Personhood by Paper

Society & Culture

What is the meaning of citizenship, and who deserves to be a U.S. citizen? The new documentary "First Vote" is a rare, close look at the Chinese-American community and their political participation. As Americans go to the polls, Yangyang Cheng explores the country's fraught history with immigration and conditional citizenship, and asks: How much should our personhood be determined by the types of paper we carry?

Yangyang Cheng science and China column

I carried my life in a thin plastic folder as I waited in the lobby. It was the spring of 2009. I was 19 years old. I had arrived in Shanghai that morning for my visa interview at the U.S. consulate. Held tightly against my chest and enclosed between two films of plastic was a stack of documents: my Chinese passport, an admissions letter to graduate school in the U.S. with full financial support, and various other papers that certified my health, my family background, and my academic record. I had spent much of that spring sorting out these documents, relying on bureaucracies to prove that I was who I said I was. A person’s existence, so I had learned, was never self-evident: It required affirmation from the state.

I recall little from the interview but its final moment, when the visa officer smiled and said to me, “Good luck studying in the United States.” My mother had accompanied me on the trip, and we spent the afternoon shopping in the city before boarding the train back to our hometown. An old family friend happened to be in the same cabin. After inquiring what had brought us to Shanghai, the uncle mentioned that a relative of his was about to become a U.S. citizen.

“Does the relative have a green card?” my mother asked.

Yes, one needs to be a permanent resident of the United States for many years before they are eligible for citizenship, the uncle explained, though he was not sure what a citizen can do that a permanent resident cannot.

“To vote!” I blurted out.

“What did you say?” the uncle looked at me, perplexed.

“She said a citizen can vote in elections.” My mother was a little embarrassed as she repeated my response. Like in many Chinese families, politics was taboo in mine. My mother had attributed my inexplicable interest in governance to youthful rebellion, a phase I was sure to grow out of.

“Oh!” the uncle grinned. “We are not interested in that.” Voting, it seemed, was an exotic hobby, like baseball or rock music.

In 2011, when I was finishing up my second year as a Ph.D. student in physics at the University of Chicago, the popular children’s book author Zhèng Yuānjié 郑渊洁 wrote a short blog post on the Chinese website Sina:

“I am 56 years old and a legal resident of Beijing. I have my household registration and my government ID. But I have never had a voting permit.

“Since the National People’s Congress is in session, I looked up the Electoral Law of the People’s Republic of China. Only three types of people are prohibited from voting: minors under 18, criminals deprived of political rights, and mentally-ill patients. Since I’m neither of the first two, it must be for the third reason.”

The provocative post, titled “Zheng Yuanjie is mentally ill,” went viral. Netizens commented that, by the same logic, almost everyone in China was insane. Watching the conversations unfold from an ocean away was bittersweet. Social media platforms, still a novelty when I left for the U.S., had blossomed into vibrant public spaces. I fervently hoped that new technologies would help fracture China’s authoritarian system, but I was also afraid that history would repeat itself, and brief periods of liberalization would be met with harsher crackdowns. I relished the freedoms I enjoyed in the new country. However limited my rights were as a foreign student, they still felt much more abundant and much more real than anything I had in China.

A year later, I volunteered at a phone bank for President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign, dialing up voters in the neighboring states of Iowa and Wisconsin, where the race was close. I could not vote or donate, but I could be an active participant in the democratic process by contributing my time. Among the hundreds of calls I made, two stood out. One was answered by someone who could barely let me finish the scripted introduction before launching a tirade on how she could no longer stand the bombardment from political campaigns. In retrospect, I should have empathized with her frustration. But it was the first general election I experienced in person. I was ignorant and self-righteous. Speaking very slowly, as if imparting a great wisdom, I told the woman that I came from China, and that in my birth country, “many would be willing to sacrifice their freedom or even their lives for a call like this, asking them to cast a vote for president.”

“Epic,” said the volunteer next to me after I hung up the phone.

Nothing dramatic happened in the other conversation. The only reason I remember it is because the recipient was Chinese. “I voted for President Obama,” she said. I was ecstatic with pride. I wish I could reach across the radio waves to give her a hug, as if I had found my long-lost kin.

“Basically I’m angry at anyone, irrespective of where they come from, who votes for Trump. So I’m angry at all of them. Why am I especially angry at the Chinese? Because, I guess, part of me wants to think better of Chinese people.”

