Led from his cell in Chippewa County Jail, on the remote peninsula that divides Lake Superior from Lake Huron, the United States from Canada, Justin Cheong is ordered to sit by a prison guard. Compliant but not cowed, the Macau-born civil-rights activist smiles wanly and places his palm in greeting on the reinforced glass that separates us. It is the act of a man clinging to social convention, seeking any meaningful human connection.
“There’s so much anti-Chinese rhetoric,” notes the University of California, Berkeley graduate, whose arrest four months ago occurred in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s inflammatory criticism of the US-China trade imbalance, when the Republican presidential nominee told an Indiana crowd: “We can’t continue to let China rape our country.”
“When a man who could be the next president of the United States makes such statements, and Mrs Clinton only pays lip service to equality, of course the law is going to get tough with Chinese Americans,” Cheong says.
In an operation executed with military precision, immigration agents swooped on the 26-year-old while he was travelling to a National Education Association convention in Washington, to table a motion supporting equal access to public education. Under arrest, the Macau taxi driver’s son discovered that a bureaucratic snafu meant his marriage five years ago to Liana Mulholland, a Detroit artist, had not been registered with the Department of Homeland Security. As far as the American government was concerned, Cheong was now persona non grata in his adopted country, at the height of one of the most xenophobic election campaigns in US history.
In the same week as Cheong’s arrest, Congressman Mike Honda spoke at a Democratic Party fundraiser in Washington.
“The marginalisation of Asian Americans precedes the Chinese Exclusion Act ,” said the charismatic legislator, who, as a child during the second world war, was incarcerated with his parents in a Colorado internment camp for Japanese Americans. “We’re just 4 per cent of the population; 18 million people. We’re the least represented minority in government [2.3 per cent of the House, one senator]. But we are the fastest growing demographic in the country, and our vote will be crucial in battleground states.”
When we spoke, Honda advised me to meet Asian Americans outside the Washington bubble, to get a sense of the politics of identity and representation. So I resolved to embark on a pilgrimage of sorts, criss-crossing my way from Washington to Detroit and the final resting place of Vincent Chin, whose 1982 murder spurred the contemporary Asian-American struggle for equality.
The Lincoln Memorial seemed like a symbolic starting point for this journey.
AS THE SUN RISES on the venerable monument, on which the words from the Gettysburg Address are etched in stone – “Government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the Earth” – early morning joggers emerge from the direction of the Reflecting Pool.
“Hi! I’m Pauline, and I’m a proud second-generation American,” beams a 30-something Californian when I approach one of them.
Pauline Choy is clear on the political issues that matter to her: the economy, migration, student debt.
“Lots of my friends, they’re pro-business, anti-government Republicans. But they’re turning away from the GOP, right? Because of the sexist, anti-immigrant line Trump’s taking.
“If nothing else, his campaign tells us we need to be smarter,” Choy insists. “More vocal. Because we have so few of our own speaking up for us in public office and the media. We’re nowhere near as effective as black and Hispanic Americans in making our views heard. That’s how Trump gets away with mocking our accents at rallies, calling Filipinos ‘animals’ and this terrible hatred for Muslims.”
Choy gives a mock grimace: “You think only Mexicans will suffer if he builds that crazy wall along the border? No! More Chinese illegals come in via Mexico these days than any other route.”
The 2010 census records a 43 per cent growth in the legally documented Asian-American population since 2000. Highly educated immigrants are welcomed by business. Others are not so fortunate.
“When I was [a teen], it was just verbal abuse,” says Maryam Mohiuddin, a social worker who I meet at one of Cheong’s court hearings (more on which later). With resigned familiarity she describes a recent excursion by her sister: “The only person in her group not wearing hijab was stopped by a white passer-by. ‘You should pick better friends’, she was told.”
California, where Mohiuddin’s sister now lives, is a honeypot for the extreme right wing of the Republican Party, says Manila-born Yvette Felarca, an expert witness for Cheong.
“June 26, as they tried to rally on the steps of the Capitol Building in Sacramento, we had to defend ourselves from rioting Trump supporters and neo-Nazis empowered by the Republican candidate to spew their racist invective,” says the militant activist and teacher at the Martin Luther King Jr Middle School, Berkeley.
