Indelibly Alien

Asian Americans are seen as perpetual “aliens” in this country. Professor Robert Lee explains how that leads to violence.
June 4, 2021

Episode Host(s)

Ana, Host of Mosaic
Ana González

ANA: Hey everybody, this is Ana González, and you’re listening to Mosaic. Today on Mosaic, we’re starting a new chapter. Something we haven’t done before. We are committing to a weekly show where we continue to explore immigrant experiences but also ideas of race, class, and identity – everything that makes up our living mosaic. It’s gonna be a little bit different than the Mosaic you’re used to hearing. There will be more conversation, more music, more community essays, and more imagining of new futures. So, here it is


I want to talk about the word “alien”. Not little green men alien, but the idea that exists in this country that some people belong and others, no matter how many generations their family goes back on this land, do not.

MICHELLE’S ESSAY: Even as a child, I remember wanting to be white.

ANA: Michelle Liu is a rising senior at Brown and the founder of Red Envelope Stories, an online archive of short essays by the Asian community about the Asian American experience. Michelle wrote this piece after the Atlanta Spa Shootings back in March of 2021.

MICHELLE: I didn’t have the vocabulary then but there was a sense of inferiority I associated with my Asianness. This hollowed-out feeling arose whenever my mother spoke in broken English to the store cashier, or when I ate from a Zojirushi lunch thermos packed with rice, or when the guys in my class said they would only date white girls.

My parents immigrated here in 1989 with no more than $500, even less according to my father. Whenever I brought up any of my racial qualms, my mother would say, “Your grandfather” who I called lao ye, “climbed three mountains without shoes to go to school every day. Both his mother and father passed away when he was a teenager.” Lao ye would become a CEO and travel to over fifty countries. My problems paled in comparison. With a mental image of my grandfather, I began placing academics ahead of my grapplings with race.

In my freshman year at Brown University, I planned on majoring in statistics. But because of our school’s open curriculum, I also decided to take my first sociology course with Professor Itzigsohn. It was called “Race, class, and ethnicity in the modern world.” His research and all of his data fascinated me. And when he mentioned how the Asian American population in the United States could use further exploration, I took the opportunity to propose a project with him. Our goal was to discover how Asian Americans fit into the racial and class structure in our country.

I worked with thousands of cases of Asian Americans and understood their lives through data and I saw how Asian Americans who are allowed to immigrate to the United States have higher levels of income and education. They are heralded for their hard work and attainment of the American Dream. Under the guise of the “model minority myth,” the illusion of equality and prosperity in our country is sustained.

But it is an illusion. At the start of the coronavirus pandemic, I witnessed how Asian Americans can still be deemed as foreigners in the same place that heralds their success as the cause of others’ failures. The surge in hate crimes in our community shows that Asian Americans are still first and foremost seen for their skin color. The news article from which I learned about the killings in Atlanta said the shooter’s motive was unknown. He was a sex addict who hated women. I had the fleeting thought that race could have also been a coincidence in this case--the situation was complicated, right? There were so many factors involved in this tragedy, but I could no longer ignore that race was the driving one.

For all the times I was hurt, scared, enraged, and struggling with internalized racism, I have finally recognized who I am in America, an Asian woman. It’s a lot to take in--all the recent violence and the realization that it’s the right thing to challenge unjust systems. That it’s right to address racial inequities and call discrimination by its name.


ANA: That was Michelle Liu.

Now, let’s bring in our guest today. Professor Robert Lee is an Associate Professor of American Studies at Brown who’s lived in Rhode Island for over 40 years. We’re going to talk about Asian American identity in this country and how being viewed as “alien” leads to violence.


ANA: So I want to start off, you know, you've written a lot of articles and publications. You're a professor, but I want to bring it back to your background and growing up in California, right? Yeah. So can you tell me just a little bit about your family and where you grew up?

ROBERT: Well, I'm a fourth-generation, Asian Californian. I was born in Oakland. But my maternal great grandfather was a merchant who came from South China, near Canton, and set up a shop in Marysville, California sometime in the 1870s, in the Sierra foothills where my grandfather leased a mine and ran a general store.

ANA: So this is the mid 19th century?

ROBERT: Mid 19th century, kind of mid-late 19th century. My mother was born in 1906. So I was born in Oakland, but my parents moved to Washington, DC. My dad was a journalist for a while and then started to work for the US government and the US government sent us to Taiwan, where I went to high school, and we went to the American school there. So it was a very kind of, in between, I was in a kind of in between place. I wasn't Chinese enough to hang out with the Chinese kids. And I went, and I wasn't, I wasn't white, right.

ANA: Did you speak Cantonese?

ROBERT: My parents tried to teach me Cantonese, we spoke mainly English at home, because that's what you know, they spoke Cantonese to their parents and to their siblings. But you know, most of the time they were speaking English. And it was just easier living in Washington DC with not much of a Chinese community around speak English at home. So then I came back to California for college in Stockton, California.