Kaiser Kuo’s voice appears in the background as the camera follows the writer and musician at his home in North Carolina. Kuo has recently returned to the U.S. after two decades in Beijing, where he co-founded China’s first heavy metal band, Tang Dynasty. (Disclosure: Kuo is co-founder of the Sinica Podcast and the editor-at-large at The China Project.) He is one of four Chinese Americans featured in the new documentary First Vote, an impressive debut by the director Yi Chen. The hour-long film depicts Chinese-American political participation in the aftermath of Trump’s election through the lives of four individuals: two Democrats, Kuo and ethnic studies professor Jennifer Ho, and two Republicans, Lance Chen, a business school professor in Ohio, and Sue Googe, a realtor who ran for Congress in 2016. Dispelling the misconception of a monolithic “Asian America,” as well as the stereotype of a white, male, blue-collar Trump supporter, First Vote is a rare, close look at the Chinese-American community, whose members, like those of any other ethnic group, fall in every shade of the political spectrum.

I have crossed paths with my share of Chinese Trump supporters. Some of them are my colleagues, my schoolmates, or members of my extended family. As I watch Chen and Googe on screen, I also recognize in them glimmers of people I know. The familiarity is unsettling. Perhaps, as Kuo said, I expect better of those close to me. Perhaps the proximity deprives me of simple answers summed by a demographic label: race, gender, age, education, or income level. If someone whose life resembles mine, at least on paper, holds views I find misguided or even repulsive, I’m not just disappointed in who they are: I’m also alarmed by the possibility of who I could become.

By claiming to be lawful, as if legal codes were inalienable rules of nature, Trump and his supporters absolve themselves from an unjust system they’ve upheld and benefited from.

For Chinese Americans who support Trump, the president’s tough stance on immigration is a main point of resonance. “We go through a very long process and spend a lot of money to get those status,” explains Xia, a friend of Chen’s. “Now, (undocumented immigrants) come here and feel entitled to everything. I think it’s a kind of humiliation for legal immigrants.”

I’ve heard the same reason, almost word for word, said to me by someone very dear, as she was driving us to her place where I was to spend Christmas. I remember staring at the highway retreating beneath us, wondering if I could get off the vehicle. Protection for undocumented immigrants would not affect her life or status as a naturalized U.S. citizen. As someone who had been through the process and understood its hardship, why would she want others to suffer? The only explanation, it appeared to me at the time, was a lack of compassion. What I did not realize then but do now is that if I simply dismiss her position as intentionally and uniquely cruel, it’s not so different from her seeing groups of people only as “illegal.”

It is not a coincidence that the Trump supporters in the film emigrated from China, while both Ho and Kuo were born in the U.S. For many first-generation Americans, the arduous road to citizenship is inseparable from citizenship itself. The cost underwrites the value. The perils magnify the reward. Surviving the journey and emerging victorious is instrumental to their identity. They have earned it, so they believe. Their sense of superiority depends on the perpetuation of scarcity. They’ve not only accepted the capricious and harsh criteria for citizenship as part of how the world is, but internalized them as how the world should be.

“Nowadays, (migrants) bring their kids and feel entitled,” complains another friend of Chen’s. “If China sends over 100 million people, all of them with children in tow, what is the United States going to do? Is it going to accept them all?”

Everyone on screen laughs. Chen gestures at the camera, “Alright. Don’t film this.”

I find the hypothesis, 100 million Chinese, fascinating in its specificity. Would Chen and his friends regard the idea equally absurd if it were 100 million Europeans? The figure, meant to invoke unease, as if migrants were an invading army, is telling when applied to members of their birth country. What Chen and his friends assume is that people in China must envy their lives in the U.S. and want the same — but unlike themselves, the deserving few, the potential newcomers are unworthy.

“The wall must be built,” says Chen. He stabs his fingers in the air for emphasis. Symbolism aside, a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border is not an effective way to curb “illegal immigration.” A wall can be tunneled or scaled. Guarding and maintaining the structure across 2,000 miles would be prohibitively expensive. The majority of undocumented immigrants arrived legally but overstayed their visas. How could someone like Chen, with a Ph.D. in industrial engineering and operations management, not recognize such obvious flaws?

