Since day one, I wanted nothing more to be an American (whatever that meant). So who is an American? Depends on who you ask.
Last November, in a tumultuous general election, millions of Americans flocked to the polls, eager to make their voices heard. Yet, many didn’t. The United States possesses notoriously low voter turnout, with only 56% of the eligible voting population casting ballots in the 2016 presidential election. Further stratification shows that Asian-Americans have an even lower turnout of just 49%, despite being the fastest-growing portion of the electorate. Year after year, election after election, they consistently show out in low numbers.
Is it that Asian-Americans aren’t invested in their country? No, rather, the converse. The United States has persistently propped up Asians as the “model minority,” using them as proof of its meritocratic ideals: that without government help and by the sweat of their brow, they were able to propel themselves into becoming the highest earning racial and ethnic group.
This gross oversimplification turns a blind eye towards the socioeconomic and ethnic diversity among Asian immigrants, and likewise ignores their needs despite the ever-increasing gap between the Asian have and have-nots.
And is it that low political participation is the issue in entirety? No, it is a symptom of something much greater, an issue centered around one question: Who, or what, is an American?
E pluribus unum. From many, one. America was founded on the principles of freedom and equality for every citizen, with a rule by the people and for the people. Sounds very promising. But, who exactly are...“the people”?
It goes without saying that “the people” were first property-owning white males. Political and economic power, suffrage, and representation were held exclusively in their hands. And from then on, the United States has been locked into a constant power struggle that persists to this day. One side of America seeks to become more inclusive, ensuring that each and every group across ethnic, racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines is given the equal protection under the law as promised. On the flip side, the other half wishes to maintain the status quo, to preserve the prominence of the lives that matter and have always mattered. The redefining of “the people” has cost dozens of Constitutional amendments, a bloody Civil War (and most recently nearly a second), and centuries of ongoing advocacy.
So who is an American? Depends on who you ask.
My disillusionment with the American identity emerged from a young age. I grew up attempting to straddle two worlds—cultures literally as far apart as the East is from the West. Being the sole person in my family to be born in America, I was destined to be inherently different from the start, and it showed.
Since day one, I wanted nothing more to be an American (whatever that meant). In a region chock-full of separate but unequal entities, and in a majority-minority school system marked by the remnants of the Jim Crow South, with white flight also came the departure of Asian families to “better” schools outside of Athens-Clarke County. Being the sole one left, this cultural ostracization led me to be ashamed of my heritage—for to be American, I thought to myself, was to be like the other kids. To not eat the Chinese food that would produce weird stares from my peers, or to not speak the Chinese language that other kids would make fun of. To instead renounce my background.
Of course, as I grew older and more mature, I realized that I played right into the rhetoric of exclusive America, a voice that perpetually calls for assimilation, not acceptance. The ones perpetrating this message around me were the ones who, by their demographics, have mattered since the beginning, and making this distinction, I was able to view the East Athens community as one saturated by diverse backgrounds and perspectives, one that is accepting and inclusive.
From my experiences I draw two key reflections. First and foremost, if America is a melting pot, someone’s not doing a good job of stirring (presumably those in charge of the pot). Second, to be American is to belong.
And if we have learned anything from the past year, it is that we are far from all belonging: the Trump response to COVID-19 was to sow seeds of discord, heightening xenophobia towards Chinese-Americans by giving the virus inflammatory names such as the “China Virus” and the “Kung flu.” The reality is, it is difficult to buy into a system one does not belong to, particularly one that actively alienates.
Yet, things are looking up. The 2020 general election boasted record turnout, including among Asian-Americans. Kamala Harris’s victory is a major triumph for representation among black and Indian Americans, and the Biden Administration continually calls for unity to heal a broken America. Careful attention to the Asian-American portion of the electorate helped Georgia secure two crucial seats to take control of the Senate.
But California Representative Takano, alongside many Asian-Americans, remain “profoundly disappointed” with Biden’s lack of AAPI representation in his Cabinet, which will be the first in 20 years to not feature a single AAPI Cabinet secretary. President Biden seems to turn his back on a crucial demographic that propelled him into office, engaging in just another turn in the political merry-go-round. So will he make good on his promise to be a president for all?
Will Asian-Americans ever truly be American, or will they remain forever hyphenated? In the coming days of this new administration, as well as in the years to come, we will find out.