'Perpetual Foreigners': Two Asian Americans Reflect On Living In Massachusetts

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Children carry "stop the hate" and "Asian lives matter" as they walk around Clemente Park in Lowell, Mass. during a vigil held for the victims of the shooting spree in Atlanta at Clemente Park on March 17, 2021. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
Children carry "stop the hate" and "Asian lives matter" as they walk around Clemente Park in Lowell, Mass. during a vigil held for the victims of the shooting spree in Atlanta at Clemente Park on March 17, 2021. (Erin Clark/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Last week’s mass killing at three massage businesses in the Atlanta area may mark the latest nadir in a recently publicized wave of attacks against immigrants and Americans of Asian descent, but racism and xenophobia directed at those with Asian roots has a long history in this country — and that includes Massachusetts.

WBUR's Morning Edition host Bob Oakes sat down with two people to get their perspectives: Caroline Lee is a first-generation Chinese American, a second-year student at Harvard Medical School and a contributor to Cognoscenti, WBUR's ideas and opinions page. Paul Watanabe, Japanese American, is director of the Institute for Asian American Studies and a professor of political science at the University of Massachusetts Boston.

Highlights from this interview have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Interview Highlights

On anti-Asian sentiment as a constant in U.S. society 

Watanabe: I must say ... more people have learned more about the Asian American reality and community probably in the last five days than they did in the previous hundred years really. And that's important because I think the Asian American community — although it's the fastest-growing community both here in Massachusetts and nationwide — it's the community that I think people know less about in terms of major racial groups. And part of this lifting of the shroud of invisibility is the understanding not only that the events of the last week have been horrendous — they're part of a long process by which Asian Americans have been in some ways treated in this fashion as the other; as perpetual foreigners. And that this violence against Asian Americans has been reflected not only in attitudes and criminal activity, but in terms of legal and political and social ways in which Asian Americans, since the very time they stepped on these shores, have been treated in the United States.

Caroline Lee: I'm originally from the Bay Area and there have been so many attacks on especially elderly Asian Americans. ... I've told my parents, you know, be careful when you go out because these are the people that are being targeted ... are individuals who don't speak English, who are perceived as being individuals who won't fight back.

... I think especially the events in Atlanta really hit home for me as an Asian-American woman. And I think a lot of the discussions around it were that, you know, this was one of many incidences related to how COVID has, kind of increased the number of attacks on Asian Americans. But although I think that is true, I think it especially hurt me because for me, this was not just the last week. This was our entire life experiences and our worst fears kind of playing out into action.

... personally, I had to do a lot of the learning myself, because you know the kind of, history of Asian-American discrimination wasn't something that I was taught in my history classes growing up, and it was never talked about.

On Lee's and Watanabe's respective experiences with harassment 

Lee: every sphere of my life, whether that's personal or whether that's professional, I am always viewed as kind of an Asian woman first instead of that just being a part of my identity. I'm a medical student at Harvard Medical School and I cannot tell you the countless number of times when in that role, I have had comments made about my identity as an Asian American woman by patients that I meet; whether those are sexual comments or comments about my background and race. And I think these are moments where I feel very especially powerless to say anything in response. ... if this is what I experience in a position of immense privilege, you know, wearing a white coat with Harvard Medical School's name on it, how much worse is it in my personal life when I'm just walking down the street? And how much worse is it for Asian American women who are working in service industries ... you know, like the victims who were killed? It is kind of a constant barrage of harassment at times, and it feels like you can't escape.

Watanabe: Well, I've never been attacked ... but I've certainly felt it and I feel it in various different ways. I remember, for example: I live in a community south of Boston and the first time I took my young son to a daycare facility that they had at the local high school ... I thought, 'This is great.' They had a little daycare that was essentially free. And I'll never forget, my son, who I think was about three years old, and he walked up the steps of the high school and students from the upper floors shouting "g---, g---, g---" at myself and more or less, at my son. And I'm sorta somebody who understands the racism and so forth involved. But the impact on my kids and just seeing them do this to my kids — this is the sort of way in which I reflect on these sorts of things.

I remember, Bob, you and I were talking about how we go way back being on the radio and I've been on [as a] political analyst and so forth on [WBUR] and others. And I'll never forget in the early days in which I used to do this, people used to say, 'Wow, who's this guy? He's not even from this area. He's not even from Harvard, you know, and he's trying to tell us about what Boston politics is about?' Or this notion, for example, that — on the other hand — that people used to tell me, they say — and they still do — they say, 'Paul, we really are proud of you for being on the radio and so forth, because Boston, the people that they used as political analysts have so strongly been people who are white, and we really like to see some diversity and you represent a lot of diversity on that.'

And so it comes both ways, Bob. It's a source of pride, it's a source of accomplishment, it's a source of visibility, but it's also a source of pain, and that pain is something that I've been trying to struggle against my entire life. And I'm sort of, kind of cranky sometimes and I think sometimes I try to call it like it is. And part of that is because of the experience of my family during World War II, placed in America's concentration camps, and the way in which that experience limited the options for them for the rest of their life; it silenced these people.


On President Trump's characterization of the coronavirus as the "Chinese virus" 

Lee: I think the words of the former president definitely sparked a lot of vitriol that was already present. You can just go to a lot of the media sites and a lot of news stories where Asian countries are portrayed as the enemy. Those are all amplified onto each other and then superimposed on this long history. So I think it definitely made it worse and I think for a lot of Asian Americans, those statements highlighted our otherness in this community, and I think that was a very difficult thing to experience.

Watanabe: ... assuredly, Donald Trump contributed and enabled a lot of these attitudes to emerge, but he didn't create them. And in some ways, the way it's going to emerge in the next period of time is ... I think, there's a growing consensus, unfortunately it's a bipartisan consensus, about this notion of China as the enemy. That impact about how we treat China and our relationship with China redounds to people here in the United States of Chinese and Asian descent. That's the reality here of this perpetual foreigner notion. We have people in Boston who came from China four generations ago and they're still going to get tied to what our relationships are with China.

... And there's lots of reasons for that and I think they're instructive. So I don't think this thing is going to disappear. But I hope the education that's taken place over the last week or so will create pause, at least at the government level and perhaps at the personal level, about the ongoing connections that this experience has meant for their Asian-American brothers and sisters here in the United States.

This segment aired on March 24, 2021.


Headshot of Bob Oakes

Bob Oakes Senior Correspondent
Bob Oakes was a senior correspondent in the WBUR newsroom, a role he took on in 2021 after nearly three decades hosting WBUR's Morning Edition.


Headshot of Wilder Fleming

Wilder Fleming Producer
Wilder Fleming produces radio and podcasts for WBUR.



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