“I was lucky. I only had 24 stitches. But I got death threats, rape threats. And they threatened to shoot up students in my school if the Berkeley Unified School District didn’t fire me,” says Felarca.
Instead of congratulating the teacher for upholding the values of the civil-rights leader after whom her workplace is named, the district authorities marched Felarca off campus and began disciplinary proceedings against her, she says.
“There are specific challenges,” explains Mee Moua, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice, when we meet in her Washington office. “They include a lack of access to voter resources, discriminatory voting laws [including erosion of the Voting Rights Act 1965], unfamiliarity with the voting process and language barriers.
“You can imagine, we need to teach the civics of electoral participation across a plurality of languages that includes, say, Hmong or Lao: it’s a challenge – certainly when compared with the linguistic homogeneity of the black and Hispanic communities.”
MY HIRED (SOUTH KOREAN) KIA minivan is in Michigan , close to the Ohio border, when the phone on the dashboard rings. “Please hold for Mr Mar,” says a voice so chipper it has to belong to a Californian.
Melvin Mar is the son of Hong Kong immigrants and executive producer of the seminal ABC comedy Fresh Off the Boat, the first network television series to star a Chinese-American cast. Set in the 1990s, the series’ protagonists, the Huang family, relocate to Florida to live their own inimitable version of the American dream. Mom Jessica (Constance Wu) is a prototype tiger mother; warm-hearted dad Louis (Randall Park) owns a steakhouse; and their three young sons navigate a world that encompasses both rap music and the dreaded cram school, the Chinese Learning Centre (CLC).
“We’re doing a special during election week,” says Mar, when he comes onto the phone. “Part of that is about encouraging Asian Americans to register to vote.
“My dad passed away shortly after the Fresh Off the Boat pilot aired. He never registered to vote,” Mar explains. “For him, coming to America was about building a better life for his children, doing his job and not making waves – a typical immigrant mentality.”
Based on the 1996 White House race, contested by Bill Clinton and Bob Dole, the election special sees the steakhouse used as a polling station and the immigration status of model citizen Jessica, like Cheong, turned upside down.
“It’s fascinating how the Clinton name and issues key to that campaign, particularly immigration, still resonate 20 years later,” says Mar.
As I travel from city to city, Fresh Off the Boat proves to be something of an ice-breaker. Everyone has a view on the hit show, racially blind in its gentle universality. “A major network has finally taken the leap and provided positive media imagery and role models for generations of Asian Americans to identify and laugh with,” concludes Moua.
Ironically enough, ABC commissioned a third series of Fresh Off the Boat in the same week the network broadcast the 2016 Academy Awards live from Los Angeles to 225 countries and territories. Primed to highlight racial prejudice in the movie industry, African-American host Chris Rock managed to convey the #OscarsSoWhite message by racially denigrating three Asian children in a skit, stereotyping them for cheap laughs as overachievers and sweatshop fodder. British actor Sacha Baron Cohen’s subsequent description of the Minions as “hard-working little yellow people with tiny dongs” went largely unremarked.
“In pop culture, Asians have been the butt of jokes and invisible for years,” says State Assembly Representative Ron Kim, when we meet for coffee in his New York constituency, Flushing. “Politically, it’s worse. For every Asian American on TV, no one can name an elected Asian-American official.”
Testament to his own critique, in a city as diverse as New York, which is home to more Asian Americans than any other, Kim is the sole State Assembly representative of Asian ethnicity among the 150 legislators.
“Mainstream USA is not ready for an Asian American in high political office,” says Kim. “They feel uncomfortable. They consider us successful, so not part of the minority coalition. But not quite white either.
“It’s the model minority myth: that we’re passive, diligent and will accept others taking decisions for us. And as a result of this and institutionalised policies [such as the Exclusion Act, which wasn’t repealed until 1943], there’s still the misperception that we’re foreigners in this country.”
The political disconnect between Asian and “mainstream” America, what Kim implies to be “white America”, is perhaps mirrored in the relationship between Asian and African Americans on the streets of Flushing. On Roosevelt Avenue, a black woman tells me, “We are outcasts here. [Asian Americans] don’t like us. It’s about us spending our money in their stores.”
