The Evolving Landscape of Asian America – 55th Anniversary of the Immigration & Nationality Act (Japan)
Public Webcast: The Evolving Landscape of Asian America – 55th Anniversary of the Immigration & Nationality Act
Saturday, October 3, 2020
Moderator: Mr. Ramy Inocencio, Asia correspondent for CBS News
Ms. Kathy Matsui, Vice Chair of Goldman Sachs Japan
Professor Nayan Shah, Professor of American Studies & Ethnicity and History at University of Southern California
Ms. Helen Zia, writer, activist and Fulbright Scholar
Panel Discussion: Summary
Recapping the biggest successes of Asian Americans
Ms. Helen Zia (H): Asian Americans have persevered through the many challenges faced in their history and now comprise a population of twenty million versus one million when I was a child. Decades ago, there were areas in the U.S. where there were no Asians, but this is no longer the case. When it comes to elections, Asian Americans can make a large difference not only in California, where one-third of the Asian American population lives, but also in swing-vote states. Despite their different ethnicities and cultures, Asians have come together as a political force for empowerment, turning some traditionally conservative communities to become more progressive. Asian Americans also enjoy increased exposure in media and culture compared to a time when Asians were invisible or seen only in cartoons or performed by white people disguised in color.
Ms. Kathy Matsui (K): Many businesses around the world are led by Asian Americans and we are finally beginning to see stereotype perceptions of Asians slowly being dismantled in entertainment. This alone is great progress. My parents left Japan as farm trainees with the American dream of earning a better life for their children. Political organization of Asian Americans is difficult, given the diverse set of values, cultures, ethnicities and religions, but I am quite optimistic about leveraging Asian power.
Coming to Japan after graduating from college, it was quite a culture shock to enter a society where everyone looked like me but had different value sets and ideas about gender roles. Female labor participation is 72% in Japan, compared to 67% in the U.S. and 63% in Europe. With much of the female labor force working part-time, Japan still has a long way to go in creating women leaders, but it is interesting to observe recent change in trends.
Professor Nayan Shah (N): It is so powerful to be able to say that you are “Asian American” in contrast to the category “Oriental” that was widely used 40 to 50 years ago often to identify “foreign, weird, non-American people”. It is exciting that people from diverse backgrounds are demanding to be a part of Asian America, using this coalitional identity invented in the 1960s to articulate their visibility and claim importance in the American fabric. I find it astonishing that a daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants of my parents’ generation, which were not supposed to mix or make a difference, is a vice presidential candidate. It is also important that these trends have an impact internationally.
How can fortunes change for Asian Americans?
N: If Trump is re-elected, we would see a continued closing of opportunities, support for and belief in immigrants in America, or the end of a cycle of deep social, economic and cultural innovation. His supporters represent a backward movement returning to the U.S. in the 1950s. It is a great tragedy that some of Trump’s supporters are Asian Americans who want to keep the privileges that they have earned by do not want to open up the same possibilities for others. The percolation of white supremacy and suspicion directed towards immigrants is destructive.
H: Demographically, America is becoming more and more diverse. This trend which began more than fifty years ago continues today; and twenty years from now, all of America will be like California, which is already home to a colored majority. The current administration came into power by dividing people. Re-election will not bring more of the same but make things worse. Asian Americans have been deployed as the target of a fear of the “other,” or people who are perceived to be “other.” With a large population of immigrants, many Asian American live every day trying to keep a low profile, intimidated by threats to deprive them of their path to citizenship. In the 2016, more than 70% of the Asian American population voted for the Democrats, and many are aware that a second term for Trump will not be promising.
Which candidate is better for the economy?
