I’m sure many Chinese international students in the US have had this experience before: we are filling in a questionnaire which asks us to provide some basic demographic information, and one of the questions says, “What is your race/ethnicity?” And we are provided with a range of options, including Caucasian/White, African American, Hispanic, Asian American… And we search for the option called “international,” but there is not, so we choose the closest option—Asian American. But we are gnawed by the feeling that this description is only half-true. We are Asian, for sure, but we are not American. We have a Chinese passport, and only came to this country a few years ago. We may want to become American one day, but we are not there yet.

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America is a country where discourses are structured around race, not nationality; if you are Asian, no matter that you have a Chinese passport, you are considered Asian American. This gives rise to some interesting dilemmas to those of us who are Asian but not American.

If we speak English with an accent, we are considered to be fresh-off-the-boat and holding back the effort of the Asian American to truly integrate into the American society, a reminder that all Asians are immigrants who remain on the fringe of American mainstream culture. If we speak English too flawlessly, we are assumed to be American, and expected to have all the cultural knowledge—such as references to American pop culture, the political system, regional stereotypes—that comes with growing up in this country, which we don’t.

If we identify ourselves as Asian Americans and join groups and movements in this name, we are considered to have lived in this country for too short to call ourselves “Asian American.” We are considered to be ignorant of the realities of race relations in the US. We grew up in Chinese cities where everyone looks like us; we lack the authentic experience of being a member of an often-marginalized minority group in a white-majority society.

If we do not identify with Asian Americans, we are essentially deprived of all platforms to make our voices heard, because as non-citizens we do not have the vote. The result of this dilemma is that Asian international students tend to form an isolated community of their own without engaging with the broader American society. But we should, because everything that happens in American politics affects us as well. For example, we want more sensible immigration policies that allow those of us who graduate from American universities with good records to have an equal opportunity to work in this country for a reasonable amount of time; not the current system where our chances of staying in America is subject to a cruel lottery with a one-in-three winning chance.

When I follow the US presidential elections, the issue that I pay the closest attention to is which candidate has the best policy to help the US retain foreign talents and shift the country’s immigration system from family-based to merit-based. However, nobody has offered any satisfactory, concrete plans on this issue, besides empty rhetoric to the effect of “we need foreign talents.” Politicians can afford to ignore the almost a million international students studying in the US, because we don’t have the right to vote. Nobody pays attention to the fact that we may potentially one day become US citizens, and are more than willing to contribute our talents and skills to its economy. The nature of the democratic system is such that candidates cannot afford to be so far-sighted as to cater to those who not yet have the vote.

One of the questions I get asked most frequently (almost on a weekly basis) is: “Do you want to stay in America after graduation?” I’m sure that most international students have gotten so tired of this question that we just throw out a perfunctory “yes” or “no” each time we are asked. The true answer is that we don’t know whether we can, and we don’t know whether we should. The decision of where to live is affected by so many complex factors that all advance deliberation may turn out to be in vain. Will my most attractive job offer be from an American company, a Chinese company, or American company based in China? Will my US company sponsor my H-1B work visa? Will I win the H-1B lottery? Will I want to attend graduate school? Will China’s economy become so attractive that I have to go back? Will I meet someone living in either country that I want to marry? …

But apart from these concerns, there is the question of whether we want to live in a society where it seems we can never become part of the mainstream. I was painfully reminded of this reality while volunteering at the recent Committee of 100 Annual Conference, which featured many luminaries in the Chinese American community across the nation. One of the panels, titled “Economic Espionage: Spies or Stereotypes,” shed light on the US government’s use of racial and national profiling in the prosecution of unlawful technology transfer to China.

Two victims who were wrongly accused of espionage shared their personal ordeals of being forced to respond to crimes that they did not commit. Xiaoxing Xi, a professor of Physics at Temple University, was one day suddenly arrested by FBI agents on the completely unfounded charge that he shared a US company’s technology for making a pocket heater with a Chinese collaborator. Sherry Chen, a federal hydrologist, was similarly arrested for requesting public available data on the US water management system for an old Chinese classmate. Both emigrated from China to the US decades ago and have long become American citizens. Unable to obtain evidence, the government later dropped all charges against the two, but not before destroying their lives and careers.

During his speech, Prof. Xi said, “Everyone has to be prepared for the day when the FBI agent comes knocking on your door. Like all American citizens, our loyalty to the country shouldn’t be called into question just because of our skin color. Treating citizens unfairly because of geopolitical realities runs counter to our ideals, and is not acceptable.”

