During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I remember some history of this nation and some history of my life.
Chinese people, and later, Japanese people have been singled out for exclusion in the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited all Chinese immigration, to stop the flow of cheap labor into the west coast economy. Although Chinese immigrants were a tiny part of America’s resident population (.002%), they were blamed for California’s economic ills. Shortly thereafter, the Geary Act of 1892 disenfranchised Chinese people living here: restricting them from speaking in court, barring them from citizenship, and requiring that they carry identity papers.
Also notable was the Japanese Internment Bill (1942) which relocated Japanese people and people of Japanese descent to isolated camps during World War II.
In both of these cases, other immigrants were seen as “white” and not subject to similar restrictions.
- We all heard of “Irish need not apply,” but there was never a point where no Irish could immigrate.
- During World War II, we had declared war on Germany and Italy, yet people of German and Italian descent were not forced to move to isolated camps so they could not spy for the Axis powers.
I grew up on the east coast of the United States. That contributes to my generally positive attitude about Asian Pacific Americans. Generally, anti-Chinese sentiment has been stronger on the west coast because early immigration was there, and prejudices continue within families or communities.
When I was a child, I was exposed to the images of Chinese men in pointy wide-brimmed hats. They were in cartoons and movies. Some were in smoky places that I later learned were supposed to be opium dens. They didn’t make much of an impression on me. But there were many Americans who still held those images to be their idea of what Chinese people were like. The Chinese people I knew were adults who worked in my town. Running to the other stereotype; they owned or worked in restaurants and laundries in New York City.
I made my first Asian Pacific friend, Irene, in fourth or fifth grade. She fit right in with the nerdy good-girl types I hung with at that time. She won the hearts of all the Jewish kids when her mother threw a party on Christmas day for her Jewish friends. That’s when I learned that Chinese people aren’t all Christian. (At that time, I thought everyone who wasn’t Jewish was Christian). That party was an early interfaith experience that I remember fondly.
There were a lot of parallels between being Jewish and being Chinese. Buddhism was pretty cool, too! I met Irene’s dad, too, at some point. He owned one of the Chinese restaurants.
Irene graduated with my class. She was the treasurer of a civic club, member of National Honor Society, Computer Math Lab Assistant, member of Leader Corps, and a member of the Concert Choir. She stayed on that nerdy good-girl track that I fell off of around ninth grade. By all appearances, she had a more successful high school career than I did.
My school chum Irene was raised to be an achiever. There is nothing wrong with that. Asian Pacific child stereotype runs to studious, quiet, polite. The boys aim for studious and not athletic. These stereotypes fit well with the stereotypes that Jewish kids were socialized to meet. We, too, were expected to be studious and polite. However, we also had role models that showed us that funny and attention-seeking was allowed.
So, what’s wrong with being studious and polite?
When a group of children are expected to be a certain way, it causes pressure on the children who don’t fit the mold. A child who does not do well in school in a Chinese (or Jewish) family is subject to negative consequences at home as well as at school. This keeps dyslexic or learning disabled children forever in a “bad boy” or “bad girl” box; it fails to encourage the artistic or athletic child. It can be stifling.
In addition, if the whole society expects these children to be perfect students, it adds to the pressure to be just that. The stereotype is strong. Asian Pacific American students fill the ranks of honors classrooms and apply in large numbers to Ivy League schools. (This is not just Chinese children, but it extends to Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Cambodian and other Asian Pacific American children, too). There is also resentment from “white” groups that Asian Pacific American children are over-represented in those prime educational spots.
So, they can’t win. Work hard, achieve, and be resented. Don’t be a top student and be “not normal” for an Asian Pacific kid. This is a set of expectations we can work to overcome during Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month
Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is designed to honor Americans with Asian Pacific backgrounds.
If you want to learn more through video, here’s a list.
If you like to learn through fiction: here’s a list.