Profiles in Outage

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Sometimes the slap comes out of nowhere. I remember taking a leisurely walk in my neighborhood in Manhattan's Upper West Side when a little girl dashed over from one end of a schoolyard to start cackling nonsense syllables at me. At first I wondered what was going on. Then I realized she was speaking mock Chinese. At the U.S. Open tennis tournament a few weeks ago, an attendant managing the crowd rather rudely shoved me against a wall. I asked why, and he suddenly became aware that I spoke English. He then said, Use the other exit. And more than once, when carrying a couple of plastic or paper bags on a visit to friends, I have been asked by the doorman not to leave menus in the hallway after I delivered the Chinese food. My complaints are a minor litany and not uncommon. For other Americans of Asian descent, there are sharper reminders that we are not yet considered part of the American context, that our presence is unidiomatic, all too easily aped, too often perceived as too alien to be appreciated as anything other than caricature. When the focus is on the un-American-ness of public figures, yellowface can generate the quick laugh. It was the route chosen by the National Review in 1997 when it lampooned the Clintons and Al Gore on its cover during the campaign-finance Asian money scandals. The Wen Ho Lee case reminds Chinese Americans in particular of the extraterritoriality imposed on compound citizens. Everyone has a story, no matter how lofty the post.Matt Fong was the 1998 Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate and felt the sting during that fierce run for national office. He recalls several instances when a reporter asked him which side he would pick if he were a member of the U.S. Senate and China attacked the U.S. The questions were unjust. Fong is a fourth-generation Californian and served as state treasurer from 1995 to 1999. His mother was California's secretary of state from 1975 to 1994. There is a subtle stereotyping and racism below the surface, says Fong. It caught Wen Ho Lee, and it caught me.Christopher Lee, former president of production at Columbia Pictures, remembers a comment an executive made to him, objecting to the film version of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club: There are no Americans in it. Lee replied, There are Americans in it. They just don't look like you.Lisa Ling knows that kind of talk all too well. Now a co-host of ABC's popular daytime talk show The View, Ling grew up outside Sacramento, Calif., with people getting in my face and going 'Risa Ring.' They'd call me Lisa Yellow. Today, as a highly visible TV personality, she gets the taunts via e-mail. Within the haystack of praise in her In box, she finds the occasional slur. They'll add 'Chink' at the end or 'Go home to China.' I got a pretty hurtful one that said, 'I'm a Vietnam veteran, and I can't stand to look at your flat face every day.' Sometimes I can't help myself. And I wrote back, 'I hope my flat face continues to torment you in perpetuity.'Asian Americans are subjected to the same type of egregious racial profiling that other groups suffer, especially African Americans. Three-quarters of young Asian respondents said they had been subjected to illegal stops and searches by police, according to a recent survey by the New York City-based Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence.But few other ethnic groups must deal with a stereotype that presumes disloyalty. That history goes back to Anglo-inspired exclusionary acts against Chinese and Japanese immigrants and the ferocity of the Pacific, Korean and Vietnam wars. It remains a living memory. Alice Young, a lawyer in a high-powered international-law firm, recalls a day in school in lily-white McLean, Va., in the early '60s. They had a film on communism, and we were all sitting in our chairs watching it, and the communist happened to be a Chinese-looking person, and at the end of the film, it said if you see anyone who looks suspicious, please call your FBI bureau. And the lights came on, and all of a sudden I noticed that all my classmates had moved their chairs away from me. She had suddenly become the wily Oriental.Aware of such deep prejudices, Asian Americans were not surprised by news that the case against Wen Ho Lee may have been pressed by race baiters.There are people who think every Chinese in a [defense] lab is a threat, says Brian Sun, one of Lee's lawyers. The low level of trust seems to be reflected in employment statistics. Asian Americans make up 80% of the Los Alamos personnel but only about a quarter of management. A study also showed that Asian Americans there earn lower salaries than their Anglo counterparts.The Lee case has become a major impetus for Chinese Americans to organize as a political force. The Wen Ho Lee Fund, based in California, has so far raised nearly $400,000 in small donations from across the country. Lee's release is likely to increase financial support for his full exoneration—and to fuel future Asian-American activism. Previous forays into the political process have proved disastrous. The campaign-finance scandals of the past few years have smothered Asian contributions and hence influence. John Huang, a Democratic fund raiser, pleaded guilty to conspiring to break campaign-finance laws; Johnny Chung, a California businessman (also represented by Lee's lawyer Sun), pleaded guilty to making illegal campaign contributions. Even public service was seen as dangerous territory. Clinton appointee Hoyt Zia, chief counsel for the Bureau of Export Administration, faced conservative challenges to his loyalty as an American before he left the post. Says his sister Helen Zia, author of the new book Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People: Every Asian-American in Washington became a potential suspect. There is the perception that Asian Americans are easy to pick on because we don't have political clout and we don't speak out, says aids researcher Dr. David Ho, Time's 1996 Man of the Year. He and others plan to use a Sept. 18 White House-sponsored Asian-American initiative at New York University to rally support for Wen Ho Lee and Asian-American civil rights. Says Ho: We need our Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons to scream bloody murder when an injustice is carried out against our community. Lee's nine-month imprisonment may be the last time an Asian American suffers in silence. Reported by Benjamin Nugent and Alice Park/New York, Michael Weisskopf/ Washington, Deborah Edler Brown/Los Angeles and Nancy Harbert/Albuquerque