An anguished Chen said, “I used to tell people in China about the blue sky and clear stars in America, how the air is always fresh in Ohio. Everything has changed now. The sky is not blue. Where are the stars? Why I couldn’t even breathe? Economic espionage from China may be real, but the government cannot target innocent Chinese Americans. We are not spies; we are loyal Chinese Americans. We have made the country better and stronger.”

When I heard these heartbreaking words—uttered by two tearful speakers—I could not help tearing up as well. It reminded me of what motivated me to come to this country in the first place. When I was self-learning English in China in middle school, I printed out the full text of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” and committed the whole thing to memory, because it reminded me of things that America has but China doesn’t: freedom of speech, equality for all, and the right to protest when these principles are violated. The first thought that crossed my mind when I saw Prof. Xi and Sherry Chen was that they look just like my dad and mom. Had my parents—who both work in the sciences—chosen to immigrate to America in their twenties, this could have happened to them. There is a sense that the Chinese people, with their unpronounceable names, oriental looks, and accented English, can never be true American citizens, despite the fact that they have lived in the US for decades, they are equally if not more loyal to American ideals and values than other citizens, and that they hold an American passport.

It is natural that we Asian non-Americans empathize with the causes of Asian Americans: we are subject to the same treatment because we all have yellow skin and oval eyes. My personal experience as an Asian woman has taught me that when it comes to race, we are all the same; no prejudiced white man will care about whether I carry a Chinese passport before imposing assumptions and stereotypes on me. One treatment that I am particularly frustrated about is the infantilization of the Asian woman. It is true that we tend to age slower, and many of us do look younger than our age suggest, a fact that should make us happy. But our youthful look is sometimes used against us and turned into assumptions of naiveté, powerlessness, and vulnerability. Once, when I was making a flight transfer at a Hawaii airport, my first plane arrived later than scheduled. Realizing that I only had ten minutes before my next plane was scheduled to take off, I raced to the boarding gate. As I was running towards the gate, the airline attendant stationed there—a burly white man—said sternly, “Stop running. Running is not allowed here. Go back and walk here again.” Of course, he was just teasing me. But why is he allowed to tease me that way? Because I am an Asian woman—or an Asian girl—who looks so young and powerless that anyone can get away with bullying me. It would not have been okay if he said the same thing to a white woman or an African American woman.

During the conference, a Chinese American woman, who is a lawyer, shared her experience of being subject to implicit cultural biases in the workplace. During the annual review, her boss—a white man—praised her hard work, but added that he was surprised most of all by her confidence: “You are just so confident for a Chinese woman. I’ve always thought that Chinese women are supposed to be shy and demure.” What was meant as a praise made her painfully aware of the kind of stereotypes that she is judged against on a daily basis.

On the one hand, I sympathize with the Asian American cause and fully support all of the community’s efforts to promote integration into the American society. On the other hand, I often feel like a “fake” Asian American. Yes, I may have no problem passing as an American—I speak and write English fluently, and have more than basic knowledge of American history, its political system and social issues. But as someone who only came to this country three years ago, what do I know about racial profiling and discrimination? How can I effect changes if I can’t even vote? Can I even stay here after I graduate?

Recently, while filing my taxes, I was reminded once again that I’m categorized as a “nonresident alien” in the US. Maybe this term speaks to how we are thought of in this country. We are a transitory presence, a group of people who come and leave. But some of us do want to stay, and contribute. One of the favorite lines of American politicians is: “We are a nation of immigrants.” Perhaps it’s time for them to realize that in order for America to enjoy continued prosperity, it may need some of us aliens.

2 thoughts on “On Being Asian Non-American

  1. I saw this post shared by a mutual friend of ours and could not help but click on it and read it a few times over. I found it to be quite profound, in so much as it provoked a very profound response in me. As it is a rare day off and I enjoy intellectual pursuits, I took an hour or so to write this response to your points. I am not as talented a writer as you, and as this is informal, my ideas may come across as disjointed. I hope you will forgive me; I organized them in sections so as to cut down on confusion. I also hope that you will forgive me if I have misunderstood any point you were trying to make, I welcome any correction of my understanding you might have. Sorry if it’s a bit long:

    Regarding Stereotyping on the part of Whites and other Americans Towards Asian Americans and Asians in America:

    The Committee of 100 is an organization which seeks to advance and celebrate the Chinese American community in America. I’m sure that they welcome anyone of any race into their group who shares their goals because they desire to grow, be transparent, and reach out to increase understanding. But as well, the organization is dedicated to the Asian American community in the United States. You have openly (and some might say, proudly) stated that you are *not* an American; not to be technical, but you are sort of outside their mission statement. For instance, the other day, I went to the Japanese American Museum in Little Tokyo, Los Angeles with a friend. My friend asked if they had any Edo period exhibits to which the docent said “no, this is a *Japanese-American* museum— it’s just not what we do.”