K: The mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic says a lot about the current administration. If this continues more people on the frontlines, represented by the vulnerable population, including Asian Americans, will be affected, thus harming the economy. While people may argue that the stock market is very lofty, this is benefiting only a handful of the entire population. History does not necessary repeat itself but certainly can rhyme. After the Spain Flu, the U.S. experienced drastic change, including massive immigration which eventually led to the 1924 Immigration Act, excluding immigrants from East and Southern Europe and Asia. Increasing isolationist sentiment is not a healthy path and will boomerang on us. I hope we learn again from the painful lessons that we should have learned. Recent pandemic and immigration issues all sound too familiar.
When will we see the first Asian president of the U.S?
N: National political leaders emerged in the 1950s from California and Hawaii. It is an exciting moment that more Asian Americans across the U.S. are interested in becoming involved in public service and taking a direct role in transforming society. Interestingly, some people talked about Obama as an Asian American, relating to his time in Indonesia. It was fascinating that people were trying to find ways to connect. It would be exciting to have an Asian American president that we can imagine to be our leader, with and for whom we would work and build a movement around.
H: If Biden is elected, then Vice President Kamala Harris would be a heartbeat away from presidency. Therefore, it is conceivable that we could have an Asian American president very soon. As Asian Americans, we may not be a large population, but we do punch above our weight class. It is exciting that people are coming together to draw on the political power that we do have and amplify it in many different ways. People are getting into the pipeline of politics by running for the school board or a local representative position, or engaging in local political efforts. Once involved, they may find themselves energized in other ways that may lead to the White House. We need to dream big and know that it is not beyond our reach.
K: Asian Americans may only be 20 million people today, but we are the fastest growing voting bloc. From an economic lens, the most dynamic growth is happening in India and China, surrounded by a vast territory that is also emerging very rapidly. Despite claims that the U.S, should stop offshoring and can develop domestic value chains, we cannot risk hurting consumers; and therefore, it seems unlikely that we would be weakening our ties with Asia.
Should Asian Americans be prepared for racism or violence in relation with COVID-19?
N: The Trump Administration has attempted to deflect their mismanagement of COVID-19 to Asian sources and we have been fighting these claims since February. I fear what narratives will emerge in relation to the recent spread of the virus around the White House. Americans tend to believe in a fantasy of imperviousness to disease, rather than admitting that diseases have always been a part of human history, but the only disease that humans have ever eradicated is smallpox. It is a matter of whether we can imagine as people living a complex ecosystem and climate that if we continue to destroy and transform the environment in the way we do, it will strike back at us and whether we can acknowledge that we need to find protective care for people rather than deimmunize them. The associations between race and disease or class and disease have been repeated in history over hundreds of years and we are only witnessing an instance of this being mobilized today. We can do better learning from science and from human dignity and respect.
How can one be anti-racist and push against nativism without being criticized for doing the same thing?
H: This form of violence of picking on Asians and blaming them for being the source of the virus is global. We need to see that the world is in this pandemic together. Scapegoating or othering groups of people has happened repeatedly through history. In order to break through, we have to understand that none of us are immune to being different – that we have all been ingesting the same toxins, whether it has been through Hollywood, comic books or TV cartoons that label somebody else as evil or inferior and should be destroyed. Most people came to America because they were fleeing something else; and therefore, it would be a start to get in touch with our own histories and understand the good, bad and ugly of our own humanity. We need to admit our ignorance about others and perhaps about ourselves, and unlearn what we have been poisoned with.
Are biases against Asian Americans rooted in their economic success rather than race?
K: The envy factor has certainly contributed to bias, but as in this pandemic, a country’s leadership scapegoating a particular group of people obviously does not help resolve prejudices. Sometimes we have grown up with these unconscious biases. For example, Japan is super-homogenous and although it is not spoken out loud, it is held privately within the minds of most people that they want foreigners to help with their needs and take the jobs that they would not want to do, but that they do not want foreigners to stay. I consider this to be a form of xenophobia. Given that parental influence and education shape how we think, deepening our level of knowledge and education about different cultures could be a way forward. It is frightening that there are lessons from the past that we have seemingly not fully learned and are on the path of repeating on a larger scale. If we do not want our children to repeat the same mistakes and instead strike a different path, there is a lot of work to be done, and this needs to be started at a very young age with education and awareness-building.
