Despite generations of contributions to the American enterprise, Charles Feng and his family are still forced to confront the question, “Are you American?”
On a sunny weekend afternoon, we were riding in the car when my four-year-old daughter asked, “Why are Americans only white people?”
Blood rushed to my face. I am a second-generation Chinese American. My wife, her mom, is a second generation Korean American. Her pre-school is 90% Asian. Her toys and books portray characters of all races, and there’s no TV at home so she can’t be exposed to mass media. And yet somehow, it’s been instilled in her mind that only white people are considered true Americans.
I flashed back to the moment when I was at the pediatrician’s office, maybe a year older than my daughter at the time. The doctor, an Asian man, asked me, “Are you Chinese or American?” Without hesitation I shouted, “American!” Then the doctor laughed, saying, “No, you’re Chinese!” Apparently I was not allowed to be both. It was only in college, when I started reading about Chinese American history, that I realized my doctor and I were continuing a conversation that stretched back 200 years, since the Chinese first arrived in the United States in the 1820s. Though they were denied citizenship, these Chinese immigrants were Americans in spirit. They were 49ers during the Gold Rush, built the transcontinental railroad, even fought in the Civil War.
By raising my daughter in a multi-racial environment, I hoped to get ahead of an identity crisis that took me decades to sort through. But my efforts weren’t enough. Perhaps she has an ability, found only in children, to distill the emotions and thoughts permeating the air to their absolute essence. She has a sense, never articulated, that despite our centuries-long history, Chinese Americans are still fighting for their place in the great American story. The spate of anti-Chinese violence during the pandemic shows that our almond-shaped eyes, black hair, and pale complexion still leaves us othered, perpetual foreigners.