I was dutifully driving my wife and mother-in-law back home from brunch on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, and I hung a left onto Lexington Avenue. As I crept down Lex towards the middle of the block, the late morning sun poked past a skyscraper and flooded my retina with blinding sunlight. I proceeded slowly south, when I heard someone pound their fist on my hood. I had come awfully close to a middle-aged white dude walking in the middle of the block, and who had been made completely invisible by the intense sun glare. Disaster was avoided, but then up came his middle finger and some shouting.
I rolled down my window to settle this pedestrian driver dispute. I told him it’s dangerous to walk in the middle of the street, especially when the sun is against traffic like it was.
“This is New York, get used to it, it’s how we do it here,” said the white dude after sizing me up.
“And that’s how you’re going to die,” I replied, after assessing his innate petulance.
I laughed a deep belly laugh and drove off, never really thinking about it again. And that was the end of that encounter. Did he say that because I’m Asian, and therefore he assumed I’m not from New York? Would he have said “this is New York” to a white guy? Does he hate minorities, and Asians in particular?
Last October, a similar but much more plainly racist encounter happened to Michael Luo, at the time an editor for The New York Times, also on the Upper East Side, when a white lady told him and his double-wide stroller to go back to China. Then last week, a near repeat of that incident happened to Nydia Han, a local television news anchor at 6ABC in Philadelphia. In her case, she was the pedestrian and the (race indeterminate) insult hurler was the driver. As they settled their pedestrian driver dispute, said driver told her “this is America” and drove away.
In both cases, the journalists were left with an intense feeling of grievance, which as an Asian American I fully understand. We can be quite sensitive about being reminded of where we are and/or where we belong, that this is America or New York or that China awaits our return. Since we’re yellow, slanty-eyed, and almost universally dark-haired and unbearded, it’s quite obvious our genes trace to a far off land. But a lot of us feel even more alien in Asia. On the one hand, some of us have to deal with the loss of ancestral roots over there, while being constantly reminded by other Americans of how little soil our roots have been allowed to take here.
Both journalists refused to stay mum about their incidents, and used their considerable bully pulpit earned through their success in journalism to address their unidentified harasser. Their stories are remarkably similar, as were their responses. But I have deep problems with Luo’s response, and a hearty but cautious endorsement of Han’s.
Luo quickly took to the pages of the Times itself to pen a written address to that white lady. Titled “An Open Letter to the Woman Who Told My Family to Go Back to China,” it is a sort of emotional catharsis presumably written at a time of heightened emotions and, therefore, transparency to Luo’s deeper assumptions about his Asian American identity. There are many assumptions that I find deeply disturbing, and which point to a class divide within the Asian American population which will be the defining issue for us to the extent we believe ourselves to be a community.
Both Luo and Han have a conspicuous tendency of focusing on their own family biographies. Both start with a key personal fact: they were born in America. I’ve always been ambivalent about bringing this fact up, as two-thirds of Asian Americans are not born in America. By responding to such an insult with your birthplace, it is inferred that the offender is merely wrong factually, but otherwise would not be violating a universal code of conduct. But telling a group of Chinese tourists visiting New York City to ‘go back to China,’ when in fact they are going back in the next few days, is as bad a civic transgression as what happened to Luo and Han.
Luo mentions that his family came to the U.S. from China via Taiwan as they fled Communism, and that both he and his sibling attended Harvard. He infers at the very beginning that he and his family are Christians (“We had just gotten out of church.”), and a more hidden inference that he identifies much more strongly as an American than as a Chinese person:
But, afterward, my 7-year-old, who witnessed the whole thing, kept asking my wife, “Why did she say, ‘Go back to China?’ We’re not from China.”
No, we’re not, my wife said, and she tried to explain why you might have said that and why people shouldn’t judge others.
We’re from America, she told my daughter. But sometimes people don’t understand that.
