an Uber for a walking distance, and look over our shoulders. It is tiring to walk around with clenched fists, no less than feeling fear in what we thought was our home.
It makes national AAPI month this April particularly hollow. It makes corporate declarations that they stand with Asians soulless. American society has repeatedly refused to recognize Asian Americans as a crucial element of American culture and history. This academic year, the Carleton history department offered 39 American history courses that focused on domestic American history. Several touched on black, Latinx, and indigenous histories. None touched on Asian Americans. This is not to say that these courses are not valuable, quite the contrary: studying the history of the various peoples of the U.S. reminds us that it is not only white people who are Americans. Asian Americans cannot continue to be left out of this diaspora. We do not learn about the stories of people like Daniel Inouye. He fought Japanese internment during WWII to serve, then won a medal of honour after losing his arm saving his platoon in World War 2 and later served as President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the highest-ever position achieved by an Asian American. We do not learn about Lau v. Nichols, which mandated the constitutionality of English as a Second Language (ESL) classes in public schools that helped the lives of millions of immigrants. We do not learn about the Pacific railroads being built with Chinese blood, just for a chance to stay. The only U.S. city whose Chinese name is not just the phonetic translation is San Francisco, where the first Chinese immigrants arrived. 旧金山, the Original Eldorado. It was the hope and spirit of many to come, yearning to breathe free in this more perfect union. Fogbound and adrift, they carried with them nothing but the audacity to dream of a better life for their descendants. We cannot continue being the footnotes of this country’s history. We demand to be recognized as an integral thread of the American fabric, just like all who have breathed upon this land.
A hundred and seventy years later, we are still fighting to fulfill those words, “a more perfect union.” This AAPI heritage month, may we continue to strive to realize the audacity of our forebearers. May we continue to persist in the face of the winds against us, even as they blow ever stronger.