Reception of Asians to the United States

views updated

Reception of Asians to the United States

Asian America is a meaningful social construct in understanding and analyzing Western colonialism in Asia, and immigration policy and racial hierarchy in American society. As a group identity, Asian-American is an externally imposed label because it is based on race rather than culture. The most misleading reference to Asians is the term Oriental. Derogatory in nature, the term refers to people anywhere east of the Suez Canal, blurs cultural differences within Asia, and defines many different peoples as one racial group. Beginning in the nineteenth century, Asian countries were subjected to the political and economical encroachment of Western imperialist powers. India became a colony under Britain after the 1813 Charter Act. China was almost dismembered after the Opium War in 18391842. Japan was opened up by the American commodore Matthew Perry in 1853. The Philippines became a U.S. territory after the Spanish-American War of 1898. Korea was annexed by Japan in 1910.

Asian Immigration

Asian migration to America was a result of colonialism in Asia and a response to the labor shortage in the American West. Global capitalism brought almost one million Asian immigrants to America. Asians became an "Oriental problem" when they arrived in American society. Racist rhetoric in California described Asian immigrants as "undesirable coolies" or as the "yellow peril" unable to assimilate into American culture. Perceived as "strangers from different shores" and denied equal protection under American law, Asians were often victims of racial harassment and violence. Regardless of their cultural differences, Asians' experience in America is similar in nature. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prohibited Chinese labor migration. The Gentlemen's Agreement of 1908 stopped the Japanese. The Barred Zone Act of 1917 banned Asian Indians. The Tydings-McDuffie Act of 1934 excluded Filipinos. Subject to exclusion and ineligible for citizenship, Asian immigrants lived under the shadow of institutionalized racism.


Racial profiling of Asians began with the Chinese, as they were the first Asian group to arrive in the United States. During the peak of Chinese immigration in the late nineteenth century, union rallies, political election campaigns, and editorials in newspapers and journals all denounced the Chinese as a "degraded people with low civilization," and as a "perpetual, unchanging, and unchangeable alien element." Bret Harte's poem "The Heathen Chinese" and its popularity best manifested the fear of Chinese in America. Travel accounts of American diplomats, missionaries, and merchants also described the Chinese as an inward-looking, superstitious, and devious race. In response to such anti-Chinese frenzy, the early Chinese community actively advocated their interest, engaged in lobbying and legal activities as a form of resistance, or appealed for better protection from the Chinese government. As early as 1852, a Chinese merchant named Norman Asing wrote a letter in smooth English rejecting Governor John Bigler's description of the Chinese as "unassimilated and dishonest" and emphasizing the significant contribution the Chinese made to American society and their great cultural traditions. Mary Tape in 1885 made an angry protest when the San Francisco Board of Education banned her daughter from attending a public school. A Christian and an educated woman, she sued the board of education and the principal. When the superior court decided in the family's favor, the board appealed to the California Supreme Court. The superintendent of schools then lobbied the legislature, which passed a law establishing separate schools for "children of Mongolian or Chinese descent." This law was not repealed until 1947.

During the exclusion period (18821943), incoming Chinese immigrants were detained and interrogated at the Angel Island immigration station from several days to several months. Waiting in bitterness and frustration, Chinese immigrants inscribed hundreds of poems on the wall to express their resentment and to protest against racism. Chinese immigrants linked their suffering in America to a divided and weakened China. After Congress voted to bar Chinese immigration permanently in 1904, Chinese in America joined their countrymen in China to launch a vigorous boycott movement in 1905 against American imports to China. Interestingly, Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin was translated into Chinese in the same year and became an immediate hit as the Chinese related the African slaves' misery to their own suffering. Though the boycott did not get the Chinese a better immigration policy, it forever linked the treatment of Chinese in America to Chinese nationalist consciousness.


Arriving shortly after the Chinese were excluded, Japanese immigrants inherited much anti-Asian sentiment. Racial slurs in the American West were quickly switched from "chink" to "Yellow Jap." However, the Japanese had better protection from their government than did the Chinese. When Japanese-American children were rejected from public schools in San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake destroyed "Little Tokyo," Japan quickly protested and interfered. Writings from the missionary Sidney Gulick and the Japanese scholar Yamato Ichihashi, who was fluent in English, also assured the American public that Japanese immigrants were assimilating. Though the Gentlemen's Agreement stopped labor immigrants, it allowed Japanese women to enter America as "picture brides." Allowed to develop family life, the Japanese-American community did not become a "bachelor society" like the Chinese and Filipino communities. Still, confronted with racial antagonism, Japanese immigrants pursued assimilation. Kyutaro Abiko, a wealthy labor contractor and publisher of a Japanese language newspaper, urged Japanese immigrants to consider permanent settlement and give up the dekaseginin (sojourner) mentality. Some Americanized Japanese immigrants like Takao Ozawa applied for citizenship. Ozawa argued that he was American by heart and that the Japanese belonged to a superior race, as they had absorbed many Caucasian qualities. Even his skin color appeared whiter than the dark-skinned Italians, Spanish, and Portuguese. However, in the case of Ozawa v. the United States of 1922, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that "white person" means Caucasiana race that the Japanese did not belong to. Congress later passed the 1924 Immigration Law, which totally stopped Japanese migration to America. Nationalistic mass rallies were held throughout Japan, and protesters called 1 July, the effective date of the law, "National Humiliation Day." Japanese-American newspapers all criticized the law as racist.

