Monday, April 4, 2011

"I'm From Michigan"

Tina Fey is my favorite comediean/comedy writer.  I love everything she's done.  Mean Girls, 30 Rock, her work on SNL.  I also love to quote Mean Girls, and my favorite quote that no one knows  is a quote that I like to whip out is, "I'm from Michigan".  Now, why you may ask do I use this frequently?  Well.  Today, I'm going to talk about the "perpetual foreigner" issue (got that term from Wikipedia! you gotta love Wikipedia).   When I found this I was like, this is an excellently phrased, poignent explanation of how I feel and what I have experienced.

There is a widespread perception that Asian Americans are not "American" but are instead "perpetual foreigners".[115][116] Asian Americans often report being asked the question, "Where are you really from?" by other Americans, regardless of how long they or their ancestors have lived in United States. Many Asian Americans are themselves not immigrants but rather born in the United States. Many are asked if they are Chinese or Japanese, an assumption based on major groups of past immigrants.[116][117]
This is how the conversation goes...

Nondescript white person: So where are you from?
That Asian Girl: I'm from Michigan.
Nondescript white person: No, where are you like, from, from?
That Asian Girl: Oh, well, my family is from Taiwan, but I was born here.  (here it comes...) I'm from Michigan.

The reason why I love that quote is because its an example of another kind of stereotyping but with an African American student.  The ironic thing about that is those kind of assumptions and questions are really common with Asian Americans.

This is how a conversation with two nondescript white people goes...

Nondescript white person 1: So where are you from?
Nondescript white person 2 : Michigan, what about you?
Nondescript white person 1: Texas.

No questioning.  No asking about family's green cards, country of origin, or immigration history want to know why, BECAUSE THAT WOULD BE WEIRD.  People just assume that you're from here and you belong here.  So I have to ask the question, why don't we belong here? Why can't you just see us as being a part of what is America?

I don't dress differently, I don't speak differently (well, only the fact that my English is better than the average American!)

Asian Americans have been in the United States as early as the 18th century.  I can admit that its not half as insulting for me since my parents did come over from Taiwan, but if you're like the 8th or 9th generation Asian American, that's really insulting. HECK, your family has been here longer than a lot of white people.  Before I found the term "perpetual foreigner",  I had been calling it the oh so poignant, "Go back to where you came from" problem because essentially what people are saying by refusing to accept Asian Americans as Americans is that you don't belong here and you should go back to where you came from (true story, some people said that to my parents one time, and they've been living in America longer than any other place in the world).

The thing is, I love America.  I LOVE America.  This is my home.  This is the only place I've ever known.  But this breaks my heart because its the same old same old unrequited love affair.  I love America, I want America, I am devoted and committed to America.  But America, do you love me, do you want me? Do you see me as your own? Well, you have a funny way of expressing that.  And if I'm honest, this really hurts, and it creates this disconnect that I've experienced and I think I can safely say a lot of other Asian Americans have experienced.

I think that the media has been a really important part of shaping this.  Often times, Asian characters are portrayed as foreigners, we can't just be realistically Asian American.  There is nothing in media to reflect the fact that we are just Americans, here to stay like everyone else to us or to the rest of America.  We don't hear it.  They don't hear it.  No one believes it.

And so we're stuck.  We can't "go back to where we came from" because this is our home.  We don't belong in Asia.  We visit our family, blah blah blah, but we all know that we've grown up in a different place with different culture, values, and language.  In Asia, we're Americans.  In America, we're Asians. When is this country going to start believing that we are Americans and that we're here to stay?

The society continues to produce individuals who only seems to look at Asian Americans as these perpetual foreigners (See Alexandra Wallace post) because of the portrayals of Asian Americans in media.  Then those individuals go into the media and create what they know.  It is circular, chickens and eggs.  The only way to break these sorts of cycles is an active attempt at education and change. While I think that the media's attitude to Asian Americans has been a large part of the issue,  I think that there has been progress in media, and I want to start reviewing, commending, and praising those works that are showing what I think are balanced and accurate representations of Asian Americans.

In my other post about the lack of Asian American actors, I said that Jackie Chan didn't count because he was from Hong Kong.  I am going to explain that now.

One of the most frustrating things is that most people will ask, "Whats the difference?" "Why does it matter?"

WELL. There is a big difference between an American actor with an Irish heritage and an Irish actor.  The most obvious is the accent, but there is a whole perspective that comes from a cultural upbringing.  People don't really see that with Asians which is an example of one of the symptoms of the "Perpetual Foreigner Syndrom".  Also, there is a fundamental difference in the way that he achieved success.  Jackie Chan is an example of what is popularly known as "Crossover success".  Because an entertainer is popular in one genre or area (this case Asia), their success carries over into other areas.  Only after becoming a prominent actor in Asia was Jackie Chan able to do his films in America, creating a completely different career base.  This is NOT the answer for Asian Americans.  We can't all just go over to Asia to establish a career and hope that the people back home will then notice us, we should be able to build a career here at home.

Is it so much to ask?

Right now it feels like it is, but it shouldn't be.

If you agree, if you DISAGREE, if you have any thoughts, ideas, feelings, leave a comment. it'll be much appreciated.

That Asian Girl


  1. This happens ALL the time. We have some really good CTI (the music ministry I'm involved with)stories where host families have asked Asian American or Asian Canadian team members repeatedly where they're really from. Ridiculousness...

  2. This happens to me more from other Asians than it does from nondescript white people. I think it's because I'm only half Asian so the NDWs only really see my white half.

  3. I agree with you sarah , will thanks for the blogger for sharing this one.