There are many kinds of ultimate sacrifices, and certainly losing your life in the auspices of serving in the military is one of them. I was going to say “especially during the time we had the draft,” but when we think about it, does that really matter, if we choose to serve and lose our life or if we are drafted into service and lose our life? Not really… except for those who want to blame, to hold someone or some government accountable, that gives us fuel for fodder. I’m not writing here about the politics of war, except to say that the manifestation of war is the ultimate failure of mankind to be in the Light, to be truly of God and love for our fellow humans. This failure can be forced upon nations and it can initiated by nations. That discourse is not for today.
Every Memorial Day, I remember the many people I’ve known who have served in the military and how wars with Asian nations for some 30+ years (WWII, the Korean “conflict”, the Vietnam War and then the “trade war”) have impacted many Asian Americans here. World War II’s highlight of the abolition of our concept of “equal” was quickly rewritten for any US American of Asian ancestry, as Americans of Japanese ancestry were forcibly removed from their homes, losing their crops, their stores and merchandise and any physical assets they owned, not to mention their hopes and dreams. Back then, other groups that looked Asian frequently attempted to distance themselves from the Japanese Americans, as if this would provide them some measure of safety from racist epithets and the prevailing discrimination that carried over from the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924, which prevented immigrants of Asian descent from becoming naturalized citizens unless they were born here. There were other laws in place as well, that served to segregate Asian Americans from being educated with white children; laws that were also used to exclude Latinos as well. This was in addition to Jim Crow type of “laws” that made it clear that anyone who sported an Asian looking face was unwelcome for many basic services, like haircuts, access to jobs, apartments, etc.
Asian Americans growing up in the early 1960′s and 1970′s, especially if they were female, were often ‘treated’ to comments by returning veterans of either of the wars in regards to the many “Oriental” prostitutes they had the pleasure of experiencing. From a woman’s perspective, to be stereotyped as a prostitute based on your race is appalling to me, yet think of what mass media looked like back then. During this time, only negative stereotypes of Asians ever permeated the entertainment media, usually depicting Asians as mysterious, bad, evil, not trustworthy, not very bright (hence requiring a non-Asian boss to tell them how to do their jobs), sexy vixens or if you had the misfortune of being an Asian American male, you were usually depicted as some spineless, weak and unattractive male. Asian Americans in the media during this time were virtually always depicted with any lack of depth, so their characters would appear “disposable” and of no importance to any viewer.
Any character of substance, for example Bruce Lee, could not even be allowed to depict himself in Kung Fu, evidenced by replacing him with David Carridine. During this time, Asians and Asian Americans weren’t considered welcome in entertainment media. Women were certainly never shown in with any merit, either as human beings or someone with brains and beauty combined, and if you were an Asian American woman, your media archetype fared even less well, if at all. So it was no small wonder that for many Americans, their only perceptions of Asian Americans came from their experiences while enlisted in the military, or from what they saw on television.
On television, Asian Americans were portrayed at as sidekicks at best and always forced to use a phony accent, since the assumption was that no matter how many generations an American of Asian descent lived here, they ALWAYS had to have an accent because they couldn’t possible have learned to speak English like White folk have. That forced phony accent required by the entertainment media only reinforced the stereotype that that Asians are all foreigners, no matter how long and how many generations ago their ancestors came here. During a stereotype busting workshop, I scripted two people talking and one of them poured on the Asian American stereotypes that most APA’s (Asian Pacific Americans) have had to endure growing up. The difference is that I used dialog that depicted a person of German American descent. The result was hilarious, mostly because they are just that: stereotypes. Stereotypes make it easier for the culturally lazy to not have to see or know a subculture as human beings first.
For any of you not up on your Asian American history, the whole ancestry disidentification thing really didn’t work too well, since most non-Asians just lumped all Asian Americans into the category of “Asian, foreigner or American of Asian descent, but not quite as equal as under the law.” Trade wars with Japan didn’t help, as politicians fueled anti-Asian sentiments with rhetoric to make themselves important. Add to that the “perpetual foreigner syndrome” that has plagued even the oldest generations of Americans of Asian descent, and we zip on over to Detroit. In Detroit a young man named Vincent Chin lost his life to a racist who killed him because he assumed Mr. Chin was Japanese and wanted to blame him for problems that the US auto industry was experiencing. It didn’t matter that Asian Americans built the railroads in this country, that they were farmers that produced food for the nation, that they were born here, had 3rd and 4th generations of families here and they fought for the USA. It didn’t matter that Vincent Chin was born here and was a citizen of the United States of America. All that mattered was that Vincent Chin had an Asian face.
So why am I talking about this on Memorial Day??? Because while we remember the sacrifices that our military have given, we must also remember that wars impact lives here. Not only are those who served affected, but so are those who “look like” our enemy. For many people who have never thought about it or aren’t aware, yes, Asian Americans also have served to fight on behalf of the USA. Not to be forgotten is the 100th battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, a group comprised of second generation Japanese Americans who became the most highly decorated unit in WWII. The irony of this battalion is that they were fighting for a nation that had taken away their civil rights, herded up mainland Americans of Japanese Americans in detention centers and “relocation camps” in the desert areas and denied citizenship freedoms that others were free to continue to experience.
Vietnam also had their Asian American veterans. Like the general demographics, some of them have fared well, others okay, and others were haunted by the ghosts of war. I’ve known mostly veterans who were from White, Latino and Asian ancestries. One, a white guy, saw a lot of action, with most of his guys killed in one of the waves at Hamburger Hill. For decades he carried the scars of battle with him. Unlike some veterans who projected their anger onto Asian Americans, this particular guy, like many Vietnam Vets, sought out Asian and Asian American cultures as a way of finding peace and a healing.
Another Vietnam War Vet I knew, an Asian American Vet, never fared so well. He experienced both the scars of dual racism (from home and then while serving) as he was told to stand up in front of the group and his CO pointed at him and said, ‘This is what our enemy looks like.’ To say the least, he found it unsettling to be called a “Gook” when he was wearing a US Army uniform. Worrying about being shot by his own guys was bad enough, but what really scarred this man was his job there: he was an Army medic. Even years later, he would complain of the ghastly flashback visuals of body bags and body parts. To him, “NC,” may you have finally found peace. Many, many years ago, “NC” reached his breaking point. Unable to deal with the ghosts of war any longer, he took his life.
So we see the veterans that return home, but who do we really see? We see those who can walk. We don’t see those who are so physically wounded they can’t even be in a wheelchair. We don’t see the veterans who are left blind. We don’t see those who have lost it so badly that they cannot interact with the public. We don’t see those who did not die in combat, but died because of it. We don’t see their families, who suffer with those who suffer these memories and injuries. We don’t see those who carry the psychic wounds of war, years and sometimes decades longer, and in some cases, to their grave. For all of you, this is the day we think of you, to honor what you’ve given and to remember those who have lost so much. Memorial Day honors both the dead and the living.