I work at a local Din Tai Fung in downtown Seattle, which is an internationally-renowned Michelin star Taiwanese restaurant. On an average day, I’ll be asked, “Do you have California rolls?” or, “Do you use MSG in your pho broth?” I hear a variety of comments that conflate and flatten the numerous cultures of Asia — it’s part of my daily shift. The lack of ability, or lack of motivation, to distinguish between dim sum, a southern Chinese cuisine, and the Taiwanese food we serve also speaks to the homogenization of “China” for the palatability of those who have been raised to not differentiate between the “others.” What is happening in the U.S. that makes us ignorant of the nuances and cultures in the world?
My parents immigrated from Taiwan to Hawai’i in the 1980s and ’90s, where I was born and raised. It is one of our most ethnically diverse states. This title is often heralded, yet it can be misleading. In reality, Hawai’i simply has the smallest ratio of White people; concurrently, Hawai’i also has one of the smallest populations of Black people in the U.S. Asian-Americans make up the majority of the population of the islands. Due to the forces of imperialism and capitalism in our respective homelands, including wars waged by the U.S. government, waves of migration (forced and voluntary) have led folks from an Asian diaspora to settle and develop a new home on the islands. Along with Oceanic influences, I grew up surrounded by and adept at recognizing many East and Southeast-Asian cultures, including Japanese, Chinese, Taiwanese, Vietnamese, Filipino and Korean. It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle four years ago that I realized this ability was uncommon.
The U.S. Census Bureau defines my identity as “Asian-American,” yet this is a term that is ever expanding and contracting. “Asian” is a term that is meant to encompass the peoples of Southeast, East and South Asia, a landmass of over 17 million square miles spanning from Japan to Afghanistan. Within this region that composes Asia are at least 45 distinct ethnic groups that speak over 100 different dialects. However, more often than not, I have noticed that the title of “Asian” is almost exclusively used for lighter-skinned East Asian folks. Even growing up in Hawai’i, I would hear arguments about whether or not Filipinos are “Asian.”
U.S. foreign policy has played a major role in the construction of Asian-American identity. Following the Gold Rush, expansionist projects such as the railroad drew many Chinese migrant workers to the West coast. Corporations flooded the market with Chinese workers, undercutting White workers. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law as the first piece of federal legislation to ban people of specific ethnicities and countries of origin from entering the United States. One decade later, Congress signed the Geary Act into law. The Geary Act granted officials the right to criminalize the status of being undocumented, laying the foundation for the rise of anti-immigrant legislation to come in the following centuries.
The desire for cheap labor did not go away with these laws; in fact, it expanded their reach. When Sikh Punjabi immigrants came to the Pacific Northwest in the early 1900s, people frenzied over the “tide of the Turbans,” compelling Congress to declare India as another one of the Asian countries from which to restrict immigration. By 1924, with the exception of Filipino “nationals” (the Philippines became a U.S. territory after the Spanish-American war), all immigrants of U.S.-declared “Asian” descent, including Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians were fully excluded by law, denied citizenship and naturalization and prevented from marrying White people or owning land.
The inability to distinguish between the wide range of Asian cultures is the result of centuries of conflicting global power relations in Asia and the U.S., capitalism’s need for cheap labor (no matter which country it comes from), and the influence of public policies and media driven by racist ideologies of White supremacy. We continue to see the results of this ignorance today as it extends to our neighbors from the global south. Parallels between these past and present periods are striking.
The United States is merely 4 percent of the world’s population, so why are we acting like we’re the most important?
Read the full March 13 - 19 issue.
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