How can the role of social media be positive?
N: Social media can filter you into a rabbit hole. I worry about teenager addiction to social media because unlike the printed page, we cannot just leave it. Yet, new social media technologies have also emerged and become popular with young people as tools to explore the world in different ways. I believe it can be more than plentitude. It would be most important if their experiences on the screen drove them to want to reach out to many other people physically and virtually. Students can be inventive, critical and ingenious in developing their voice on different social media platforms, once they have been unleashed from their sometimes deliberate obsession with particular search engines. Part of my job as a professor is to invest them with the idea that there are different ways to conduct research and to scrutinize the filters that they are being rammed into. It is important not to sit in comfort with the ideas that you are familiar with and to move out of that comfort zone.
Leaving discussions with optimism: uplifts, positivity, and action points
H: It is important for everyone to remember that as dismal as these times may be, we have experienced difficult times in the past as well. The challenges faced by activists in the 1960s were not easier than those faced today, as social movement had sprung out of political division, social and economic dislocation, and great turmoil. Positive outcomes resulted because people shared a vision that it could be better. Movements are being led by youth, who are the ones that have to live with the climate change and chaos that older generations are leaving behind. We need the optimism that we have been through these challenging times before and that we have actually come out of them stronger by people coming together and taking action with a vision. We need to break away from the screen, expand our visions, and hold on to them. I am optimistic because we have been there before.
N: I know many people who have been inspired by what is going on in Hong Kong, but are scared at the same time. They understand the sense of having a voice, claiming and demanding justice and dealing with the repercussions of state and social forces who would rather you not possess that voice. There has been extraordinary creativity and perseverance in people’s vision. Even when there are so many different ways that we can disassociate ourselves from what is happening, digital technologies provide us with means to commit ourselves to a one-society community and ecology. Change does not occur when people are happy. It is only when we deal with seemingly irresolvable challenges that we try to find the way forward.
K: My siblings and I are here thanks to the Immigration & Nationality Act that we are celebrating today. It certainly did not happen overnight, and I do hope it does not take another three decades to change the vector. Thanks to the American political climate, my children who were brought up in Japan have voting rights in the U.S., and that is definitely silver lining. Empathy-building would be key to a better future. I would also love to see a U.S. President introduce mandatory service for people of all incomes to engage in volunteer work so that people can really experience being in someone else’s shoes.
Part 3. Interview with Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen
Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen, Pulitzer Prize winner and Professor at University of Southern California
Interviewer: Alice Mong, Executive Director, Asia Society Hong Kong
Growing up as a refugee
I arrived in the U.S. with my parents as a refugee in the 1970s. There were 130,000 other Vietnamese refugees and my family was sent to one of four refugee camps which happened to be in Pennsylvania. The most painful experience was that our American sponsor did not take the whole family and I was initially taken away from my parents for fifteen months to give them time to set up their lives.
My parents first worked as custodians. It must have been very hard for them to be forced to leave their established lives and family in Vietnam to start over in a new land, as they were refugees, not immigrants who had made their own choice to leave their country. My father eventually became a blue-collar worker but my mother could not find a job. They started a grocery store in California when I was around ten and I could see that they were exhausted, sending money to desperate relatives in Vietnam while providing for their own children.
The “good immigrant” story
My family has become the model minority, having lived the “good immigrant” story, sending their children to Catholic school and to college. My brother graduated from Harvard and became a doctor and professor, and I also became a writer and professor. However, I do not believe immigrant policy should be based on limited criteria such as cultural background, religious beliefs and economic standing from a desire to keep out a certain class of people. I support humanitarian refugee and immigration policy based on equality. Immigrants should have the right to be mediocre just like every other American citizen. Many Southeast Asians who came to the U.S. as refugees actually did face educational and financial issues due to the war trauma and their rural backgrounds. Many successful Asian Americans are aware of and resist how they are being deployed into certain political narratives.
