Shattered Immigrant Dreams of American Exceptionalism
How the Asian-American attacks undermine my parents’ sacrifices and our immigrant journey
I was born in the very northeast of Mainland China, in the city of Harbin. I remember my harbored resentment towards my parents for making me move to a foreign country without any language support, but as I grow older, I understand their intentions behind doing so. With the latest Asian American attacks denied for their race-based intentions, I wonder if my parents regret their last 20 years uprooting their lives and moving to the U.S.
From starvation and survival to a new opportunity of livelihood
As my parents’ generation in China starved as children, seeing China at its current, developed state is unimaginable for immigrants who have chosen to sacrifice their lives, leave their family behind, and create a new beginning for their future generations in the promised land of America.
My parents grew up in rural China. My mom’s family had a farm, while my dad’s starved as he stole food, then joined the army to sustain them. No one knew what the outside looked like. They were focused on surviving and doing whatever they needed to support their family. No one in my city had ever left China, let alone have time to even think about a country 5000 miles away. My parents worked hard, met each other, married, then continued to work hard.
The first time my parents went to America was a month after I was born in the year 2000. That trip must have been life-changing, because just six years later, I was on a plane to America with just two suitcases and a teddy bear, not having known what America even was.
America: the land of opportunity, without supportive infrastructure
The opportunity to live the American Dream is one that Asian immigrants must whole-heartedly believe in. Otherwise, the journey would be too difficult.
Americans, born and raised, have a different perception of ‘opportunity’ than immigrants like my parents and me. Americans believe the difference in opportunity that stems from different races, genders, and backgrounds is inherently unjust. This is true in all ways: historically, practically, socially, and morally, particularly considering the history of systemic racism in the U.S. However, in China, the concept of race is negligible, and poverty was rampant regardless, and that was just how it was.
There were no expectations of the government to lift you out of poverty. That’s why my parents did not complain once about the difficulties they faced while moving to the U.S.
- You take what you’re given without complaint, and if you don’t like it, do something about it. Or leave. (Formal complaints weren’t dealt with by the law nor the police, and informal complaints made you seem ungrateful.)
- Life in the U.S., even without infrastructural support, was better than life in China could have been. Nothing else needed to be said. (You should not expect everything in life to be easy, or else you’re being lazy and greedy.)
These Chinese cultural notions — also prevalent in other Asian cultures — fed straight into the American politicians’ model minority narrative.
Playing into the ‘Model Minority’ narrative to overcome racism
One of the first waves of Asian immigration stemmed from the Gold Rush demand. They initially came to California to mine gold, then worked on the Transcontinental Railroad. However, the narrative about Asians evolved as the supply of job opportunities overtook demand and the West Coast economy shrunk rapidly.
Combined with the mysterious, alluring, ‘Oriental’ trope applied to Asian women, the preconceptions that white Americans already had about Asian immigrants morphed with their own anxiousness about job security behind American capitalism. For example, Denis Kearney of the California Workingmen Party ended all his speeches with “The Chinese must go.” This even became the party slogan. The Los Angeles Massacre of Chinese Americans in 1871 and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 are just two more examples of anti-Chinese sentiment in the U.S.
However, the government and media began to shift this narrative. After Japanese Americans were released from the internment camps post-WWII, there were stories of them “scattering” throughout the U.S. American politicians and media portrayed these injustices as a “starting point” to Asians’ journey of assimilation. This ideological story became a salve for white guilt, since the victims of racism were now “assimilated and happier” because of it.
This model minority narrative pushed Asians living in America to adapt accordingly. The only strategy for Asian immigrants to be considered even remotely “American” was to portray themselves consistently with American values.
To combat Asian-specific racism during World War II and the peak of McCarthyism pre-Cold War, Chinatown leaders in metropolitan cities strategically published stories to spread cultural awareness and boost their reputations in the eyes of born-and-raised Americans.
For example, the 1950s’ ideals of a perfect, nuclear family living in white-picketed fences throughout American Suburbia were reflected by Chinese people claiming that their children always listen and respect their elders, study diligently, and don’t cause trouble at school or date: all in line with “Confucian ethics” and its way of life.
The model minority label slowly ingrained into Americans’ minds, and this, in part, contributed to my own family’s immigration to the U.S. They hadn’t heard of the racism against Chinese people just a couple of decades prior, and subsequently, they chose to take a risk and move abroad, having felt slightly comforted by this label. They believed that America would welcome us, not with economic stimulus or citizenship support, but with the idea that anti-Chinese sentiment would not hinder our family’s development in the promised land.
Before I left China, I asked my grandmother and aunt if the Americans would like me. My aunt — never having met an American, let alone ever having traveled to the Western world — smiled at me, and said that white boys like Chinese girls with small, monolid eyes. I remember combing over this statement as a sense of comfort during my first 13-hour plane ride.
My parents’ views of American exceptionalism to justify their own sacrifices
Having the privilege to choose where to attend my final year of university — intended as a leaping platform for where I might want to live after graduation — I’m torn between Hong Kong and Los Angeles. When asking my parents, their first reaction was pure shock and indignation of why I’d potentially want to return and live in Asia.
My parents understood how drastically Mainland China has developed economically and socially during the time they established our second lives in America. Ironically, this move was purely based on the assumption that China would not have offered the same opportunities for our family. However, the idea of me establishing myself back in Asia after all their sacrifices moving us to America seemed like a slap across their faces.
After investing their life savings on an overpriced house in the middle of the Jewish suburbs, living 15 years separated from one another because my mother raised me in the U.S. while my father funded our life from abroad, and spending 15 years of lonely discomfort from no one wanting to understand their broken English — why would I undermine all their sacrifices and give up on America?
Funnily enough, my Chinese parents’ sense of American exceptionalism matches that of ex-President Trump’s rhetoric and that of his supporters. Both first-generation immigrants and born-and-raised Americans relied on this sentiment. They used this as a crutch to justify their own struggles brought about by capitalist competition that established America’s role as a global leader in the first place.
Those that came here because of the model minority trope didn’t necessarily realize this preconception contributed to isolating themselves from Americans born-and-raised. However, it seemed like a welcome change of racism: that even though assumptions were made due to how they looked, at least they assumed “good” things. They put up with the isolation, the racism, and the hardships because they believed that their hard work, belief in the free world, its rule of law, and capitalist ambitions would be enough to ensure success.
The underlying source of pain about the Atlanta attacks
For the same reason that acts of domestic terrorism affect citizens in a much more harmful way than attacks from external sources, the underlying pain that Asians in America have been experiencing comes from the fact that their sacrifices for a more stable life might have been made in vain. Their mother countries were uninhabitable, so they left to seek someplace better.
However, these waves of attacks against Asians and Asian-Americans are a brutal wake-up call for those like us who felt safe due to the model minority narrative, yet now face an unsafe, malicious walk to the grocery store. These are two sides of the same coin that just so happened to manifest differently.
I’m afraid to ask my parents if they regret immigrating to this country. If they say yes, that would undermine their struggles for the past 20 years in search of a better life. If they say no, then the struggles they’ve dealt with would have been worth the alternative. Is one reply better than the other?