There is something Asian immigrants should stop doing right away. As an Asian American, native born, I am ticked off whenever it occurs: an Asian starts talking, whether in her native language or English, and refers to someone white as "American." To make it worse, she then refers to someone else black as "Black." She, meanwhile, is "Chinese."
I should not assume, though, that it is clear why this practice is so irksome. I have spent the better part of my life insisting that I am an American. The Asian person who casually mentions the "American" and the "Black" has compromised my claim. She has defined us out. We, both of us, become semantically less members of the community, the body politic.
Language is as subtle as it is significant. You can bet that the people who talk to Asian immigrants who describe "Americans" as others receive the message loud and clear. Asian immigrants prefer to exclude themselves. They do not belong within the term "American," and, to confirm the distinction, they regard their neighbors and co-workers as "foreigners." The line of reasoning then follows: these people are aloof, potentially disloyal.
The persistence of "Black" is telling. It is another accidental disclosure of the color line. While someone white is accepted as an "American," blackness remains indelible. "Black" overcomes "American," which is no compliment. It is a form of the "one drop rule," whereby any African ancestry taints white purity.
While I am at it, Asian Americans probably ought to avoid using "Oriental." It connotes exoticism and comes from colonialism. I use it from time to time ironically, with the air quotes around it, adding "a word better suited for rugs than people." My family was the only "Oriental" family on the block when I was a kid. That is an appropriate phrasing. It expresses the era, the 1970s. ("Asian American" was coined in the late 1960s, coming into common usage only in the 1980s; the interregnum of the 1970s was replete with those best-selling ethnic joke books which I studied to learn stereotypes.)
I appreciate that some older Asian Americans grew up with the name and are accustomed to it, as some older African Americans will call themselves "Negroes." I surmise that there is a sliding scale of sorts here: "chink," "jap" and "gook" are racial slurs, which are difficult for anyone to utter without intending offense; "Oriental" is more benign but not innocent.
I realize that I am asking too much of some Asians in America. In fact, there are people who are exiles or expatriates. They yearn to return someplace that might only exist in their own memories, or they have no doubt that their stay here is but temporary. That is fine by me. My zeal to be an American need not cross the line to implying that there is anything wrong with being a foreigner.
The problem is that the line is obscure to many people. It is easy to grasp that there are Europeans in Europe and Caucasians who are descended from them in the United States. These are distinct categories; the existence of the former does not threaten the civil rights of the latter. There also are European tourists, for example at the Disney resorts. Their arrival and their departure, as well as their behavior while within our borders, is not attributed to the white people around them. If they are rude and cut in line, we do not suppose that everyone with the same skin color has a propensity to do so.
If we want to be admitted as American, we have to believe it ourselves: we are here to stay, we are equals, and we intend to participate in the processes of a diverse democracy. If we do not assert that, we cannot blame others who doubt our status.