The devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan stunned the world. Like many, I have been following the news and paying attention to local organized activities that contribute to relief efforts. I got an email recently about a fundraiser from a group of Asian American organizations. Before forwarding the invitation to my contacts, I opened the attached flyer, and that was when my feelings of compassion were quickly overtaken by a strong sense of unease. Try as I might, I found myself disturbed by the design of the flyer. At the top was the big word “HOPE,” with the letter “O” replaced by a big red dot that unmistakably symbolizes the Japanese flag.
The Japanese flag! The flag under which millions of Chinese were slaughtered, raped and tortured; the flag that many Chinese immigrants in Japan refused to bow to under any circumstance, because of the humiliation and trauma the Chinese went through under the Japanese occupation, and the flag that evokes strong feelings to this day among ordinary Chinese who are still waiting for Japan to officially apologize for its past crimes against humanity. Immediately, images of the book “The Rape of Nanking” leapt to mind, images of horrific brutality by Japanese soldiers against infants, women, and the elderly, and images of Japanese soldiers rejoicing over decapitation contests…
But unlike most Chinese, I am an American now. I personally know and highly regard many Japanese Americans here. I should move on and get over it, right? Frankly, I thought I had, until that moment. In fact, I had never connected this recent tsunami tragedy with Japan’s past, until that moment that brought me back to the era of unimaginable suffering in the country I left behind. I even found it outrageous that there are Chinese, though a very small number of them, thought that the Japanese deserved this traumatic experience because it was God’s punishment for Japan’s historical atrocities, or that Japan somehow brought this tragedy upon itself because of its supposed secret nuclear tests under the Pacific Ocean.
As an American and someone who consciously seeks to educate myself about cultures and people, I know better than to hold grudges against an entire country when only a small portion committed the crimes over sixty years ago. I know full well how Japan and China have both tried to mend fences, and how Japan has become a critical partner for China’s economic growth over the past several decades. And I know that as Asian Americans, whether Japanese or Chinese, we are really one community and one people with shared history of being perceived and treated as outsiders. In fact, when I speak in the public about Asian American history, I often talk about the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese internment experience in the same breath. Just like the Chinese and Japanese need each other as partners and allies on the global stage, Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans here have every reason to band together to make our country a more just and welcoming place for all.
But that red dot caught me by surprise. It opened emotional wounds that I tried very hard to bury as a modern day Chinese American. This is, after all, a personal subject. My grandmother died at age twenty shortly after giving birth to her only child, my mother, when the Japanese army bombed the area she lived. My mother, who was an otherwise highly energetic and warm music teacher, always felt that life cheated her and that all of her major problems could be somehow attributed to her not having a mother for love and guidance.
To the rest of America, the Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people all seem the same. We all look the same, we all eat rice with chopsticks, most of us speak English as a second language (which is true), and we all celebrate the same Lunar New Year (which is not true). But underneath that “Asian” façade, we each have our own distinct identities and history. Sometimes that history includes tensions between peoples.
Unlike many Americans born here, especially those in mixed population areas, most immigrants come from countries and cultures far less diverse or tolerant. As Americans, we are often surprised when people who look the same, at least to the rest of us, do not interact with each other or would even show disdain towards one another. That is because as Americans, we have been programmed to see people through the racial lens of Asian, Black, Latino, or White, whereas people who grew up in other countries identify themselves along the lines of ethnicities, nationalities (which is not the same as ethnicity), languages and religions. Race is arbitrary but ethnicity is real. There is no “Asian” language, culture or religion, but there are distinct languages, cultures and religions in each Asian ethnicity represented here. For example, the Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis may look the same to the rest of us, but they know how different they really are, even if they share some common cultural practices and beliefs. These differences can cause tension because of historical conflicts or prejudice.
Our lack of appreciation of inter-ethnic relations can create blind spots in our engagement with these communities, especially if the majority of these communities are foreign-born. I believe the organizers of the tsunami fundraising event simply wanted to add a little cultural touch to the flyer, but I know how this flyer could evoke the wrong emotions within the Chinese and other ethnic communities that were terrorized by Japan during WWII. Symbols matter. In an increasingly inter-connected world and integrated country, we all need to try harder to become more culturally competent as global citizens and as Americans. But cultural competency comes twofold. It means we need to be aware of underlying cultural friction when we interact with different communities, and that we need to catch ourselves from acting on emotional cultural instincts when confronted with uncomfortable situations.
After all, the Japanese people across the Pacific are hurting, and they need our help. They do, ultimately, look a lot like us—they are our fellow human beings. The Japanese earthquake and tsunami has turned out to be a soul-searching experience not only for the Japanese people, but for the Chinese people and the Chinese government as well. And even for some Americans. We are becoming one world. If we get it right, our children won’t have to overcome a negative reaction to the national symbol of their neighbors.
Lily Qi is the Vice Chair of Maryland Governor’s Commission on Asian American Affairs. She can be reached at email@example.com.