Kim traces the source of this tension to the approach first-generation Asian Americans take to the one-off, high-stakes testing unique to the New York public-school system.
“It results in this ultra-competitiveness when they come here. Instead of appreciating the other cultures and communities, they’re so narrowly focused on testing and making sure their child is getting into the best schools. That competition leads to a lack of empathy for other communities … internally they invalidate other people around them.”
Local ethnic fault lines were reopened in April, on the day of the New York primary election (to determine the presidential candidates of the Republican and Democratic parties), when charges against Hong Kong-born police officer Peter Liang were reduced from murder to criminally negligent homicide, and he was freed from jail.
Two years earlier, a startled Liang had discharged his weapon while on patrol in a housing complex. The bullet ricocheted off two walls before hitting an innocent black man on the floor below. Akai Gurley, 28, bled out in his girlfriend’s arms.
“I sat down with Liang,” says Kim. “My own assessment: it was an accident. No gun was ever pointed at someone to intentionally try to kill. But people frame it as black versus Asian, Asian versus black.”
Kim speaks out strongly for the Black Lives Matter movement. “My aim is to get the black and Asian communities to [realise] there is injustice here for both of us. All the shootings, where cops shot black males and not one indictment is given, does not mean Peter [is] responsible. And I think that is what the community felt: Peter was being scapegoated.”
Almost apologetically, Kim appears to see the case as affirming an Asian-American political voice; a step towards dismantling the model minority myth.
“It was historic. There were rallies across the country when Liang was indicted for manslaughter,” he says. “At Brooklyn Park, 35,000 Asian Americans came out.
“We’re finally at a point where we’re pushing back,” says the Korean American politician, speaking more generally. “People are building coalitions to say, ‘We’re not foreigners; we don’t have ‘Asian privilege’, and we’re not striving for ‘white privilege’.”
EDGING CLOSER TO CHIN’S resting place, I reflect on how the journey has repeatedly demonstrated that expressions of identity by Asian Americans, be they social, cultural or political, often require exceptional fortitude. Even successful immigrants can suffer a crippling sense of deracination.
“There’s a tendency to think of our identities as a choice we are obliged to make,” says Sino-Welsh novelist Peter Ho Davies, in his office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Davies’ acclaimed new novel, The Fortunes, is based on the lives of five Chinese Americans, one of whom is Chin.
“If one assimilates, does that mean a betrayal of one’s heritage? Either way we choose, there is going to be some doubt, some questioning of one’s authenticity at some level.”
During an interview at the Ann Arbor Holiday Inn, automotive design student Arianna Quan highlights how such insecurities can be aggravated from unexpected quarters.
“It hurt. I can’t pretend it didn’t, to be called ugly by billions of people,” she says, with candour; an unexpected start to a conversation with a beauty queen. But on recently becoming the first Asian American to win the Miss Michigan title, Quan, 23, was subjected to relentless cyberbullying. Her trolls, though, were not white Americans but Chinese.
“[They] were very unhappy. They said I was too dark, not skinny enough; not pretty enough to represent the Chinese people. It was very sobering.”
And the kicker is that, although born in Beijing and fluent in Putonghua, Quan is ethnically Korean. Ignorance of this fact, though, does not justify the demand that she conform to an ideal of Han beauty, or any other for that matter.
“Those first 24 hours were horrible,” she says. “And I started doubting my worth.
“It wasn’t until things died down that I realised it wasn’t about standing up for myself, but about representing all of those [women like her], here and abroad, who have been silent and underappreciated for so long.”
Appreciation, or at least recognition, is something Aftab Pureval – whose father is from India and mother from Tibet – also finds a challenge. As possibly the only Tibetan American standing for office anywhere in the US in Tuesday’s national election – which will return not just a new president, but also a new House of Representatives, 34 new senators and myriad local officials – that is perhaps no surprise.
“Hamilton County is so large, it’s difficult to meet people face to face,” says Pureval, a corporate lawyer running for clerk of courts, the senior judicial administrator in Ohio’s third most populous county. “Add to that I have an ethnic name and background, and it is that much more difficult.”
