Among the slights and stereotypes faced by Asian Americans, there is a pervasive theme: the assumption, by some, that they are not actually Americans. “Go back to where you came from,” many have been told at some point in their lives. And they are sometimes asked: “Do you speak English?”
That’s not just an East Coast thing, as one might conclude from two recent episodes that stirred outrage among Asian Americans. An editor at The New York Times wrote this week about a stranger yelling at him and his family to “go back to China.”
The insult — driving home the sense of “otherness” that he said Asian Americans struggle with every day — followed a Fox News stab at humor that had interviewer Jesse Waters wade into New York’s Chinatown with every cliché in the book.
We asked our readers if they have ever experienced such insults, and more than a dozen people offered their stories. They told of offensive questions, slurs hurled from cars, sexual fetishism and greetings of “ni hao” to anyone who looks Asian, no matter the ethnicity.
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“Having grown up in Missouri, I assumed liberal Pac-Rim-influenced Seattle would be a ‘safe’ zone from me,” wrote a former Seattle P-I food critic whose editors received a letter asking why they hired “a fortune cookie” instead of an American.
“But my colleagues had my back,” wrote former critic Hsiao-Ching Chou. “Our publisher sent this response: ‘Dear Sir: We are in receipt of your letter. We did hire an American.”
Read more responses below, and join the conversation by writing in your own.
One of the things that I have found most undermining and damaging is the perception of the model minority stereotype that has pervaded my experience as an AAPI woman in both the workplace and the local arts community. I am frequently referred to as being “academic” which is another way of saying “intellectual” or “intelligent” or “smart” but in a context that denotes otherness within a popular cultural context. This has been said to me in the context of nonprofit job interviews and in response to public presentations of my writing. Once, after a public reading, a writer of color attacked me on a public blog for an arts org and described me as “academic” and “awkward” playing up stereotypes of AAPIs.
— Shin Yu Pai
I was the food editor at the Seattle P-I from 2000-2007. During that time, I wrote about every kind of cuisine, local farmers, regional foodways, everyday foods, high-end foods – a good mix that hopefully offered a little something for everyone. One day, our editors received a letter from a reader who suggested that instead of hiring a “fortune cookie” to cover the food scene that the P-I should have hired an American. Having grown up in Missouri, I assumed liberal, Pac-Rim-influenced Seattle would be a “safe” zone for me. Alas, the bubble is permeable. But my colleagues had my back. Our publisher sent this response: “Dear Sir: We are in receipt of your letter. We did hire an American.”
— Hsiao-Ching Chou
Where do I begin? Should I start by regaling everyone of the innumerable times I was asked as a child, “Are you Chinese? Japanese? Well then what ARE you?” Or should I talk about the times when cold strangers and friends alike would teasingly get in my face and pull at the corners of their eyes, lilting their “Ching Chong” chants? How about the time just last week, when I walked past a jewelry store at the nearby mall and the well-dressed manager at the front, trying to lure people into his store called after me, “Ni hao! Ni hao!”
For the record, I am Korean.
I am often reminded of my seeming dual vulnerability as an Asian-American and as a woman when I walk down the street and hear the odd man call out leeringly, “Hey Chinese princess,” or “Come here and give me a little bit of Asian loving.”
It’s hard to speak about any of these times because even as a grown adult thinking about the long gone past, I always feel the reverberating heat of shame and humiliation. Even as I try to remember that it’s their ignorance and not my identity that is to be blamed, I can’t help but become angry at myself for never speaking up. In fact, I’ve spent an inordinately large portion of my life thus far, mentally concocting witty, shut-them-up retorts to each of my past taunters. I relish the thought of making them finally see and finally understand that there IS a difference between different Asian countries, that there IS a reason why each should be uniquely recognized, and — more than anything else — that I have the right to claim my place and my belonging here without having to forfeit the love I have for a culture and country where I have my familial roots.
— Jane Choi
In 2011, I was a part of the Chinese Expulsion Remembrance Project spearheaded by Bettie Luke and other members to remind people of the anti-Chinese sentiment that people in Seattle had 125 years ago … A march was organized starting from where the Chinese immigrants were forced onto ships close to Washington Street under the Viaduct and went east towards Chinatown to end at the Wing Luke Museum —retracing the route of the expulsion for a message that we are here to stay. I was invited to be a speaker at one of the stopping points along the march. It was a point of pride for me to have an opportunity to speak being an undergraduate at UW. As I marched arm-in-arm with my friends, I recall angry people yelling out of their cars for us to move, that we were blocking streets for no good reason, that the dragon we had as a part of the march was a beast of the devil, and ultimately for us to “go back to our country.”
Go back to my country? I was born here in the United States, in Seattle. My parents’ lives were disrupted by the Vietnam War. It was my mother who risked her life as a boat person to try and find a better opportunity for her family. Isn’t that what the whole American Dream is about? Why is it that the American Dream only fits the narrative of the early European immigrants but not for immigrants and refugees of color? My parents made a home here for my brothers and I. This is my home.
— Doan Nguyen
Growing up in Sammamish, and later moving to Bellevue, people have thrown things at me from cars, yelling similar anti-Asian slurs. Regardless of who I am or what I’ve accomplished, people see my race first. It doesn’t matter that it makes even less sense because I’m only half Asian, or that I’m native born … People should not be harassed due to their race.
— James Gan
Sometime last winter I walked past a busker playing behind the Armory at the Seattle Center, and as I passed by he played that chopsticky “Chinese” theme on his guitar, before going back to the song he’d been singing.
— Rachel Scollon
This article really resonated with me as I have experienced racist comments throughout my life. I was born in America. My parents were born in America. Yet, many of my fellow Americans see the color of my skin and make incorrect assumptions that I must be from another country.
I work as a mortgage loan officer and a few years ago while working in my bank, a customer stopped in with some questions about her mortgage. She inquired with our bank manager if there was someone who could assist her, and my manager pointed to me sitting in my office. The customer then proceeded to whisper in a low tone to my manager “Does he speak English?” My manager, startled by the question, stated “Probably better than everyone else in the bank.” After the customer left, my manager shared the incident with me and we both laughed it off, but it has stuck with me all these years.
I might add, that also walking through the parking lot of the bank, I’ve had several drive-by racial insults spewed at me over a period of two years in (Monroe). Even though I live in a supposedly “progressive” state (Washington), I (and my wife) encounter racism on a regular basis.
— Daniel Jeung
A few months ago, I was in Ballard to join my friends for happy hour. As I was locking up my bike at Market and 24th, a guy on the street started catcalling me. I ignored him, and he walked off in a huff, yelling to the passersby on the busy street: “Whatever, she doesn’t speak English anyway.”
— Jane Hu
While I seldom encounter implicit bias at work, they do happen from time to time. Whether it’s a seemingly benign imitation of my accent or the smell of the food I am eating, followed by “that smells gross” or a blatant “have you eaten dog?” are profoundly disturbing. My response is always to educate ignorance and bad manners, as Mr. Luo has done. There is a movement within the professional world that seeks to diversify its workforce. Enhancing cultural capital, it additionally promotes understanding, communication and positive outcomes as research evidence suggests. Diversity is the answer to dismantling racism and xenophobia.
— Marissa Cruz