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Friday, 14 April 2017 10:55

UA3411: On Being a Randomly Picked Asian

Commentary by Andrew Lam in San Francisco

In America, when a source of authority says it randomly singles you out, you should always be wary.

On Monday, video surfaced of a Vietnamese American, David Dao, being forcefully dragged from a United Airlines flight departing Chicago for Louisville, Kentucky. Dao, 69, had allegedly refused to voluntarily give up his seat on the overbooked flight. 

The video quickly went viral around the world, including in China, one of United’s largest markets, where it broke records for being the most widely shared video on social media. United stocks quickly plummeted, dropping 4 percent early Tuesday.

Many of the comments in China and elsewhere, meanwhile, questioned whether Dao, initially believed to be Chinese, was singled out for his ethnicity. His bleeding face is now the poster child for perceived racism in the friendly skies. 

“Reflecting on my three nightmare-like experiences with United,” Richard Liu, the CEO of popular online shopping platform JD.COM posted on the Chinese site Weibo. “I can say … that United is the worst airline, not one of the worst.”

Chinese media also drew attention to an online petition entitled #ChineseLivesMatter calling for a boycott of United Airlines. 

Reaction from the Asian American community has been equally swift and stinging. 

“There is no justification for inflicting violence on any American who poses no physical threat regardless of race, occupation, or other characteristics,” declared the advocacy group PIVOT, which works on civic engagement issues in the Vietnamese American community. “As an organization that aims to engage and empower Vietnamese Americans for a just and diverse America, PIVOT categorically condemns United Airlines and the Chicago Police for their violent actions.”

According to reports, Dao and his wife were among four passengers selected to involuntarily relinquish their seats to make room for United employees.  

In its response to the growing PR nightmare, despite a public apology, United’s CEO, Oscar Munoz added fuel to the growing fire after a leaked email was released showing Munoz referring to Dao as “disruptive” and “belligerent.” 

Few in the Asian American community are buying the airline’s defense. 

“How exactly were the four people selected to give up their seats on this flight? What is the method of ‘random’ selection?” asked blogger Phil Yu, better known as Angry Asian Man. “Do United computers come with a Random Passenger Removal Generator? Or does a flight attendant just take a quick glance around the plane and pick a poor sucker?”

In another online post, one gate agent wrote it is typically the agent that decides who to bump. “Usually, depending on the airline, it is determined based on the last passenger to check in for the flight.”

Reporting on the incident, Business Insider noted passengers can be “involuntarily denied boarding based on a number of factors.” These include “fare class of their tickets, frequent-flyer status, their itinerary, and when they checked in to the flight.”

Yet to be sure it is not all algorithm. 

Like others, Yu believes Dao was selected in part because United staff assumed that as an Asian he would be compliant. “If the ‘randomly selected’ passenger had been a blonde white lady, and she refused to give her seat, there's no way in seven hells that these cops would have dragged her ass out kicking, screaming and bloody,” Yu wrote. “Such indignities are apparently reserved for 69-year-old Asian physicians.”

He added, “Clearly, they were not counting on this guy to put up a fight.”

Asians, in other words, are often seen as passive and law abiding. But it turns out that the 69-year-old Vietnamese American physician and grandfather was a fighter. And a protester.


"I have to go home! I have to go home!" he was recorded as saying. "Just kill me. Just kill me."

Whatever the facts, clearly United failed to see the very real human and economic cost of treating a paying customer like a criminal

In addition, according to Philly.com, United “had no right to remove Dao.” The story quotes aviation law expert Arthur Wolk, a Center City attorney who read the 45-page “contract of carriage.” 

Dao “absolutely” had the right to the seat, and this was not a case of “overbooking,” according to Wolk, “because all the passengers had seats. What happened to Dao was assault and battery.” 

Vietnamese Americans are making their opinions known on social media. 

“A dumb move compounded by the CEO's dumber move. A PR nightmare that even Kellyanne Conway can't blame on Hillary. United needs to grovel publicly, settle the lawsuit with the passenger … then maybe the public will forgive,” noted Oakland resident Kevin Nguyen on Facebook.  

“I am boycotting United for life! I think Asians and Asian Americans should, too ... China in particular should too, considering United sees China and the whole of Asia as its cash cow for the foreseeable future!” read another Facebook post by a Vietnamese American woman. Her voice was echoed by many others. 

“Totally inhumane & inexcusable,“ wrote Thuy Linh of San Jose. “I pray the victim will stay strong and take UAL to the bank.”

Neither Doctor Dao nor his wife are talking to the media at the moment. Surely he’s busy picking a team of talented lawyers, no random algorithm necessary.

Andrew Lam is an editor with New America Media and the author of Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora and East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres. His latest book, Birds of Paradise Lost, was published March, 2013. This commentary has been republished with permission. 

Published in Commentary
Sunday, 12 February 2017 17:35

Is America Still A Nation of Immigrants?

Commentary by Andrew Lam in San Francisco

Dear Cousin,

What is it like to be an immigrant in America these days? Is it still worth coming, you ask, and is the American dream still possible?