    In terms of the Committee of 100, it sounds to me like they believe in culturation. That is not as strong a word as assimilation, which is to completely transform and integrate into your new surroundings. Rather to culturate is— as I like to put it— to remember where you’re from, while integrating into a new society; a German-American who celebrates Oktoberfest, or being Chinese-American while celebrating the Lunar New Year and carrying on culture, for instance. This is sort of akin to Booker T. Washington’s arguments about African Americans post-civil war: that they should better themselves, achieve educations, and become part of American Society, rather than continue to be separated from it and obey stigmas and racist stereotypes of the day.

    Until recently, immigration to the US (as politicians often refer to the US as a nation of immigrants) was just this: people of all races and creeds came to this country and— while remembering their own culture, bringing diversity to the pot— also integrated into American society and became American. The first wave of Chinese immigration took place during the 1840s-1860s, when Chinese immigrated to participate in amongst other things, the California Gold Rush and the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad. The Chinese during this period and afterward were supported by Chinese Benevolent Associations which sought to support the community’s transition into American society. The later wave of Chinese immigrants which took place during the late 1940s-1960s (during the Chinese Civil War and through the cultural revolution) did not experience culturation or assimilation because they became established in self-segregated communities in which there was no need to learn English or otherwise commiserate with people of other races. This self-segregation has contributed greatly to the image of the ‘other’ and has indeed contributed to stereotypes that this generations’ children contend with to this day. It is still sensible to conclude that the perception of the ‘other’ which is at the root of stereotypes experienced by Asians today stem from this period of self-segregation.

    I am a mixed race person who is Asian and White, (but I also look more White so I often joke my asian side doesn’t count). I grew up in Hawaii, a minority-majority state which is 70% asian. Hawaii is a terrific place that is far away from the racial struggles which happen in the other states. I lived in a diverse culture and had friends of all races growing up. Many were asian, yes. But also Whites, a few Hispanics and Blacks as well (although they were in an extreme minority in Hawaii). Culturally, being from a majority Asian place and having an asian mother, I relate well with Asians. But when I came to the mainland for college, I was really struck first of all by the propensity for Asians to, again, self-segregate. I had never seen racial clique-ing before, and they were not very welcoming to other races. Then, I saw the way this self-segregation perpetuated the ‘otherness’ which led to stereotyping by Whites. As an outsider from a different place, I had an incredibly unique and unbiased/uncolored vantage point from which to view it from. It was racism— to be sure— on both sides. Even Blacks and Whites did not have such a divide. It was really quite bizarre to me. All of this is not to excuse stereotyping on the part of majorities, but also consider that in China, outsiders and foreigners are viewed even more harshly in China (on the whole) than Chinese are here. They are discriminated against more strongly and institutionally than Chinese citizens (non-citizens cannot own property in China; until recently, they could not start businesses either without a Chinese partner). Korea and Japan are also famously xenophobic countries. A friend of mine from Hangzhou visited Shanghai a few weeks ago and wrote to me, stating that she was struck by the number of foreigners in the streets: “They are taking over! What is happening?” Mind you, that was a Chinese person talking about Whites in Shanghai. It is a natural reaction to change and can be overcome with understanding, which is why the Committee of 100’s work is so important here in the US. It is also something which Americans have become hyper conscious of, and which has had much work done in reversing it.

    Regarding Immigration and Alien status:

    As a non-resident alien, you do have many inalienable rights, which—humanistically speaking— derive from the fact that you are a person. Unless you are an ‘enemy combatant,’ you are protected against extrajudicial punishment or detainment; at a minimum you must be granted the same rights you have in your country of origin. The constitutional rights guaranteed by the first amendment (of which there are five) extend to you, even though you are not an American citizen (unless you are an agent or representative of a foreign government conducting business, in which case [American citizen or not] you must be registered). You have the right to own property; the right to start a lawful business. Many other rights guaranteed by the Bill of Rights extend to you as well. You enjoy the right to legal representation and the right to advocate on your behalf, even though you do not have the right to vote. But as a non-resident alien, you do not have the right to openly seek employment, and there are many societal, economic, and yes— political reasons for that.

