The phrase “fresh off the boat” has been around for years. If you forget for a minute the derogatory way in which it’s used and focus on the words literally, the expression actually conjures up vivid imagery of undaunted immigrants who left everything behind, venturing to a new world looking for a better life at a time when ship was the only transportation between their homeland and the land of milk and honey. It was not easy to get onto that ship. People spent months on the sea. Some never made it. Imagine the joy and relief when they first spotted the land. Picture their excitement and hopefulness when they finally set foot on the solid soil, promising themselves that life would never be the same again. What greater consolation could it bring in a strange land full of strangers than bumping into a familiar face from the old neighborhood that shots out gleefully,”What a coincidence! I just got off the boat myself!”
Considering the USA as a country is built by immigrants, you’d think F.O.B would be the ultimate emblem of the American Dream, a common experience all share, a collective consciousness that unites everyone. Everyone, or their ancestors had been on that boat of courage and hope. Sadly, people use F.O.B to sneer and demean instead. You speak with an accent (that’s not French, British, or anything western European I suppose)? Fresh off the boat! You wear funny clothes from your home country instead of what the American advertisement tells you to wear? Fresh off the boat! You bring your old tradition and customs to the USA? Fresh off the boat! You are not americanized enough to be truly American like the rest of us true Americans? Fresh off the boat! You don’t belong!
Offensive as it is, many do not consider the use of F.O.B. racist; it’s like taunting the new kid in school, people rationalize. Except, we’re not kids anymore. You’d have to ask yourself why something so puerile gets thrown around in the Asian-American community so much, when the history of Asian immigration to the US is still so young for anyone to claim oblivion thereof. When I hear an Asian-American calling another Asian-American “fresh off the boat”, a boisterous boat race comes to my mind’s eye, such as one that takes place at the Dragon Boat Festival in China. Instead of demonstrating any sportsmanship, however, the champion team disembarks with pride and laughs conceitedly at the first runner-up when they come ashore for their tardiness. The ridiculed team feels inadequate, humiliated, but goes on to scorn the next arrival, who then derides the next…while the champion team of the boat race bathes in glory and celebrates their victory, our Asian forerunners didn’t get the same treatment when they first arrived in the States. They got mocked and abused. For having slanted eyes. For talking funny. For having a different tradition. For being inferior. For not being white. For being aliens that were never to become American.
To think that Asian-Americans would join their forerunners’ persecutors makes me cringe.
Since people are reluctant to see it as racism, I’ll call it “boat racism”, an ludicrous ism pertaining not to human race, but to a boat race that doesn’t even exist. Boat racism is the “earlier-than-thou” attitude that some Asian-Americans display towards more recent Asian immigrants. Even the newly arrived mock other F.O.B.s whom they shared the same boat with. Granted, in a highly capitalist and supposedly meritocratic country like the US there’s bound to be competitiveness among Asian-Americans, but when Asian-Americans pit their “Americanness” against each other, it’s a race nobody wins. It’s the white European settlers who stole the land from the Native Americans and claimed America that are defining “Americanness” today. Things may have gotten better and will certainly continues to improve with time, but nowadays “Americanness” still fundamentally equals “Whiteness”, sometimes with “Blackness” thrown in to the scene for political correctness. “Yellowness”, however, is not yet approved and incorporated into the American Psyche. Asians are to be assimilated, americanized, but never American.
Which is why the crass Jian Li parody (which I wrote about in “Boat Racism” Part I) is not funny. I am willing to believe the authors have no malicious intent, but that doesn’t excuse the boat-racism of their underlying tone. If they want to play Borat, try getting America to reveal her otherwise hidden racist sentiment and cheer openly to hate speech that’s officially and publicly condemned– such as the Antisemitism in the film– , in order to expose seriousness of the problem. But Borat they are not. Rounding up all the clichés about the Chinese and jamming them all up in idiotic Chinglish to create a character who looks like they’re from the far far Orient, who just doesn’t belong, that is your typical Hollywood Asian treatment, not something you’d expect from an eminent and respected educational institution. What’s more objectionable, this is not just a fictional character; we’re looking at a real person, flesh and blood. Li’s civil complaint raises some compelling issues, but the grotesque farce, unintentionally or purposefully, only eclipses his concern. Were the authors not Asian-American, the whole episode could be dismissed as yet another manifestation of a racist pattern perpetrated by the self-professed non-racists. The fact that the authors are themselves of Asian original just makes the incident all the more absurd. When America still think it’s fun to make fun of Asians, when Asian-Americans are still confronted about their “Asianness” and questioned over their “Americanness” every day, the parody is senseless if not downright detrimental, boat-racist if not downright racist.
The next logical question is: why are some Asian-Americans boat-racists? Where does this nonexistent boat race come from?
(Please read “Boat Racism” Part III next Friday. I promise to wrap everything up and move on to something else.)