The other side of the story
The overwhelming majority of the American elite is white. This speaks to the challenges we face. I am also trying take on a long-standing tradition of Asian American culture in which we believe that we are not only individuals but are part of a larger movement engaged in the long-term project to advocate for Asian Americans and change American society. The majority of Asian Americans arrived in or were born in the U.S. after 1965 and have different understanding of Asian American history from those who were formed through the Asian American movement.
I believe my role as a writer is not only to praise Asian Americans but to locate ourselves in a long global history. The incident in Minneapolis is crucial because it embodies centuries of global history that brought black people to the U.S. as slaves or Asians often as menial labor or refugees of American wars overseas. By unpacking and articulating the history that has led us to this point, I can defend and advocate for Asian Americans. However, when they are responsible for injustice, I have to hold them to account as well. I am not reluctant to criticize the Vietnamese community for their racism or hypocrisy.
Most students take Asian American Literature with no knowledge of it. My job is to take their curiosity and educate them and expose them to Asian American literature and history, and their connection to other historical events. The force of American society – popular culture or general education - is not designed to educate people about what really happened but to reinforce the narrative that pleases national audiences.
In my course on the Vietnam War, I see that my role is to elevate the curious and to grab the students who are there because it is a requirement. When you unravel the Vietnam War, you end up shedding light on everything about the U.S.: why we are a military industrial complex, why we have refugees from certain Asian countries, and why these wars were fought disproportionately by poor men of color. Students learn that these events are not isolated.
I also teach a course on decolonization, which is an uncomfortable story for Asian Americans as we affirm the American idea that the immigrant story made America great. However, this comes at the expense of the indigenous people who were initially conquered. The U.S. was originally built on genocide and colonization.
Realizing my Asian American identity
When I was growing up, my parents ran a small company called the Oriental Funding Corporation and that was my first sense of being something other than Vietnamese. In high school there was a good percentage of students of Asian descent among a primarily white student body and we became conscious of a cultural sense of exclusion. I became an “Asian American” at Berkeley. Asian American is a very American phenomena but is also a powerful pivot to be on that allows for critique of power and racism. For example, French culture would not accept a hybrid identity, but my Asian American identity allows me to point out the hypocrisies and contradictions of French history in my book.
Reception in Vietnam
The Sympathizer has not been translated into Vietnamese. It is challenging to talk about a narrative that has not been endorsed by the state or does not reflect the state’s historical views. Even Vietnamese Americans find my novel difficult to read, as they remain entrenched in political divisions. While they are proud that a Vietnamese American won the Pulitzer Prize, many are upset that I openly criticize Vietnamese Americans for supporting what I believe to be racist policies.
Asian representation in the U.S. Presidential election
The least we can do is vote and participate in civic organizations, either joining existing ones or starting new ones. My brother and I have both started organizations in the Vietnamese American context. My brother launched the Progressive Vietnamese Network and I co-started an organization to support young Vietnamese artists and writers. Vietnamese Americans have not actively participated civically or politically on par with other U.S. citizens, because our parents needed to focus on survival and to refrain from speaking out politically in fear of the consequences. However, times are changing. Second and third generation Asian Americans are gaining more power and more influence, and we can see changing political attitudes in younger generations versus older generations. Young Vietnamese Americans now form the largest Asian American population and many are emotionally torn by the fact that Vietnamese Americans are the only Asian American community in support of Trump.
Asian Americans now compose 6% of the U.S. population. We need to abandon our historical silence and voice our views against cultural perceptions, stereotypes and government policies that are aimed to hurt the Asian American population and our growth and standing in the U.S. Having worked on multiple fronts, we have politicians, lawyers, actors, and writers who can use their respective platforms to speak up.
The American dream
As the typical immigrant story goes, my parents never expressed their affection for their children My parents provided all of my material needs, which I am very grateful for, but not really my wants. My American dream for my children is to be emotionally happy people.