We meet before sunrise at the Board of Elections, in Cincinnati. The city is scarcely awake. On deserted boulevards, plumes of steam curl from manhole covers into the frozen air. It’s a month before the national election but early voting begins today in this key swing state.
A Democratic Party campaign bus draws up, emblazoned with Clinton portraiture. It provides a backdrop for a rolling press conference by party candidates.
In front of it, Pureval effortlessly concludes his presser: “If you are living in an impoverished community, if you are a minority, and you can’t afford the court fees, I think that is wrong. My name is Aftab Pureval and I am standing for Hamilton County clerk of courts.”
As Pureval presses the flesh and the first Ohioans vote, I pause to consider the contrast between the politician and his mother, Drenko, both seemingly wonderful, caring people – one a Tibetan refugee with whom I had coffee the day before; the other, Ohio born and raised, a community-building democrat in the best traditions of John F. Kennedy. I leap back into the minivan feeling a little like a monk who has just found the next incarnation of a Tibetan lama. Have I stumbled upon the first Asian-American president of the US?
The thing with America is, you never know.
WORD HAS COME THROUGH that Cheong has been recalled to court. His lawyers are concerned he could be deported. On the nine-hour drive across Ohio’s vast plains, I have plenty of time to consider Cheong’s fate, emblematic of the struggle to belong in this remarkable country.
In Detroit, Cheong supporters, most of whom are African American, are protesting outside the Federal Court. The man himself will appear via video link from Chippewa, 570km to the north.
“His case is all too common,” says Shanta Driver, Cheong’s attorney and chairwoman of civil-rights group By Any Means Necessary. “Over 36,000 Chinese migrants face deportation. But they’re trapped in limbo because America doesn’t want them and China won’t take them back ... It’s never discussed.”
Sitting in on Cheong’s case is one of a coterie of specialist judges recently sworn in to tackle the immigration backlog crippling the US legal system. There are at least 11 million undocumented immigrants in the US.
Driver explains that Cheong was depicted as a flight risk at his first hearing. Moreover, she scoffs, due to his participation in civil-rights protests for education and equality, the judge deemed him a threat to society and refused him bail.
“A threat to society?” repeats Cheong’s wife, Mulholland, who regularly drives with friends and activists the six hours from Detroit to Chippewa to protest for her husband’s freedom. “What Justin does for others is inspirational. He doesn’t want to be anywhere but America, with me and all the people who love him for his advocacy. Justin’s detention is not just pernicious and racist, but a shameful waste of taxpayers’ money.”
A 10-minute drive from the courthouse, through streets of burned-out clapperboard houses and drug dens, is spent processing the news that Cheong will not be freed today. The judge wishes for yet more hoops to be jumped through, more forms to be filled in. At the end of the short ride, the Kia draws into Forest Lawn Cemetery and I bring it to a halt on the cinder track beside the simple grave of Vincent Chin.
No Martin Luther King Jnr, he was just a working Asian American who died for the casual racism and ignorance of his assailants (see sidebar), but who in death has become a unifying figure for pan-Asian Americanism, needed as much today as at any time in the past.
A freight train rumbles along the adjacent track, laconic klaxon blaring. The conversation with Davies floods back: “I always thought the ‘Asian-American’ label had the distinct downside of lumping disparate groups together: Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Pakistani. But my study of Vincent’s case when writing The Fortunes helped me understand why we have this political grouping, based on commonalities between immigrants and to help erase some of their historical differences.”
Davies sees an incredible historical irony in Chin’s adoptive mother, Lily, having come to America to escape her memories of Japanese war atrocities in China.
“Not only is her son killed here because he is mistaken for a Japanese, then she finds herself making common political cause with Japanese Americans, who, of course, are also outraged that this young man has been killed,” Davies says. “This is very touching. And I do think that there is a political movement that makes sense, emanating from Vincent’s death, and that resonates as much today.”
Six hours north of Chin’s grave, as the first winter snows begin to fall on the jail in Chippewa County, Cheong prepares for the next court date in his ongoing struggle to be identified as an American.