Looking like the Asian enemy

When I walked into a matinee showing of Disney's latest blockbuster, "Pearl Harbor," last weekend, I sat down quietly and asked my non-Asian husband to look around to gauge the ethnic makeup of the audience. Final count: about 10 percent of the viewers appeared to be of Asian descent, which is considerably higher than the national percentage of 3.6 percent, as reported by the 2000 census.

All I cared about was that I was not alone.

Why the trepidation?

Almost 60 years ago, the bombing of Hawaii's Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, eventually led to the signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942. Through misguided patriotic paranoia, 9066 led to the incarceration of 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent in concentration camps.

These prisoners - US citizens, for the most part - lost their homes, their possessions, their communities, and their basic rights. All because they physically resembled the enemy, which meant they were easily distinguishable as foreign, as "other." While Japanese Americans were being imprisoned during World War II, other Americans of Asian descent, too, lived in fear, because of their physical resemblance to the enemy. Chinese-American storeowners, for example, put up huge signs in their windows claiming their Chinese ancestry, for fear their property would be destroyed, as Japanese-American establishments were under attack.

In contrast, Americans of either German or Italian descent, who also had potential ties to European enemies, were less conspicuously foreign. They were never singled out, and certainly no such camps were built for those communities.

Not a single incidence of espionage was ever discovered within the Japanese-American community. In spite of their questioned loyalty, more than 33,000 Japanese Americans chose to serve the US during World War II; ironically, the most decorated unit in US military history proved to be the all-Japanese-American 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which earned a total of 18,143 individual decorations by war's end.

Sixty years later, the thought of such anti-Asian paranoia and hatred being brought back to life on giant screens across the country was, to say the least, daunting - even frightening.

Why? Because 60 years later, being Asian American still means being a foreigner, regardless of what our experiences include, regardless of what our passports indicate. We wear that difference on our faces.

According to a landmark study released in April and sponsored by the Committee of 100 (www.committee100.org), a citizens' organization of Chinese Americans who are leaders in their fields, 1 in 4 Americans admits having strong negative attitudes toward and stereotypes of Chinese Americans. The study also revealed that most non-Asian Americans do not differentiate between Chinese Americans and other Asian Americans, therefore showing that such strong negative stereotypes apply equally to all Asian Americans. As a Korean American, I'm included right there.

In addition, 23 percent of Americans would be uncomfortable voting for an Asian American for president; 24 percent of Americans oppose intermarriage with Asian Americans.

Even more disturbing is that experts say these numbers would be much higher, had the research been conducted after the recent Hainan incident, where a US military spy plane and its crew were detained by the Chinese government.

Clearly, we are still not all equal.

But back to Disney's $135 million blockbuster, which grossed more than half of that back during opening weekend. Gut reaction: It's a sappy, impossible love story with little historical merit, but beautiful scenery, even more attractive stars, amazing special effects - and little resonating value.

However, I admit with relief that the best line in the film belongs to the veteran Japanese-American actor Mako, who portrays Japan's Admiral Yamamoto. When lauded for his military strategy, he replies, "A truly brilliant man would find a way not to go to war."

Overall, the Japanese are portrayed humanely, neutrally - yes, by all means, with political correctness. There are none of the stereotypes of buck-eyed, rabid, bespectacled yellow men who were rampant throughout the media of the time. This is not a throwback propaganda film.

But that sigh of relief remains brief. Because in the end, the technicolor, explosive Pearl Harbor scene is the audience draw. And it was, without a doubt, a meticulously planned stealth attack by foreigners on US shores. Foreigners who look a lot like me.

Living in an urban area, surrounded by diversity, I may be needlessly fearful. But what goes on in viewers' minds is not always immediately clear. A teenager, pumped up by the pounding images of death and destruction, could easily walk out of the theater, thinking J-p this, J-p that. Why not? In 1941, every newspaper across America expressed similar thoughts after the incident - and they didn't even have the advantage of 70mm digital-theater surround-sound screens.

Far fetched? Most Asian Americans remember what happened in Los Angeles in 1992, following the Rodney King verdict. The violence spread to L.A.'s Korea-town, where approximately 2,300 Korean-American-owned businesses were looted and burned. Korean-American businesses suffered roughly half of the $1 billion loss in L.A. County as a result of the riots.

Or, when Vincent Chin, a Chinese American on the eve of his wedding in 1982 was bludgeoned to death in Detroit with baseball bats by two angry unemployed auto workers who blamed their job loss on the Japanese.

After all is said and done, I still look most like the enemy. Even after 60 years.

As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month draws to a close, I can only hope and pray that it will not be another 60 years before I, too, can claim unchallenged my American status.

Terry Hong is a contributing editor at aMagazine: Inside Asian America.

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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