Who is an American?
In the YA novel The Sun Is Also A Star by Nicola Yoon, readers follow two characters as they meet, learn about each other’s lives, and face challenges regarding their race and one being an undocumented immigrant. One of the critical issues this book addresses is what does it mean to be an “American.” Daniel was born in the United States, but he is seen as an outsider because of his race and his parents, who moved from South Korea. Natasha is an undocumented immigrant from Jamaica who grew up in the United States and is being deported because of her father’s recent DUI and drunk confession to police. Both are treated unfairly and viewed as less than human. This book sheds light on the racial injustice that is so ingrained in our society and history that many people are ignorant or just do not care enough about using offensive actions or words. Unfortunately, what it means to be an “American” in today’s society has less to do about being born in the United States and more about race, color, religion, and schooling. Immigrants and those who descend from immigrants are labeled with stereotypes and often criminalized. Yet, what many people don’t realize is that this country was founded by immigrants. Paul Spickard, author of Almost All Aliens: Immigration, Race, and Colonialism in American History and Identity, refers to migrants from the British Isles as “invisible immigrants” (Spickard, 98)--a consequence of European supremacy. This may have led up to the seemingly unspoken rule: the whiter and more Christian a person is, the more “American” he or she is. Proof of this is in The Sun Is Also A Star regarding Daniel and his Korean heritage and in the history of Korean immigrants.
In The Sun Is Also A Star, Daniel admits that it’s hard to separate “Korean Koreans versus American Koreans” (Yoon, 150) when living in the United State because they are all treated the same--immigrants and immigrant descendants are viewed equally as outsiders and non-Americans. He describes to readers a time when a friend joked around about Korean food having dog meat in it, as well as other stereotypes and moments that make him feel like an outsider. Furthermore, he explains how “[his] parent think [he’s] not Korean enough,” while “[e]verybody else thinks [he’s] not American enough” (Yoon, 158). He’s stuck in the middle. Despite wanting him to embrace his Korean heritage, Daniel’s mother and father made sure his first name fit in with America’s standards and stress the importance that he cuts his hair. His older brother, Charlie, completely rejects that he is Korean: refusing to eat Korean food, pretending he cannot understand his parents’ native tongue, and treating his family like trash because they embrace who they are. Readers obtain a glimpse of the internal and external struggles of fitting in a tough, judgmental society.
As with other racialized groups, a lot of Korean stereotypes (such they eat dog meat, have small penises, and are either doctors or salon owners) and stigmas about being immigrants and descendants stems from the history behind how Koreans came to America and the laws regarding people of color. According to the National Association of Korean Americans, or NAKA, Philip Jaisohn became “the first Korean to be naturalized as a U.S. citizen” (“In Observance of…”2003) in 1885. This was abnormal for this time due to the “federal immigration law [that] allowed naturalization to only ‘free white persons’.” However, many people believe that “his marriage to a white woman and his political connections” may have contributed to his success with obtaining citizenship. Later, about 7,500 Koreans migrated to Hawaii to work on sugar plantations. This is what NAKA calls the first “wave” of emigration, and the men, women, and children were viewed as cheap labor. The second “wave” came in the form of the 100,000 or so “women who married American soldiers and children adopted into American families” (“In Observance of…” 2003). The final “wave” occurred after the Immigration Act of 1965. These “waves” along with the Immigration Act of 1924, prohibiting Asian immigrants except for Japanese and Filipinos, and the “Alien Land Act, prohibiting immigrants ineligible for citizenship--that is, Asians--from buying property”; created a very strong message: Koreans are not Americans. It may not be as obvious as it was in the early- and mid-1900s, but the results of past discrimination and segregation has stuck with Korean immigrants and Korean Americans into present day America (“In Observance of…” 2003).
Outsiders and non-Americans are those who threaten the distorted image of what it means to be an American. Immigrants and their descendants are criminalized through media and government laws. Going back to The Sun Is Also A Star, Daniel’s older brother recognizes this and desperately stays away from anyone and anything that reminds him that he is Korean American. In his mind, being only American is acceptable. This idea can be seen in the parents’ decision to give their children English names. Another aspect the suggests this is the concept of hair and how it defines us. White hair is typically straight, and to fit in with society and look “professional,” many people of color purchase wigs and spend a lot of money straightening their hair. Styles like Afros, dreads, and long hair on men are seen as “dirty.” Diversity is being compressed one flat iron at a time.
So how can the United States grow from being repressive to progressive regarding diversity? How can citizens redefine the term “American”? How can we reconcile America? Journalist Jelani Cobb, who teaches at Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, argues that “progress doesn’t look like a straight line”--it will have it’s ups and downs, and racism may never disappear. Nonetheless, Cobb believes that we can progress to a point where we can find “better ways of addressing [racism].” It is up to the people of the United States to build bridges, recognize racism, and push for productive dialogue. By acknowledging that diversity is better than a monocolor nation and not criminalizing differences, we can begin to reconcile America.
As Spickard states, the term “American” isn’t a “synonym of Euro-Americans” (Spickard, 26). “American” refers to the people of the United States. Everybody. Not one race, not one religion, not one color. To be an American should not be about who a person is and where he or she is born but rather who defines the United States as home. Jose Antonio Vargas, founder and CEO of #EmergingUS and Define America, says, “to be an American is in the hearts of the people who, in their struggles and heartaches, in their joys and triumphs, fight for America and fight to be American every day” (Vargas, 2012).
Cobb, Jelani. "Contingent Citezenship." Canvas - UCDenver. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
"In Observance of Centennial of Korean Immigration to the U.S." National Association of Korean Americans. Ed. John H. Kim. N.p., 2003. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Spickard, Paul. Almost all aliens: immigration, race, and colonialism in american history and
identity. Place of publication not identified: Routledge, 2015. Print.
Vargas, Jose Antonio. "What Does It Mean To Be An American?" The Huffington Post.
TheHuffingtonPost.com, 04 July 2012. Web. 10 Mar. 2017.
Yoon, Nicola. The Sun Is Also A Star. New York: Delacorte Press, 2017. Print.
(This essay was written for ETST 3704 at the University of Colorado-Denver, taught by Professor Espinoza.)