Asian-Americans caught between images and reality

August 20, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

LOS ANGELES -- As a Japanese-American growing up in East Los Angeles, Don Nakanishi dreaded going to school on Dec. 7.

"Inevitably, some teacher would mention that Japan bombed Pearl Harbor and all the eyes in the class would turn to me," said Mr. Nakanishi, director of the Asian-American Studies Center at the University of California, Los Angeles.

He thought that part of his life was over when he enrolled at Yale University, which he believed to be a great center of liberalism and tolerance.

He was wrong.

Late on the night of Dec. 7, 1967, as the freshman Mr. Nakanishi was studying in his room, relieved that no one had reminded him of the day, a throng of dormitory mates marched in and threw water balloons at him, shouting: "Bomb Pearl Harbor! Bomb Pearl Harbor!"

As Mr. Nakanishi sat in his chair, stunned and dripping wet, not knowing whether to laugh or cry, a classmate began to recite by memory President Franklin D. Roosevelt's speech declaring war against Japan and calling Dec. 7 "a day that will live in infamy."

The incident, he said, changed the course of his life. Instead of working to become a doctor, he studied the World War II internment of Japanese-Americans, including his own parents. His search led him to become a specialist in Asian-American studies.

"It made me wonder why I was being identified with an event I had nothing to do with, one that involved Japan, and why my fate was wrapped up in U.S.-Japan relations," said Mr. Nakanishi, now 44.

But he has learned over the years that American images of Asians change slowly, if at all.

Just this week, his 10-year-old son told him that last Dec. 7, a fourth-grade teacher had mentioned Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in class.

When Mr. Nakanishi asked the boy how he felt, the child replied: "I felt like everybody was looking at me. I don't know why."

For nearly 8 million people of Asian ancestry in the United States -- 40 percent of them in California -- life often means reflecting images from two worlds.

No matter how many generations Asian-Americans live in this country, many people continue to think of them as foreigners, contends Jon Funabiki, director of the Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University. "You can never be a full-blooded American citizen as long as you look different from the classic white Anglo," he said.

Mr. Funabiki, who is sansei, a third-generation Japanese-American, says he has been more frequently harassed verbally in recent years as U.S. trade frictions with Japan accelerated. During a business trip to the Midwest, a stranger stopped him on the street and said: "Why are you trying to buy up all the farms here?"

His experience is not uncommon, according to a Los Angeles Times poll, which found that the most prevalent form of discrimination reported by Asians comes from strangers in a public place. This is in contrast to blacks, Latinos and whites who most commonly report discrimination in the workplace.

The poll, which surveyed 1,232 Southern California residents, also found that 72 percent of the respondents believe that movies and television shows distort Asian characters.

However, 60 percent feel that Asian characters are treated fairly by the news media. Even among Asians themselves, 50 percent felt the news media treat them fairly while 32 percent think they get negative treatment.

Still, such findings do not mean that all is well, according to Asian-American media watchers.

The Center for Integration and Improvement of Journalism at San Francisco State University, working with the Asian-American Journalists Association, in 1991 launched Project Zinger, a watchdog for Asian-American coverage in the news media.

In its report on 1992 coverage, it identified ten editorial cartoons depicting Asians with buck teeth, slanted eyes and with thick glasses -- an image straight out of U.S. World War II propaganda.

One cartoon, by Paul Szep in the Jan. 12, 1992, Boston Globe, showed four Japanese car dealers helping an American auto salesman who has fainted, an allusion to President Bush's trip to Japan. The four Japanese characters have slits for eyes and buck teeth, and three of them wear large glasses.

Mr. Szep defended his work. "A lot of people don't really understand or appreciate satire and caricatures and take umbrage," he said. "I treat all ethnic groups the same. I've gotten complaints from everyone."

When the first Chinese came to California around the time of the Gold Rush, they were called "celestials" -- peculiar beings from another world. Later they were depicted as heathens who frequented opium and gambling dens.

American admiration of Japan's might in the early decades of the 20th century tended to soften scapegoating until World War II -- when Japanese in this country became the "yellow peril," and California newspapers promoted the internment of Japanese-Americans.

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