When I close my eyes, I can draw a clear portrait of a typical Donald Trump supporter with the imaginary pen in my mind: a white man with a weathered face, flat-top hair, tattoos, maybe a little overweight, or a white woman who looks like ultra-right-wing commentator Ann Coulter or her less polished caricatures.
But when I open my eyes, the Trump supporters I see don’t look like that at all. They look more like me.
That, to be honest, feels like Halloween arriving early.
Yes, with an office located in Chinatown, most people I see everyday are Asians like me. But not until the presidential campaign reached its recent, critical stage did I realize that many people around me want the next president of this country to be the intolerant, insult-spewing Republican presidential candidate.
A survey released in May by the civic organization Asian and Pacific Islander American Vote found 19 percent of Asian voters were in favor of Trump compared with the 62 percent support Hillary Clinton enjoyed in this community. Among Chinese his favorable rating dropped further to 17 percent. The figures were reassuring given that 41 percent of the general public supported Trump at the time.
But my own random chats with people in Chinatown in recent weeks drew a different picture. A street artist said she thought Trump’s idea of barring Muslims coming into this country could really make America safe. A real-estate agent who was smuggled into this country in the 1980s from a rural area in Southern China said he thought Trump would be a better president than Clinton because he is rich, and “a rich person won’t abuse his presidency for his own financial interest.” An office manager who came to this country a decade ago to attend graduate school said she thought Trump is right to put the interests of documented immigrants ahead of undocumented immigrants.
And the most pungent quote came from a craft vendor on Chinatown’s Canal Street, who likes Trump’s outspoken style and hates Clinton for being part of the establishment. “I think Trump is like Sichuan food. It may be covered by peppers and look scarily hot but it’s indeed delicious,” he said. “And Hillary is like an old pear. It may look beautiful on the surface but it is rotten inside.”
Of course this doesn’t mean a large percentage of the Chinese community in New York support Trump. But what’s disquieting is that these are working-class, new immigrants, including previously undocumented immigrants. I would have assumed they were in Clinton’s pocket.
Their surprising support for Trump may be precisely because they are new immigrants. Compared to American-born Chinese or the Chinese who grew up in this country (from whom I heard few positive comments about Trump), these are people who have no family members directly affected by the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act, who may not know of the internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War. And they grew up in China, a largely homogenous country where people have little patience with political correctness.
They may think they are different from the undocumented immigrants. They may believe that they are different from Muslims and Mexicans, and that Trump and the snow-white folks he represents are able to differentiate Chinese immigrants from others and treat them differently.
After all, that’s been Trump’s message. In his recent speech about immigration in Phoenix, he reemphasized what he had been saying lately – that undocumented immigrants are here to grab jobs from Hispanics and Blacks who can legally work here. And he lined up family members of those who had been killed by undocumented immigrants in various street crimes. No indication that these are representative or statistically meaningful – but that doesn’t matter to Trump. It means that undocumented immigrants are all marked as potential murderers.
The strategy of dividing immigrants works most effectively among naive newcomers. Ten years ago, I would have believed Trump. But now I have seen too much.
A few years ago, I covered a rally of immigrants pushing for comprehensive immigration reform. Beside the main rally there was a small group of white people protesting against the protesters. The fliers this group handed out made it clear that they were not anti-immigrant but only anti-undocumented immigrant. When I tried to interview them to give my story balance, their leader, a skinny middle-aged woman asked me to show my press badge. Then she asked me whether my newspaper is in English. I said no. “Oh, we don’t talk to non-English media,” she said with a stern face.
Recently I met Ivy Teng Lei, a Chinese woman who was brought into this country by her parents from Macau when she was seven. She grew up in Chinatown, got good academic scores in high school, and then found that without immigration status, she didn’t have many choices in college applications. In her last year at Baruch College in New York, and when she was ready to work illegally in a Chinatown restaurant after graduation, President Obama announced Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Lei’s application was approved. She works in marketing for a big fashion company now.
Just last week, an old Chinese man walking on the streets of Manhattan was told to “go back to China” by a few white guys. Earlier this year, in Forest Hills, Queens, a Chinese lady was required by an employee in a Dunkin Donuts store to pronounce her order in perfect English before he would serve her although it was clear she just wanted to get a few chocolate-glazed donuts. What made it sadder was that the staff member is an immigrant himself. He was later fired.
So did me being a “legal” immigrant matter to the “anti illegal immigrants only” group? Was Lei a different person before and after the approval of her DACA application. Was she turned from a potential murderer into a law-abiding resident by one piece of paper? Are those who are hostile to immigrants able to tell “good” immigrants from “bad” ones? The answer is no.
We don’t have to wait until Trump is elected to be awoken by this chilling reality.