by Miya Kuramoto //
On February 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, calling for all people of Japanese ancestry to be sent to internment camps. This action uprooted 120,000 people, forcing them to leave their homes, businesses, and belongings behind, left to be vandalized and dissected in their absence. This February marks 79 years since the signing of Executive Order 9066 as well as one year since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the United States, taking more than 500,000 American lives and forever altering the lives of many more.
The rise in anti-Asian hate must not be examined as a singular occurrence, but instead within the context of the tumultuous past and present of being Asian in America.
Recently, I’ve done a lot of reflecting; thinking about where I was one year ago and what my last experiences of ‘normalcy’ were before the pandemic. However, ‘normal’ is relative and the coronavirus has brought to light existing inequalities and further amplified those faced by low-income and BIPOC communities. While medical professionals fought the deadly virus from make-shift hospital rooms and ERs, the American people took to the streets to fight a different virus, one that lies within the systemic bedrock of our society. Racism in America is nothing new, but the increase in anti-Asian sentiment is something that hits home for me. I think of my grandparents who were interned in the Manzanar and Minidoka internment camps and how terms like ‘Kung Flu’ and the death of Vicha Ratanapakdee affect them and stir up memories of the trauma they experienced 79 years ago. This is to say, that the rise in anti-Asian hate must not be examined as a singular occurrence, but instead within the context of the tumultuous past and present of being Asian in America.
“A viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched.”
This quotation appeared in an op-ed published in February of 1942 in the Los Angeles Times. The author, W. H. Anderson conveys his stance on people of Japanese ancestry, saying that citizenship and place of birth are useless in proving loyalty. He felt that containing any piece of Japanese identity and ancestry equated to being the enemy. This brazen xenophobia falls into the trope of Asian Americans’ forever foreignness. A common example is the question, “Where are you from?” and the follow up of “No, like, where are you really from?” when your answer is a place in the United States. Whether you’re an immigrant, first-generation American, or have been in the US for several generations, there is always a question of origin and where your loyalties lie. This was the case for the Japanese Internment and is still relevant today in the case of the coronavirus.
While the first reported case of Covid-19 came from Wuhan, China, the names “Kung Flu” and “China Virus,” which were coined by Donald Trump, associate the virus with not only a place but a people. This tagging of infectiousness with being Chinese expanded as a result of the overgeneralization of Asian peoples, leading to the sentiment that all Asian people have and can spread the virus. This fear is used as an excuse for people to deny service and to commit violent acts against Asian people, many of whom are treasured elders in their communities. In addition to the risk of getting sick with Covid-19, Asians/Asian Americans walk the streets, hoping that they might make it home safely from the grocery store without being attacked.
To progress as a nation, we must learn to respect and set aside differences to celebrate our shared humanity.
Through all of this, I think of my 95-year-old great-aunt. I think about how she received her high school diploma in 1943 from the Manzanar camp, about the perseverance that it took for her to be accepted into Juilliard for piano, and about how she had to make a life for herself as a Japanese American after World War II. I think of her now, watching the nightly news and hearing about the people that have been slashed with knives, thrown on the ground, and burned with acid. It is heartbreaking to see history repeat itself and for my ancestors to once again be seen as a foreign enemy and viral threat. There is no clear-cut solution that will eradicate racism from America or disassemble the foundation of white supremacy in our country. However, to progress as a nation, we must learn to respect and set aside differences to celebrate our shared humanity.