We are continuing with Part II of Marlene Molewyk’s interview.
How does is feel when people refer to you as an Asian American?
I’m starting to dislike the term Asian-American, because there seems to be a greater focus on the Asian, and less of a focus on the American, to a degree that people like me are often simply called Asian. I don’t like calling myself Asian, and for good reason. Several years ago, I spent a few weeks in Asia. During that trip, several Asians (that is, natives of Asia) proactively said things like: “I can tell you’re an American. You look like us, but the way you talk and carry yourself is very American. You are not one of us!”
And you know what? They’re right. I’m not an Asian! I was born and raised in the United States, and thus, I’m an American, first and foremost. So why do I need to add the word “Asian” to define myself? As you ponder this question, consider my husband. His mother emigrated here from the Netherlands, so he’s the son of an immigrant, just like me. However, I’ve never heard anyone call him European-American or European. Instead, people just call him American, and it’s up to my husband to let others know about his Dutch ancestry.
We tend to associate the word “American” with white people of European descent. And thus, the need for geographic terms like “Asian” to clarify exactly which type of non-white person I am.To be fair, I do acknowledge that white people are frequently called Caucasian. This word refers to the Caucasus Mountains in Europe and Asia, from which white European groups of people emerged. So I suppose calling a white person Caucasian is the equivalent of calling me Asian. But this raises another question: How come I never hear anyone use the term “Caucasian-American”, which would be the equivalent of “Asian-American”? I’m guessing it’s because such a term would be redundant, given that Caucasian and American tend to mean the same thing.
After thinking through all of the above, I’ve decided to call myself an American of Asian descent, or an American of Chinese descent. I think these terms are more accurate than Asian or Asian-American.
Please explain the challenges of resonating more with being American than being Chinese. How does this reality present both personal and cultural conflict?
Here’s how all of this ethnic self-description plays out in real life—the following is an actual conversation that recently took place between me and another parent at a kid event:
Parent: So, where are you from?
Me: We live in Grayslake.
Parent: No, where are you really from?
Me: We’ve lived in the Chicago area for almost twenty years now.
Parent: No, I mean, where are you really from?
Me: Well, I’m originally from the Detroit area. I was born and raised there.
Parent: No, I mean, what are you?
Me: I was born and raised in the Detroit area, so I’m American.
Parent: Yes, but what are you, really?
Me: If you mean where are my parents from, they immigrated here from China. But I was born in this country, so I’m American.
Parent : (Triumphantly) I knew it! I just knew you were Chinese!
Me: No, I’m not! I was born and raised in this country, so I’m an American of Chinese descent.
Parent: Hey, that’s great! You know what, my oldest son just spent a semester teaching English in China. I want to introduce him to you! (waves son over)
Parent: (To son): Hey, I want you to meet this lady here, she’s Chinese! Why don’t you both speak some Chinese together?
Annoying conversations like this happen fairly frequently, and hopefully it helps you understand why I prefer to emphasize the fact that I’m an American. Quite frankly, I’m tired of people viewing me as a perpetual foreigner in this country that I was born and raised in. I’m an American, and I’d like for the rest of society to view me as an American, darn it!
This brings me to my final thought on this topic: I think that we as a country really need to start embracing a new visual definition for the word “American” — a definition that incorporates people of all ethnic backgrounds.
I am grateful for the historical perspective you provided during the first part of our interview. Is there anything else you want people to know about the historical aspects of racism or racial reconciliation and Asian Americans?
When people think of racism, they tend to think of black and white tension in America. But most people don’t realize that there have been significant levels of anti-Asian racism that reach far back into our country’s history. For example, most history books say very little about anti-Chinese attitudes during the late 1800s, when labor unions, national newspapers, and magazines stereotyped Chinese immigrants as immoral sub-humans who were taking jobs away from white people. Anti-Chinese sentiment ran higher in western states, where entire communities of Chinese immigrants were violently attacked, Chinatowns were burned down, and Chinese immigrants were driven out of cities en masse. A few specific examples:
• 1878: A white union group in Reno, Nevada burned down the city’s Chinatown and demanded that all Chinese immigrants leave the area.
• 1880: A mob of about three thousand people attacked Denver’s Chinatown, burned down all homes and businesses, and killed a Chinese immigrant by hanging him from a lamppost.
• 1885: White miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming killed twenty-eight Chinese immigrant miners and injured fifteen, in what was called the Rock Springs Massacre.
• 1885: The mayor of Tacoma, Washington and several hundred angry residents rounded up and forced Tacoma’s entire Chinese immigrant population to leave town. Local police assisted in this effort.
• 1886: A mob in Seattle attempted to emulate the Tacoma expulsion of Chinese immigrants. This sparked a riot that required direct intervention from the White House.
During this era, anti-Chinese legislation was enacted at both state and national levels. This included the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, signed by US President Chester Arthur. This law banned all immigration of Chinese laborers into this country. For Chinese people already in this country, it denied the right to become citizens or vote in elections. Ironically, the Statue of Liberty was dedicated just four years after this law was enacted.
