By Edwin Chen
Recently many Americans have become outraged with the phenomenon of “anchor babies”. The concept refers to immigrants coming to America to give birth in order to secure US citizenship, and all of the empowerment and rights that it entails. Wong Kim Ark, the father of birthright citizenship in 1898, established that right to citizenship in the case of U.S. v Wong Kim Ark in 1898. Today there is a backlash and xenophobic fury that is dividing not only mainstream Americans, but also the Asian American, Pacific Islander and in general immigrant communities. It is the fear that America is a dwindling world power and it is because of foreigners encroaching on American soil, culture and changing its identity. Indeed many Americans see birthright citizenship as a means to invade and steal American wealth, prosperity and future security.
Where once only white men who owned land had real political power, today it is legally mandated in statutes and judicial rulings to treat all American citizens with equal rights. Now that these rights have been secured for the masses, the hateful and ignorant have turned their attention towards changing the very thing which qualifies one for US citizenship. In modern America our birthright to US citizenship has long been unquestioned and an innate element of our society. It is a sentiment that currently is being challenged by bigots and xenophobic fear mongers like Donald Trump and the Republican Party.
Even though the issue affects a wide and diverse swath of immigrants, Asian immigrants and more specifically Chinese have been highlighted. Where once the Mexicans were seen as the cockroach people unworthy of American rights and civil liberties, today it is the Chinese who are seen as the filthy, disgusting, sneaky, opportunistic, invasive and unethical cockroaches infecting America with Yellow Peril. Instead of viewing these people as trying to work within the system, they are seen as exploiting American goodwill and prosperity. They are viewed as only taking and never giving or contributing to American culture, society or the economy. Indeed even though Chinese have contributed so much to America, we are still seen as what Ronald Takaki coined as “Strangers from a Different Shore”.
We have become so obsessed with shedding our ethnic culture and assimilating towards the standards of Eurocentric mainstream American society, that even Chinese Americans and AAPIs are questioning the change in this law. We are questioning basic American ideals and principles of what it means to be an American. Instead of being a nation of foreign European colonies, America is a nation built upon diverse immigrants and Native Americans. We have formed our own National identity, and that directly related to being able to morph from an immigrant into an American citizen. It was important for immigrants to be able to shed their ethnic allegiances and identities for a greater cause. Before many immigrants were bound by their socioeconomic classes, but that changed over time. Today many diverse immigrants make up the pantheon of peoples that we call Americans by birthright and naturalization.
Though the Chinese have been viewed with contempt and disgust there is one among us who stands proud and tall-one worthy of emulation, adoration and respect beyond all others in the modern world. Bruce Lee gave Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders honor, respect and courage to not only persevere, but thrive. Even though Bruce was initially seen as a little Chinese guy born with only one testicle, he showed the world how foolish it was too underestimate him. He demonstrated masculinity, power, intellect and charisma all at a time when other Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders were seen as little, weak, effeminate and as disgusting vermin. Bruce Lee smashed down those barriers and changed not only America, but the world. His fame and glory have been burned into human history for generations to admire, respect and adore.
Bruce Lee was the most famous “anchor baby” in American history. His father, Lee Hoi Chuen, was a famous Hong Kong Opera star and was touring the United States when Bruce was born in San Francisco, California on the morning of November 27, 1940. Bruce would return to live in Hong Kong with his family, but his status as an American citizen by birthright had established him as an “anchor baby”. He was born in the year of the Dragon and was fortunate enough to be born in a prosperous and rich nation that would later provide the environment that would propel him to stardom and fame.
Bruce grew up understanding racism and discrimination from an early age. He was one quarter German from his mother, Grace Ho. Grace was a beautiful Eurasian woman who was a devoted and caring parent to her four children. She instilled in Bruce a yearning for trying to be accepted as a mainstream full blooded Chinese person. At the same time Bruce also experienced racism from the white western expats and British colonizers for being too Chinese. He was at times caught between two worlds trying to find his own way. This social dynamic was important in shaping Bruce’s mindset towards hard work and competition. He knew he had to work hard and excel in order to prove that Chinese people were just as worthy as anyone else. He also knew he had to prove how Chinese he was to those who saw him as just some mixed breed, reminiscent of the imperialism that China had to face.
