I was at the San Francisco Passport Agency a few months ago fot a last minute passport renewal. While I was waiting I was watching TV in the waiting area which happened to be tuned into CNN. The breaking news of the day happened to be President Obama’s release of his long form birth certificate as well as pseudo-presidential hopeful Donald Trump trumpeting how proud he was of himself for making the president release his long form birth certificate.
I was commenting to a white couple how ridiculous the whole ‘birther’ movement was, what a waste of time for Obama to address the issue, and how that it was even more ridiculous that Trump was getting all this free airtime on the issue. The couple agreed, and we kind of moved on to the topic of Trump’s reality TV show The Apprentice, as well as other reality TV shows – the only one I really watch these days is The Amazing Race.
Then out of the blue, the man asks me, “What are you here for? Are you here get your [U.S.] citizenship?”
I wasn’t too sure what to think. At first, I thought, “WTF?” As I have blogged many times before, I was born and raised in Western Massachusetts and speak flawless unaccented English (and in fact, when I mention that I am from Massachusetts, some people ask me why I don’t have a Boston accent). Maybe because we had discussed Obama’s birth certificate before, the man had brought up the subject. But as far as I know, the U.S. passport agency’s only role is to issue or renew U.S. passports and manage visas. If I were getting my U.S. citizenship, I would be going to the U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services office in San Francisco instead of the Passport Agency office.
Instead of possibly making a scene (as I did not know how a stranger might react to my reaction), and being in a state of shock (I was also in kind of a rush), I simply said, “No, I’m an American citizen. I’m just here to get my passport renewed.” One of my friends from college (who happens to also be a Taiwanese American), said I should have asked the couple themselves if they were also here to get THEIR citizenship. I wish I had, since that would have perhaps made them think a little bit about their assumption.
Now, I might imagine this question might happen in the middle of America where there are not that many Asians, but San Francisco is over 35% Asian and the greater San Francisco Bay Area is approximately 20% Asian. Maybe the man was a San Francisco transplant, but I was still kind of shocked being asked that question.
Back in May, Governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal released his birth certificate in response to questions of his citizenship since he is often mentioned as a possible vice presidential candidate. Both his parents were Indian immigrants, but Jindal was born in the U.S. – and if you’ve ever heard him speak, definitely from the South, which even surprised me when I first saw him speak (I’ve never seen an Indian American with a Southern accent before). Will every non-white possible presidential or vice presidential candidate now be asked to release their long form birth certificate? I found it a bit ironic that Jindal was asked since he is a Republican, and I believe most birthers lean Republican or Tea Party. I am wondering when Republican Governor of South Carolina and Indian American Nikki Haley will release her birth certificate upon increasing requests for such action.
These two incidents made me think that the concept of being an American citizen is still rooted in many people’s minds as being white. If an African American, speaking flawless English was waiting at the passport agency, would that man I had answered ask if the African American was here for his citizenship? I wonder the same for a Hispanic as well as Native American? My incident really made me think about the concept of Asian Americans as the perpetual foreigner.