I recently returned from China. I spent the summer teaching American law, in English. As a Chinese American, I must confess one of the most annoying statements that White Americans make is that, after they have been a tourist overseas, they understand what it is like to be a minority back home. Although I appreciate their gesture of empathy, I am compelled to explain why their analogy is not appropriate, and how it shows the asymmetry of race.
A White American who travels in Asia as a tourist has only a temporary experience of looking different and being outnumbered. He has voluntarily put himself into the situation. He can always exit. By definition, he is a foreigner abroad. He is not a person of color in her own nation. The loss of privilege is not the same as the imposition of discrimination.
Even worse, White Americans can enjoy better treatment in Asia than Asian Americans. They are catered to as the genuine article and not a yellow imposter. A White person who mutters a few words of greeting in Mandarin, for example, is complimented for his fluency. A Chinese American who tries to carry on conversation, but without native-level competence, is castigated for failing in filial obligations. Or ask anyone who is around English teachers. A European with a heavy accent in English, not his native language, is favored over an Asian American who sounds like anyone else from New Jersey, who grew up preferring English to her grandparents’ tongue.
Nonetheless, I have heard White Americans argue, as if to one up those who would complain, that the bias they perceive in Asia explains why Asian Americans feel prejudice in America. They claim it is a mirror image. That is not even an accurate assertion as to Asian foreigners.
The counterpart to a White American in Asia is an Asian American in Europe. I doubt anybody supposes that the former are treated worse than the latter. Asian Americans are received decently enough in Europe, from what I have seen. Once they swagger down the street or open their mouths to order at a cafe in English, they are identified, unmistakably, as truly American. The logic can be denied only by equating race and nationality. The American ideal is, or was within recent memory, that membership in the community is founded on constitutional principles and not biological identity.
White Americans visiting Asia can attract reactions ranging from curiosity to hatred. They can be stared at in villages where someone with pale skin has never before been spotted. They can be shouted at while walking down the street. Assumptions can be made about their wealth or sexual mores.
Yet Asians and Asian Americans alike must learn about American culture, and specifically White American behavior, without Whites condescending to reciprocate. Under colonial rule, Chinese and Indians mimicked their masters in everything including the proper clothes to wear. With exceptions who were scandalous, the English governors did not bother to convert to the religions of their subordinates. Today at an Asian restaurant, the proprietor is ready to offer a fork and knife to any patron who is fumbling with his chopsticks. A European restaurant, especially serving haute cuisine, expects diners to pick up the appropriate fork from the selection (from the outside in, I was instructed) — an Asian would not dare request a pair of chopsticks in such a setting.
To be fair, whenever I leave America I realize it is unique. In Asia, as in Europe, Africa and Latin America, there are many who also are ethnic nationalists. To be a citizen of a nation means to share blood, faith, language and culture with a majority. Your right to carry that passport is proven by your patriotism, through and through. So some of these folks agree that I am an American if I insist. They deny that I can be anything else: it’s a binary choice. “Asian American” is an alien concept. You cannot combine the terms; you have to choose.
This experiment of ours, a diverse democracy, depends on not only self-governance but also self-invention. Individually and collectively, we are on these shores who we claim to be. Our ancestors, if they came of their own free will, were attracted here by the proposition they could start anew. To do that means acknowledging, too, that some had forebears who did not elect this course but were forced into the “Middle Passage.” Our aspirations for equality can be achieved only through effort.
So I am sorry to say to my White friends who believe being a tourist overseas is the equivalent of being a minority back home that they are mistaken. However sincere they might be, the circumstances are not the same. The problem is that we know only our own respective condition. To make progress, each of us could start by giving up our entitlements.
Frank Wu is a Distinguished Professor at University of California Hastings College of the Law, where he formerly served as chancellor and dean.