Reflections on Angel Island

by Gregory Ng

I love Asian America. It is where I learned that I could belong in America after coming from Singapore. It is where I learned about the resilience of immigrants and the children of immigrants, making their way in a country that did not want them. It is where I can look at old photographs of laborers and coolies, and they remind me of the people I call auntie and uncle back home. It is where people came as scholars, but had to learn instead to be cooks, and so they did it damn well. It is where people built homes for themselves, and were ripped out of them and put in concentration camps. And then they built their homes again.

For half a year on Island, we experienced both the bitter and the sweet.
We only part now as I am being deported.
I leave words to my fellow villagers that when they land,
I expect them to always remember the time they spent here.

The night that Donald Trump became president-elect of the United States, I read the poetry of the people who came before me. The book was entitled Island: Poetry and History of Chinese Immigrants on Angel Island 1910–1940. In it were poems by immigrants, written and carved on the walls of the detention centre where they were detained for months and years on the basis of racial hatred. When it became clear that Trump was going to win – when his victory became imminent, when the probability hit >95% and stayed there, red, certain – I could not continue reading. How do you look history in the eye as it barrels towards you, unchanged?

The next morning, I got out of bed, stepping back into an America that had always been there. This was the country that white people planted, watered, and grew, on land stolen from Native people. Soil swept away by the growing tide, roots exposed, ugly blooms unfurling. And I picked up the book again.

I lean on the railing and lift my head to look at the cloudy sky.
All the mountains and rivers are dark.
Eastern Mongolia is lost and the date of her return is uncertain.
The recovery of the Central Plains depends on the youth.
I am ashamed to be curled up like a worm on Island.
I grieve for my native land but what else can I say?

In 1882, the United States of America implemented the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring Chinese immigrants from entering the country. In 1907, the Gentlemen’s Agreement coerced Japan into preventing Japanese emigration to America. Then came the Asiatic Barred Zone Act in 1917, which banned immigration from the rest of Asia: India, the Middle East, Malaysia.

We have never been welcome here, not then, and not now. To white eyes, we are perpetually foreign, never American, never assimilable. Some of us know that; others in our community do not recognize it yet. But the past hurtles forward into the present. Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Singh Thind were disqualified from American citizenship in 1922 and 1923 because they were not white. In 1935, the US government tried to pay Filipinos and Filipino Americans to abandon their lives here and go to the Philippines. Chinese women were barred from America until 1943 because they were all assumed to be immoral, dirty, undesirable. Asians have always been undesirable in America.

Four days before the Qipiao Festival,
I boarded the steamship for America.
Time flew like a shooting arrow.
Already, a cool autumn has passed.
Counting on my fingers, several months have elapsed.
Still I am at the beginning of the road.

Last week, my sister was told by a man on the street: “I fucking hate chinks.” This was in New York. She flew to Chicago for work the same week, where another man followed her, got in her face, spoke what he thought sounded like Chinese. A joke. I am so scared for her, because she is an Asian woman living alone in a country that has given even more power – more permission – to white racists. I am scared for all of us, because Trump’s campaign has leaned so heavily on reanimating the rhetoric of Yellow Peril, on demonizing brown bodies, on painting us as outsiders, thieves, terrorists, competition.

Looking at them, they are all pining at the delayed progress.
What can one sad person say to another?
Unfortunate travelers everywhere wish to commiserate.
Gain or lose, how is one to know what is predestined?
Rich or poor, who is to say it is not the will of heaven?
From ancient times, heroes often were the first ones to face adversity.

And still, we are Asian America. We are generations of people – our grandparents, our parents, us – who have come here and learned to call this place home. I say it in my accent, and home still sounds the same. We call it 家, rumah, tahanan, घर, nhà, บ้าน, என் நாடு, lub tsev, 고향 – and home still means the same thing.

Remember our histories. Trust that they were not for nothing. A poem engraved on the walls of Angel Island beseeches us: “Do not treat these words as idle words.” Know that we have listened – 75% of Asian Americans voted against Trump. Now we must educate the rest of our community. This is our fight because we are in danger, yes, but it would be our fight even if we were not. Use the privilege that you still have and throw your support behind those who need it. Step up for undocumented immigrants; Black, Latinx, Native, and Muslim folks, especially women; trans and queer people; each other. New walls are being built today, every day. Carve your voices onto them until they crumble.

Twice I have passed through the blue ocean,
experienced the wind and dust of journey.
Confinement in the wooden building has pained me doubly.
With a weak country, we must all join together in urgent effort.
It depends on all of us together to roll back the wild wave.