An Individualist Caught Between Two Super Powers
I grew up in China and came to the US in my early twenties. As a graduate student, I mostly met friendly people. However, I also recall a few incidents, usually in retail settings, where condescension or hostility could be detected, which I assumed were due to my foreign accent and bad English rather than my Asian face. It is common to look down upon outsiders, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This weakness is universal rather than specific to any race.
In the ensuing decades, I’ve had my share of challenges. Did I sometimes fall victim to racial stereotyping in my pursuit of a successful career? Maybe. But I am acutely aware that personal drive and capability play essential roles at every juncture of life. So I would be cautious in blaming any setback on discrimination.
Recently, while waiting for my nephew in front of his house, I struck a conversation with his next-door neighbor. After I introduced myself, he said, “But you are from here, right?” Yes, I told him, I indeed live only a couple of towns away, but I grew up in China. In fact, his young neighbor and I attended the same high school and the same university. I just came to the US a couple of decades earlier than his young neighbor, who, I hope he can deduce from our conversation, will also become a seamless part of this place.
But my nephew’s neighbor is right. I call this place home. I have stayed here longer than any other place on earth. That’s why I find the recent surge of anti-Asian sentiment extremely concerning. After the shooting spree in Atlanta, Stop Asian Hate protests broke out across the nation. Yet, the increase in attacks against Asian Americans didn’t abate. Crimes targeting Asians still happen almost daily.
Besides street crimes, many face other threats. Since the inauguration of the so-called China Initiative, many scientists of Chinese descent have been investigated and faced espionage charges. Fellow academians argued that the issues are mainly in information disclosure and academic integrity instead of intellectual property theft. These scientists were singled out due to their Chinese blood more than anything else. Most likely, these cases will follow the same pattern as seen before, starting with fanfare and dissipating quietly, but not before causing the accused their jobs and exacting severe financial and psychological damages.
Not long ago, Senator Marsha Blackburn of Mississippi tweeted that “China has a 5,000-year history of cheating and stealing.” Such racially charged statement drenched with ignorance, if directed at another ethnic group, could have caused the politician her career. Yet despite the outcry from the Chinese American community, Blackburn remains completely unscathed.
Trump’s irresponsible rhetoric is partially responsible for the trend, but the anti-Asian sentiment is more deeply ingrained. People stratify naturally according to race, religion, social class, etc. Each group always likes to believe in its own superiority. The differentiation and discrimination based on race are even more persistent, simply because an individual’s race is absolutely impossible to change.
When geopolitics is added to the mix, the situation becomes even worse. China is a totalitarian regime that doesn’t fit into the Western liberal democratic tradition. Moreover, as an expanding economy poised to become a superpower, it is perceived as highly threatening.
The intense competition between the US and China creates suspicion and hostility between them. As long as our politicians’ anti-China rhetoric doesn’t tone down, the political environment where Asian Americans reside will not improve.
When I go back to China to visit families and relatives, a small problem always arises. Almost all the websites I have come to rely on as information sources, including Medium, suddenly become inaccessible. Some of them seem so harmless that why people would bother to block them is beyond my comprehension.
I write a blog on the popular social medium platform WeChat. Though I try to remain as apolitical as possible, my articles are sometimes removed for violating mysterious “rules.” Whenever an article disappears, I don’t receive any explanations, and there is absolutely no recourse to argue my case. I haven’t abandoned my WeChat blog yet because I have worked hard for years and accumulated tens of thousands of followers. Still, I’m thinking about it all the time.
I don’t think an individual who lives on spoon-fed information will likely develop a strong and independent mind. I also cannot imagine entrepreneurs with their hard-earned success sabotaged by the government will stay maximally motivated. When this is happening on a large scale, I cannot imagine the society will thrive.
I firmly believe the US has a better system. Should the US loses its competition with China, it is because it has imploded on its own by electing leaders like Donald Trump, embracing radical left- or right-wing ideology, being anti-science, and descending into partisanship so extreme as to lose the ability to achieve anything.
The US is correct in being vigilant of China. But paying lip service is not as helpful as taking action. Even when talking, it is preferable to be objective and truthful rather than resorting to exaggeration and demonization. It will only discredit itself when it calls forced labor and other human rights abuses genocide. There is no denying that China controlled the coronavirus better than the US in 2020. Moreover, China has demonstrated the ability to lift its citizens out of poverty and complete enormous infrastructure projects, something almost impossible for the US to accomplish.
I have lived in the US long enough to fully identify with individualism. But I’m not so naive as to think that my fate here has nothing to do with China and its relationship with the US. No matter how hardworking, talented, or patriotic I am, since I look like a Chinese, a strong anti-China sentiment will not improve my well-being.
I wish the US has more wisdom in dealing with China. Vilifying China is relatively easy, but it is not necessarily productive. It definitely creates a toxic environment for Asian Americans. I also wish China moves in the direction to become more open instead of the other way around. If it continues its economic development while abandoning the practice of censoring its citizens and persecuting dissidents, the Chinese Americans, and Asian Americans who look like Chinese, will have fewer worries.