By Marpheen Chann
Asian, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Desi Americans (Asian Americans) observe the Fourth of July – America’s Independence Day – in much the same way many other Americans do, with barbecues, trips to the beach, parades, and fireworks. For Asian American communities, as well as many other minority groups, the celebrations are woven with elements of their own cultures, faiths, and family stories. In this way, new traditions are passed on to their kids and grandkids. At the same time, Asian Americans wrestle with the duality of being people of color and American.
This is a struggle known to other first- and second-generation Americans, and to many Americans of non-white ethnic and racial backgrounds – being seen as “too American” or “too Americanized” and as “not American enough,” by the dominant majority in the U.S., because of language, dress, food, faith, the color of their skin, or style of hair.
These multifaceted, complex experiences of first- and second-generation Asian Americans, as well as other non-white ethnic minorities in the U.S., create cognitive dissonance. How do Asian Americans celebrate and embrace America, the home to which they fled to escape tyrannies and oppressions similar to that experienced by American revolutionaries in the late 1700s, while at the same time acknowledging the history and the imperfections of a relatively young nation – particularly its history of racism and exclusion?
We remember the poor working conditions and exploitation of Asian Americans during the westward march of the railroad barons in the 1800s; the U.S. attempts during the Opium Wars – along with other colonial and imperial powers – to extract favorable trade terms from China through military force; how Japan, not wanting to meet the same fate as China, opened up to U.S. trade after a visit from U.S. Commodore Matthew Perry and his fleet; and the establishment of military bases in Asia.
We also remember the anti-Asian hatred that drove people of Asian descent into ghettos and red-light districts in the late 1800s and early 1900s (these gradually developed into America’s Chinatowns and Japantowns); and the annexation of Samoa, Guam, Hawaii, and the Philippines after the defeat of Spain in the Spanish American War. Anti-Asian hatred also resulted in a number of high-profile mass murders and lynchings, in places like Los Angeles and Rock Springs, Wyoming.
It was the American idea of Manifest Destiny that paved the way to an interest in empire building in the Pacific and Asia. At the same time, domestic labor tensions between Asian migrant workers and white and European workers proved to be the perfect breeding ground for anti-Asian racism, xenophobia, and scapegoating. This fueled discriminatory beliefs that Chinese and Japanese laborers were “stealing jobs” from “more deserving” white and European workers. This perfect storm fed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, America’s first exclusionary immigration law that banned an entire group of people based on their national origin.
A September 3, 1865, New York Times editorial illustrates the xenophobia of the times:
“We have four millions of degraded negroes in the South…and if, in addition…there were to be a flood-tide of Chinese population – a population befouled with all the social vices…with heathenish souls and heathenish propensities, whose character, and habits, and modes of thought are firmly fixed by the consolidating influence of ages upon ages – we should be prepared to bid farewell to republicanism and democracy.”
Asian Americans were widely portrayed as threats to workers, to public health, and to national security. The terms “yellow fever” and “yellow peril” were prevalent. Actions against Asian Americans included the stripping of wealth and internment of hundreds of thousands of Japanese American families during World War II.
So, as Asian Americans prepare for Fourth of July celebrations, they do so in the wake of an alarming rise in anti-Asian hate and violence, in the context of their own personal and lived experiences with anti-Asian bias, and with the long history of American anti-Asian sentiment in mind.
Nonetheless, we still see the good in America, and still hope for a better and brighter future for the generations to come – a more just and equitable future in which our kids and grandkids can thrive and prosper, free of the kind of discrimination, hatred, and fear rampant both today and throughout America’s history.