“What does it mean to be American?” A Reflection by Sung Yi, Class of 2023

Home - The Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month of Learning

May is AAPI Heritage Month, a time in which we honor Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander communities.

However, it cannot be limited to a single month out of the year. As we acknowledge and celebrate the influence and contributions of AAPI leaders in this country, we also must call out the alarming rise in anti-Asian discrimination and hate crimes. Given the history of this country’s failure to protect and stand with the AAPI community, these recent acts of targeted violence are neither new nor acceptable. According to Stop Asian Hate, there have been 6,603 hate crimes from March 19, 2020 to March 31, 2021 and these are only the incidents reported online.

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Here I reflect on the incredibly diverse languages, cultures, migration stories, and multifaceted identities that make up generations of our AAPI community. One question that I kept coming back to was, what does it mean to be American? I was born and raised here in the United States, I pay taxes every year, I have a dog, I am married, and I speak English. Does this make me American? Do these characteristics earn me the right to feel safe in MY own country? At what point will I no longer be seen as an outsider and be accepted as an American? When will I or other AAPI individuals finally be welcome to be a part of this country, rather than navigating this society feeling like an “other”?

Documents show that the first Asian Americans arrived during the late 1500’s in present day California. Chinese and Filipino Americans fought for the Union in the American Civil War. Chinese Americans were the predominant labor force in building the transcontinental railroad. The Page Act of 1875, prevented Chinese women from immigrating to the United States, marking the first restrictive immigration law in this country. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented any individual of Chinese descent from immigrating to the United States, the only law in US history to exclude a specific group of people based on their ethnic/racial background. The Immigration Act of 1924 restricted all Asian immigration and Alien Land Laws prevented land ownership. Executive order 9066 called for the incarceration of all 120,000 Japanese Americans and approximately 75% of those incarcerated were United States citizens. The brutal murder of Vincent Chin by two white Americans only serving three years of probation. The LA Riots of 1992 which led to over $1 billion in destruction to Korean American owned businesses because law enforcement abandoned this community. The World Trade Center attacks on 9/11 led to the alarming increase of hate crimes committed against the South Asian Sikh community because of their turbans. These moments in history repeat itself until we as a collective can reckon with the harm caused, the healing that must be done, and the compounded generational trauma yet to be unpacked. The AAPI community once again fears for their safety, fights for the humanity of their elders’ livelihoods, and demands that this country confront this history of xenophobia and racism that continues to persist.

I share these examples to portray a common theme: a country with a deep-rooted history of scapegoating and dehumanizing Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders. AAPI’s have been blamed for labor shortages, poor wages, poverty, and a threat to western values and the safety of all Americans. I became aware of the AAPI experience in the United States as an American Ethnic Studies (AES) major during my undergraduate studies. Up to that point, my education of American history did not include me or anyone else that looked like me in the textbooks. The first AES class I took gave me a sense of belonging that I had never felt before. I realized then the power and necessity of representation. Diversity is great but it cannot be all that we strive for; when we push for inclusivity, we give everyone a seat at the table to influence decisions that affect their communities. 

There is an ongoing, concerted effort to ban AES in US education because they incorrectly believe that it promotes divisiveness and hatred toward white Americans. I saw this quote online that is true to my experience as an AES graduate. “Ethnic studies did not teach me to hate white people. It taught me to love myself. It didn’t instill anti-American values in me, it showed me that I had been a part of American history all along.” But it also showed me a history of atrocities rooted in discrimination and pitting communities of color against one another that has fueled the hatred we are forced to confront today. 

I never thought that I would live during a time where I would have to relive the trauma of previous generations. I never thought that I would fear for the safety of my parents or my wife’s parents and grandparents for these reasons. I never thought that a family with roots in this country since the 1890’s would have to fear walking down the street to their dentist appointment. My wife is a 5th generation Japanese American as well as a 3rd generation Chinese American. My wife’s grandfather was placed into an incarceration camp at 12 years old, he served in the United States Airforce, and worked for Boeing over 30 years. For better and worse, he is a part of this country’s history. Yet, my wife and I felt immense pain having to inform him, as well as the rest of our family about the potential dangers of going outside – even in broad daylight. Could today be the day someone decides my family is less worthy to live a life free of harm than their own grandmother, mother, grandfather, or father?

I am not the reason there is COVID-19. China is not the reason there is COVID-19. The fault falls on incompetent leadership and an inadequate response that instead decided to once again put the AAPI community in harms way as evidenced by the 63 elected officials that voted against the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act. Regardless, the passing of the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act is nothing more than a mirage, an empty promise that will not deter these attacks until these crimes are persecuted more severely. I can only hope that meaningful substantive change awaits the AAPI community in the near future.

So here I am again wondering what does it mean to be American? What can I do or say to no longer be blamed or pushed aside? Nothing. I cannot do anything more nor should I have to do more to prove my worth as an American. It is up to the members of society to fight with the AAPI community. I ask you to go beyond a month-long celebration and to see how you can show up for our AAPI students, staff, and the local community. Together, it is up to us to create the change our communities need and deserve.

City College events celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage  Month

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