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What Does It Mean to Be American?

By: Eva Eakins

Sriracha Chili Sauce – My Favorite All American Condiment

My favorite all-American condiment is Sriracha. I put it on everything including pizza, sandwiches, noodles, and ice cream (Yes, you heard that correctly).  But wait, didn’t you say, “All American”?

Sriracha has become one of the quintessential condiments in American gastronomy, not only in Asian food restaurants, but also at McDonald’s, Subway, and Starbucks.  It has become a potato chip flavor and has even been spotted in space at the dinner table of the international space station. Do you know where it’s from? It’s from California, U.S.A.

The Huy Fong Foods version of Sriracha was created and produced in Southern California by David Tran, a Chinese immigrant from Vietnam.  He became one of the so-called “boat people”, a refugee when the new Communist Vietnamese government forced the ethnic Chinese minority in Vietnam out of their own country.  He was granted asylum in the United States and started to make Sriracha because he craved a taste of home.

Ok, so maybe it’s the “Asian American” success story, but again, didn’t I say “the quintessential all-American” condiment?

Today, in honor of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I invite you to explore with me who gets to claim to be an American and whose story gets to be part of American history.

How Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month Started

May 1st marked the beginning of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. In 1978, Congress passed its first resolution to proclaim the first 10 days of May as Asian Pacific Heritage Week. In 2009, President Barack Obama signed a proclamation recognizing the full month as Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. Since then, AANHPI communities alongside other partner organizations have celebrated the history, cultures, and accomplishments of their community.

America – Land of the Free?

The United States has long been considered a nation of immigrants.  Like David Tran of Sriracha, I am a first-generation Asian immigrant, having been a refugee, and eventually found a home in the United States as a naturalized citizen. However, there are many laws, government policies, and media efforts throughout American history that shaped anti-Asian sentiments and public perception of AANHPI that persist to this day.

On March 26, 1790, Congress passed the Naturalization Act, which determines who is eligible to become a U.S. citizen. It states, “Any alien, being a free White person who shall have resided within the limits and under the jurisdiction of the United States for a term of two years, may be admitted to become a citizen thereof.” Without citizenship, non-white residents were denied basic human rights and the right to own property.

The first Asians to immigrate to the United States were people from China in the mid-1800s. Japanese people first arrived in Hawaii in the 1860s, which back then was still a sovereign nation ruled under King Kamehameha V, to work on the American-owned sugar plantations. Throughout U.S. history, Asian immigrants and their American-born decedents were exploited for their cheap manual labor as a vital workforce but were denigrated as “yellow peril” and uncivilized “heathens” and “pagans.”. The differences between the AANHPI populations’ ethnic, racial, cultural, and belief systems and the majority European-origin population of the US were regarded with suspicion and deemed immoral and dangerous.

Legal discrimination against people of Asian descent escalated with the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and continued through various laws to ban Asian immigrants from being naturalized US citizens, owning land, or marrying White Americans. The ban on citizenship remained in force until 1952.

On February 19, 1942, Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This gave the U.S. military the authority to incarcerate people of Japanese descent without any due process. 120,000 people of Japanese heritage, the majority of whom were U.S.-born Americans, were sent to concentration camps (https://www.betrayedfilm.com/education). This included children in orphanages. Note that the order itself did not actually specify race, but instead referred to all persons deemed a threat to national security. However, people of Japanese descent were targeted exclusively, even though the United States was at war with Italy and Germany as well.

The myth of the Model Minority

Some might say that this is in the past and that Asian Americans today are the embodiment of the American Dream; if you work hard and play by the rules, anyone can achieve the American Dream. Asian Americans are hardworking people who overcame prejudice and inequity, right?

You might find it odd that I would complain about a positive belief and assessment of Asian people.  However, this seemingly positive assessment of Asian Americans as a “model minority” has a long and complicated history.  At its core, it is anti-Black rhetoric invented by White authorities to discredit the Civil Rights movement in the 1960s.

Essentially, what the model minority myth implies is that marginalized groups who are obedient and polite to the White majority are better citizens, and those who challenge White authorities are the problem.  (Here is a short film that explains the myth: Can stereotypes ever be good?  https://youtu.be/aFXmyNUaXFo)

I was once asked by a Black person if I considered myself to be White as a Japanese person. I could not help but feel betrayed by this question. I consider myself an Asian, a person of color from a Buddhist-centered polytheistic culture in the Anglo-Saxon Christian dominant country.  Racial discrimination stems from multiple factors, not just the relative color of skin.  The notion of the model minority invalidates the realities of systemic bias and racial discrimination that Asian Americans still face today.

