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Asian Americans Hope Flag-Flying Will Lift Image

Patriotism: Porter Ranch resident joins campaign that springs from a disturbing poll.

July 04, 2001|DAVID PIERSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Chia Ping Li, who left Taiwan 30 years ago, is now a medical researcher, U.S. citizen and full participant in the American dream.

But because he fears some of his Porter Ranch neighbors might question his loyalty, he will join thousands of Asian Americans in displaying the American flag today.

The national flag-flying campaign was spurred by a poll that showed a surprising number of Americans hold negative attitudes toward Chinese Americans and question their loyalty to the United States.

Now, many Asian Americans feel the time is ripe for an image make-over. Political fund-raising controversies, the treatment of scientist Wen Ho Lee, the recent spy plane incident and the movie "Pearl Harbor" have all contributed to an uncomfortable perception of Asians in America, many believe.

Jim Makino is not moved by the campaign. Makino volunteered from a Japanese internment camp in Arizona to fight in World War II. He became a member of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team, one of the most decorated U.S. units in the war, and he flies his flag every day.

He doesn't do it to prove that Asians are loyal Americans but because he is self-assured in his identity.

"I don't have to explain anything," Makino said from his San Gabriel home. "I feel like I've done my part."

The Asian American Political Action Committee, a national group known as 80-20, organized the campaign and contacted 430,000 people.

Joining the effort is up to the individual, said Stewart Kwoh, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Asian Pacific American Legal Center.

"I think we have to have that broad sense that people can carry out their patriotism in different ways," Kwoh said. "I don't think you have to say one way is the right way."

Many Asian Americans see the program as superficial and unnecessary.

"It's a sad reflection that we have to resort to the flag to reclaim our identity as Americans," said Ronald Takaki, an author and professor of ethnic studies at UC Berkeley. "There must be a more substantial way to [define] who is an American."

S.B. Woo, former lieutenant governor of Delaware and a member of the committee's steering committee, said pragmatism is a driving force.

"We're using image to solve an image problem," he said.

There is reason for Asian Americans to feel uneasy, according to the Committee of 100, a Chinese American leadership organization. The group polled 1,216 people in early March and found that one-quarter of Americans hold "very negative attitudes" toward Chinese Americans, and one-third question their loyalty.

Not all the results were negative. More than two-thirds of those polled said Chinese Americans are as patriotic as other Americans.

Henry S. Tang, chairman of the Committee of 100, supports the flag campaign, explaining that Asian Americans have to go to "extraordinary" lengths to prove their loyalty.

Census figures show that Asians experienced the second-largest percentage growth of any ethnic group in the nation in the last decade. In California, they led all ethnic groups in percentage growth.

But Takaki said the flag is a dubious symbol to adopt because, to him, it evokes imperialism. He said improving curriculum in public schools on Asian American history would be a more significant way of combating negative stereotypes.

Chinese-born Lily Chen, the former mayor of Monterey Park, said the flag campaign would best suit newly arrived Asian immigrants. She said they could benefit from taking part in the American tradition and demonstrate their desire to assimilate.

"It's a good reinforcement for the immigrant population," she said. "It's a good reminder that they are Americans."

To Don Nakanishi, a third-generation Japanese American and director of UCLA's Asian American Studies Center, the campaign is a reminder of other immigrant struggles in America. He said Proposition 187 stigmatized Latinos in California, and Antonio Villaraigosa was forced to continually assert his nationalism in his failed mayoral campaign this spring.

"People need to see this kind of symbolism and super-affirmation of their Americanism to appreciate their identity," Nakanishi said.

So Li's home is festooned with flags and red, white and blue banners. He said the campaign is a small step forward.

"I know I'm an American," he said. "But mainstream America thinks I'm a foreigner. It's going to take time to change this image."

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