In Orange County, another Asian-American public official pushes back against xenophobia and racism


In just a few short years, Irvine’s political leadership evolved to reflect the city’s growing Asian population – the largest of all in Orange County. The five-member city council went from all white in 2018 to a new three-member Asian-American majority in 2020.

But a xenophobic attack on Deputy Mayor Tammy Kim at a council meeting this week reminds Asian-born politicians of their continued struggle to prove their American good faith.

Eugene Kaplan is one of a group of residents who want to build a new veterans cemetery in Irvine. Kim is supporting a construction project on land owned by Anaheim Hills County. An irate Kaplan asked Kim what she thought of the tens of thousands of U.S. servicemen who died in the Korean War. Kim replied, “This is my country!”

As Kaplan persisted in speaking, Kim’s voice grew louder and louder.

“This is my country,” she repeated. “And I am American!”

Kaplan replied, “Yes, you are American because you were lucky enough to live to get here.”

Kaplan’s comments were condemned by Mayor Farrah Khan and City Councilor Mike Carrol, Asian American politicians in other cities and Democrats in Greater Irvine.

But the exchange between Kaplan and Kim also spawned an online speech where some commentators accused the deputy mayor of exaggerating his comments.

The incident echoed attacks earlier this year on Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do. Anti-COVID activists angry at the county’s pandemic policies targeted Do’s Vietnamese legacy at a meeting in July and called him a communist unfit to lead.

The tirades against Do were louder and more profane, but Mary Ann Foo, a resident of Irvine and executive director of the OC Asian and Pacific Islander Community Alliance, said what happened to Kim was no less damaging.

Racism “can be very overt,” Foo said, referring to some anti-Aslan slurs. “But there is also this kind of insidious thing, Well, you are from Korea, we have helped your people, we are saving you. You should be grateful to us. ”

Kim, who has spoken at length against increasing incidents of anti-Asian hate during the pandemic, said she was used to racist attacks online, such as when she sponsored a controversial anti-Asian hate resolution earlier this year.

But the public exchange with Kaplan has crossed a new line for Kim.

“A white elected official is never asked about his or her ethnicity or origin, or makes him feel he should be grateful,” said Kim, who emigrated from South Korea with her family when she was a baby. “But it is those of color, those of Asian-American descent who are systematically treated as lifelong strangers.”

Foo, who is an eighth generation Chinese American, said she and other Asian Americans can relate to Kim’s response.

“When she said ‘I’m American’ I felt like crying,” Foo said, “because how many times have I felt that or said that?”

More education is needed, Foo said, even in a place as diverse as Irvine. It is the fastest growing large city in California, in part due to the influx of Asian households.

Have a question about Asian American communities in Southern California?

Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of these growing communities in Southern California.


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