Gil Asakawa's Nikkei View | I’ve heard “Go back where you came from” too often
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I’ve heard “Go back where you came from” too often

I was driving on the highway one night some years back between Denver and Boulder, when I got harassed by a couple of young white guys who were tailgating me, probably in their teens or early 20s at the most. When I pulled off at an exit they followed me so I pulled into a parking lot and got out of my car. They did the same, and started yelling at me.

“Go back to China, you dirty Jap! Remember Pearl Harbor!!”

I shot back some pleasantries myself, educating them on the fact that I’m Japanese American, and that China is different from Japan. At one point, I remember telling them I’m more American than they were, and noted that I spoke better English than they did. I ended the “conversation” by pointing out they were driving a “Jap” car, a Honda Civic. Idiots.

This incident goes hand-in-hand with the many slights, insults and racist stupidity I – and I suspect many, or most Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, as well as of course other immigrants and Americans of color —  have endured in my life. I was born in Tokyo, so when someone says “Go back to where you came from,” I have to admit, they might have a point that I’m not from “here.” Although I was born a US citizen, I feel like an immigrant.

My dad was in the US Army and I was born in a military hospital and raised around military bases until we moved to the states when I was 8. So how much more American do I need to be?

Still, once I moved to the US, I learned to dread every December 7th and the inevitable verbal assaults of “Remember Pearl Harbor!” and “Sneaky Jap!” I bit my tongue whenever someone randomly “ching chonged” me on the street or held their eyes in a ridiculous slant. Not that long ago, after I had moderated a panel in front of a couple-hundred attendees at the prestigious SXSW Music & Media Conference in Austin, Texas, I had a dude in a cowboy hat block my way in a hallway and snicker, “In this country, we pass on the left.”

My friends at the Denver Post didn’t believe me when I told them that when I walk down the sidewalk, white people expect me to move out of the way, even if they could easily shift over. They believed me when we went out during lunch on the downtown 16th Street Mall and they saw this happen again and again.

It got to the point where I’ll go out of my way not to move aside and hit the white person, then say “excuse YOU.” Petty, yes, but it’s a little victory that vents my frustration.

So when Donald Trump — the President of the United States — recently began attacking four elected lawmakers in Congress as un-American foreigners and said they should “go back” to where they came from, I got a hard pit in my stomach. I knew this script. I wasn’t surprised when at his next rally, his followers began chanting “Send her back!” just as they’d chanted “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton not only during the 2016 campaign but at every rally since, when Trump mentioned her name for effect.

It would be disturbing enough if that was a one-off event, but Trump has continued to demonize Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (who are Muslim) as anti-Semitic because they dared to criticized Israel. He’s now taken that to the next step to say that Jews who voted for Democrats (the majority of Jews in the US, by the way) are stupid and “disloyal” to Israel. That’s a longstanding racist trope used by – wait for it … white nationalist anti-Semites – to criticize people of the Jewish faith.

And for the icing on the cake, Trump reportedly mocked the accents of the leaders of Japan and South Korea. He ching-chonged Asian world leaders. I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled his eyes back sometimes too. 

Our president’s undisguised racism has apparently inspired people such as the self-confessed El Paso shooter, who killed 22 people in a Walmart knowing that that’s where Latinos – including from Mexico, right across the border in Cuidad Juarez – would be shopping for school supplies.

Our president’s given permission to his base, many apparently who felt they were being smothered by “political correctness” in the past several decades since the civil rights movement earned hard-fought freedoms for African Americans and other people of color. People who maybe would not have yelled inanities at me (OK, those young men were not smothered by political correctness at all) now feel empowered to “let their racist flag fly.” (Apologies to the hippie generation, who coined the term “let the freak flag fly.”)

When I was younger, those racist catcalls and stereotypes hurt me, and I sometimes resented being “different.” I’d get mad at my mom if she cooked some stinky Japanese dish for dinner when I brought home my white high school friends.

Now racism just angers me, and I embrace my ethnic heritage. I love being Japanese American, and especially love having been born in Tokyo. I feel I have an important role as a bridge between our two countries, and educating Japanese about the US while educating Americans about Japan.

Still, the current national atmosphere is infecting society in a way that’s all too familiar.

Recently, a Japanese American man I know posted on his Facebook page that he was approached by a young man after a Broncos pre-season football game, who asked where he was from. “Colorado,” he replied. No, where was he born? “California.” Then my friend was told he looked “too Asian” to be born in the US. My friend’s wife saw the young man sticking his finger in his mouth to fake gagging as my friend walked away.

This wasn’t late at night off a deserted highway. This was in the middle of thousands of people at a major sports stadium.

That’s a frightening, and disgusting escalation of racial hatred. With Trump escalating his trade war with China, I’m nervous that anti-Asian hatred will make its cyclical return, and be added to the white nationalism, anti-Latinx immigrant and anti-Muslim sentiments that are already spreading like an ugly virus across the country.

To paraphrase Bette Davis’ line from “All About Eve,” “Fasten your seatbelts– it’s going to be a bumpy year (or more).”