Let’s Break Down the Perpetual Foreigner Stereotype


Part of the Diversity and Inclusion Blog Post Series

May marks Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. You are forgiven if you’re not quite sure whose month exactly this is! Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) is a rather broad term and encompasses more than 50 ethnic groups from Asia and the Pacific Islands who live in the United States.  While the AAPI communities have roots that span the globe, our success stories are uniquely American.  May is a significant month in Asian American history, as it includes the first entry of an immigrant from Japan to the U.S. (May 7, 1843), the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad (May 10, 1869) in which the majority of the workers who laid the tracks were Chinese immigrants, as well as a dark time in our nation’s history with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act (May 6, 1882).  In fact, Asian American history dates back to the 16th century with the first recorded presence of Filipinos in what is now the U.S. to October 1587 around Morro Bay, California, with the first permanent settlement in Saint Malo, Louisiana, in 1763.  Less than fifteen years later, in 1778, Chinese immigrants settled in Hawaii.  From ancient, to more recent, the impact of Asian Americans on U.S. history is undeniable.

But, despite our long history in the U.S., there is still a stereotype that we are the “perpetual foreigner”, with many of us being asked the dreaded question “Where are you from?”, which is then normally followed by the question “No, where are you really from?”, or the variant “Where are your parents from?”

“Where are you really from?” is a tough question to answer, even for me. Until only a few years ago, I thought my family had just immigrated to the U.S. in the 1960s.  However, through interviews with people from the Chinese American community, including AILA member Helen Hui, I learned that my family had a much more significant and lengthier history in the U.S.  In fact, I have a paternal great-great-grandfather who lived and settled in Chicago.  His son, my great-grandfather, lived in Chicago for some time before moving to San Francisco.  On my maternal side, my great-grandmother came to the U.S. as an aide to her daughters, who were acclaimed Cantonese opera singers and recruited to perform in San Francisco Chinatown theaters.  One of these singers had a life partner who was the first Chinese woman attorney in California – Emma Lum.  Her father, Walter U. Lum, was a renowned civil rights advocate and has a street named after him in San Francisco Chinatown.

Walter U. Lum was one of the founders of the Native Sons of the Golden State (renamed the Chinese American Citizens Alliance in 1915) which advocated for Chinese American rights and opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was finally overturned in 1943 with the Magnuson Act.  However, while the Magnuson Act overturned the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 only allowed a national quota of 105 Chinese immigrants per year.  This extremely small quota impacted families, as it was difficult for American citizen men to bring their Chinese citizen wives and children to the U.S. This was, in fact, the case with my family, where several generations of husbands and sons were separated from their wives and children.

Walter U. Lum and the Chinese American Citizens Alliance (CACA) continued advocating to change the U.S. quota system so that Chinese families could be together.  In fact, many of our clients today benefit from the legacy of Walter U. Lum’s work, especially with our current definition of immediate relatives.  In 1936, the CACA successfully campaigned for a partial alleviation of the inhumane separation of American citizens from their wives. Through continued advocacy work, including repeatedly appearing before Congressional immigration committees, CACA succeeded in getting Congress to pass a law granting non-quota status to Chinese wives of American citizens on August 9, 1946. The pen which President Harry S. Truman used to sign this law is housed at the CACA lodge in San Francisco, and this pen has been shown at events with the local AILA Northern California Chapter at the CACA lodge.  The passage of the 1946 act served as a basis for the definition of immediate relatives, and the CACA members on October 15, 1952 appeared before President Harry Truman’s Commission on Immigration and Naturalization to continue advocating.  Finally, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 gave us our current definition of “immediate relatives” and also abolished the national-origins quota, which limited Chinese immigration to only 105 per year.

When I look back at my Chinese American heritage, I am grateful to the Chinese American community members (including above-mentioned AILA member Helen Hui) for giving me more context to the history of my family in the U.S., for continually advocating for immigrant rights, and for teaching me our significant and long history in the U.S.  I am also grateful and proud that my own family played a part in  overturning the Chinese Exclusion Act and contributing to the concept of immediate relatives.

While the Chinese Exclusion Act no longer keeps families apart, as we know, these days there are other policies in place that do. The Muslim ban, the Remain in Mexico policy, even delays in processing at USCIS are keeping families apart and benefit no one; there have also been legislative changes proposed that would prevent families from reunifying. We’ve been down that road before and it harmed generations of children, in my case resulting in ignorance about my family’s history until very recently.  We must use the lessons of the past to halt current policies that exclude and separate immigrant families.

With confidence, I can say that my family has been here at least five generations, but due to the racist and anti-Chinese sentiments which gave rise to the Chinese Exclusion Act and national origins quota, my family was separated for generations between two continents. I don’t feel like a perpetual foreigner anymore. Now, if only people would stop asking me that question…


by Olivia Lee