"Are you in the Chinese Air Force?" the elegantly dressed lady sitting next to me asked. For a moment I was left speechless. We were at an awards dinner, and I was wearing my blue U.S. Air Force uniform, complete with captain's bars, military insignia and medals. Her question jarred me and made me realize that even Air Force blue was not enough to reverse her initial presumption that people with yellow skin and Asian features are somehow not Americans.
Unfortunately, this was not just an isolated incident. And now in the wake of the rising tensions between the United States and China, we must be even more vigilant to ensure that Asian Americans are not caught in the cross-fire.
I have had strangers come up to me and attempt to mimic the Chinese language in a derogatory manner. I have been told countless times that I speak "good" English. I have been asked why someone like me would be interested in watching NFL football. On any given day, if I walk around with a camera, I will be mistaken for a tourist from Asia.
Most of the discrimination I have encountered centered on the view that I am not a part of this great nation, even though I grew up in Ohio, graduated from law school in Washington, D.C., and received my commission in the U.S. Air Force in 1991.
Sometimes the discrimination is subtler than a blatant headline or a hate crime, but it still can be insidious. After the bombing of the Chinese Embassy, a news station sent a reporter to get "the Chinese American response." It was clear the reporter was attempting to elicit some sort of anti-American sentiment. The erroneous presumption, however, is that Chinese Americans are somehow linked to the government or nation of China. This subtle linkage, when carried to an extreme, is the same insidious rationale that justified the interning of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II. And when Asian Americans are improperly linked to a foreign country, that linkage fundamentally calls into question our loyalty.
I fear this burden of having to prove our loyalty will only increase in the wake of the Cox committee's report. I do not know whether Wen Ho Lee, the Chinese American scientist who was fired from Los Alamos National Laboratory, is guilty of espionage. But I do know that the more than 300,000 Asian American scientists, and the more than 10 million Asian Americans in this country, are not guilty of anything more than having an Asian surname.
A recent news article reported that an Asian American lab employee was asked if he had "dual loyalties"; that snickering broke out when an Asian American was introduced to lead a session on computer security; and that many Asian American scientists now express fear that they will face discrimination on the job.
America is a nation founded by immigrants and built on the ideal that anyone can be an American if he or she believes in the principles and values of the Constitution. Indeed, the Vietnamese American immigrant who does not yet speak "good" English but is starting a small business and believes in freedom and democracy is much more American than a fifth-generation white separatist who blew up a federal building because he had a problem with federalism.
Let us also never forget the Japanese American soldiers of the 442nd infantry battalion, the most highly decorated combat unit in World War II, who gave their blood to this country while their families were kept in American internment camps.
It is time to reverse the irrational and insidious presumption that Asian Americans are foreigners, have dual loyalties or are somehow linked to the government of a foreign country.
As an officer in the U.S. Air Force, one day I may be called to give my life for my country. It would be a shame if some people still question what I mean when I say "my country."
The writer is an Air Force captain.