Recently, a few racially biased Americans reportedly yelled at people of Asian origin, “Go back to your country!” and “You don’t belong here,” while violently attacking them. Some of the assailants were homeless and others lived in their cars. Presumably, some of them were angry because they had lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Nonetheless, their ignorant and hateful acts cannot be excused.
Beyond the physical violence, phrases like “Go back to your country!” or “You do not belong here!” cause lasting damage. Both are an unbearable affront either to Asian Americans who became citizens by working hard through the immigration process, or to those born in the United States, which is their homeland by birthright.
The irony is that, strictly speaking, no one belongs in America originally, except for Native Americans. All other Americans are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Hence, only Native Americans are entitled to say, “Go back to your country!” or “You don’t belong here.” Still, however, Americans of European or African origin would feel insulted if someone told them to go back to Europe or Africa. Asian Americans are no different.
Those thoughtless Americans who utter, “Go back to your country!” should know that in many other countries, people who subscribe to anti-Americanism, too, shout, “Americans, go home!” They should know that in some countries Americans are refused and unwelcomed. Whether tourists or temporary residents in a foreign country, Americans often find themselves a symbol of what the White House stands for. They may think that they have nothing to do with Washington or do not support American foreign policies. In the eyes of foreigners, however, the difference does not exist.
Likewise, the frivolous Americans who roar, “Go back to your country!” do not differentiate Chinese people from other Asians, even though they are upset because of COVID-19 which they believe originated from China. Suppose you do not like a particular European country, you do not attack indiscriminately all Europeans unless you are incredibly stupid.
Of course, that does not mean you can attack people of Chinese origin either.
When anti-American sentiment was rising in South Korea some time ago, a few non-American Westerners wore a T-shirt saying, “I’m not an American.” Obviously, it was a mockery of the situation and perhaps a precaution, as well. Yet, the phrase did not imply that people should attack Americans. Today in the US, Asian Americans are frustrated, denied any identity or nationality, except for the one that is implicit in the much-abused epithet, “Asian.”
While browsing articles in the Los Angeles Times about the LA Riots in 1992 lately, my daughter Min came across an intriguing interview with a Chinese American who was living in LA at that time, and passed it unto me. The Chinese American said that it was a hard time for Asian Americans and that he was afraid that the rioters might mistake him as a Korean American and do harm to him. Obviously, he did not know that other Asians would say the same thing regarding Chinese Americans three decades later. Perhaps he did not mean it, and yet, his remarks seemed to imply that the attacks on Korean Americans during the riots were all right, but those on other Asian Americans were not. Instead of expressing his fear of mistaken identity, therefore, the Chinese American should have condemned the rioters’ attack on “any” Asian Americans.
In America, only a handful of psychologically insecure people have attacked Asian Americans. On the contrary, ordinary Americans, who are ashamed of those disgraceful people, become even nicer and kinder to Asian Americans these days. Recently, moreover, the US Senate has passed, with overwhelming support, the Anti-Asian American Hate Crime Bill. When the House passes the bill and President Biden signs it, Asian Americans will be much safer from violence because the US federal government will immediately investigate hate crimes and severely punish the racially biased criminals.
In the past, perpetrators could easily evade the hate crime charge by denying it or asserting that they did not utter any racial slurs while committing the crime. From now on, however, it will not be so easy to avoid a hate crime conviction. If convicted, those who attack Asian Americans will have to do time in the State penitentiary and then, after that, in the Federal prison again because they have violated the Federal law.
South Korea, too, has numerous “multicultural” families -- immigrants from foreign countries. They are experiencing many difficulties, especially in this pandemic era. Under any circumstances, we should not say to them, “Go back to your country!” or “You don’t belong here,” because South Korea is their country and they surely belong here. We would not be entitled to criticize racism in other countries, if we would allow or practice racial bias and discrimination in our own country.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.