But a border wall is less a physical barrier than it is a psychological marker. In the parochial imagination, all that is foreign and chaotic are cordoned on the other side; what remains here must be lawful and good.

“It’s a matter of law and order,” Chen and his friends say in unison.

“People think Trump is anti-immigration, but he’s against illegal immigration, not legal,” says Xia.

“She came here legally,” the host of a GOP rally says as he introduces Sue Googe to the stage.

As a young child in China, I had recited with my classmates the basic tenets of good citizenship. Love for the country and the Party came first, followed by zūn jì shǒu fǎ 遵纪守法, abide by the disciplines and obey the law. Banners with the four-character phrase hung in prominent places at school and in the neighborhoods. Later, in middle school civics class, we memorized the main statutes for exams. It was apparent, even to an adolescent, that the laws were often unfair, they were unevenly enforced, and the government itself could violate them. Obeying the law without question, so I understood, is not a virtue but a concession. Good people break bad laws, as a form of protest or in an act of desperation.

What, then, is the appeal of unconditional deference to the law, at least rhetorically, to Trump and his supporters, who simultaneously espouse the very American value of personal liberty? To them, the law is not about justice, but power. By claiming to be lawful, as if legal codes were inalienable rules of nature, they absolve themselves from an unjust system they’ve upheld and benefited from.

It was not so long ago that laws of the U.S. prohibited people like Chen and Googe from entering the country or obtaining citizenship. For the first hundred years after the Declaration of Independence, immigration was largely a state matter. The first time the federal government legislated on the external flow of people resulted in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the entrance of Chinese laborers. The law was expanded in subsequent years to effectively ban all immigration from Asia for much of the 20th century. The rules were only reversed to facilitate geopolitical alliances during World War II and later the Cold War. In 1953, Congress passed the Refugee Relief Act, which provided visas to people fleeing Communist regimes in Europe and East Asia. Jennifer Ho’s family was one of its beneficiaries.

Americans are voting as I write. Once upon a time, my understanding of a democracy was so rudimentary it centered on the ballot box.

Not everyone who resides in the U.S. legally has equal access to citizenship. Founded on stolen land and built by slave labor, the country in its original conception granted full rights only to propertied white men. After the abolition of slavery, the 1870 Nationality Act stated that only “free whites” and “African aliens” could naturalize as citizens. In 1898, the Supreme Court decision in The United States v. Wong Kim Ark affirmed birthright citizenship to people of Chinese ancestry, but Asian immigrants would not be able to naturalize for another half a century. Native Americans born in the country were not considered U.S. citizens until the passage of the Indian Citizenship Act in 1924. That same year, the Immigration Act put in place stringent quotas that overwhelmingly favored white immigrants from Europe. The 1907 Expatriation Act meant that American women would lose their citizenship if they married a foreigner. The gendered provision was not fully repealed until the Nationality Act of 1940. In recent years, the State Department has been denying or revoking passports to Americans born near the southern border; some of them have been sent to immigration detention facilities.

Depending on one’s gender, race, religion, class, or national origin, a person can be a U.S. citizen on paper and still face insurmountable hurdles when exercising the rights that citizenship ostensibly guarantees: the right to abode, the right to travel, the right to property, the right to free expression, the right to due process, as well as the right to vote. Writing in No Name in the Street, James Baldwin recalled an episode in the 1960s when he moderated a radio program between Malcolm X and a young participant in the student sit-in movement to end racial segregation in the South. “If you are an American citizen, why have you got to fight for your rights as a citizen?” Malcolm asked the student. There were no easy answers.

Baldwin had returned to the U.S. to be part of the civil rights movement after years of living in Paris, when French society was undergoing seismic shifts with its former colonies declaring independence. Earlier in the book, Baldwin observed that, because of the color of his skin, his U.S. passport played very different roles depending on which side of the ocean he was on. In Paris, it was a source of protection: “This passport proclaimed that I was a free citizen of a free country, and was not, therefore, to be treated as one of Europe’s uncivilized, black possessions.” In his own country, the same document “proclaimed that I was not an African prince,” and “no foreign government would be offended if my corpse were to be found clogging up the sewers.”

“There are people of color who do not want to be reminded of their racialized status,” Ho said at the end of the film. “But I don’t believe that people look at me as an Asian person and they see someone who is white.

“The central question I think all Asian Americans in the United States feel is, Do we belong?”