Your questions gave me pause. Who from Vietnam, after all, would have thought to ask them a few years back? Didn’t the American dream, or rather the dream of coming to America, cause the movement of millions in our homeland, and stir the soul of many millions more? It breaks my heart then to hear that you might not come. It is to me the worst news yet about my adopted country.

Yet it’s undeniable. The nation of immigrants is turning its back on immigrants once more. The immigrant’s hold on American soil has become increasingly tenuous. Even citizens now face a barrage of hate speech and many are being attacked in a rising wave of hate crimes. In schools, white students scream “build the wall” at their classmates who are Mexicans or Muslims.

“Build the wall” has become a racist mantra chanted by many around the country against non-whites.

Cousin, have you heard the metaphor of the canary in the coal mine? When it stops singing, it means the oxygen has run out, providing a warning to all.

In America, and in the context of a free and open society, often the immigrant is that canary. In economic down times he is often the first to be blamed. And amid the ongoing US war against terrorism, he is fast becoming a scapegoat.

After the 2016 election that ushered in Donald Trump as President of the United States, many hate-crime related incidents occurred in which the President’s name was invoked by the perpetrators, as if to sanction the violence and verbal abuse.

In the name of protection and security, immigrants’ rights are being eroded as I write. Foreign students and workers tremble. I’ve seen an old South Asian man whose hands shook at the airport when he gave his green card to immigration officers, fearing sudden arrest and deportation. I know an undocumented college student at Berkeley — he was brought to the US when he was three years old — who now fakes his address on any application for fear of being deported.

‘I have my hopes’

Yet I have my hopes. Americans rallied at airports in protest when Trump signed an executive order to keep certain groups of people out of the country, including green card holders. The protest against the new tyranny is strong and ongoing. I have hope to that the damage Trump is creating both at home and abroad can be mitigated by his growing unpopularity. After all, he is dismantling international institutions that have been in place since World War II, potentially returning the world to a state of competing nations with hard borders, high tariffs, trade wars, and gun boat diplomacy, turning against the forces of globalization.

And worse, in turning against America’s liberal values and our identity as a nation of immigrant, we are losing our strength in diversity.

Over the years I find it beneficial to look at this country through two different lenses: America versus the United States. The United States is a sovereign nation with permanent interests that is currently waging a war on terrorism. And it will trample upon innocents in its path, be it at home or abroad, if need be, in order to win it. In the process, the newcomer to this country, one without a voice and resources, often becomes collateral damage.

America, on the other hand, has everything you and I ever dreamed of: transparency, freedom, democracy, opportunity, due process, fair play and the promise of progress. America is where you work hard and earn respect.

The two versions exist in a kind of complex dance. In good times, America leads. In bad times, America is forgotten and the United States dances alone. These days, I fear that to be a patriotic immigrant is to love the ideals of America despite what the United States is doing in the name of security.

While I understand the logic of permanent interests, if America is destroyed in the process, then what is the use? And as far as I am concerned the only good patriotism is a civilized one. Blind patriotism always leads to bloody ends. To be patriotic is to dare ask questions. Must rights be abused in the name of security? Is it truly the country’s interest to demonize its minorities and its newcomers?

Dear cousin, I hope I haven’t completely frightened you, but the situation requires honesty. To reach American shores these days is a much more difficult undertaking, with fewer ready-made promises on the horizon.

I still want you to make this difficult journey, but you must be prepared for the challenges ahead. And I’ll let you in on a secret about this American dream you spoke so fondly of: it is you who must renew it. Without you, who dream the American dream, the country is in danger of becoming old. Without your energy, we would weaken. Even if we don’t know it yet, we all desperately need to be reborn through your eyes.

So, is the American Dream still alive? No, cousin, not really. Not without you at the table. Not without you prospering. Not without you.

Andrew Lam is an editor at New America Media in San Francisco and the author of “Birds of Paradise Lost,” a collection of stories about Vietnamese refugees in San Francisco, “East Eats West: Writing in Two Hemispheres,” a book of essays on East-West relations, and a memoir, “Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora.” The letter above was originally written after 9/11 as an open letter to a relative who had worries about migrating to America.  

Published in Commentary

by Andrew Lam in San Francisco

If all politics are local, then candidate Hillary Clinton may very well need to speak a little Korean and Tagalog in order to win the 2016 presidential election. 

Why? In 2014 Slate.com published a fascinating article with this headline, “Tagalog in California, Cherokee in Arkansas.” It is a survey of the languages spoken in each state.

Of great political interest is the most common language spoken other than English or Spanish. In Alaska it is Yupik, In Nevada it is Tagalog (spoken by Filipinos), while Vietnamese is the third most popular language in Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas. Korean fills that slot in Virginia and Georgia. 

Spanish, of course, is the second most common language spoken other than English in most states. It makes sense then that Clinton’s VP pick, Tim Kaine, made his acceptance speech for the Democratic Party’s nomination partly in Spanish. His language skill will surely come in very handy when he goes stomping in battleground states like Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico. 

