Rodriguez on Hispanic and Asian Americans

When I was twelve years old, my father said he wished his children had Chinese friends–so polite, so serious are Chinese children in my father’s estimation. The Spanish word he used was formal.

I didn’t have any Chinese friends. My father did. Seventh and I Street was my father’s Orient. My father made false teeth for several Chinese dentists downtown. When a Chinese family tried to move in a few blocks away from our house, I heard a friend’s father boast that the neighbors had banded together to “keep out the Japs.”…

With one breath people today speak of Hispanics and Asians–the new Americans. Between the two, Asians are the more admired–the model minority–more protestant than Protestants; so hardworking, self-driven; so bright. But the Asian remains more unsettling to American complacence, because the Asian is culturally more foreign.

Hispanics may be reluctant or pushy or light or dark, but Hispanics are recognizably European. They speak a European tongue. They worship or reject a European God. The shape of the meat they eat is identifiable. But the Asian?

Asians rounded the world for me. I was a Mexican teenager in America who had become an Irish Catholic. When I was growing up in the 1960s, I heard Americans describing their nation as simply bipartate: black and white. When black and white America argued, I felt I was overhearing some family quarrel that didn’t include me. Korean and Chinese and Japanese faces in Sacramento rescued me from the simplicities of black and white America.

I was in high school when my uncle from India died, my Uncle Raj, the dentist. After Raj died, we went to a succession of Chinese dentists, the first Asian names I connected with recognizable faces; the first Asian hands….

No belief is more cherished by Americans, no belief is more typical of America, than the belief that one can choose to be free of American culture. One can pick and choose. Learn Spanish. Study Buddhism…. My Mexican father was never so American as when he wished his children might cultivate Chinese friends.

SOURCE: Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father, by Richard Rodriguez (Penguin, 1992), pp. 160, 166, 171

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