    As brutal as it may seem, the lottery system is not meant to be an instrument of discrimination, but is a necessary tool because the economy is such that there is a larger workforce than there are number of jobs. During the first decades of the 20th century, the American economy was growing so rapidly, there was an immense wave of immigration. People of all types were welcomed— no questions asked— giving rise to the famous images of Italian and Irish immigrants at Ellis Island, or Chinese and Japanese immigrants lined up at Treasure Island in San Francisco. Even then, there was some discrimination (the Chinese Exclusion Acts, for instance; there were also anti-Catholic, anti-German and Italian and Irish exclusion laws back East). A lot of people don’t realize that between 1945 and the 1970s, there was literally no immigration at all (with the exception of refugees from war-torn countries like China, Korea and Vietnam). Soldiers came back from WW2 and entered the workforce, the baby boomers were being born and the economy, wracked by the war but now poised to grow, was not in a state to handle an influx of labor in the form of immigrants at the time. Today is another period in which the economy’s fundamentals are such that people are suffering, and there are millions of Americans out of work. They might say that the unemployment rate is around 5%, but workforce participation is at a 38 year low of only 62% (that is, only 62 percent of people who should be in the workforce are working— the rest are not seeking employment and believe me, it’s not because they have retired early). The rate of 5% does not reflect people who have given up seeking employment because of bad prospects (and support themselves through government subsidies). During the height of the great depression in 1933, the highest unemployment rate in the US was 25%. If they counted it today like they did back then, it would be closer to 30%.

    I understand that it may seem unfair, and I personally know many foreigners who by all accounts are worthy of obtaining H1Bs and staying here, and would actively contribute to society. But there are also many American graduates who have those same qualifications, are equally as talented and would do a great job in those positions. And remember, there are simply not enough jobs for everyone; otherwise, there wouldn’t be a problem in the first place. Not to mention that the American economy, even in its beleaguered and recessed state, still supports hundreds of millions of jobs overseas. But when you consider that today in our cities across this country that there are literally millions of Americans living on the streets who can’t even afford to buy food, I hope that you can forgive our politicians for wanting to prioritize taking care of those people [American citizens] first, rather than foreign nationals, some of whom have no desire to ever become American, and who have more than the means to succeed here or in their home countries.

    Realities of Asians in the workforce:

    You must consider also a few things about the state of Asians/Asian Americans in the US economy. People throw around the word “privilege” these days without really understanding what it means. But if you look at the numbers, Asians in the US are by far and away the most privileged racial subset of the population. Asian in the United States are the most well educated of any race with 57% of the workforce having at least a 4-year college degrees (compared with 32.6% of Whites and 19.6% of Blacks). They have the lowest unemployment rate of any race at 3.7% (compared with 4.7% of Whites and 9.8% of Blacks [again, I would dispute that these numbers are actually much higher across the board]). Asians are paid more than any other race, with their median household income being $68,636 (17% higher than Whites who earn on average $57,000 per household, and over twice as much as Blacks, who earn a median of $33,321 per household). Why is that? I would say it probably has something to do with our culture stressing hard work and education (another stereotype that I think most Asians would agree with, laugh and self-deprecate about). Asians are also over-represented (as a proportion of the total population) in almost every major competitive field (fields like engineering, medicine, law etc.). If you are trying to paint a picture of widespread and institutionalized racism against Asians in the American workforce, the numbers do not support your claim.

    I think you might also consider how your own vantage point has shaped your perception of the situation. You say that in order for America to enjoy continued prosperity, we might need some aliens. You are a Harvard student: you live in a veritable magic kingdom! A world so different— one might say *alien*— to the average person, surrounded by like minded and equally capable and intellectual people who share similar problems as you. You must forgive others if your writings come across to them as tainted by elitism and rather petulant. You will have no problem finding a job, you have a deck stacked in your favor (both because of your own talent and because of your educational background and connections). And while you should recognize that, you should not apologize for it: it is a good thing which you have earned, and I look up to you for your achievements.

