Expert Profile ExpertProfile Min Zhou Min Zhou is Professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies, University of California, Los Angeles. Her main research interests include immigration, race and ethnicity, Asian Americans, the community and urban sociology.
Mission of the
U.S./China Media
and Communications
Program at UCLA

Our mission is to create, promote, and disseminate a more balanced understanding of the interrelationship of the countries, peoples, and cultures of the United States and China through the tools of mass communication and public education.

Four strategic areas make up the U.S.-China Media and Communications Program, housed at the UCLA Asian American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.
ArticleHeader

From the Perpetual Foreigner to the Quintessential American (March 10, 2011)

By Min Zhou, Ph.D.


President Obama formally nominated Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke to be the US ambassador to China. I feel truly exhilarated by the news.

In Obama’s Cabinet, there are now two Chinese Americans—former Washington Governor Gary Locke as the 36th Secretary of Commerce, and Nobel Prize winning physicist Steven Chu as the 12th Secretary of Energy. There are also two Chinese Americans currently serving their terms in Congress—Congressman David Wu and Congresswoman Judy Chu. In addition, we have Senator Daniel Akaka, the first and only Chinese American in the US Senate. The rise of these individuals to high public offices may seem matter-of-fact to most Americans. But it is an extraordinary achievement in which every Asian American should take special pride.

Mr. Locke’s nomination as Ambassador to China, the first Chinese American ever to hold this position, is another history-making event for Asian Americans. Only a century ago, there was a law—the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943)—that legally excluded us Chinese Americans from many aspects of American life, including residential and occupational segregation. Since we looked more similar to our distant relatives in China than to our American peers, we were viewed as either strange aliens or disloyal citizens. For a long time, we have been treated as perpetual foreigners, not as Americans.

Even now, we still have to consistently make extra effort to prove that we are "true" Americans. We have made great progress through a path of least resistance—education. As an ethnic group, we are now among the best educated: More than half of all Americans of Chinese descent have at least a college degree, compared to less than 30% of all Americans; and nearly half of all Chinese Americans hold high-paying professional jobs, mostly in science, engineering, medicine, finance, and law.

From a Chinese immigrant’s perspective, Mr. Locke is a symbol of an American Dream fulfilled. A Chinese immigrant’s American Dream is three-fold: “to live in your own house, be your own boss, and send your children to the Ivy League [prestigious colleges].” Locke’s grandfather hailed from a rural village in South China. He suffered from legal and social exclusion in America, but persistently toiled at odd jobs in order to put food on the dinner table. Locke’s father, also born in China, moved a step up—owning a home, running his own grocery store, and sending Locke to Yale, which helped Locke established a financially secure career in law and later in politics.

From a Chinese American’s perspective, Mr. Locke is a symbol of citizenship rights vindicated. Going into politics is not a conventional route for Chinese Americans because of the constant fear and anxiety over unequal treatment. In many ways, 21st century American society is very different from the one prior to the surge of Chinese immigration 30 years ago. The children of Chinese immigrants, born or raised here, have more opportunities than ever before as to what they want to do in life, much like other Americans. Role models like Locke set new aspirations in fields that the most Chinese Americans have not previously considered. In particular, familiar faces in the political arena make electoral politics a viable option for young Chinese Americans who are constantly fighting off the image of the quiet and unassuming “model minority” nerd. So in another decade, I would not be surprised to hear xenophobic pundits grumbling about “too many Chinese” running for public office; in fact, I would not mind these grumblings!

President Obama’s vision is global and far-reaching. The President has an ambitious agenda of turning America’s sagging economy around and putting Americans back to work. He knows all too well that America cannot afford to alienate China, the second largest economy in the world. He makes this nomination not just because Locke has Chinese roots but because Locke has the right credentials, experience, leadership qualities, and the ability to build bridges between US and China that no one else can match for this position.

As for the possible Chinese reaction, a rank-conscious Chinese might pause for a second to wonder if this position would be a step down status-wise for Mr. Locke. They might ponder, why would a Cabinet member leave his current job to take a post under another Cabinet member [the Secretary of State]? Nevertheless, the Chinese would probably be delighted, considering it a friendly gesture from the world’s superpower for strengthening bilateral relations and fair partnerships. In fact, Chinese leaders know Mr. Locke very well from his years as Washington Governor, when he used to go to China to drum up support for Boeing, Microsoft, and other major firms, helping more than double the WA’s exports to China to over $5 billion per year. Would they think of Locke as Chinese? Why not? As the old saying goes, “Once Chinese always Chinese—the son of the Yellow Emperor.” But I think they’re wrong: Locke is not Chinese in the way that people in China might perceive him to be; he is a quintessential American.

Looking ahead, Mr. Locke’s path to China may take him right into the White House. After all, President George Bush Sr., former Ambassador to China, did it! The out-going Ambassador to China, Jon Huntsman, is aspiring to run for President in 2012. Who knows, Locke may be the next in line to the White House! It is not beyond reach for an Asian American to aspire to be a presidential candidate in the not-so-distant future.

I’d like to conclude on a note of caution, though. Just like how an African American being elected to the highest office does not mean the end of racism, the current Chinese American breakthrough into politics does not mean the end of negative anti-Asian-American stereotyping. Chinese Americans and other Asian-looking Americans are still in an ambivalent position as neither white nor black, and neither “American” nor “Asian.” U.S.-China relations will continue to affect how Chinese Americans are perceived in society. Many historical stereotypes, such as the “yellow peril” and “Chinese menace,” have found their way into contemporary American life, as revealed in such highly publicized incidents as the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American mistaken for Japanese and beaten to death by a disgruntled Michigan auto worker in the 1980s, and the trial of Wen Ho Lee, a nuclear scientist suspected of spying for the Chinese government in the mid-1990s (eventually proven innocent). Our Asian American brothers and sisters still have to constantly prove they are truly loyal Americans, especially in times where US-China relations are in the spotlight.

Min Zhou is a Professor of Sociology & Asian American Studies and Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in US-China Relations & Communications, UCLA

 

[keywords: min zhou ucla asian american studes center u.s. china president barack obama secretary of commerce gary locke u.s. ambassor to china]


© Copyright 2011 by Min Zhou & UCLA Asian American Studies Center, U.S./China Media Brief