He was known to work hard to overcome his initial failures. One such example was his love for western dancing. He was looked down upon as a weak Chinese who could never have enough rhythm, style or talent to dance like westerners. Filipinos had long established an ability to dance and charm the western ladies, but Chinese were still not seen under the same attractive lens. However as the world would soon enough learn, Bruce was not one to easily give up or remain being bullied. So he practiced diligently and eventually became the Cha-Cha dance champion of Hong Kong. He would apply this same drive towards his martial arts training.
Originally Grandmaster Yip Man had denied Bruce the right to study Wing Chun Gung Fu under him. This was because of the long standing rule in the Chinese Martial Arts world to not teach foreigners. His one quarter German ethnicity would be an initial obstacle towards his Wing Chun training. However his friend William Cheung would speak on his behalf and Bruce was accepted into the school. He got into a lot of political gang fights and physical confrontations. In the martial arts world of the time it was hard to avoid the rivalries and union wars occurring. It eventually would create so much turmoil that Bruce would be forced to flee Hong Kong.
Instead of making him safer his martial arts skills painted a deadly target on him. The gangs were after him and this endangered not only Yip Man’s Wing Chun School, but also Bruce’s own nuclear family. This perilous experience and pragmatic need to flee for physical safety is something many immigrants understand. Luckily for Bruce he was an American citizen, and “anchor baby” by birthright.
Bruce came to America when he was a mere 18 years old. He was full of hope and aspirations for Gold Mountain and achieving success. He studied philosophy and opened his own martial arts studios, became a TV star and found a beautiful wife named Linda C. Emery. He made it happen after many years of struggling as a lowly immigrant. His American experiences had shaped and molded him into the sharp, powerful, mythical and talented superstar of his times. People often focus on Bruce’s fighting skills, but he was much more than a fighter or even actor. He was a civil rights activist who tried to smash down barriers for people of color. His niche as a famous martial arts instructor allowed him to engage and associate with great civil rights pioneers such as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, mavericks like Steve McQueen and fellow soulful philosophers like James Coburn.
There would never have been a great superstar and hero like Bruce Lee without the upward social mobility that his status as an “anchor baby” and American citizen provided. Without this environment he would have just been another martial artist forgotten in Hong Kong like the William Cheung’s and Wong Shun Leung’s of the world. However he did have that opportunity and because of Bruce’s achievements we know more about his mentors like Yip Man.
As a person of Chinese descent I can tell you he was one of the most important figures in modern Chinese culture. I walk down the street with my head held higher because of the barriers Bruce broke down. I got married and am treated with respect as an integral part of American society because of the sexual masculinity that Bruce empowered me with. I owe that all to Bruce Lee paving the way for me. Before Bruce our ancestors were seen as inhuman and unworthy of even the social comfort of marriage. Many Asian Americans like Chinese and Filipino bachelors died alone in American history. Bruce Lee was the most famous Asian American and Pacific Islander of all time. If ever there was an AAPI hero that people around the world loved and emulated it would be Bruce Lee.
This “anchor baby” issue has divided the Asian American and Pacific Islander Community as well as the nation. How ironic it is that this recent wave of hatred, xenophobia and pure ignorance has brought forth a modern debate about changing the laws on US citizenship. This clearly begs the question of how many Americans would still get rid of birthright citizenship? Would any of you have prevented Bruce Lee from being an “anchor baby?” Think about how great of a loss to the world that would have been. Bruce is loved and cherished not just by Chinese, Asians or Americans. He is loved and respected all over the globe, and is the ultimate example of what an immigrant can do in America with enough drive and opportunity. He changed the world forever and his legacy has spawned generations of young athletes to improve themselves through martial arts. As an Asian American and Pacific Islander I am proud and honored that he made a success of himself as an “anchor baby” in America.