After all, getting Latinos, (along with African Americans) to come out and vote is an urgent and an absolute necessary affair.  “The growth among non-Hispanic white eligible voters has been slower than among racial or ethnic minorities in large part because they are overrepresented in deaths due to an aging population,” according to Pew Research Center. “By comparison, racial/ethnic minorities – who make up 31 percent of the electorate – accounted for 43 percent of new eligible voters born in the U.S. who turned 18.” Hispanic voters surged from 23.3 million since 2012 to 27.3 million in 2016, a 17 percent growth.  

Swing states

Yet in the swing states, where every vote counts, it would be a major mistake to not pay attention to the other minorities whose populations are growing very quickly. Korean voters in Virginia, Filipino voters in Nevada and Vietnamese voters in Oklahoma, for instance, though still relatively small groups in those states, can form a formidable voting bloc. 

According to Pew Research Center, Asian American eligible voters in the U.S. have increased 16 percent as well, that is, to 9.23 million in 2016. In Nevada, Filipinos make up more than half of the Asian American population, or 120,000, although many aren’t registered voters. A registration drive right now is not too late, and here’s a hint: Many read the Philippine News and Asian Journal, and they watch the Filipino Chanel’s popular bilingual news program “Balitang America,” which airs nationwide. 

Tim Kaine might want to get on that show, or better yet, Hillary Clinton might want to remind Filipino Americans of her record in keeping the South China Sea from falling completely into Chinese domination and that, as president, she would continue to keep it a priority. 

Slim margin

Should the Democratic campaign bother with an ethnic group, which, although growing fast, has such a low voter registration? Two words: slim margin. 

Think about it this way: In 2000, in that unforgettable and most controversial presidential election in modern U.S. history, George W. Bush won against Al Gore thanks to his 537-vote lead in Florida.

That razor-thin margin could have been turned around if the U.S. Supreme Court had allowed a recount and the fate of America might well have shifted away from wars, recession, debt, spilled blood and lost national treasure. 

So far, the Democrats have concentrated on black and Hispanic voters. Although it is true that blacks and Latinos make up formidable voting blocs and should be rallied for in every state, it is a strategic mistake for the Clinton-Kaine ticket to ignore potential sizable voting enclaves waiting in plain sight in each battleground state. 

Those swing states are Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. 

This is a challenge in terms of political organizing. If all politics is local, then all local politics may demand increasing outreach to ethnic media and to community organizations and their leaders. 

In Orange County, Calif., for over a decade now, no candidate has been able to afford ignoring Vietnamese- and Spanish-language media when running for public office. That is because the Vietnamese population in that county is 300,000--the largest not only in the U.S., but also outside of Vietnam. That’s a formidable force.                    

In Nevada, Filipinos have been moving steadily to Las Vegas and Reno. Initially, many were drawn there to work in hospitals, but over the last couple of decades others sought jobs in hotels, casinos and related service industries. Now they have become a potentially powerful swing vote. Although they make up less than 5 percent of the state’s population, they are the fastest-growing ethnic group there. 

Demographic shifts

Given that both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are running neck-and-neck in several up-for-grabs states like Nevada and North Carolina, it would make sense for candidates to reach out beyond Latino and Spanish-speaking voters. 

When a state could swing by 500 votes, Koreans in North Carolina might be the very voting bloc that each candidate needs. Elsewhere, surprisingly in Oklahoma, the third most popular language spoken turns out to be Vietnamese. Also, in Arizona and New Mexico, not so surprisingly, the most populous language after English and Spanish is Navajo.

Clinton or Kaine could, for instance, give an exclusive interview to the Korea Daily or Korea Times, both of which are widely read among Koreans in Virginia and Georgia. Koreans have flocked to that state since Kia and Hyundai set up their factories there in recent years. They number over 100,000. And here’s a hint: The Korean church plays a major role in spurring voter registration and turnout. 

Trump, of course, wouldn’t bother with this kind of outreach. The GOP presidential candidate kicked Univision news anchor Jorge Ramos out of a primary-election rally for confronting him on his overt racism, and "The Donald" drives on being divisive, repeatedly playing the xenophobia card.

Demographic shifts are underway. After the 2020 Census, the map of America will turn bluer than ever before, as more minorities register to vote. But for now, in the age of slim margins, when this historic election could result in outrageous fortunes, one wonders if the Democrats are doing all they can to turn beige states to blue. Speaking a little Tagalog and Vietnamese might help.

Published in partnership with New America Media

Published in Other Regions

Cayetana S. Gómez is ready for a challenge. As the newly hired president and chief executive officer of the Mexican Museum in San Francisco, Gómez will be responsible for overseeing operations at the Museum's current home as well as implementing plans for its new location as the institution celebrates its 40th anniversary this year.

PanAmerican World

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Published in Latin America

Poll Question

Do you agree with the new immigration levels for 2017?

Yes - 30.8%
No - 46.2%
Don't know - 23.1%
The voting for this poll has ended on: %05 %b %2016 - %21:%Dec

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