Han’s video contains similar bits of autobiography establishing her American rootedness. She says that she has lived all over America — California, Illinois, Oklahoma, and even Idaho — not just Pennsylvania, and that she therefore “knows America” far more intimately than your average American. And in the most charming passage of her tell-off, she says her father invented the hybrid crop now known as the American beefsteak tomato, which her insulter likely noshes on in her salads.
Han’s response, however, is much more aggressive and retaliatory than Luo’s. She repeatedly circles her face with her finger, warning “did you not think this face would stand up against you?” Although Han commits the same basic ethical mistake as Luo — making xenohobic and racist insults unacceptable only because the receiver of the insult is ‘American enough’ to not deserve them— Han seems to be issuing a corrective behavioral warning by saying that insulting a yellow face in 2017 brings a real chance of retaliation and public censure.
Luo’s response, in comparison, comes across as a defeated pleading, an experience that allows him to share in a public manner the social suffering shared by many Asian Americans:
Maybe you don’t know this, but the insults you hurled at my family get to the heart of the Asian-American experience. It’s this persistent sense of otherness that a lot of us struggle with every day. That no matter what we do, how successful we are, what friends we make, we don’t belong. We’re foreign. We’re not American.
Luo deserves credit for using his influence to open up a topic that receives less public attention than it deserves, and in the ensuing days he invited other Asian Americans to share similar stories in the Times. But Luo’s own story displays a second even more disturbing tendency not found at all in Han’s response: repeated pleas to class identity.
But for some reason — and, yes, it probably has to do with the political climate right now — this time felt different.
Walking home later, a pang of sadness welled up inside me.
You had on a nice rain coat. Your iPhone was a 6 Plus. You could have been a fellow parent in one of my daughters’ schools. You seemed, well, normal.
Luo here is lamenting that the same elite markers of class which his insulter exhibited, although matching his own (“fellow parent”), did not afford him social inclusion on the streets of his own neighborhood. This is the incomplete fantasy of the elite liberal bubble, that social inclusion in America is the result of class ascendance.
We often see this conflation of class ascension with social inclusion in the pages of the Times. Bonnie Tsui’s Times op-ed “Why Is Asian Salad Still On The Menu?” contains this line which reveals her assumption that social enlightenment not only is, but should be, a function of class, and that we should expect only to find racial animus and ignorance in the lower, less refined classes that should be ‘pulled up’ by elite tastemakers:
And what I’ve come to understand is that the salad names are where that blind spot reveals itself. Even as the actual cuisines of Asia influence and sometimes appear to dominate American food culture — David Chang’s Momofuku restaurants, Roy Choi’s Kogi barbecue-fueled empire, ramen joints and izakaya and Mission Chinese Food by Danny Bowien — these stereotypes persist and control a lot of what’s on the menu in Middle America.
Tying racial social inclusion to class ascendance is a fundamentally wrong assumption that many Asian Americans hold without examination. A look at history shows this is not the case, that real examples of racial solidarity in America emerged out of factory labor movements and integrated selective service in war, not in the boardroom or Michelin-starred restaurants.
While remarkably similar, Han’s response should not be read the same as Luo’s. Han’s career is in local television news, a much more blue-collar form of media than the Times or New Yorker where Luo plies his trade. Han’s response is that much more pugilistic; less concerned with opening a conversation, and much more concerned with striking back with a force greater than was received.
American civility is ebbing. A couple weeks ago at a Thai restaurant in a very white, progressive, and wealthy part of Brooklyn, I had to tell two white women doctors (deduced from their loud conversation) to please shut up, as their conversation veered towards their disgust at the waitstaff’s inability to speak English despite offering their food services in America. It’s happening, everywhere. The response isn’t to excuse yourself because of your ‘real’ American credentials. Nor is it to suggest that such behavior belongs in the lower rungs of class, not in this tony neighborhood. The response is to firmly stand your ground and retaliate (within the bounds of safety), regardless of where you were born or how long you intend to stay. Anything less would be uncivilized.