"Asian American history, and growing up in the whitest city in America, has taught me to fear Donald Trump’s America."
In the 3rd grade during a routine morning roll call, my teacher asked me to stand up in front of the entire class to introduce myself to an international exchange teacher, who was visiting from Japan. She proudly exclaimed, “This is Benjamin. He’s Vietnamese!”, like she was showing off a piece of furniture or something. The subsequent exchange between the Japanese teacher and I was a mixture of confusion and intolerable awkwardness. The kind that brings a fiery redness to your cheeks and an irritating itch to the back of your neck.
Even though I was too young to be aware of the fact that I was being singled out solely because of the way I looked, and for being one of two Asian American students in the entire class, my little 3rd grade mind was still questioning: “Where is the correlation here? Am I supposed to be okay with this?” The Japanese teacher and I may have spoken different languages, but we both shared this non-verbal agreement acknowledging that we may have been “other’d” and exoticized for really no good reason other than perhaps we both have straight black hair and almond shaped eyes.
Whenever I think about how the education system has failed me in giving me an inclusive and culturally competent education, I think about that moment. I think about how my teacher couldn't tell the difference between a Japanese and a Vietnamese person. I think about how my teacher couldn't tell that I am an American. It's an all too familiar representation of a very complex feeling that every minority student has gone through in one capacity or another.
This existential crisis of “where do I belong?”
What’s worse than feeling like a perpetual foreigner in my own town is the fact that I was ignorant of some pivotal, game-changing American history. Due to a lack of resources and an incredibly whitewashed curriculum, I had no idea about the Japanese American internment camps during my grade school years. It wasn’t even glossed over in our U.S. History classes.
I had only uncovered its existence way later during a passing conversation with my friend’s father, who was a second generation Japanese-American. He told me whether or not you were an American, the government rounded up any person of Japanese descent and put them in a concentration camp due to this xenophobic fear of the "enemy" (which happened to be the Japanese government during World War II).
My curiosity was catalyzed and I needed to know more. This inspired me to take an Asian American studies course during my first and only term at Oregon State University. It was taught by a Japanese-American professor and the entire class was made up of a predominately Asian American student body. I was so elated that such a class even existed. It made me feel like I existed.
But the feeling of welcomed jubilation did not last very long. As much as I enjoyed and was made whole again by Asian American studies, it brought an overwhelming feeling of disappointment and white-hot rage towards the very place that I was supposed to proudly call my home. From the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (http://ocp.hul.harvard.edu/immigration/exclusion.html) to the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/23/opinion/why-vincent-chin-matters.html), it was all a harrowingly eye-opening experience for me as a young Asian American trying to navigate and uncover my community's past.
Vincent Chin was a young Chinese-American man who was born and raised in Detroit, MI, the once mecca of the American automobile manufacturing industry. One night, he was walking home and was confronted by two white men. They called him a “Jap” and blamed folks who looked like him for taking away their jobs (at that time the Japanese automobile industry was soaring). His life was tragically ended by the two white men that night as they bludgeoned him with a baseball bat until his skull cracked open.
They left him to bleed out in the street.
I am disheartened as I am deeply disturbed that history is beginning to rear its ugly head once again during this post-election period. Friends and acquaintances in my circles have begun to chronicle their run-ins with racist hatred on social media in more ways than just traditional schoolyard name-calling. Hate crimes against Americans of Muslim faith have risen 6% in the last week alone (http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/15/us/politics/fbi-hate-crimes-muslims.html?_r=0). Now the folks associated with the president elect are talking about implementing a Muslim Registry. That’s right. You read correctly. They want to put all of the people in America who identify with the Muslim faith to register themselves and their families in a database so that the government can keep an eye on them (http://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/trump-supporter-cites-internment-precedent-muslim-registry-n685131).
Doesn’t that sound familiar?
The scariest part about all of this are the people clamoring to give the president elect and his ideas a chance. A chance for what? A chance to normalize white supremacy? Are we so bold as to ask people who have been abused by racism and xenophobia to kiss and make up with their abusers? As the great Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, "Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will."
As much as I am outraged and terrified, I am not surprised. It’s classic Americana. Like baseball and apple pie, using differences to divide instead of appreciating said differences has been the name of our game time and time again. If we don’t know our history, we don’t know ourselves. If we don’t know our history, we’re bound to repeat it. This is why Asian American history, and the history of every other marginalized American community, needs to be included and normalized in our curriculum. These tragic events continue to unfold because there is a lack of a fundamental understanding of our humanity. It’s easier to group non-white folks together, and mark them as “others”, than it is to take the time and effort to understand them and their culture, their plight, and what makes them human.
A recent article in The Atlantic eloquently sums up my feelings about Portland, Oregon: “Talking constructively about race can be hard, especially in a place like Portland where residents have so little exposure to people who look differently than they do.” Old wounds from my childhood may still sting here and there, but I want nothing more than my hometown to progress. We need diverse books, we need inclusive education, and we need a wide-range of positive voices more than ever. When we know each other on a more socially intimate level, there's nothing left to fear. All that's left is to celebrate one another, differences and all.
I am fortunate to have studied Asian American history. It has productively forged my identity as a Vietnamese-American. It has helped me identify with the struggles of my neighboring Asian American communities and it has brought us all closer in uniting to fight against bigotry.
Wherever you are and whoever you are, the fight for progress begins and ends with education.