Bridging the conflicts that divide us.

Asian in America: Reflections on the meaning of being American

Ringo Chiu/Reuters
A demonstrator stands between a U.S. flag and a sign during a rally against anti-Asian hate crimes outside City Hall in Los Angeles on March 27, 2021.

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Where I come from is a place that was once its own sovereign nation, which Americans overtook first by armed force and then by political force.

My face is descended from an English Hawai’ian man who became a lawyer, judge, and congressman representing the island of Maui to the Kingdom of Hawai’i, until the armed overthrow of the kingdom in 1893 by American sugar barons.

Why We Wrote This

There’s being American – and then there’s being seen as American. For many Asian Americans, the gulf between the two can feel impassable. But our commentator finds a potential bridge in a familiar Hawai’ian word.

My face is also made of the later generations of Koreans and Portuguese who sailed for months across oceans to make a new life for themselves and their families in the expanding sugar plantations of the then-American territory of Hawai’i, contracted into labor by American sugar plantation owners. All of my ancestors were brought into America at the behest of Americans.

But will America ever look at my almond-shaped, brown eyes and see an American?

The idea that the well-being of self and of community is interrelated is an indigenous Hawai’ian value, expressed often in the cherished concept of aloha. A difficult idea to explain in English, it carries the meaning of “mutual respect.” When you say it in greeting, you are offering it.

Aloha.

Back in the 1990s, when I was still wearing high heels and form-fitting skirt suits, still working long hours and trying to make my way in the white male world of Los Angeles law, a guy at a gas station got mad at me for how I pulled up to the pump.

Exhausted as I was from a long day at work, I had actually made the effort to make sure someone could pull up to the pump behind me, but since he pulled in from a different part of the lot, it was all wrong to him. The few seconds it took him to navigate toward another lane were just too much for him, especially once he saw my face. Fuming at me from the other side of the pump, he yelled, “You don’t know how to park, you stupid Asian! Why don’t you go back to your own country?”

Interesting question. Which version of America would he have me go back to? Where I come from is not Asia, but a place where Asians were imported for cheap labor. Where I come from is a place that was once its own sovereign nation, which Americans overtook first by armed force and then by political force. My face, which caused him so much ire, is actually all American – made of the American appetite for sugar. 

Why We Wrote This

There’s being American – and then there’s being seen as American. For many Asian Americans, the gulf between the two can feel impassable. But our commentator finds a potential bridge in a familiar Hawai’ian word.

My face is descended from an English Hawai’ian man who became a lawyer, judge, and congressman representing the island of Maui to the Kingdom of Hawai’i, until the armed overthrow of the kingdom in 1893 by American sugar barons. (My great-great-grandfather resisted the wrongful overthrow of the kingdom and was imprisoned by the Americans.)

My face is also made of the later generations of Koreans and Portuguese who sailed for months across oceans to make a new life for themselves and their families in the expanding sugar plantations of the then-American territory of Hawai’i, contracted into labor by American sugar plantation owners. All of my ancestors were brought into America at the behest of Americans.

But the angry man at the gas station couldn’t see that, nor would he have cared. All he could see was someone easily lumped into a category of people who don’t really belong in America. Ironically, he seemed to me to be an immigrant: His rage was hurled at me in a thick foreign accent. My face was a punching bag labeled “unwanted foreigner,” even among immigrants.

Jesse Littlebird/Courtesy of Paula Daniels
Paula Daniels poses in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where she was inducted as an Ashoka fellow in 2018 in recognition of her work transforming the food system through a procurement strategy guided by economic equity, environmental sustainability, and public health.

“Where are you really from?”

This was one of the many incidents I would commiserate about with my Asian American friends over a drink – a far cry from the violent incidents of anti-Asian American hatred, most memorably the racialized murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit in 1982. 

Unlike that terror, we could laugh over the daily transgressions we experienced, like how we handled the typical “I mean, where are you really from?” question. But sometimes they really stung. Like the time my 30-something brother was asked, when shopping at a convenience store near his job in North Carolina: “Where you from, boy?”

Or like the time a colleague – a prominent LA lawyer born and raised in Oakland, California – had to fend off an irate and irrational objection at a deposition that weirdly accused her of not being able to speak English, when she was, in fact, speaking English; it’s the only language she’d ever known.

It’s painful to experience how hard it is for some folks to see anything but “foreign” when they see our almond-shaped, brown eyes.

I don’t remember exactly what I said to the angry man at the gas station, but I know I flung a lot of my perfect American at him, shouting assertively over his tirade while our tanks filled. I wanted him to think twice before he thought of a woman who looked like me as an easy target for his pent-up frustrations.

Thinking back on it, I probably yelled, “This is my country!” And more along those lines. But now that I think of it ... is it really my country?

I grew up all over the continental United States (Georgia, Nebraska, Virginia, Kansas, Maryland) as well as Hawai’i, and planted myself in Los Angeles several decades ago. I’ve pledged full-throated allegiance to the American flag throughout my life, despite its complicated history, and I’ve only ever thought of myself as an American.

But will America ever look at my eyes and see an American?

My blue-eyed husband, a descendant of immigrants, is presumed to be American, while I am so often obliged to offer proof. Belonging feels like it has to be bargained for and attested to, rather than being a birthright.

The threadbare fabric of belonging

In the well-known “hierarchy of needs” outlined by 20th-century psychologist Abraham Maslow, belonging is on the same level as the need for love, ranked just above the need for security and safety. For many Asian Americans, this line blurs all too often. The fabric of belonging to the community of country is threadbare, and we live at the edge of citizenship security, pushed by the perception of others against a harsh psychological border.

It’s worth noting that Maslow published his theory during World War II, a year after 120,000 Japanese American men, women, and children were incarcerated in prison camps. We live in a time when it should be so much clearer than it was then that the community of America should not be divided along the artificial borders of race. And yet not much has changed since my gas station incident, except for getting worse: The places across America that have the highest concentration of Asian Americans have seen dramatic increases in hate crimes in the past year. We know what fanned the flames, but as with so many other problems today, we also know that those embers had been smoldering. All this, at a time when income inequality is now more of a problem within the Asian American community than in any other group in America.

Saying “aloha” and meaning it

The idea that the well-being of self and of community is interrelated is an indigenous Hawai’ian value, expressed often in the cherished concept of aloha. A difficult idea to explain in English, it carries the meaning of “mutual respect.” When you say it in greeting, you are offering it.

We are experiencing a respect deficit these days in too many areas. But we are also experiencing an increasing interest in the full complexity of life in a multiracial, multidimensional America.

Maybe one day we can become a place where we see, respect, and appreciate race without stereotyping. It sounds like utopia. But research psychologist Kristin Pauker observed this potential of multiracial societies. She actually reported it about Hawai’i, America’s most multiracial state.

It might also become true for the rest of the country, if only we all really try.

Aloha.

Paula Daniels is co-founder of the Center for Good Food Purchasing and a past president of the Asian Pacific American Bar Association.

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