What Makes a ‘Real’ American?

Moving beyond the assumption that all Asian Americans are immigrants

Closeup of an Asian woman’s face against a filtered American flag background.
Photo illustration; Image source: Alao Yokogi/Daniel Kaesler /EyeEm/Getty Images

When asked at one of his press events if he’d heard the assertion that Democratic vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris was not eligible to serve, President Donald Trump replied with this: “But that’s a very serious, you’re saying that, they’re saying that she doesn’t qualify because she wasn’t born in this country.”

Senator Harris is a Black and Asian American woman, born in Oakland, California, a citizen by birth of the United States. Her mother was an immigrant from India and her father an immigrant from Jamaica when they met as grad students at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s. Because Harris is an extremely skilled politician, an experienced elected official, and a charismatic leader, she is also quite a formidable threat to the incumbents.

Quite predictably, Trump and his surrogates have resorted to racist dog whistles to criticize Harris, her accent, her personality, even questioning her citizenship and eligibility to run for the office.

I say “predictably” because Trump and his media allies used this same strategy to undermine President Barack Obama during the eight years of his presidency. And also because as an Asian American born in California, I’ve faced these same tropes my whole life. Asian Americans are always considered perpetual foreigners in our own country.

I’ve been asked too many times to count where I’m from, where I’m really from.

When I went on tour for my first novel more than 20 years ago, White people in the audience at bookstore readings routinely expressed surprise at my American accent. This occurred in all parts of the U.S., from coast to coast, in the Midwest and Rocky Mountain regions. It occurred in diverse cities with large Asian American populations where you’d assume people would be used to seeing a woman with Asian facial features speaking in English. “Your English is really good,” I remember one man telling me at a bookstore in Berkeley, California.

“I would hope so,” I said. “I just wrote this whole novel in English.”

I’ve been asked too many times to count where I’m from, where I’m really from. The first time I can recall was when I was six and my family had just moved to New Jersey from the west coast for my father’s new job. “Are you from China?” a White kid at school asked.

“Are you crazy?” I replied. “I’m from California!”

The teacher thought this was so funny, she repeated it to my parents later at a conference. She did not, however, at the time think to correct my classmate’s assumption.

Then when I was 12, we moved to the Midwest, and now not only did I get asked where I was really from, but a White classmate insisted he could hear an imaginary accent. He insisted upon correcting my pronunciation every time I encountered him in the lunchroom.

On and on it went. Every year, at every school I attended. Then as an adult, with every new job.

“So where are you from?”

“California.”

“No, before that.”

“My mother’s womb,” I say.

I’m in my fifties now and believe me, I’ve got a pocket full of comebacks at this point in my life.

Part of the problem, I’m convinced, is that no Asians ever get to play Americans in Hollywood movies or TV shows, where the majority of the world, including my fellow Americans, apparently get their notions of who is American.

According to a landmark study of 242 TV shows and 2,052 series from 2017, 96% of television shows have a White series regular, but only 4.3% have a monoracial Asian American/Pacific Islander character and 2.6% a multiracial AAPI actor.

For movies, it’s even worse. One study showed that while AAPIs make up 5.4% of the U.S. population, we played less than 2% of the leads in all Hollywood movies in 2014.

In the late 1990s, I remember seeing a television commercial for toothpaste that featured an East Asian American man brushing his teeth. I was visiting my father at the time, and I was so shocked that I called out to my father to come look at the TV. It was that rare and that surprising to me to see an Asian American doing something normal, an everyday activity, not promoting an “Ancient Chinese secret” like the Calgon laundry detergent ads of my youth or frozen Asian food, no martial arts or calligraphy or honor tropes. Just a man brushing his teeth, as one does.

I shouldn’t have felt excitement at such paltry representation, but I did.

Now Disney is touting its live-action remake of Mulan, filled with a cast of Chinese and Chinese Americans in a feature — but they’re waving swords and spouting bromides about “honor,” all the same old Orientalist tropes, and I don’t feel excited so much as exhausted.

When will I ever get to see a Hollywood film with Asian Americans as Americans, portraying a story authentic to our lived experiences?

Charles Yu in his 2020 novel Interior Chinatown described the results of internalizing these stereotypical images as inhibiting Asian Americans’ aspirations to “Figuring out the show, finding our place in it, which was the background, as scenery, as nonspeaking players. Figuring out what we’re allowed to say. Above all, trying to never, ever offend.”

Which is perhaps one of the reasons why every time Senator Harris gives a speech on TV or an interview on the cable news programs, I find myself propelled to text family and friends, near and far: “Did you see Kamala? She was good!” Because the little girl in me who has longed for representation, to see an Asian woman as an American, not as a victim or a hokey Oriental stereotype, but as — oh, my! — a leader, is thrilled.

I’m hoping that Senator Harris’ historic campaign, at the very least, will help us as a nation to recognize finally that the United States of America is made up of citizens of every race and ethnicity, and from combinations of every race and ethnicity, including, yes, Asians.

Author of Useful Phrases for Immigrants: Stories, winner of the American Book Award. Bylines in Kenyon Review Online, Paris Review Online, Seventeen +

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