In the 11 years I’ve lived in the U.S., I have always been aware of my Chinese-ness, in ethnicity as well as by nationality. The former conditions how my body moves through space, how I’m seen and reacted to. The latter dictates my existence in the eyes of the authorities, a constant reminder that my presence here is by courtesy, not a right.

Most of the time, during the Obama administration, the sense of being “other” was an ambient buzz, like the rumbling of a city, noticeable only with dedicated attention or during the occasional siren. Since Trump took office, and especially after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, which the president has repeatedly called “China virus” or “kung flu,” it feels like I’ve been dropped in the middle of a construction site. I need to tune out the perpetual, piercing noise in order to function, while staying alert to the dangerous terrain.

Two weeks before the 2020 election, the University of Colorado Boulder, where Jennifer Ho teaches, hosted a panel discussion with the four main characters in First Vote, as well as its director Yi Chen, herself an immigrant from China and first-time voter. When asked if their political views have changed in the two years since the documentary was filmed, none of them had switched parties. The only difference time had brought was the widening gap between the two camps.

“How can you be pro-America when the U.S. was basically built on anti-Asianness and the indentured servitude of Chinese people?” an audience member asked, presumably directed at the Trump supporters. “Why is it bad to address past wrongs of a country?”

In response, Sue Googe denied the “anti-Asianness” in America’s founding. According to her, the country was built by Europeans “seeking freedom.” In racially homogeneous societies like China, North Korea, or South America, examples she gave, “life is much worse,” “discrimination is much worse,” and people “run from their own races.”

“People born in America, they have no idea how lucky they are,” Googe said. Later in the discussion, Ho pointed out that the Europeans who arrived on this continent were colonial settlers. “If we came here and the American Indians were still here, we’re going to be greeted by bow and arrow, okay?” Googe refuted.

That other forms of discrimination exist elsewhere does not justify racism in the U.S., of course, nor is comparative victimhood a meaningful framework for understanding. The implicit message in Googe’s argument is not just that the U.S. is better, but that it is as good as a country can be. In the words of writer Suzy Hansen, “America was at the end of some evolutionary spectrum of civilization, and everyone else was trying to catch up.”

The difference here is that Hansen is white and American-born, who had never had to seriously examine her whiteness or Americanness until she moved to Turkey for work. For someone like Googe, who rose from humble beginnings in rural China to become a successful entrepreneur and run for Congress, her life indisputably fits a certain version of the American Dream. Her belief in a benevolent, almighty America, though no less misguided than her white, native-born peers, carries a particular weight that can be translated into political capital.

During one memorable moment in the film, Googe speaks at a Republican campaign rally in North Carolina, where she lives. “I love to watch American flag fly,” she begins. “You know what it means? Land of the free. Because of what? Because of the brave.” She goes on to reference her former life in China, that she understood firsthand “what no freedom of speech was all about, what big government was all about.”

The camera cuts to the audience. A smattering of mostly young white men smirk and cheer. They wave the star-spangled banner. They do not care about political oppression in China. They don’t really care about the petite Chinese woman on stage. Nor does she know about their lives or their struggles. On that overcast day, on the cobblestone sidewalk, Googe and her audience are useful to one another because they satiate each other’s ego, affirm a shared worldview, breathe a few more puffs into a dying myth, a skeleton of cliched symbols and hollow words.

“I think the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights are the best ever constitution and founding documents for a country,” Lance Chen said at the panel. His virtual background on Zoom was the iconic painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, which he wasted no time in pointing out.

Had Chen read the constitutions of other countries, he would have known that the U.S. version is far from superior and is indeed quite outdated. But his statement was never meant as an objective ranking. It’s a declaration of unabiding allegiance. For Chen and Googe, what is more important is not what America is or even what they wish it to be, but their place in it. They have uprooted their lives once before. Somewhere deep inside lurks a voice: Is it worth it? They repeat a lie to convince themselves. The truth might throw everything into doubt. Their stubbornness hides their insecurity. By clinging to a mirage of the past, they have also closed their eyes to the possibility of a better future.

Earlier in the summer, I wrote a short essay on the rapidly deteriorating relationship between my birth country and my adopted home, as both governments fan the flames of ethnonationalism for political control. It began:

“Ever since the president took office in 2017, I have lived with a creeping fear that, as a Chinese person in the U.S., I might be sent to an internment camp.”

