By Angie Chuang
Lately, I’ve been having some version of this conversation with my Asian and Latino American friends:
– Don’t tell anyone, but my mother / father / uncle / aunt supports Donald Trump.
– Oh, I’m so sorry. It happens. Did you try to talk to them?
– Yes, but …
This usually follows with an explanation that seems trivial, or even disarmingly logical, were it not for what it overlooks about Trump and his candidacy:
– She thinks he’s a good businessman.
– Trump is tough on China and they’re from Taiwan.
– Their English isn’t very good and Trump is a politician whose speeches they understand.
These are the reasons older Asian and Latino Americans may offer up to pacify the younger generation. They’re used to us looking at them with dismay and even condescension. Our parents gave up their native language and culture for a second generation to give the second generation the upward mobility and opportunity that the United States represented. The tradeoff was that their children would always have to watch their parents stay a step behind their white peers, a little ill-at-ease in the world.
The real reasons behind “Hispanics para Trump” or “Chinese Americans ♥ Trump” are more gut-level and ingrained. Many of these Asians and Latin Americans were among the highly educated immigrants who transformed the face of the U.S. population after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Until then, immigration to the United States was based on national preferences established in the 1920s and reinforced in the 1950s. More than two-thirds of all immigrants were from three countries: the United Kingdom, Ireland, and Germany.
The new law arose out of the Cold War, showcasing the United States’ desire to appear open to the world while the Soviet Union was not. Amid the space race and the humiliation of the Sputnik launch, the U.S. scrambled to attract top foreign graduate students and boost the country’s science and engineering capacity. My father was among those students. The new immigration law, which favored skilled labor and family reunification, made it possible for him to become a citizen and bring my mother to the United States.
By the mid-1990s, more than 80 percent of new immigrants were from Asia and Latin America. Much of this transformative population, particularly the new immigrants from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Japan, South Korea, and India, became the vaunted “Model Minorities” whose accomplishments were portrayed both as threatening and a rebuke to other minorities who couldn’t “pull themselves up by their bootstraps.”
To compare the successes and acculturation level of immigrants who were deliberately lured to the United States from developed countries (or developed portions of countries) because of their already-high educational achievement, given free graduate scholarships, and then a path to citizenship based on their job skills, with those who either arrived as refugees or de-facto economic refugees (as is the case for most undocumented immigrants and low-wage immigrant workers), is ludicrous at best, dangerous at worst.
Yet we’re constantly suckered into the comparison game, being told by leading journalists and scholars that the successes of some Asian American groups can be attributed to a cultural advantage or strict parenting.
Many educated, upper-middle-class Asian Americans and Latinos of my parents’ generation bought into that myth. It was flattering. It gave a group that had faced sneers and suspicions at their accents and their purported loyalties a place to be accepted, even admired, in American society. It laid the groundwork for some to buy into the fears of poorer immigrants, black Americans, and later, Muslim Americans, that kept people of color divided—and conquered.
We second-generation immigrants who meet Trump supporters in our parents’ generation with disdain, or an assumption that they must be too naïve to grasp the hateful aspects of his message, are doing them a disservice.
They’re not dumb or gullible. They have chosen to embrace a narrative that speaks more loudly to them than the other narratives about what Trump represents. Through their hard work, sacrifices, and commitment to this country, they have earned the version of the American Dream symbolized by Trump, the son of an immigrant himself, and his marble-and-gold towers. Acceptance into an elite group, by the very definition of elite, requires the exclusion of others—we’ve known this since middle school, watching former friends turn their backs on us in favor of joining the “cool” kids.
The first part of this story is true. Our parents sacrificed; many were rewarded. The rest of the story requires a contextualized understanding of immigration, race, and history—and a shutting down of a barrage of messages from Hollywood, television, the news media, and politicians on both sides of the aisle.
My own immigrant parents from Taiwan, former Reagan Republicans-turned-sometime-Democrats, have chosen not to support Trump. (“He’s a jerk,” my mom said plainly—and I’ve never heard her call anyone a jerk, at least not in English.) Last spring, one of my liberal white students came to me with the “my parents support Trump” whispered confessional.
“Talk about this. Not just with me, but with them. It’s important for you, for all of us, to understand why first without the intent of changing their minds,” I urged her.
“Then, try to change their minds.”
Photograph: Jae C Hong, The Associated Press
Angie Chuang is (not in order of importance) a former Portlander, an associate professor of journalism at American University in Washington, D.C., a reluctant political pundit but an eager commentator on issues of race and immigration, and the author of The Four Words for Home, a dual memoir about her immigrant family and her journey to Afghanistan with another family much like hers.
Editor’s note: It hardly seems possible that I’ve known Angie, a fellow San Francisco Bay Area native, for 20-plus years. She hasn’t aged, though she’s accomplished more in two decades as a journalist and educator than most do in a lifetime. I was delighted to recruit her to The Oregonian twice — first for a summer internship, then for a full-time job — and I’ve been pleased to see her excel in the newsroom and the classroom.
Tomorrow: Elizabeth Lee, This thing called retirement