Asian American is the term that referring to people who live in America with the origin of coming from Asia. The term can be easily defined in such a way that I can pull it straight out from the English dictionary or online Wikipedia. But is there all to it? I guess there should be more than just some dry definitions that the dictionary gave me. The question “What does it mean to be Asian American? ” is more of an interesting one to me, particularly after watching the film “My America, Honk If You Love Buddha” produced by Renee Tajima-Pena. The film deals with political identity and in that it is a conscious search for Asian American.
With Asian as my background, I always want to know more about what so called Asian American nowadays. I believe that Asian Americans nowadays are no longer invisible force in American society. In order to explain it, we have to go back and look at the history of racism towards Asian immigrants and how they contribute to the change in the new Asian American identity, and also the interaction between multiculculture and community that define the new Asian American generation, and see how some people still fit into certain stereotype and some do not.
The film “My America, Honk If You Love Buddha” talks about the history of our struggles for civil rights over the past century. Before 1960s, Asian Americans were really having trouble living in America. White people or I can say White society at that time considered us as foreigner or un-American due to certain physical characteristics such as “skin color, eye color and its shape, shape of the nose, color or texture of the hair” (Lee, 1999, p. 2). They regard all Asians are the same despite the fact that we come from many different countries that make up Asia continent.
For example, Pang Ku, a Laos seamstress that was introduced in “My America” say: “They thought about Hmong people, Cambodian people, Chinese people, Korean, Vietnamese…We are the same people and they don’t like it”. That is the reason why American people, mostly consist of whites, considered Asian Americans were no more than “yellowface”. It is true that “yellowface marks the Asian body as unmistakably Oriental; it sharply defines the Oriental in a racial opposition to whiteness” (Lee, 1999, p. 2), however I think that the term “yellowface” itself does not state the true facts about Asian. Lee also upports this idea by stating in his work: “[y]ellowface exaggerates racial features that have been designated Oriental, such as “slanted” eyes, overbite, and mustard-yellow skin color. Only the racialized Oriental is yellow; Asians are not. Asia is not a biological fact but a geographical designation. Asians come in broadest range of skin color and hue” (Lee, 1999, p. 2). Not only did American people see Asian Americans as foreigner but they also participate in anti-Asian movements, or I call it racism before and even after the Civil Rights movements. Prior the Civil Rights movement, the situation for Asian immigrants was worst.
We could not have fair housing, education, jobs…like the other white Americans. Racism does not only happen in daily life but also it also take place in political legislation, such as “Asiatic Barred Zones which prohibited the immigration of any person who ancestry could be traced to the Asian continent or Pacific Islands”, or Cable Act, which stipulated that a female American citizen who married a national foreign would lose her citizenship (Lee, 1999, p. 108), or the Japanese concentration camp during World War II – the most shameful chapter in United States history that was a result of war, racial discrimination, and economic competition.
Even after the Civil Rights Movement, Asian Americans are still today treated in surprisingly racist ways. For example, in “My America”, as Tajima-Pena went across the country, we meet the women named Pang Ku, a Laotian refugee working as a seamstress in Duluth, Minnesota. When she walks to stores or the bus stop, there is always chasing or throwing words at her. Although she does not speak English much but she absolutely can understand what other people say to her: “Chinese, come back to your country. Don’t come to our country”.
Despite all the past history, the new Asian Americans today are very different from previous generations. We are no longer invisible minority group that can easily be the target of racism of the American society. It is just like Tajima-Pena says “Through the Asian American movement we declared that we’re no longer second-class citizens” (Renee Tajima-Pena, 1999, p. 291). During the period of post Civil Rights movement, there is a rapid change in demographic and the culture among Asian Americans and Asian Americans with the rest of ethnicity.
Thus, we need to look forward more to what role we will play in the new American society. In the film “My America”, we were able to meet with different people who seeking justice for Asian Americans, from the long time activists Bill and Yuri Kochiyama, who seek justice for Japanese Americans that were in the concentration camp during the World War II, or Alyssa Kang, the young student at UCLA, who defies her mother’s expectations and taking risk to be arrested in order to protest the anti-immigrant legislation, to the Seoul Brothers in Seattle, who actively engage in seeking justice for but in a more violent ways.
According to Tajima-Pena, they “translated their personal experiences of struggle and racism into a moral obligation to fight injustice wherever they see it-and not only for Asian Americans. They get involved-and that’s what I think we’re here to do” (Renee Tajima-Pena, 1999, p. 291). We can see also the interaction between multiculture and community that define the new Asian American generation. The younger the generation, the more active involve in American society, and the easier become part of America.
Some of the Asian American groups can freely participate in the while society, such as the Burtanog Sisters, the eighth-generation Filipino in New Orleans, Louisiana. They consider themselves as white because they can intermarry, attend the white school, white church and unlike black, they can bury alongside the white citizenry. In the rapid changing society nowadays, we have to deal with the concept of interracial relationship. For example, in “My America”, Tajima-Pena talks with the upper class Chinese American debutantes in Los Angeles and finds out that many of these young Chinese women are having white men as boyfriends.
I think it is true that having interracial relationship is now much easier than the past, but still we still have meet some resistance in old belief and Asian rule about marriage. People who are about my grandparents’ ages or older often see the interracial marriage is the problem and they definitely oppose it. Taking my family for example, they prefer to keep the tradition of having the marriage of the same ethnicity and reject the idea of having interracial marriage. But for me, I do not really mind to engage in such relationship as long as I can stay happy with my girlfriend.
In the film “My America”, Tajima-Pena shows us about some people do fit in some of the stereotypes that American society has towards us and some do not fit in those categories. Certain stereotype about Asians such as we work hard, good at martial art, intelligence,… are the common ones in American view. Asian Americans are working hard people, as illustrates in the film “[s]ome scientists believe that Asians have some kinds of super gene to be able to work harder and delay immediate ramification”.
For example, in Chinatown, New York, we able to meet with Mr. Choi who has five different jobs, from running his fortune cookies factory on the upper floor to selling fish at the basement, teaching martial art and working as security in Chinese New Year. We also meet with character like Mr. Tom Vu, a Cambodian immigrant who became successful in real estate business with unethical business rule. He makes a lot of money on the losses of other people, as he says “every time in the mass loosing money, somebody will make money”.
I think it is not wrong to say that Asian Americans work hard but not all of them are money lovers like Mr. Tom Vu. We should see the reason why Asian Americans have to work hard. Since many of Asian immigrants came here recently, they have to work harder in order to live in America; otherwise life would be so difficult for them. Some of my relatives who came to America around five or six years ago are working really hard in order to pay for housing, food, telephone services, insurance and all kind of bills.
They have to wake up early in the morning to get to work on time and often get home late at night. On the other hand, I do not believe all Asians are good at martial art. Take me for example, I certainly can fight but there is no way I can take down four or five big guys like Bruce Lee can in his kungfu movies. In the film “My American, Or Honk If You Love Buddha”, Tajima-Pena travels from San Francisco to New York, Chicago, Florida, and many points in between to seek out what it means to be Asian American in our rapidly changing society.
In there, we were able to meet with many different types and interesting groups of people that characterize the nature of the new Asian American generation. Despite the fact that some Asian Americans still fit into certain stereotypes that America hold towards us, Asian Americans are now no longer can be seen as second class citizens like in the past. Now, we are becoming more and more important to the country by playing a central part, taking active role within America society. And these changes are the result of the interaction between different cultures and the communities that make up Asian Americans.