ANA: And this is the 1960s, right?

ROBERT: It was 1965. Right? So it was just at the cusp of every change. I think, really every change, possible change happened in my freshman year of college. I discovered, you know, the United farmworkers strike was going on. The grape boycott was going on. And the anti-war movement was just really heating up. And so, you know, having been in Asia as a teenager, I was really drawn into, particularly, the anti-war movement in college.

ANA: And so does that lead you to Berkeley for grad school?

ROBERT: It did. Things just exploded. It was a different world. I mean, it was a really different world in Stockton, California, which I loved and you know, being at a small liberal arts college was wonderful for me. But Berkeley was a completely different scene and it really opened my eyes to all sorts of different possibilities. And it was the precise moment – the summer of 69 that the great Third World liberation strike at San Francisco State was taking place. And this is really the birthplace of ethnic studies. And it's the birthplace of Asian America, that term Asian America kind of got invented at that

at that moment.

ANA: For those who don't know, like me, maybe younger folks who didn't know about this, what is this strike that you're talking about?

ROBERT: Oh, the third world, the third world liberation strike was the longest student strike in American history. And it began over, you know, there was a small black studies program at San Francisco State and one of their instructors in that program was a Black Panther and was dismissed. And students went on strike. And they demanded ethnic studies. And that strike went on for a year. And it was quite brutal, and that galvanized students of color, both throughout the Bay Area, and really throughout the country, I think, and Asian American students at that time, it was mainly they were mainly Chinese, Japanese, and Filipinos were the largest communities in the United States by far, in the late 60s. And those students began to organize around the idea of Asian America.

ANA: Yeah, I'm really interested in how the term “Asian America” turned into then an academic field of study that you were also a part of, you know, creating. So how did that I know you went from Berkeley to Brown, right? And that's how you came to Rhode Island, first place. So how did then that term become, like, a codified field of study?

ROBERT: Through lots of sweat and tears, and I don't think a lot of blood, but certainly a lot of sweat and tears, and struggle. You know, when we started, you know, I was just starting graduate school, right. But there was no Asian American studies courses, right? You couldn't go to a faculty person and say, “I want to do Asian American Studies.” I, in fact, when I did suggest writing a dissertation on Chinese immigration. Now the attitude for people who did American Studies is: it wasn't really there. Asian Americans were completely invisible in American history. And even for people who did Chinese or Japanese history, it's like, “Why would you spend all that time studying Chinese or Japanese just to study, you know, shopkeepers and laundry men?” That was really the attitude. So we had to make up this field on our own. And if you looked at the first set of books, or anthologies on Asian American Studies, they were mainly student papers. And those populated the first, you know, anthologies of Asian American Studies, but pretty quickly, people who, like myself were doing, you know, Chinese history or Japanese history or or even African histories, you know, also started writing about Asian America. There was no field to be trained in. But we were trained in other fields, right?

ANA: And what does that kind of work do to a student body or a graduate student body?

ROBERT: You know, I think that presence on campuses gives students a mirror, you know, they can see themselves at the university, there's a place at the university for a person like me, right. Asian American Studies is a place that they find a space for them, to explore their past, their identities, to express their sense of who they are, and who they want to be outside of those demands that society puts on them to be, oh, you have to be, you know, a scientist, or you have to be a doctor, you have to be, you know, a lawyer. It's another space that they can explore in a deep sort of way, a history of their communities, imagine different futures. Imagine solidarity with other groups in a way that isn't available to them in other spaces.


ANA: Before we take our break, I want to share another essay with you. This comes to us again thanks to Red Envelope Stories. Here’s Naomi.


ESSAY PLAYS: My name is Naomi Kim, and this little piece is called, “So I slip out the door. Unnoticed, unmissed.” Why had I thought it wouldn’t matter, the fact that I had grown up in the near-absence of other Asian Americans? In my small town I was used to my otherness, but tonight, in college, at this Asian American student gathering—this is a new kind of otherness, and it is worse. Everyone here seems to share something I don’t. Certain ease, a certain kind of experience. I don’t feel Asian enough. Korean enough. I am all wrong in the one place I thought I would be right. So I slip out the door. Unnoticed, unmissed. September is cool against my skin as I walk back to my dorm through the dark, alone. When I step into the circles of light cast by the streetlamps, I see my discomfort, my confusion, nakedly exposed for a brief moment. Then I pass again into the shadows.



ANA: I’m Ana Gonzalez, and this is Mosaic. This week, we’re talking with Professor Robert Lee, Associate Professor of Asian American Studies at Brown University.