Although most people are not as bold as the person who asked me that question to my face, the pervasiveness of this belief is strikingly clear in a 2019 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. (https://www.pewresearch.org/politics/2019/04/15/sharp-rise-in-the-share-of-americans-saying-jews-face-discrimination/ ) The survey asked respondents if they believed specific demographic groups experienced some form of discrimination. The top five demographic groups people assumed to experience discrimination were, in order, Muslim, Black, Hispanic, Gay and lesbian, and female. Even being White and male made the top ten list but being Asian was not even mentioned. In contrast, when respondents were asked in another survey if they had personally experienced discrimination or been treated unfairly because of their race or ethnicity, 76% of Black and Asian groups reported that they personally experienced discrimination. (https://www.pewresearch.org/social-trends/2019/04/09/the-role-of-race-and-ethnicity-in-americans-personal-lives/)

The term, “Model Minority” was first coined in the article published by the New York Times Magazine by William Petersen. (https://www.nytimes.com/1966/01/09/archives/success-story-japaneseamerican-style-success-story-japaneseamerican.html) It painted a picture of Black and Hispanic people as the “problem minorities” who were challenging the systems of oppression versus Japanese Americans who played the role of the “model minority.”. This picture downplays the systemic racism experienced by all minority groups including Asian Americans. After World War II and the human rights violation perpetrated by their own government, many Americans of Japanese descent kept their heads low in well-founded anxiety that they would be taken again. Dr. Amy Iwasaki Mass, a Japanese- American psychologist compared this to the psychological response towards abusive parents that children develop in her testimony to the Commission of Wartime written in 1981. (https://50objects.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/09/Iwasaki_testimony.pdf)  She writes that “we wanted to believe that America did not hate and reject us [….] Like the abused child who still wants his parents to love him, […] by acting right, he will be accepted [….] and to cope with an overtly hostile America. We paid a tremendous psychological price for this acceptance.”

The idea of the model minority belief not only pits minority groups against each other by shaping a new racial competition but also creates another level of discrimination against Asian Americans. Since Asian Americans were considered not to experience inequity, they were deprived of vital resources. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4738850/)

“Let’s Meetup and Go to Asian Supermarkets!” – The Perpetual Foreigner Stereotype

I once lived in the San Gabriel Valley in Los Angeles County where there is the largest concentration of Asians in the country. There were five or six Asian grocery stores all within a few minutes’ drive, not to mention rows of Asian restaurants. There were even groups set up for people who were shy about checking out Asian supermarkets on their own. I’m not kidding! Are Asian vegetables and fruits that intimidating and foreign?  Did you know the majority of us are Americans, and that we speak English?  According to the 2020 census report, 4 in 5 AAPI immigrants speak English proficiently. Only 5% of AAPI immigrants do not speak any English at all. The perpetual foreigner stereotype portrays Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as outsiders and aliens regardless of where they were born or how long they have lived in the United States.

“Two Wongs Can Make It White”: Abercrombie & Fitch Graphic T Protest

Why do AANHPI’s history and experiences matter? We cannot change the past. Isn’t it better if we forget and just move on? I wish we could, but history has a knack for repeating itself.

In the early 2000s, when Abercrombie & Fitch was one of the trendiest stores in fashion, they released a line of T-shirts with minority race stereotypereinforcing graphics, (https://www.netflix.com/tudum/articles/the-story-behind-abercrombie-and-fitchs-anti-asian-t-shirts) many with Asian stereotypes. I was holding my breath to see how this A&F graphic-T protest would go down. Over the last twenty years, A&F’s malignant hiring practices, exclusive marketing ploys, and their company culture came under legal and social scrutiny.

After the 9/11 attack, violence against South Asians and Indian Americans started right away as a ripple effect of hate against people of the Muslim faith.

In recent years, as the COVID-19 pandemic unfolded, violence against AANHPI individuals and vandalism of churches and temples associated with Asian communities have been on the rise. Having labeled COVID-19 as the “China virus” has had devastating effects. At the start of the pandemic in 2020, in California alone, there was a 107% increase in hate crimes targeting Asians from the previous year. Nationally, the Stop AAPI Hate Coalition received 2,583 reports of anti-Asian hate in the first three months of the pandemic.

Treatment of refugees and immigrants from the South of our border by our government has eerie similarities and is reminiscent of past anti-Asian laws and our history of Japanese-American incarceration.

Who gets to Be American?

What does it mean to be an All-American? Is Sriracha an all-American condiment or an exotic product that only belongs in the ethnic food aisle? Who belongs to American culture? What is American culture? Do we all have to eat hotdogs, speak only one language, and subscribe to anything other than Western and monotheistic belief systems to be fully American?  Aren’t we all decedents of immigrants unless you are a Native American?

