Asian Americans Belong, but Sometimes It’s Hard for Us to Believe It

Oscar-nominated “Minari” is about flowering in the United States—with the aid of our elders.

By Andy Kim, a U.S. congressman representing New Jersey’s 3rd District.
Christina Oh and Lee Isaac Chung of "Minari"
Christina Oh and Lee Isaac Chung of "Minari" speak onstage during the 2020 Sundance Film Festival Awards Night Ceremony in Park City, Utah, on Feb. 1, 2020. Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images

Do I belong? It’s a question I’ve been asking myself since I was a kid growing up as a second-generation Korean American in a part of the country without a lot of people who looked like me. It’s a question that’s been forced upon the Asian American community across the United States over the past year. It’s a question whose answer, in part, lies in the story of a green vegetable and the movie that shares its name.

The first time I saw Minari, I saw a story that was reflective of my own. In the movie, which is nominated for best picture at this year’s Academy Awards, the seeds of the minari (water celery) plant grow and thrive at a spot chosen by an elder, guided by tradition. I see the seeds of my own story growing in parallel to those of Lee Isaac Chung, the film’s director and screenwriter, who is not much older than I am. I see the struggles and hopes of the film’s child protagonist, David, as the little brother to a big sister and part of a new generation with big expectations. And I see my own parents in the characters Jacob and Monica: immigrants who came here seeking a better life; strangers in a strange land. The roots they put down were their own, and five decades after first arriving here, the fruit they’ve borne—in their work and their children—is something truly American, even if the original seeds were not.

But as we’ve seen over the past year, Asian Americans are still considered an “other,” born from seeds collected elsewhere, even if they grew here at home. A 65-year-old Filipina woman in New York was recently beaten in broad daylight, her attacker screaming, “You don’t belong here.” This may be the first time that non-Asian readers are seeing such raw hatred or discrimination, but it’s not new—it’s just being noticed by others. Those of us in the Asian American community are all too aware of the physical, verbal, emotional, and psychological attacks endured by our elders for generations.

For the Asian American community, the legacy of internment camps isn’t history; it’s something that those still among us lived through. I was born less than a month after Vincent Chin, a Chinese American, was beaten to death, when a wave of anti-Japanese rhetoric led two men to kill him in cold blood. These incidents, and countless others that go unreported, aren’t just history for us—they’re very much the present.

During this time, many within our community have suffered in silence. Wearing the misguided and misleading label of the “model minority,” we’ve been expected to keep our heads down, work hard, and not make waves. Because of this, attacks targeting Asian Americans often go un- or underreported. You can look at the statistics—nearly 4,000 reported hate crimes targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the coronavirus pandemic—but they simply don’t tell the full story.

As a member of Congress, I recently traveled to Atlanta with several of my colleagues to visit with the families of the victims of the horrific hate crime that took the lives of six Asian American women last month. Hearing from the families of the victims and from members of the Asian American community there, I heard the familiar fear and frustration: that feeling that perhaps they don’t belong, perhaps they’ll never be seen as part of the larger American community.

But in the wake of mourning, I saw hope. Hope that the arrival of members of Congress from all corners of the country to shine a light on their community in Atlanta means they’ll be seen. Hope that the stories in the news and the viral posts on social media mean they’ll be heard. Hope that they won’t be hidden behind tropes and stereotypes but will stand out in the open to be accepted and understood.

Feeling like we belong is an important step, but the journey isn’t complete without acceptance and help from those outside our own community. 

For Asian Americans, that hope is defiant. When I see someone who looks like myself and my family represented in a film that’s nominated for an Academy Award for best picture, that feels like an act of defiance against struggling to find positive representations of Asian Americans in TV and film. When I see young people organizing, and marching, and calling out hate, that feels like an act of defiance against an expectation of silence. And when I see Asian Americans across this country declaring with one, proud voice that they belong, that feels like an act of defiance against the hate and the violence we’ve endured.

Belonging isn’t something that just happens on our own. Feeling like we belong is an important step, but the journey isn’t complete without acceptance and help from those outside our own community.

Next month is Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month. This is our chance to turn it into a monthlong effort on belonging. From my colleagues in Congress and the administration to business leaders to everyday people looking to make a difference, this is your chance to join us and to show every Asian American that they belong.

I know we can make progress. I know the blind optimism that comes with being the child of immigrants. I know that my own sons, who will always look different from many of those around them, will ask the same question of belonging that I have. But I hope through representation, hope, and stubborn defiance, their answer will always be: Yes, I belong.

Andy Kim is a U.S. congressman representing New Jersey’s 3rd District.