From the perpetual foreigner to the quintessential American

by Min Zhou
Los Angeles, California - 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.

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”.

US-China relations will also continue to affect how Chinese Americans are perceived in society. Our Asian American brothers and sisters still have to constantly prove they are loyal Americans, especially in times where US-China relations are in the spotlight. Nevertheless, America is a democratic and progressive society. It is still the best place to be, in my view, but Americans must make a concerted effort to work together to build a stronger and more inclusive nation.

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 (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 20 September 2011,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.
Women of Tunisia: Let your voices be heard!

The women of Tunisia have a decisive role to play in shaping Tunisia's future. Fatma Ben Saïdane reminds women of the power of their vote and the importance of civic engagement.
"I have received six questions from several individuals working for the Common Ground News Service. I hope that students and specialists in our university (Al Azhar), as well as those concerned with general intellectual matters, will take note of the effort behind these questions, how they came to be issued only after extensive information - gathering and study that could fill shelves, and after the kind of organized thought that draws connections between various facts and which does not busy itself with the illusions, trifles, and pettiness that upend the edifice of knowledge."

- Sheikh Ali Gomaa, Grand Mufti of Egypt

It takes 200+ hours a week to produce CGNews. We rely on readers like you to make it happen. If you find our stories informative or inspiring, help us share these underreported perspectives with audiences around the world.



Or, support us with a one-time donation.

Using the King memorial to live out his legacy
Troy Davis and Race in America
Remembering race in occupied Wall Street
Revisiting MLK’s dream
Can restorative justice balance the scales for African American youth?
Can immigration reform renew America’s multicultural identity?
Does gentrification have to divide races in the United States?
# of hours per week to create one edition
# of editors in 6 countries around the world
# of subscribers
Average # of reprints per article
# of media outlets that have reprinted our articles
# of republished articles since inception
# of languages CG articles are distributed in
# of writers since inception


Other articles in this series

Using the King memorial to live out his legacy by Nadra Kareem Nittle
Troy Davis and Race in America by Ariane Inkesha
Remembering race in occupied Wall Street by Anita Sinha
Revisiting MLK’s dream by James E. Jones
Can restorative justice balance the scales for African American youth? by Rebecca M. Stone
Can immigration reform renew America’s multicultural identity? by Ninoska Marcano M.
Does gentrification have to divide races in the United States? by Chris Wilder