    As well, forgive me but as I understand your bio, you are not yet in the workforce. I graduated with honors from the University of Southern California, majoring in International Relations: Foreign Policy and Security Analysis. I also studied music performance for fun (cello was my instrument). USC is a top 25 institution in the US (top 20 by some rankings) and even then, it took me a year to find employment after I graduated (I actually never found it: so frustrated was I with my job search, I gave up and started my own business); that was even with a degree which had professional emphasis. I know people who studied History of Art and Architecture at Harvard— a degree with absolutely no pre-professional emphasis at all [and the most popular major throughout all the Ivy’s, as I understand]— who immediately went into consulting at BCG or McKinsey. The problems which avail themselves to Harvard graduates are so completely distant from the realities which face other people— even other elites— it’s no wonder that Harvard graduates have contributed to running the civilized world into the ground for the past two centuries: they cannot relate with or even begin to understand what life is like for normal people, and there is no amount of theoretical discussion that can take place in a Harvard classroom which can substitute for experiencing it yourself. The fact of the matter is that America is only prosperous to some. It’s not that we don’t want to take talented aliens, we *cannot afford* to take them.

    Lastly, on Chinese Americans Suspected of Espionage:

    Industrial and military espionage committed by agents of the Chinese government has been widely described as the biggest transfer of wealth and data in history. That’s because it is. Hundreds of billions of dollars in business have been stolen by Chinese companies— backed by their government— from US companies through industrial espionage. Chinese Cyber espionage is a serious threat to the United States, and so widespread is Chinese infiltration, the US government has taken drastic steps against it. It does not help that the People’s Liberation Army has openly stated the United States is the enemy, and has based its strategy around the possibility of a war with the United States and its allies in the South China Sea as well as (though less likely) over Taiwan. Their intelligence gathering operation seeks: first on the military/defense side, to procure information of US technologies so as to copy or be able to counter them on the battlefield; second, on the civilian side, to procure and reverse engineer US technology to provide an advantage to their own state-owned or homegrown companies. This is my bread and butter, US-China relations and security was my area of expertise.

    Prof. Xi and Sherry Chen, the two cases you mentioned, were not persecuted because of the color of their skin. They were persecuted because their activities were highly suspicious. Professor Xi was working in a field with serious national security implications (who knows what connections with US government projects he may have had in the past) and was passing US industrial designs (which may or may not have been proprietary) to a Chinese national. As innocuous as the subject of the designs, it is certainly cause for suspicion. Thank God that the US justice system is indeed just and presumes innocence; he was rightfully found not guilty. But you cannot blame the government for scrutinizing his actions. In Chen’s instance, she was a US government scientist sharing information (public though it may have been) with a Chinese government official. Even if the information is public, it is often the case that such information sharing must be approved. Again, justice prevailed and she was found innocent.

    Now, consider these two rather encompassing cases of Chinese wrongfully accused of spying. Then, consider them against the myriad of cases in which Chinese were actually caught committing espionage. The Chinese Communist Party tends to believe that it has jurisdiction over all Chinese, everywhere, regardless of nationality. One can see that in the case of Lee Bo, the Hong Kong Bookseller and British national, who was abducted and detained by PRC authorities for selling unapproved books. Or in the case of Taiwanese nationals being deported from Kenya to Mainland China last week. This has been perpetuated in propaganda by the CCP— that you are Chinese first. Many people believe it and when they come to new places, still have sympathies with their homeland. You yourself, for instance, view yourself as Chinese first. This of course complicates the situation for many Chinese working in America in sensitive fields or positions with national security implications. Consider the case of US Navy Lieutenant Commander Edward C Lin. Born in Taiwan, he became a nationalized US citizen in 2008, and has recently been arrested for spying on behalf of China. Or the case of Tai Shen Kuo, another Taiwanese man who became an American Citizen, and who was caught red handed and later convicted of spying on behalf of the PRC.

    There are also many individuals of other races caught spying for China. In Hawaii, we are particularly conscious of Chinese espionage as Hawaii is a major hub for US military activity in the Pacific. An acquaintance of an old colonel I know, a caucasian former military man who was a civilian worker at US Pacific Command in Hawaii, was charged and convicted of espionage after he was charmed by— ironically— a young Chinese woman who was an international student here on a student visa. She charmed him into giving her classified information. He is serving a 20 year jail sentence, the news didn’t say whether or not she was charged; I heard the FBI deported her— basically getting away scot-free. There are also many more people caught spying for Russia, and a famous case of an Egyptian-American engineer passing on Aircraft Carrier blueprints to a foreign agent.

    The point is that Chinese espionage against the United States is a big problem and cannot be taken lightly. It is good that Xi and Chen were found innocent— they were not guilty. But it is also important to understand why their activities drew suspicion. Not all people like them are innocent.


    Those are just my views on things. I am not usually one to debate, but I found this quite refreshing. The topics you write about on your blog are most interesting and illustrative of life from your perspective. I hope you will not take offense to me for disagreeing with you on some points.

    -Hunter Hunt

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