The Chinese Exclusion Act remained the law of this land for sixty-one years, until 1943. During those same years, 23.5 million Europeans were allowed to immigrate to the United States. The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943, when the US and China became allies in World War II. Even so, immigration from China was still legally restricted to only 105 people per year until 1965 (although about 1,000 Chinese per year actually immigrated here, due to loopholes in the law). This has had a very significant impact upon the racial composition of this country, both historically and today.
The above facts are provided from the following resources:
- Reno: Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer, Random House, 2007, p. 175.
- Denver: “Race riot tore apart Denver’s Chinatown“, by the Associated Press, appeared in The Register-Guard, Eugene, Oregon, October 30, 1996; Encyclopedia of the Great Plains, by David J. Wishart, University of Nebraska Press, 2004, p. 143.
- Rock Springs: “The Chinese in California, 1850-1925“, Library of Congress website.
- Tacoma: Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans by Jean Pfaelzer, Random House, 2007, pp 217-223.
- Seattle: “Anti-Chinese Riot at Seattle”, Harper’s Weekly, March 6, 1886, page 155. From HarpWeek website (cataloged website of Harper’s Weekly historical articles); Anti-Chinese riots, Seattle, 1886, Museum of History and Industry photo archive, Seattle, WA.
- Chinese Exclusion Act: Immigration to the United States, 1789-1930: Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), Harvard University Library Open Collections Program
- Immigration statistics: 2000 Statistical Yearbook of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, published by the U.S. Department of Justice, pp. 19-22.
- Population/Demographic statistics: Table: United States – Race and Hispanic Origin: 1790 to 1990, from “Historical Census Statistics on Population Totals By Race, 1790 to 1990, and by Hispanic Origin, 1970 to 1990, for the United States, Regions, Divisions, and States”, published by Population Division, U.S. Census Bureau, September 2002.
Any final thoughts concerning the neglected Asian American voice and building relationships with Americans of Asian descent?
When I bring up the topic of race and share experiences of blatant, hostile racism toward people like me, quite a few white people have dismissed what I’ve experienced as being all in my head. Or a fluke, limited to just me and my family, or just to the state of Michigan. But they are incorrect! Thus, I think it’s very important to make the point that just because you haven’t personally witnessed something doesn’t mean it didn’t happen! For example, I’ve never witnessed a KKK lynching in the Deep South, nor have I personally seen the Northern Lights. But my personal witness, or lack thereof, does not detract from the fact that there were indeed many KKK lynchings in the Deep South. Nor does my lack of personal witness nullify the fact that the Northern Lights do appear in the sky every year.
On a philosophical level—whenever an oppressed group of people have spoken up for themselves, members of the dominant, powerful group have tended to dismiss them as exaggerating, lying, or being whiny. As it result, it makes a huge difference when people in the dominant, powerful group speak up on behalf of the weaker group. The opinions of such advocates tend to carry more weight among members of the dominant, powerful group. This is because the advocates have greater credibility within their group of people, as well as the fact that they have nothing to gain from speaking up. This principle can be seen historically in the abolition of slavery, when many white people spoke up on behalf of enslaved Africans. It happened in the women’s suffrage movement, when men spoke up on behalf of women. And it also happened during the civil rights era of this country, when white people labored and protested alongside black people, demanding equal rights for all.
Many people are proud of the fact that they have friends of other races, which I agree is a very good thing, given the history of our country. However, I think a deeper litmus test of attitudes toward other races lies in one’s perceptions toward interracial dating and marriage, which ultimately results in mingling bloodlines. For example, how would you feel if your child announced that he or she is planning to marry someone of another race? How do you feel about your family name being passed along to bi-racial grandchildren who look more like the other race? How do you feel about being personally related to people of this other race, through your child? This is where true attitudes toward other people groups can surface in very ugly ways.
My bottom line belief about racism: I think we’ve done a good job legislating racism away in this country. However, legislation can only address outward behavior. And at it’s core, racism is really an internal issue of the heart. Unfortunately, we can’t legislate the heart—that’s a place only God can touch and change.
This interview has been so informative and profound; it is difficult for me to narrow to one question to focus our conversation. Start here: how has this interview has impacted you?
Marlene Molewyk is the daughter of Chinese immigrants. With her four siblings, she was born and raised in the suburbs of Detroit. She is married to John, and they have five children, including a daughter they adopted from China. Marlene’s professional career included work as a broadcast journalist, a production assistant at The Oprah Winfrey Show, and a corporate public relations manager. Currently, she homeschools all five of their children. She writes and speaks about identity issues, parenting, raising autistic and adopted children, and finding God amid the messy realities of my highly imperfect life! Connect with Marlene via Twitter: @MarleneMolewyk; Public Facebook Page: Marlene Molewyk, Writer; and her website: marlenemolewyk.blogspot.com.
© Marlene Molewyk and Natasha Sistrunk Robinson 2012