ANA: You're the author of Orientals, Asian Americans in Popular Culture, which was published in 1999. And even though you know, that's 22 years ago now, but –

ROBERT: Don't remind me…

ANA: You wrote about 22 years ago, but it seems so relevant to what's happening right now in the United States, and the conversations that are happening, but also kind of forgotten about. Like, it gives so much context to these conversations that we're having.

ROBERT: So this book is based on this idea, you know, that Asians in the United States and American culture are thought of as indelibly foreign, right? You know, I've been here, my family's been here for four generations or five, if you count my kids, right. And I still get the question, you know, Oh, where are you from? And when you say Providence, I've been here 50 years, people say, “Oh, no, where are you really from?” Right? Every Asian in the United States has been asked those two questions. “Where are you from? Oh, no, not Osh Kosh. Where are you really from?”

Although it might be an innocent kind of microaggression, the idea is that you couldn't really be from here, right? You're not really native, right? You're really, you know, an invasive species. Right. And that's what I wanted to talk about in this book. How did we become a permanent alien? Being right? How did he get the notion of “Asian” get defined as “alien?”

There, there are these six, large archetype you know, stereotypes that have the power, you know, they come and go, but they're there kind of permanently under the surface that can be brought out at any time when any crisis appears. And one is the pollutant kind of the idea of Asians as invasive species, right. Something that doesn't belong in the landscape, right? The Cooley. That is to say the idea of cheap labor, right? Asians always are supposed to represent cheap labor, whether it's railroad workers or agricultural workers or plantation workers or, or nurses or, or even doctors. Sexual deviants, right? The queer or the prostitute. The hyper-sexualized, Asian woman is such a dominant, you know, image in American popular culture. And of course, we know the violent outcome of that particular racial stereotype.


ANA: The past year, we've seen such a surge in anti Asian violence, hate speech to intense anti Asian rhetoric coming from really the federal government on down. What are your thoughts on that? Is that just something that happens again? And again? Or is this time? Does this time feel different for you?

ROBERT: Well, you know, when I first heard about the massacre in Atlanta, I was shocked. But I wasn't surprised. You know, this new wave of assaults had been building up for, as you point out, over a year. And in the massacre, and and, you know, just this, you know, two days ago, this the shooting in Indiana and which four Sikh people were killed, you know, we might have expected something like this right, we should have expected something like this, it certainly was not the first. There's a continuous pattern of violence against Asian people that runs throughout American history. It’s not limited to any one ethnic group or nationality or to any one region. The second point I want to kind of point out is that violence against Asians in the United States begins with America's history of almost constant warfare in Asia over the past 200 years. And anti Asian racism and anti black racism are both products of white supremacy. But it's important to bear in mind that they have different origins and different trajectories.

When I heard about Atlanta, my thoughts turned to Stockton, California, where I went to college right? In 1989, a 24 year old white male fired 114 bullets into an elementary school playground full of Cambodian and Vietnamese children, first and second graders. In two minutes of white rage, eight year old [[one limb, six year old ram chin, six year old su king on, six year old Tony Tran, and nine year old rathenau]] all lay dead or dying in their school yard. And 29 other children, almost all Asian, and one of their teachers were shot and wounded, right? And 32 years later, we can barely recall the Cleveland school massacre. It's buried in an avalanche of school shootings, blinding blizzard of gun control and mental health politics that have followed. What we didn't do was think about those killings as an episode in a long history of racial violence against Asians.

If we had thought about it that way, we might have made a connection between the murdered Southeast Asian children to the 17 Chinese men lynched in Los Angeles in 1871, which is the largest mass lynching in American history. To the massacre of 28 Chinese miners in Rock Springs, Wyoming 14 years later, or the murder of 34 Chinese miners in the Snake River in Oregon the year after that. The beginning of the 20th century big cities in big cities and small hamlets across the country, Japanese South Asian Filipino immigrants were attacked and their communities in places like Seattle, Tacoma, Watsonville, Modesto were destroyed by white mobs who believed their jobs were being taken by cheap Asian labor. And we know pretty well the story of Japanese American incarceration during the Second World War. But we know almost nothing about the seven people killed by the soldiers of that camp. Or the scores of suicides that happened before, during and after incarceration.

The very beginning of the 21st century a white racist targeted an Indian grocery store, a Chinese restaurant and a karate school, as well as multiple synagogues, killing six people. After 911 baublebar Singh sodhi a Sikh was shot and killed in Mesa, Arizona, and two Indian immigrants Faster, faster Dev Patel and Walker Hassan were killed in Dallas. A decade later, seven worshippers at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin were shot and killed by a white terrorist. And in 2017 sreenivas hoochie bolt was killed and in Allah mazzani was wounded by a white gunman who took them to be Iranian and terrorists.