I would like to end this blog by honoring our ancestors – a tradition many Asians practices in different forms:

Touching the Earth to our Ancestors

In gratitude, I bow to this land and to all of my ancestors.

I see all those who have made this country a refuge for people of so many origins and colors through their talent, perseverance, and love.

I touch my AANHPI ancestors of this land.

I am in touch with you who courageously survived the devastation of war, colonialism, and displacement from our ancestral homelands and who carved a graceful new path amidst the turmoil of dislocation and discrimination. I touch your experiences of Chinese and South Indian indentured servitude, Japanese American internment camps, anti-Asian laws, labor exploitation, land dispossession, refugee camps, family separation, hate crimes, and assimilation. I touch your sacrifice and contribution to the economic success of this land through your underpaid labor in gold mines, farms, canneries, and your work in the construction of two transcontinental railroads. I aspire to preserve, nourish, and pass on your patience, perseverance, determination, respect for ancestors and elders, commitment to inter-racial solidarity, and maintenance of our culture, language, and religion for future generations.

 I touch my Native American ancestors, you who have lived on this land long before immigrants and known the ways to live in peace and harmony with nature.

I am grateful for all the food and medicine that you, our ancestors, have cultivated to nourish and heal us, and for the Haudenosaunee contribution to our system of government. I am in touch with the profound suffering of my Native American ancestors: genocide, displacement, and separation from your homeland, culture, religion, food, dance, and songs. I am humbled by the brilliance of our cultural renewal, the resilience of our traditions, and our deep generosity over the past five hundred years. I release our suffering to the earth and ask the earth, sky, water, and fire to help me transform it into wisdom and compassion.

I touch my African American and descendant ancestors, you who were enslaved and brought to this land who poured your blood, sweat and tears on this land, whose unrewarded labor helped make this country an economic world power.

I am in touch with the crippling violence and inhumanity that my African American ancestors faced every day, the loss of your land, language, culture, family, and freedom. I touch how you always found ways to resist oppression, to maintain your humanity through soulful singing, prayer, humor, communities of the Underground Railroad as well as through political struggle. I aspire to preserve, nourish, and pass on your strength, perseverance, love, forgiveness, music, dance, sports, oratory, religion, civil and human rights activism, and community spirit.

I touch my Latinx ancestors of this land, who are the children of the Indigenous peoples of the Americas and the Spanish colonizers, and those who are from Central and South America.

I touch the blood, sweat, and tears you have poured onto this land as farm laborers, skilled artisans, teachers, politicians, architects, and activists. I am in touch with the suffering of my Latinx ancestors due to war and policies such as the deportation of two million U.S. citizens of Mexican descent during the Depression and the continued targeting of immigrants south of the border as well as loss of land and culture. I am in touch with the United Farm Workers movement to end dehumanizing conditions for migrant workers, and I feel this collective energy, courage, intelligence, and dedication nourishing and supporting me to also do my part.

I touch my Middle Eastern, Arab, and Northern African ancestors.

I am in touch with you who came as enslaved people in the 16th century, you who sought refuge from war and injustice, and you who migrated for a better life. I am in touch with the profound suffering of my Northern African, Middle Eastern, and Arab ancestors from wars in their homelands and the current-day suffering of their descendants. I am in touch with the way this historic and current-day suffering may at times manifest in unskillful actions leading to wrong perceptions and persecution of our beautiful culture and religions. I release our suffering to the earth and ask the earth, sky, water, and fire to help me transform it into wisdom and compassion. I aspire to preserve, nourish, and pass on your bravery, your perseverance, generosity, your religions and languages, your ingenuity, clarity, art, culture, foods, traditions of cooperation, and family loyalty.

I touch my European American ancestors, you who came to this land to find freedom from political and religious oppression and poverty who came seeking a new vision of society.

I am in touch with the deep insight and compassion of my ancestors: the Quakers, Abolitionists, peace activists, and the great conservationists. I am in touch with the tremendous sacrifice you’ve made because you have chosen to be allies and stood up on behalf of people of color. Many of your European American ancestors lost their fortunes and even their lives to resist the oppression of people of color. I aspire to preserve, nourish, and pass on your courage in coming to an unfamiliar land, your strong faith and commitment to democracy, and perseverance.

I feel the energy of this land penetrating my body, mind, and soul, supporting and accepting me. I vow to cultivate and maintain this energy and to transmit it to future generations. I vow to contribute my part in transforming the violence, hatred, and delusion that still lie deep in the collective consciousness of this society—in all ethnic groups—so that future generations will have more safety, joy, and peace.

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