The Anguished, Diasporic Asian Nationalism in America: Local Musings & Global Politics

“There is probably more conflict”, my politics professor likes to say, “between Israelis and Palestinians on College Ave., than there is in the West Bank”. Yet most of the combatants in this war of words—”Indians”; “Pakistanis”; so-called “Chinese”—have “never even been there”, on the sacred soil of the countries whose honor they defend.

College Avenue Gym

RU’s College Avenue Gym – Idyllic campus landmark? or ethno-nationalist war zone?

I don’t mind the joke, since I can laugh at myself—but am I laughing at myself when I hear this scorn? What accounts for the angry diasporic nationalists in America? Who are these children of Columbia, Uncle Sam, and Lady Liberty, who choose not to participate in the politics of their home for the politics of their parents’ home?

You might find them on College Avenue Campus at Rutgers University because they are prototypically in college. In such a diverse atmosphere—at least when compared to small town, USA—many young Americans begin to find those affiliations, values, and identities that separate them from the “Other”. This process of “celebration” and “discovery” of ethnic food and dance can of course be cutesy, colorful, and nonthreatening.

But some deeper force is at play when the intensity of this feeling moves away from mere identity politics to take on more international dimensions. Clearly, some cog in the machine of homogenizing Americanization has jammed when some citizens pay more attention to the workings of Xi Jinping than they do to the machinations of Barack Obama.


Chinese immigrant workers building the US Transcontinental Railroad in the snow.

Blame it on the times, because once, cosmopolitanism was the exclusive fare of the super-rich. The 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, which built the foundation of America’s system of passports and greencards, was never intended to exclude these diplomats and scholars. It was the menial laborers and workers that posed the most threat of settling here and never leaving.

Today, migration is cheaper, in terms of both physical and emotional costs. Frequent international flights, video chats, and transnational broadcast media have all but eliminated the “border” as we traditionally knew it. Loyalty to country has become luxury, rather than necessity. Politics are the reign of the idle, the busybodies, and of increasingly fewer people in-between.

Group video chat between Indonesian and American students, 2010.

It’s easy to feel that local politics are saturated with the spawn of the good ol’ boys network; with the sons of White House staffers who, grease-in-palm and spoon-in-mouth, concern themselves with mundanities about motions and allocations that rarely reach the ordinary citizen in some tangible way. International politics, on the other hand, directly gives one a profound sense of purpose. An ordinary citizen in America can be a savior from-on-high in Asia—and you cannot underestimate how intoxicating this feeling can be.

Scratch below the surface, however, and these faraway politics become very personal; and in not the grandiose sense, but in the diminutive. Every microaggression; every assault on the nativity and belonging of immigrant son, pushes him towards the idealized embrace of the motherland. For the activated diaspora, which is always in some stage of death, hybridization must be halted, and not accepted. The shoes come off in the house every time, because the soil that they track in is not only dirty; it is unholy.

Back on earth, and at least since decolonization, alienated Asians in America pose more of a problem for their host country than for the authorities in their ancestral land. With the rapid political transformations in Asia since the Cold War, it is no longer tenable to argue that a lack of democratic habit accounts for Asian-Americans’ having the lowest voter turnout of any racial group. The problem lies closer to home: perhaps if you are told so often that you are foreign; that you are a guest worker; and that you are not a citizen with rights, eventually you will start to believe it.

James Carroll (Staff Writer, Rutgers University)
Jamesprofile (1)James Carroll is a Rutgers student studying for his B.A. in political science. He regularly geeks out over the histories of China’s borderlands, but loves nothing more than to expose the ironies and hypocrisies of “dissident” and anti-authoritarian movements. As a connoisseur of all things queer, sarcastic, and sublime, James is always ready to have his worldview challenged by his adversaries, and expects the same respect from all of his readers.

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