With the rise of coronavirus, it feels like we’re back to square one. We’ve become attached to the pandemic. Many of the frustrations from the havoc has been unleashed on to our community because it’s easy to use a minority scapegoat, like Asian Americans.
A Southeast Asian American family in Texas was stabbed by a man because he thought they were Chinese and infecting people. Among those attacked, one was 2 years old and the other was 6 years old. A Vietnamese American man in Pennsylvania was called the Coronavirus and brutally assaulted. Asian American restaurants across the country are being vandalized with messages like “Chink”, “Coronavirus” and “Go back to China.” These incidents aren’t random but a part of a growing trend. The group STOP AAPI Hate has reported over 1,800 racist incidents against AAPIs since March. The anti-Asian message is clear, whether you’re Chinese or just visibly Asian, American or not: take the virus back to China.
Although American, Asian Americans have become stigmatized as a foreign threat carrying the virus that’s destroying our world. The idea that Asian Americans are associated with foreign is known as the perpetual foreigner stereotype and this stereotype is the premise of these racist attacks. Asian Americans have always struggled with being perpetual foreigners since the days of the Transcontinental railroad to now, with the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re interested in hearing our discussion of the perpetual foreigner stereotype, listen to our pilot episode of The SituAsian Room! I decided to write this blog post to talk about the perpetual foreigner stereotype with some ideas that couldn’t make it to our episode but are still very important.
The new surge in hate towards Asians and Asian Americans is based on the premise that Asian Americans cannot be equated to a real American. We’ll always be foreigners, despite our birthplace, citizenship status, and contributions to society, and culture. The idea that people of Asian descent cannot be American stems from the notion that to be “ethnically” American, you must be Black or White. Nevermind that I was born in Pennsylvania, miles from Independence Hall and I’ve never left the country. For those in the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI), and many in the Latinx community, we’re left out of the picture of what an American looks like.
As a country, we often forget that this is a nation of immigrants, and those indigenous to the land were expelled, slaughtered, confined to reservations, and continually oppressed. The AAPI community is an immigrant community but despite being here since the 1800s, we are still not accepted as Americans. The perception that Asian Americans are foreigners is perpetuated by stereotypes and rhetoric that brand Asians as alien spanning over centuries.
Upon their arrival in the mid-1800s, Chinese immigrants were referred to as the yellow peril, coming to ruin America. They were perpetuated as barbaric, threatening to white women, sneaky, untrustworthy, dirty, and here to steal jobs from white Americans expanding into the West. The United States government and its people retaliated against Chinese immigrants with a slew of legislation like the infamous Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. These laws would ban the entry of more immigrants from China, revoke citizenship for their descendants, prohibit their ability to own land, naturalize, and more. Chinese immigrants would be driven out of towns by mobs and lynched. One of the largest mass lynchings and massacres in American history resulted in a white mob of around 500 killing 18 Chinese immigrants in Los Angeles, 1871.
The sentiment of mistrust with Asian Americans as an “alien” threat would later be used to justify the internment of about 120,000 people of Japanese descent, about 2/3 of which were American born. These Americans were deemed a threat to their own country because of their skin color and were forced to get rid of everything they owned to be held in concentration camps. German and Italian Americans were not subject to nearly the same level of discrimination as Japanese Americans because they were considered white and not a part of what many deemed, an enemy race. These injustices were only possible because Asian Americans were, and still are, viewed as foreign.
The perpetual foreigner stereotype continues to run deep. The yellow peril and concentration camps for Japanese Americans were justified with government propaganda and messages of alien threats. After World War II, Hollywood became the institution pushing the perpetual foreigner stereotype on to American culture. Asian American characters are largely absent and instead replaced with over-exoticized and foreign portrayed characters. Coupled with the dismal (but changing!) representation of Asian Americans in media and the racist and old stereotypes that portray Asians, people think of characters like Mr. Chow from The Hangover instead of ordinary AAPI people.
We, as AAPIs have struggled with carving out space in America to define an Asian America. We lack the representation to tell our own stories and break away from the perpetual foreigner stereotype. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re more prepared to fight the rhetoric of the past that continues to resurface. Phrases from our President like “Chinese virus” and “Kung Flu” build hate against all those who look East Asian, despite nationality. The stereotypes of being foreign are now conflated with being disease carriers, dirty, and alien. As a result of President Trump, and other top official’s anti-Asian rhetoric, these attacks on our community will continue to happen.
The resurgence of yellow peril rhetoric and the attacks on Asian Americans have motivated us to discuss the perpetual foreigner stereotype in the pilot episode of the SituAsian room. We realized that there are so many feelings we have as a part of the Asian American experience, but we often don’t know how to talk about or describe them. One question that we feel embodies the Asian American experience is the question, Where are you really from? Virtually every Asian American has been asked Where are you really from? They ask us to figure out What kind of Asian are you? Sometimes they straight up ask Where in Asia are you from? To any Asian American born here, being asked Where are you really from? can be a trigger. Whenever I’m asked, I always feel disappointed and frustrated because the question reinforces the perpetual foreigner stereotype. The question opens a conversation that questions your Americanness as they try to investigate why you’re not white.
To people who are viewed as Black or White, or what many subconsciously accept as “ethnically American”, they may not feel why this question can be offensive because their Americanness is never questioned. The question is a constant reminder that no matter who I am or what I do, people will always see me as a foreigner in my own country because of the way I look. But in the age of the Coronavirus, my “Americanness” has never been questioned more, and being a perpetual foreigner is now more dangerous.
If you’re still curious about the perpetual foreigner stereotype, listen to our pilot episode in the SituAsian room. Join us on our journey into Asian America as we continue to explore the issues that affect AAPIs and AAPI culture. Follow and subscribe to the SituAsian room on Instagram, Facebook, Youtube, or wherever you get your podcast!