Being an Asian American During This Pandemic

Written by: Pastor Ryun
In a country that just had its first serious Asian American to seek nomination for President, do Asian Americans still need to be concerned with what disturbed a college senior, 30 years ago?  In a 1990 op-ed to L.A. Times, a co-ed wrote:

“I am an American.  AMERICAN.  I've spent a large portion of my life trying to convince people of this . . . Yes, I'll admit that my parents are Korean immigrants, but I was born—and made—in the U.S.A . . . Everyone assumes Americans come in only two flavors, chocolate and vanilla.  Even if you arrived from Tanzania or Iceland two hours ago, you get the benefit of the doubt . . . I've had people compliment me on my English.  Shucks, it's only my native language.  Other folks wonder how long I've been in the States, and some folks ask outright if I speak English . . . Second-class treatment like this has made a lot of American-born Asians and Latinos ashamed of their heritage in a way that other Americans aren’t.”

“Yes,” many of us would respond—alarmed by President Trump’s constant reference to Chinese origins of COVID19—albeit he did say, “[Asians] are amazing people, and the spreading of the virus is not their fault in any way, shape or form.”  But the concern now is no longer “second-class treatment”; rather, it’s verbal and/or physical attack at the hands of non-Asians agitated by unimaginable disruptions to their lives due to the virus.

Even so, while the President ought to speak more judiciously—perhaps citing the virus’ origin only when countering a baseless claim made by certain Chinese officials that the U.S. army brought the virus to Wuhan—most Americans already knew about the Chinese origins of COVID19.  How could they not have known since the mainstream media, including CNN, called the virus, from the outset, the “Wuhan coronavirus” or “China’s coronavirus.”  And if the experience of late Dr. Don Nakanishi, former director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA and the first Asian American to be tenured there, is any indication, the threat, in whatever degree, to Asian Americans is real.  

I first met Dr. Nakanishi, a second-generation Japanese American born in Los Angeles shortly after the end of World War II, while pursuing an M.A. in Asian American Studies at UCLA in the mid-1980s.  (A kind man and caring advisor, he even attended my wedding conducted in Korean which he didn’t speak.)  A brilliant student, Don attended both Yale (BA) and Harvard (PhD).  Yet, one event that deeply affected his collegiate life and beyond was what his dormmates (assumedly Caucasians) did to him on December 7—the day Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941—of his freshman year.  He once told his class, “Everybody in the dorm suddenly converged in my room and started throwing water balloons at me, chanting 'Bomb Pearl Harbor, bomb Pearl Harbor'" (Cynthia Lee).  Someone then read out loud Franklin D. Roosevelt’s declaration of war speech to Don soaking in water.

At that time Don didn’t understand why they did this to him because neither his parents nor his K-12 education taught him about how the bombing prompted Roosevelt to intern, for national security’s purpose, nearly 120,000 Japanese Americans (including Don’s parents) in desolate camps for the duration of World War II.  Amazingly, the fact that the bombing happened 25 years earlier didn’t deter these Yale students from committing a racist prank.  That’s a long shelf life for the bombing that killed about 2,400 people.  Considering that COVID19 pandemic is projected to kill over forty times that in the U.S., plus trigger staggering economic losses, a longer shelf life for the anger and resentment associated with the current crisis is to be expected.

Anyhow, this awakening moment prompted Don to think further on what it means to be Americans of Asian ancestry in the U.S.  His conclusion: public attitudes toward Asian Americans, even those whose parents were born in the States, can be critically affected by international relations between the U.S and Asian countries of origin.  Meaning what?  Though you’re as American as apple pie, if you are of Asian descent from, among other Asian nations, China, Japan or Korea that rival major U.S. interests, the non-Asian segment in America can make you feel unwelcomed at best and threatened at worst whenever geopolitical tectonic plate shifts, such as the ongoing global effect from the current pandemic.  
And once the situation has gone beyond boiling point, being exact is not required.  This is to ask, “Would it have mattered to those attacking Don—to whom all Asians probably looked alike—had his last name been Wong or Kim?  Based on the recent experience of my nephew (a U.S. citizen and Korean American) working as a cashier at Chick-fil-a, I would hazard to guess no.  Hungry customers lined behind other cashiers who, I am guessing, were not Asians since hardly anyone lined up behind the lone Asian cashier.

So how painful can this experience be when Asian Americans are made to feel like they don’t belong in America?  What the Korean American co-ed felt when complimented on her English
pales in comparison to how John Okada, a second-generation Japanese who wrote an obscure novel called No-No Boy in 1957, felt in the aftermath of the internment of Japanese Americans.
He wrote: “As of that moment, the Japanese in the United States became, by virtue of their ineradicable brownness and the slant eyes which, upon close inspection, will seldom appear slanty, animals of a different breed.  The moment the impact of the words solemnly being transmitted over the several million radios of the nation struck home, everything Japanese and everyone Japanese became despicable” (Preface vii).

It remains to be seen how badly Asian Americans will be treated by their non-Asian counterparts during and after COVID19 pandemic.  Will there be violence?  It’s happening now, sporadically, but “likely will surge,” according to FBI, “across the U.S.”  Recently, in Midland, Texas, a Hispanic man stabbed an Asian family, “[thinking] the family was Chinese, and infecting people with the coronavirus” (Midland Reporter-Telegram).  But, for most Asian Americans, what they will increasingly experience are subtle gestures and insensitive comments that would make them feel dismissed and disrespected.  

This is indeed a sobering moment for Americans of Asian ancestry, most of whom have been as clueless about their tenuous footing in America as Dr. Nakanishi, who knew nothing about the resentment white Americans felt toward Japanese Americans until college.  What shall we do?  For now, practice social distancing, wash your hands, and keep praying for health care workers. Once things return to some semblance of normalcy, be vigilant always and speak up against injustice.

And finally, this: I speak as one who was born and lived in South Korea for 14 years, then was naturalized as an American citizen and lived in the States for a total of 35 years; and in between lived in Mexico for another 11 years.  So, who am I?  Except during the World Cup and the Olympics when my Korean loyalties emerge, I feel like I am an American, but I often tell Mexicans, “Mi corazón es mexicano.”  I love their language, food and ranchero music.  This is to say, my sociocultural identity on earth ebbs and flows depending on what’s showing on television (World Cup) or what’s served on the table (tacos al pastor).  

But what doesn’t change, ever, is who I am in Christ, and that’s my spiritual, real identity.  Upon believing Jesus as my Lord and Savior, I was given “the right to become [a child] of God” (Jn. 1:12) whose “citizenship is in heaven” (Phi. 3:20).  And I understand that, as Jesus pointed out, “in this world you will have trouble” (Jn. 16:33).  Yes, Asian Americans are going to face hitherto unforeseen troubles, and nothing, not their multiple degrees from top universities or high paying jobs, will spare them.  So, I shall pray earnestly for God’s protection for me and my loved ones.

Still, there is one positive takeaway amid the pandemic: it is realizing that we have no permanent home here on earth.  Instead, we ought to see ourselves as “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Pet. 2:11) who “[long] for a better country—a heavenly one . . . for [God] has prepared a city for [us]” (Heb. 11:16).  Meanwhile, I remind myself that “we are ambassadors for Christ”; therefore, “we implore” the COVID19 ravaged world—afraid and lost—“on behalf of Christ: Be reconciled to God” (2 Cor. 5:20).
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