After the piece was published, I received an unsolicited email from a reader, who told me the Supreme Court ruled in 2018 that “the forcible relocation of U.S. citizens to concentration camps, solely and explicitly on the basis of race, is objectively unlawful.” The case he referred to, Trump v. Hawaii, upheld the president’s Muslim ban, but the majority opinion did also state, in response to a dissent, that the internment of Japanense Americans during World War II was “gravely wrong.”

“As a longtime member of the American Civil Liberties Union,” he continued, “I and literally millions of other ACLU members and activists will in fact very happily pay for a vigorously funded and assiduously pursued lawsuit in federal court to free any and all persons who might hypothetically be sent to (or even potentially sent to) anything remotely resembling an internment camp on the basis of race or ethnicity.”

However, such protection is only for U.S. citizens, which he has inferred that I’m not. Hence, he “would strongly recommend” that I file the paperwork for citizenship and, for my information, included a link to Otherwise, “if there is a military conflict between the U.S. and China,” it is within the U.S. government’s authority to revoke my visa and deport me.

I suppose the sender meant well. For a brief second, I wanted to tell him that I too am a longtime, paying member of the ACLU. There is something very male and very American in his logic, as if acquiring citizenship is like paying the electric bill; because of my own negligence, the lights may go out at any time.

In a hierarchical world ranked by state power and skin color, citizenship is never neutral. Not all passports are created equal. During my first few years in this country, whenever I waited in line at the airport, I would notice the passports held by other passengers. The sight of a dark blue cover, bearing the seal of the United States of America, always spurred a wave of envy. The coveted document was like a magical spell. I imagined the day I held one of my own, how my life would be transformed in an instant, my status in this country secure, my movement around the globe largely uninhibited.

After the last general election, and before the pandemic halted air travel, I paid more attention to passports of other shades. Each of them carried a story. Were their owners only visiting, or were they long-time residents like me? What process did they go through to get here? What sacrifices have they made? What hardships are they facing? I speculated on their lives. Their presence made me feel less alone. I see you. We are still here.

What does it say about our society when personhood is determined by the type of paper one carries? In the Great San Francisco Earthquake and Fire of 1906, over 80 percent of the city was destroyed, including its Hall of Records. “An authentic citizen, then, had no more papers than an alien,” writes Maxine Hong Kingston in China Men. “Any paper a China Man could not produce had been ‘burned up in the Fire of 1906.’ Every China Man was reborn out of that fire a citizen.” There is a term for Chinese laborers who used fraudulent documents, claiming American birth or American parents, to circumvent the Chinese Exclusion Act: paper sons. Falsifying documents was unlawful, but the law was guilty in the first place.

Citizenship, where it matters, is no more than a sheet of paper. It can be lost to disasters natural or artificial. It can be denied due to discrimination or political persecution, or simply by an error in the bureaucracy. It can become worthless when the state fails, or dangerous when the government turns against its people. How much we want our lives to depend on it  — and our humanity measured by it — is up to us. The value we give to a document, guaranteed by an external authority, can always be taken away from us by that authority. The arbitrary constructs we’ve invented, in an attempt to define and subjugate the other, because we are terrified of facing ourselves, ultimately define and subjugate us.

Americans are voting as I write. Once upon a time, my understanding of a democracy was so rudimentary it centered on the ballot box. Don’t get me wrong, voting is very important, but it is not the only thing critical to a functioning democracy, and voting alone will not save us. I do not know what will happen on Election Day. What I do know is that it will — and should — take a long time for the ballots to be counted, and that the president will still be in office the day after November 3, and the day after that.

I also know that over 227,000 people have died of the coronavirus in this country, that California is still burning, that Hurricane Zeta has just made landfall, the fifth named storm to hit the state of Louisiana this year. Ecological calamities resulting from and accelerated by climate change are remodeling the planet. Nature is indifferent to our denial. Political borders become obsolete in the face of expanding deserts and rising seas. The Great Climate Migration has begun. The ones on the edge of nationhood today carry a message from our collective tomorrow. We can reject it for being the wrong paper, or we can use it as a passport to a new world, where no one, from the near and dear to the farthest realms, shall be exiled. The choice is ours.

Read more of Yangyang Cheng’s Science and China Column on The China Project.