I Wish Henry Louis Gates Was My Friend
Lately, I’ve been inspired by a documentary called Faces of America on PBS. In the series, Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (pictured below) meets with 12 famous Americans (including two prominent Asian Americans — yay!) and tells them how they ended up in America, which country their ancestors originated from, and the experiences their immigrant ancestors had upon first arriving in the United States.
The program examines the question, “What does an ‘American’ look like?”
As an American of Asian descent, the question is near and dear to my heart. Nobody ever views me as an American when I travel around the world. Heck, sometimes even in America, they don’t view me as American. (Has anyone ever been to Sewanee, Tennessee? I have! You haven’t experienced the South until you’ve had a bunch of grizzly white men staring at you at a truck stop while you’re trying to eat your chicken-fried steak in peace.)
Sitting in a busy piazza in Florence, I once had an Italian guy try to charm me with the opener, “Are you Chinese? Japanese?” (Except he pronounced it, “Chin-eh-zeh?” “Japon-eh-zeh?”)
I wanted to say, “I’m American.” But I knew what he was getting at. Americans were white. Or black, like Michael Jordan. (It was the ’90s.) Not Asian…right?
If you watch Faces of America, you’ll realize that everybody who is American originally came from somewhere else. (Of course, we know this, but it’s always nice to be reminded — especially those angry anti-immigrant mobs.) Stephen Colbert’s great-great grandfather came from Ireland. Famed film director Mike Nichols — The Graduate, Working Girl, Closer — was born in Germany and came to America when he was seven. Dr. Mehmet Oz’s father immigrated from Turkey.
These individuals — all who happen to be white — are rarely questioned about their American-ness, as Asian-Americans are. We’re often asked, “Where are you from?” — even though our family may have been in America for generations.
Usually, the question isn’t mean-spirited, but it is inadvertently offensive. The question implies Asians look “different” and are somehow not really “American,” and in any event, are the “other.”
It’s heart-breaking to watch the moment in Faces of America, when Professor Gates tells Japanese American, Kristi Yamaguchi — whose paternal grandfather immigrated to the U.S. in 1899 — that her entire family was incarcerated in Japanese internment camps in the Arizona desert during World War II. And that her maternal grandfather fought for America alongside white soldiers, even though his wife and children were imprisoned in the concentration camps in the Arizona desert.
Throughout the series, Professor Gates approaches the sensitive issues of race and nationality with compassion, light humor and a deep understanding of America as a hyper-racialized society. The message he puts across in Faces of America seems to be: we’re all from somewhere else. So what does an “American” look like? Black, white, yellow, brown and everything in between.
Go to the Faces of America website and watch Professor Gates talk with: Mario Batali, Meryl Streep, Eva Longoria, Queen Noor, Dr. Oz, Mike Nichols, Malcolm Gladwell, Louise Erdrich, Elizabeth Alexander, Yo-Yo Ma, Stephen Colbert and Kristi Yamaguchi.