Asian Indians.

The racial identity of Asian Indians was perhaps more challenging to American racial discourse than that of any other Asian group (though only about eight thousand Indians arrived in America around the 1910s) because they were considered Caucasian. The San Franciscobased Asiatic Exclusion League argued that although Asian Indians shared similar ancestry with Europeans, they were eastern Aryans and "slaves of Creation." The U.S. attorney general in 1907 declared that under no condition were those British nationals to be granted U.S. citizenship. After the Court denied Ozawa's application for citizenship, the Indian immigrant Bhagat Singh Thind applied for his citizenship the following year. He cited many anthropological sources to prove the similarity of physical features between Indians, Englishmen, and Germans, and declared himself a member of the "pure Aryan race." The Court replied that the definition of "white" had to be based on the "understanding of the common man." Since the popular perception of the Caucasian race was based on skin color, the Court ruled that Asian Indians were Caucasians but not white. With this ruling, racial ideology placed Japanese and Asian Indians in the same racial category.


Filipino immigrants represent a different type of challenge to American racial ideology. Coming from a U.S. territory, Filipinos were American nationals who pledged allegiance to the American flag and could travel freely within the territories of the United States. Filipino men were also recruited into the American merchant marine and the U.S. Navy. As colonial subjects, however, they were treated as an inferior race. The English writer Rudyard Kipling described them as "half devil and half child" and called them "the White Man's Burden," which typically illustrates the racial image of Filipinos in the eyes of white Americans. The political, economic, and cultural relationship between the Philippines and the United States constituted the context in which the immigrants developed their identity. They spoke English, wore Western style clothes, and knew American culture. Many Filipino immigrants felt that they had already been somehow Americanized before their arrival. The immigrant writer Carlos Bulason published his autobiographical novel entitled America Is in the Heart. Coming from a racially diverse society, Filipino men frequented dance halls and socialized with white women. Racial discourse on Filipinos often centered on "the threat of Filipinos to white racial purity." A San Francisco municipal court judge wrote that it was "a dreadful thing when these Filipinos, scarcely more than savages, come to San Francisco, work for practically nothing, and obtain the society of these [white] girls" (cited in Takaki, p. 328). Dr. David P. Barrows, former president of the University of California, testified before Congress that social problems of Filipinos were based almost entirely on their sexual passion. An antimiscegenation law in California prohibited interracial marriage between whites and "Negroes, mulattoes, or Mongolians." In 1933, Salvador Roldan and three other immigrants discovered a loophole in this law. Before the Los Angeles Superior Court, Roldan argued that Filipinos belonged to the Malay rather than the Mongolian race. Shortly after they obtained their marriage licenses, the California legislature amended the antimiscegenation law and added the Malay race to the restricted category. The following year, the Tydings-McDuffie Act granted the colony commonwealth status, permitted a ten-year transition period to independence, defined Filipinos as "aliens" though still owing allegiance to the United States, and allocated an annual immigration quota of fifty. Since the minimum quota for a country was usually one hundred, racial ideology degraded the Philippines as a semi-nation-state.


Korean migration to America from 1902 to 1905 was a result of American missionary activities in Asia and the Japanese occupation of Korea. Fewer in number, Korean immigrants viewed themselves as exiled fighters for national liberation from Japan. While nationalism shaped Korean immigrants' identity, Christian churches played a key role in community organization. The first Korean language churchthe Korean Evangelical Societywas established in Hawaii in 1902. The Bible had already been translated into hangul, a script that replaced Chinese characters in late-nineteenth-century Korea. By 1918, there were thirty-three Korean Protestant churches in Hawaii that provided Sunday school and Korean language classes. Korean books and periodicals were imported as the immigrants maintained a distinct ethnic identity and resisted assimilation. In Hawaii, they organized tong-hoe (village councils) in each locality with more than ten Korean families. Their grass roots organizations later developed into the Korean National Association. Representing all Koreans in North America, the organization had 116 local branches and chapters in Manchuria and Siberia. In 1913, fifteen Korean farm workers were driven away by several hundred Caucasian workers in the small town of Hemet, California. When the Japanese ambassador in Washington, D.C., filed a protest on their behalf, the Korean National Association sent a telegram to the Department of State claiming that they were Koreans, not Japanese, and that the investigation made by Japanese diplomats was illegal. Preservation of Korean identity and culture became their patriotic duty.

