Asian American without the Hyphen

For some curious linguistic reason, the way immigrants from Asia were represented in the English language was one with a hyphen: Asian-American.

How the hyphen got there could be by reason of the double becoming one: when two independent words are joined to form a single concept or meaning, the words are conjoined by a hyphen.

Since many of the present-day Americans came from certain cultures or ethno-linguistic identities, the hyphen proliferated.

And then today, the hyphen, curiously, is again being dropped for some reason that has something to do with that recognition that the United States is a nation among nations and that the country has to be true to its promise of equality to all peoples.

In the first issue of The Weekly Inquirer, we talked of the vision of the newspaper: “There is a need to give voice to the (im)migrant experience. This newspaper will precisely do that by giving room to that voice and by locating the (im)migrant in the many spaces where he is but has remained invisible these many years.”

That was an offertory as we imagined that the paper is not going to be only about Filipino immigrants in the United States but all other immigrants who would want to take part in finding the voice that has been muffled and stifled for long.

So as The Weekly Inquirer reached its 20th issue, we dropped the word “Philippines” as a matter of a planned strategy in order to reach out to the bigger and larger immigrant community out there.

We will begin to account more and more of the Asian experience in the United States—that Asian experience that is also at the same time American.

We call this the Asian American experience without the hyphen.

We call this the Asian American identity that is at the same, at the very least, plural.

The immigrant is Asian—if he still recognizes that, if he still acknowledges it.

The immigrant is also American—his dream pursued.

Here we see the commingling, in a richly textured way, of fact and dream, of dream becoming fact.

Here we see the genesis of a story that accounts the dropping of the hyphen which is not tenable in the first place, not when the immigrant has just taken his oath and recited his allegiance to his new county.

The hyphen clouds and muddies the representation.

It accounts certain inseparability as if the hyphen has become a necessary connective as if the other cannot be without the other.

Like body-soul or body-and-soul, if one were to believe in this Aristotelian hylemorphic theory.

But there is one fact that we need to surface in the immigrant story.

He carries with him two nations, separate and divisible.

The first is the nation as his past-as-present.

The second is the nation as his present-as-present, the nation as his present-as-future.

We call this bi-nationality, a reality among immigrants.

You leave behind a land and come into another land whose topography and contour you do not know in the beginning.

The old nation could have been terrorizing and awesome.

The new nation could be terrorizing and awesome as well.

For there is both terror and awe in departing.

There is also both terror and awe in arriving.

In leaving the first homeland, you are taken aback by the dark possibilities of starting out anew while at the same time you are moved—and moved so deeply—by the possibilities of the future, by the vast promise of possibilities that the first immigrants believed in and held on to.

In arriving at the new homeland, the same terror sets in at first as soon as the romance has waned. Here you are face-to-face with the possibilities of hunger, want, deprivation, homelessness, penury, abuse by your own people, this last one as real and as certain as the sun rising in the east.

Among Filipinos, the key code is the binary “may papel-walang papel.”

Or another one of the same meaning: “bagong dating-matagal na.”

Those who are first in the queue of those who take advantage of you are your countrymen.

They give you the lowest of wages because you are what you are: “walang papel, wala kang papel.”

They give you the slave treatment because you are what you are: “bagong dating.”

Those who oppress you are the others in the binary: the “may papel” or the “matagal na.”

You end up looking at the pages of newspapers as you look for work.

You end up looking into doing some kind of a research of those employment agencies that give you better options and less headache, those agencies that rob you less of your precious dollars and give more substance to their promise of linking you up with employers who will “petition” you or sign up papers for your sponsorship for the working visa or other forms of visa that could “legalize” your stay in the county.

Many agencies know their trade so well by having fooled so many.

They capitalize on your being “bagong dating/bagong salta.”

They promise you the moon, the starts, even the sun with its early morning glow.

And you believe them.

How they can go wrong, these people who have been here far longer than you can ever count the years, the employment agencies with their sweet tongue and sweet language?

And so you count your money.

They ask you for your extension application money because, well, you have to stay legally.

The employment agency people pad the immigration fee for the application to say, pad it four hundred times in account of their professional service.

You never see the application—and you will realize afterwards that your signature in the application had been forged by the sweet-talking employment agency owner.

You read the reasons in the application for extension.

The English is bad, the grammar horrible.

The application says that you have “much money to spent” and that you “would like to go around the beautiful America with the beautiful spots for history and fantasy.” Whoa!

And so as pretending Asian American, your travails begin.

You say to yourself: Welcome to the land of opportunity.

There you are, the Asian American without the hyphen.

Pub, INQ, V1N21, Nov 2005

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