I was driving on the highway one night some years back between Denver and Boulder, when I got harassed by a couple of young white guys, probably in their teens or early 20s at the most, who were tailgating me. When I pulled off at an exit, they followed me, so I turned into a parking lot and got out of my car. They did the same and started yelling at me.
“Go back to China, you dirty Jap! Remember Pearl Harbor!” they said.
I shot back some pleasantries myself, educating them on the fact that I’m Japanese American, and China is different from Japan. At one point, I remember telling them that I was more American than they were, and I also noted that I spoke better English than they did. I ended the “conversation” by pointing out that they were driving a “Jap” car, a Honda Civic. Idiots.
This incident goes hand-in-hand with the many slights, insults and racist stupidity I — and I suspect many of you readers — have endured in my life. I was born in Tokyo, so when someone says, “Go back to where you came from,” I have to admit, they might have a point that I’m not from “here.”
But my dad was in the U.S. Army, and I was born in a military hospital and raised around military bases until we moved to the States when I was 8. So, how much more American do I need to be?
Still, once I moved to the U.S., I learned to dread every Dec. 7 and the inevitable verbal assaults of “Remember Pearl Harbor!” and “Sneaky Jap!” I also bit my tongue whenever someone randomly “ching chonged” me on the street or held their eyes in a ridiculous slant.
Not that long ago, after I had moderated a panel at the prestigious SXSW Music & Media Conference in Austin, Texas, I encountered a dude in a cowboy hat who blocked my way in a hallway and snickered, “In this country, we pass on the left.”
My friends at the Denver Post didn’t believe me when I told them that when I walk down the sidewalk, white people expect me to move out of the way, even if they could easily shift over. They believed me when we went out during lunch to the downtown 16th Street Mall, and they saw this happen again and again. It got to the point where I’ll go out of my way to not move aside and hit the white person, then say, “Excuse YOU.” Petty, yes, but it’s a little victory that vents my frustration.
So, when Donald Trump — the president of the United States — recently began attacking four elected lawmakers in Congress as un-American foreigners and said that they should “go back” to where they came from, I got a hard pit in my stomach. I knew this script.
I wasn’t surprised when at his next rally, his followers began chanting, “Send her back!” just as they’d chanted, “Lock her up!” about Hillary Clinton not only during the 2016 presidential campaign but also at every rally since, when Trump mentioned her name for effect.
It would be disturbing enough if that was a one-off event, but Trump has continued to demonize Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib (who are Muslim) as anti-Semitic because they dared to criticize Israel. He’s now taken that to the next step to say that Jews who voted for Democrats (the majority of Jews in the U.S., by the way) are stupid and “disloyal” to Israel. That’s a longstanding racist trope used by — wait for it — white nationalist anti-Semites to criticize people of the Jewish faith.
Just last week, Trump also mocked the accents of the leaders of Japan and South Korea. I wouldn’t be surprised if he pulled his eyes back sometimes, too.
Our president’s undisguised racism has apparently inspired people such as the self-confessed El Paso, Texas, shooter, who killed 22 people in a Walmart knowing that that’s where Latinos — including those from Mexico, right across the border in Cuidad Juarez — would be shopping for school supplies.
Our president has given permission to his base, many apparently who felt they were being smothered by “political correctness” in the past several decades since the civil rights movement earned hard-fought freedoms for African-Americans and other people of color.
People who maybe would not have yelled inanities at me (OK, those young men were not smothered by political correctness at all) now feel empowered to “let their racist flag fly” (apologies to the hippie generation, who coined the term “let the freak flag fly”).
Just this past week, a Japanese American man I know posted on his Facebook page that he was approached by a young man after a football game, who asked him where he was from. “Colorado,” he replied. The young man then asked him where he was born.
“California,” he responded. My friend was told he looked “too Asian” to be born in the U.S. My friend’s wife saw the young man sticking his finger in his mouth to fake gagging as my friend walked away.
This wasn’t late at night off a deserted highway. This was in the middle of thousands of people at a major sports stadium.
That’s a frightening escalation of racial hatred to me. With Trump escalating his trade war with China, I’m nervous that anti-Asian hatred will make its cyclical return and be added to the white nationalism and anti-Muslim sentiments that are already infecting our society.
To paraphrase Bette Davis’ line from “All About Eve”: “Fasten your seatbelts — it’s going to be a bumpy year (or more).”
Gil Asakawa is a former chair of the Pacific Citizen Editorial Board and author of “Being Japanese American” (Second Edition, Stone Bridge Press, 2015). He blogs at www.nikkeiview.com.