From a foreigner to a quintessential American

This July, former Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke became the first Chinese American to be appointed US ambassador to China, after having been nominated 
by President Barack Obama and unanimously confirmed by Congress. His appointment was truly a history-making event for Asian Americans. As a Chinese immigrant and naturalised US citizen, I felt truly exhilarated.

By Min Zhou

Published: Thu 22 Sep 2011, 8:42 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 9:56 AM

In the last few years, we have seen other Chinese Americans make inroads into high public offices, such as California Congresswoman Judy Chu; Hawaii Senator Daniel Akaka, the first Chinese American in the US Senate, and first elected in 1990; and Steven Chu, the 12th Secretary of Energy.

The rise of these individuals might seem matter of fact to most Americans, but it is an extraordinary achievement in which every Asian American should take special pride. Only a century ago, the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was in effect from 1882 until 1943, legally excluded Chinese Americans from many aspects of American life. Since we Asian Americans look more similar to our distant relatives in China than to many of our American peers, we are often viewed as strangers, or even suspected of being disloyal citizens. And for a long time, we have been perceived as perpetual foreigners, not as Americans.

Locke’s grandfather grew up in a rural village in South China before he immigrated to the United States. He suffered from legal and social exclusion in America, but persistently toiled at odd jobs in order to put food on the table. Locke’s father, also born in China, became a grocery store owner, raised his family to middle-class status, and sent Locke to Yale University, which helped him establish a career in law and later in politics. From a Chinese American’s perspective, Locke’s recent appointment is a symbol of citizenship rights vindicated. Going into politics has not been a conventional route for Chinese Americans, who were – and still are – anxious about unequal treatment because of old and new stereotypes. Old stereotypes have portrayed Chinese immigrants as the “yellow peril” or the “Chinese menace” and new ones portray them as the “model minority” nerds.

In many ways, 21st century American society has changed very much since the surge of Chinese immigration 30 years ago. The children of Chinese immigrants, born or raised here, have more career opportunities than ever before, much like other Americans. Yet all too often, young Chinese Americans must contend with the image of the quiet, over-achieving student or the science and engineering nerd. Role models like Locke can help Chinese Americans aspire to work in fields that most have not previously considered and provide inspiration for younger generations.

Looking ahead, Locke’s path as US ambassador to China may take him to the White House. It is within the realm of possibility for an Asian American to aspire to be a presidential candidate in the not-so-distant future. After all, Locke is not Chinese as some might perceive him to be; he is a quintessential American.

But the current Chinese American breakthrough into politics does not mean the end of negative stereotypes against Asian Americans, just as an African American president does not mean the end of racism. Chinese Americans and other Americans who appear to be Asian are still in an ambivalent position, as they are neither white nor black, and neither exclusively “American” nor “Asian”. We should continue to support existing national policy initiatives, such as affirmative action, that combat discrimination. These initiatives protect the citizenship rights of all Americans and ensure that we have equal opportunities to contribute our talents and abilities to society – regardless of national origin or skin colour.

We should also work to empower members of immigrant populations and racial minorities at the neighbourhood level, by developing youth leadership, providing supplementary education, and holding voter registration drives to promote everyone’s full participation in democracy and all aspects of civic life.

Min Zhou is Professor of Sociology & Asian American Studies and the Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in US-China Relations & Communications at the University of California, Los Angeles. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service

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