We welcome rapper/activist jason chu as our guest blogger. jason is a prominent voice in the national Asian American community. As an activist educator, jason is a sought-after voice on Asian American history, pop culture and identity, racial justice, and mental health. He was a 2022 Artists at Work Foundation fellow with the Democracy Center and JANM, and served as a member of the 1871 Memorial Steering Committee convened by the LA Mayor’s Office. You can find more of jason’s commentaries on Instagram and TikTok at @jasonchumusic.
“Go Back to China”: Nancy Pelosi, Orientalism, and the Death of Democratic Trust by jason chu
Last Monday (January 29, 2024), Representative Nancy Pelosi was caught on camera in a verbal exchange with pro-ceasefire protestors outside her San Francisco house. As a staffer closed the door to her waiting car, Rep. Pelosi lobbed a final snub at the demonstrators:
“Go back to China, where your headquarters is!”
The twist? The women confronting Rep. Pelosi—from CODEPINK, “a feminist grassroots organization”—doesn’t seem to be Asian.
Anti-Asian racism is not revelatory. As a Chinese American man who’s studied history and spent years of my life online, “go back to China!” is always hurtful, but no longer novel.
But seeing this casual Sinophobia directed at a non-Asian body did manage to surprise me. It’s been sitting with me for the past week, and it’s been making me think about the ways America needs to talk with itself.
In Orientalism (1978), Palestinian American scholar and activist Edward Said diagrams the construction of an alien, sinister, and inferior “Orient.” For centuries, he argues, Western powers have preemptively justified the domination and exploitation of Eastern peoples and nations by invoking imaginative Oriental menaces. These alien peoples and cultures were portrayed as incompatible with Western civilization on every level.
Such rhetoric has been repeatedly used to support one-sided American foreign policies, ranging from the entry of American merchants into the Chinese opium trade, to President Taft’s colonial condescension toward the “little brown brothers” of the Philippines, to the ongoing American military presence in the Middle East.
Domestically, Asian Americans are familiar with seeing real or perceived ties to Asia weaponized against us. We’ve seen it happen to over 120,000 Japanese Americans, illegally incarcerated during World War II; to the nineteen South Asians murdered in the weeks after 9/11; to the Taiwanese American physicist Dr. Wen Ho Lee, imprisoned for nine months under the provably false suspicion of pro-China espionage.
The video of last week’s confrontation was like watching a single crack spiderweb across a windshield. In seeing Sinophobia invoked against a non-Asian body, I perceive how anti-Asian racism not only directly harms Asian American communities, but undermines the very premises of our republic.
Political scientist Danielle S. Allen argues that American democracy requires citizens who can “talk to strangers.”1 For our society to function, citizens must be willing to engage in real, open-hearted dialogue. This is why free speech and peaceful protest are among our most cherished of traditions. When we lose the ability, or renounce the practice, of finding common ground with our fellow citizens, we turn a society into a battle royale. A senior member of Congress invoking “China” to paint constituents as outside agitators and dismiss their concerns is antithetical to the “political friendship” it takes to engage in democracy.
To be fair, a context does exist for Rep. Pelosi’s statement. She was likely referencing allegations linking CODEPINK to mainland Chinese entities. In 2023, a negative New York Times piece tied the organization’s founder, Jodie Evans, and her husband, tech millionaire Neville Roy Singham, to “A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda.”2 That Times piece was later characterized in a political podcast from NPR affiliate KCRW as “conjecture and innuendo-filled reporting,” representing “the vilification of anything or anyone having to do with China” more than any tangible assertions.3
This all considered, I still find an unnerving intellectual dishonesty in the perfunctory dismissal of these protestors’ demands. American society is supposed to be a free marketplace of ideas. Social policies and moral principles may come from modern China, ancient Greece, Revolutionary France—wherever. Regardless, they should be judged worthy based not on the country of their origin, but on their contributions to America.
But Asian American stories are lessons in the precarity of conditional belonging. Generation after generation, our citizenship has been bought in blood and revoked when expedient. The racist Chinese Exclusion Act was overturned only in 1943 after allyship in the Pacific Theater. Millions of South Vietnamese, Hmong, Lao, Mienh, and Khmer allied with America during the Vietnam War, later fleeing to the US with promises of resettlement. Decades later, thousands now face the daily threat of deportation.
Asian American bodies continually test America’s commitment to being A Nation of Immigrants, as John F. Kennedy declared. Our Asianness places us in the Orientalist imagination as an “unassimilable other,” fundamentally incompatible with American ways. Is the “political friendship” inherent in American society powerful enough to overcome the Orientalism of our fellow citizens? Or is our nation bound to forever mirror the sentiments of a World War II LA Times reporter: “a viper is nonetheless a viper wherever the egg is hatched. So a Japanese-American [sic]… grows up to be a Japanese, not an American”?4
In last Monday’s encounter, we see this suspicion extending beyond Asian bodies and cultures to target a social cause. In characterizing an Israel-Palestine ceasefire as an invasive, “unassimilably foreign” concept, Rep. Pelosi brought the full weight of centuries of Orientalist rejection at any voice daring to advance the notion. She sidestepped a conversation with these activists by preemptively rejecting the possibility of public dialogue with them. Her speech cast them not as fellow citizens, but foreign agents. The women she addressed were not Asian, but were, in that moment, “Oriental.”
In the era of social media, it’s axiomatic to bemoan the fracture of society into self-selecting echo chambers. Orientalism, as described by Edward Said nearly fifty years ago, is a prototype of this false dichotomization. It’s a blueprint for how to split society in two, drawing hard lines between Us and Them, Innocent and Guilty, Occidental and Oriental.
If our American democracy is to persist, we must find ways of re-joining these split-off cells. We need to open ourselves to discussion, disagreement, and the real possibility of having our minds changed. The preemptive dismissal of any party willing to participate in good faith dialogue is a fundamental rejection of every possibility that we will sustain the American democracy. Representative Pelosi’s casual dismissiveness is emblematic of this: so long as an “Oriental” exists to mark the Other, American society will forever find itself a house divided.
- Talking to Strangers: Anxieties of Citizenship since Brown v. Board of Education, 2006. ↩︎
- “A Global Web of Chinese Propaganda Leads to a U.S. Tech Mogul”, New York Times, August 5, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/08/05/world/europe/neville-roy-singham-china-propaganda.html ↩︎
- “Why is The New York Times Burning Peace Activist Jodie Evans at the Stake?”, Scheer Intelligence, September 1, 2023. https://www.kcrw.com/culture/shows/scheer-intelligence/why-is-the-new-york-times-burning-peace-activist-jodie-evans-at-the-stake ↩︎
- Los Angeles Times, February 2, 1942, quoted in The Making of Asian America: A History (Erika Lee), p. 139. ↩︎
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