There’s also the time a friend’s Japanese husband was aggressively shouldered into by a big man on a wide sidewalk, unprovoked, in the family-friendly Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn. When she followed up with the police, they told her they couldn’t do anything because the man didn’t use a racial slur and her husband hadn’t gone to the hospital with injuries.
“So people can just walk around assaulting and bullying people without any consequences?” she asked the police.
Following the Atlanta spa shootings that left eight people dead — six of them Asian women — I’m left wondering what it takes to be seen as an American in a country that my family has lived in for over 100 years.
My great-grandparents — like so many immigrants before and after them — worked menial, backbreaking jobs. After emigrating from Japan in the early 1900s, they labored on the sugar plantations in Hawaii. Over the generations, members of my family have joined the ranks of carpenters, dairy farmers, store owners, teachers, executives, medical professionals, government workers, engineers and more. My father, like so many of his Asian American friends, served in the U.S. military.
And then there’s my great-uncle Iwao, who, at the age of 19 during World War II, volunteered to serve in the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history. After one year of training at Camp Shelby in Mississippi, he was shipped off for combat in the European theater.
But he was also fighting racial injustice back at home, where the federal government placed roughly 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry in internment camps — stripping them of their homes, livelihood and dignity.
“I remember seeing two relocation camps in Arkansas,” he told me many years ago when I interviewed him, recalling the jarring experience of seeing his homeland incarcerate fellow citizens that looked like him while he was about to risk his life for that same country. “The Japanese were behind barbed wire with machine guns located on each tower.”
America has a long history of exclusion, based on race and religion, and eventual assimilation — from Germans to Irish, Italians and more. But that level of acceptance seems to end with the European diaspora, where immutable physical traits mark Asian and other nonwhite groups as the perpetual “other” — an impassable barrier that homogenizes individual experiences.
It paints the Harvard-educated Asian American professional with the same broad brush as a refugee from Myanmar. It conflates the “Crazy Rich Asians” narrative and “Bling Empire” cast with Asians and Asian Americans struggling in tenement housing.
It makes us invisible in a way best described by the actor Steven Yeun, the first Asian American actor to be nominated for a lead actor Oscar for his role in “Minari,” who told The New York Times Magazine, “Sometimes I wonder if the Asian American experience is what it’s like when you’re thinking about everyone else, but nobody else is thinking about you.”
It also takes the focus away from the fact that income inequality in the U.S. is greatest among Asians, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center analysis of census data. And it uses the model minority myth as a convenient way to uplift one group (see, you can make it!) while pitting minorities against each other to maintain the status quo in a system of power hierarchies described by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Isabel Wilkerson in her book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents.”