So I want to say that reckoning with a deep pattern of what I would call racial vigilante violence against Asians in in the United States might lead us away from the model minority myth and invite us to understand Asian American history not as a kind of your success story of American Immigration, but rather a history of racialized labor under Empire. And we can see this if we begin to count that almost innumerable wars that the United States has had beginning in Asia and the Pacific, beginning in 1813, with the invasion of Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands and going through, the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom, the conquest of the Philippines, the Korean War and the occupation of Korea, the occupation of Okinawa, Vietnam, the massive bombings of Laos and Cambodia, and the never ending wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, the United States has been at war in Asia and the Pacific continuously for 200 years, all in the name of American Security. America's continuous wars and occupation bases and camp towns have constructed Asians as dangerous aliens over there. And over here as a pernicious threat to the American way of life, indelibly alien. And it's invited other so-called “real Americans” of all colors to participate in the enforcement of this othering of, and violence against Asian Americans.

ANA: Wow, that's such a deep and violent and awful history that, like you said, doesn't get linked together that often or ever, I've never heard any of these names. I've never heard of any of these, like, so many of these places. And I think, thank you so much for sharing that. First, and second, what is it like, as someone who is American and Chinese and Asian American? What is it like to hold all of that painful history in your head?

ROBERT: Well, it really compels me, and I hope us, to become active. And in resisting racism, and in all its forms, right? And building solidarity. You know, we used to use a term called “ third world”, right, in which we understood the need for solidarity between our own communities and our own struggles for equality and freedom and, and liberation to the liberation struggles of other communities in the United States and other communities around the world. And I think, you know, for me, that's an idea that I still have very much the drives the way that I want to live in this world.

ANA: I hear that definitely, definitely. Well, um, is there anything else that you think is important? I think we've really talked about, you know, 300 years of

information, but –

ROBERT: I can't imagine there's anything else we haven't covered.

ANA: Okay, cool. Well, I think we I think it was really great talking with you, Professor Robert Lee, thank you so much for being here.

ROBERT: And thank you so much for having me.


ESSAY PLAYS: Dear Andrew, I know you crave assimilation. It flies by you. It leaves a dark, muted bruise. Please look at it. Bruises may hurt, but they slowly fade away. This is how you learn. Please stop stretching your fingers out into the wind. You won’t be able to feel the radiant warmth of blonde hair and fair skin. Look what happened. You reached too far and now your fingers are scorched. Don’t try to rip your eyes open. They are beautifully created, but they serve as a harsh reminder of your Korean heritage. You are hurting yourself. Stop seeking. I promise that you will come to accept every rough edge. Your identity is something to be cherished, so hold it tight and keep it close. Let Korea seep into every pore of your bare skin; allow it to run through your veins. Let Korea sing.


ANA: That was Andrew Lee, a 16-year-old high school student from California. And that’s our show. Professor Robert Lee’s book is Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture. And you can find more writing about Asian American identity and experience at redenvelopestories.net.

Mosaic is a production of the Public’s Radio. Edited by Sally Eisele. Our producer is James Baumgartner. Our original music is by Bryn Bliska. Our intern is Michelle Liu. Special thanks to Michelle Liu, Ally Zhu, Andrew Lee, and Naomi Kim for their essays. Torey Malatia is the general manager of The Public’s Radio. Episodes of Mosaic are written and produced by me, Ana González. You can learn more at mosaicpodcast.org




“I was in a kind of in-between place: I wasn’t Chinese enough to hang out with the Chinese kids. And I wasn’t white.”


“And this is really the birthplace of ethnic studies. And it’s the birthplace of ‘Asian America’, that term ‘Asian America’ kind of got invented at that
at that moment.”


“Asian Americans were completely invisible in American history. And even for people who did Chinese or Japanese history, it’s like, ‘Why would you spend all that time studying Chinese or Japanese just to study shopkeepers and laundrymen?'”


“[Asian American Studies] is another space that they can explore in a deep sort of way, a history of their communities, imagine different futures, imagine solidarity with other groups in a way that isn’t available to them in other spaces.”


“Although it might be an innocent kind of microaggression, the idea is that you couldn’t really be from here, right? You’re not really native, right? You’re really an invasive species.”


“Violence against Asians in the United States begins with America’s history of almost constant warfare in Asia over the past 200 years. And anti-Asian racism and anti-Black racism are both products of white supremacy. But it’s important to bear in mind that they have different origins and different trajectories.”


“So I want to say that reckoning with a deep pattern of what I would call racial vigilante violence against Asians in in the United States might lead us away from the model minority myth and invite us to understand Asian American history not as a kind of your success story of American Immigration, but rather a history of racialized labor under Empire.”


“America’s continuous wars and occupation bases and camp towns have constructed Asians as dangerous aliens over there and over here as a pernicious threat to the American way of life, indelibly alien. And it’s invited other so-called ‘real Americans’ of all colors to participate in the enforcement of this othering of, and violence against Asian Americans.”

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