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Early Asian American History: Asian As Strangers

Updated on February 25, 2012
Philip Jaisohn
Philip Jaisohn

What is a stranger?

In earlyAmerica, Asian has been considered “strangers”. While Asian was foreign to theUnitedState, so were many European. Sociologist Georg Simmel develop a theory in his essay “The stranger”, where he believed that immigrants (intruders as Georg Simmel refers it as) are strangers because they bring qualities that are not natives to the land, the intruders are not attach to the new land but their old home. While this is accurate for European immigrants, it is not completely true for Asian immigrants. Even when Asian adapted to the American culture they are still considered “strangers”, primarily due to their physical features.

In the essay “A Chinese Immigrant Makes His Home in Turn-of-the-Century America”, Lee Chew is a perfect example of a “strangers” based on Gerog Simmel’s theory. He comes from the provinceof Cantonin China, where men and women do not live. He eats rat and other food that American find distasteful. The way he speaks, talk, and his very foundation that make him a person is different from any American. Lee Chew came to theUnitedState hoping to find wealth and returning home with it. He is a stranger but no more than any other European immigrant. Yet how is it that American can accept these European immigrants but will still consider Asian a “strangers”?

White Immigrants vs. Asian Immigrants

Most European immigrants were white. They could change themselves and forget everything from their past. They can change their name, the way they dress, the way they speak, and completely become an “American”. Asian could change their name, as well as clothing, manner, speech, but not their physical appearances. The shape of their eyes, the color of their hairs, and the color of their skin made it so that they could never blend in with mainstreamAmerica.

In the early twentieth century, 50,000 Armenians had come toAmerica. In 1909 federal authorities had denied Armenians citizenship and classified them as “Asiatic”. But in the Halladjian decision, aUScourt of appeals ruled that Armenians were Caucasian because of their ethnography, history, and appearance. Would this have been the case had the Armenians’ appearances been more like an Asian person?

Discrimination against Asian

In Georg Simmel’s theory of a stranger, he state that the intruder’s strangeness stand out when they become a merchant or a trader. In the essay, Lee Chew operated a laundry. If he had other options this might not have been the case. Many Asian faced racial discrimination in work place and was pushed out of competition for employment. Many face competition from European immigrants. As Lee stated, “Men of other nationalities who are jealous of the Chinese, because he is a more faithful worker than one of their people, have raised such a great outcry about Chinese cheap labor that they have shut him out of working on farms or in factories or building railroads or making streets or digging sewers. He cannot practice any trade, and his opportunities to do business are limited to his own countrymen. So he opens a laundry when he quits domestic service”. Many Asian were forced to become shopkeepers, merchants, or open small business. Being self-employed was not an Asian trait, but a mean of survival. Many Asian have been from the working class in their home country. For European immigrants, they could acquire various jobs. They did not have to open business or become a merchant. They did not have to amplify their strangeness.

Chinese Gold Miners
Chinese Gold Miners

Staying In The USA or Returning Home?

One can argue that Asian are consider strangers because most of them came to the United State just to earn money and would return home afterward. This was the case with Lee Chew. He came to the United State after seeing a Chinese worker return home with wealth made from the United State. He works hard for nearly twenty years to open a small business, hoping to return home to enjoy a life of wealth. Lee Chew was like any other immigrants regardless of national origin. But if he had the opportunity to established his root in the United State he would have stayed.

Lee Chew faced many institutional discrimination based on his physical appearances like many Asian immigrants. The China Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented the Chinese from coming to the United State; the National Origins Act of 1924 prevented the Japanese from entering the United State while letting European immigrating in. The law also prevented Asian wives from entering the country. Even United State citizen could not bring their Asian wives over.

The law also prevented Asian immigrant from becoming citizen. The Naturalization Law of 1790 had specified that naturalized citizenship was for whites. European immigrants could become citizen. This could give them power to defend and increase their rights. Eventually European immigrants could be equal to any American. The Cable Act of 1922 went even further. It relinquishes the citizenship of any American women who married someone who were ineligible to become a citizen. Asian immigrants were also prohibited by laws from owning land.

Without citizenship, Asian immigrants were not able to obtain the political power needed to changes the law. In the essay, Lee Chew noted that congressmen knew of their struggle and did nothing to change. Without a voice in congress, Asian immigrants would have to continue to rely on these congressmen who do nothing.

How can Asian immigrants not be considered strangers? For European immigrants, they could blend in with everyone else. They could become citizen, own land, and have a family. For Asian whose appearance is different, could never blend in or established roots inAmerica. Just as Lee Chew say “Under the circumstances, how can I call this my home, and how can any one blame me if I take my money and go back to my village inChina?”


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    • Nymira profile image

      Nymira 5 years ago

      Great article! 5/5