Landmarks in Asian-American History

World War II was a watershed for Asian-American identity. Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. The next day, the United States and China together declared war on Japan. The mainstream media began to portray the Chinese as honest and hardworking and the Japanese as treacherous and cruel. A Time magazine article on 22 December 1941 was intended to assist American society at large to physically distinguish the Chinese from the Japanese. According to the article, Japanese men were "broader hipped" than Chinese men; and the Chinese expression was likely to be "more placid, kindly, open while Japanese were arrogant, hesitant and nervous in conversation" (cited by Takaki, p. 370). In 1943, all Chinese exclusion acts were repealed; a quota of 105 was granted; and Chinese immigrants became eligible for citizenship. In 1946, Congress also extended the privilege of naturalization to Filipinos and Asian Indians with an annual quota of 100 respectively. The policy change was in fact a response to Japanese war propaganda, which often criticized racial discrimination against the Chinese in America. When the House delayed the repeal bill in June 1943, Japanese radio immediately challenged the sincerity of the American government in ending the racial disparity. During the war, magazines, journals, and newspapers defined Japanese-Americans as the "Fifth Column" and "potential spies or espionage agents" and called for mass internment. Shinto and Buddhist priests and Japanese-language teachers and newspaper editors were arrested as "enemy aliens." Based on popular sentiment rather than on "military necessity," Executive Order 9066 placed 120,000 Japanese Americans in ten internment camps without a legal procedure. In February 1943, the U.S. government required all internees to answer a loyalty questionnaire. Question No. 27 asked draft-age males about their willingness to serve in the U.S. armed forces while Question No. 28 required them to swear unqualified allegiance to America. Racial ideology embodied in the questionnaire implied that Japanese were not loyal. Minoru Yasui, Gordon Hirabayashi, and Frederic Korematsu challenged the constitutionality of the internment policy in court when they were ordered to go to the camps.

The 1965 Immigration Reform Act is another landmark in Asian-American history. Growing political consciousness among Asians in the late 1960s through participation in the civil rights movement, antiVietnam War protests, and student strikes demanding ethnic studies courses on university campuses laid the theoretical foundation for Asian-American identity. Asian America became a meaningful political term. Asian population in America also grew dramatically since the law removed racial criteria from immigration policy for the first time in American history. In 1965, Asian-Americans numbered about one million, or less than 1 percent of the U.S. population. In 2002, their numbers had increased 72 percent in a decade, and in 2004 they numbered almost 12 million, representing 4.2 percent of U.S. population. In December 1966, U.S. News and World Report published an article entitled "Success Story of One Minority in the United States." This and many other articles on "Model Minority" myth commended the economical rise of Asian-Americans in spite of historical discrimination and accused African-Americans of making unreasonable demands for government assistance. Post-1965 racial rhetoric presents Asian-Americans as a minority with high educational attainment levels, high median family incomes, and low crime rates. Some Asian-American scholars and leaders strongly disagree with this Model Minority theory, for it downplays historical racial discrimination against Asians and creates misunderstanding and conflicts between Asians and other groups. But there are many Asians who take a more nuanced view toward it. In any case, the "glass ceiling" is still a major obstacle to the career mobility of many professional Asian-Americans, and the "sweat shop" job is often the only option for working-class immigrant Asian women. More importantly, a high percentage of contemporary Asian-American families, especially the refugee immigrants from Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos, still live below the poverty line, and the Model Minority theory has disqualified Asians as racial minorities from important social remedy programs in education and employment. Asian-Americans have a long way to go in their pursuit of racial equality.

See also Asian-American Ideas (Cultural Migration) ; Identity, Multiple: Asian-Americans .


Chan, Sucheng. Asian Americans: An Interpretive History. Boston: Twayne, 1991.

Cheng, Lucie, and Edna Bonacich, eds. Labor Immigration under Capitalism: Asian Workers in the United States before World War II. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

Espiritu, Yen Le. Asian American Panethnicity: Bridging Institutions and Identities. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992.

Fong, P. Timothy. The Contemporary Asian American Experience: Beyond the Model Minority. 2nd edition. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2002.

Hing, Bill Ong. Making and Remaking Asian America through Immigration Policy, 18501990. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1993.

Kitano, Harry H. L., and Roger Daniels. Asian Americans: Emerging Minorities. 2nd edition. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1995.

Lee, Robert G. Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999.

Takaki, Ronald T. Strangers from the Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown, 1989.

Wei, William. The Asian American Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Zhou, Min, and James V. Gatewood, eds. Contemporary Asian America: A Multidisciplinary Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2000.

Haiming Liu