When you’re living the American dream … and coming to grips with its flaws

By Eric Strauss
Byram Township | Jul 3, 2020 at 7:00 am
Editor’s Desk

As so many others have over the past several weeks, I’ve found myself thinking a lot about race relations in America — as a citizen, as a journalist, as a family man. And as a minority.

I’m proud of the work we’ve done at ROI-NJ. I’m proud to work for an editor who champions diversity, both in our office and in our reporting. And I’m starting to think that, as one of the leaders of our editorial team, this is the right time to share my perspective with our readers.

I’m not Black, and I can’t speak to the Black experience in America, today or in the past. But we all have our own, unique perspective on race in America, whether white, Black, Latinx or Asian.

If you see me in the office, or at one of our events, or, these days, via Zoom, there’s no hiding where I’m from. I’m a true Asian American.

I’m also an adoptee.

My parents are white, Jews of Eastern European heritage. I am an immigrant born in South Vietnam, who came to the U.S. as an infant during the Babylift at the end of the war and was naturalized as a citizen as a child.

But you wouldn’t know it from my byline, or my resume … or maybe even the photos of my children.

My wife, Marisa, is also white, also a Jew. My daughters are, thus, biracial, 10-year-old Emma favoring her mother’s skin tone, 6-year-old Hannah mine. But neither one stands out as an ethnic minority at a glance.

I was raised in rural northeast Pennsylvania, and I’m raising my family in rural northwest New Jersey, both communities that are predominantly white, conservative, middle-class — another demographic that has shaped my own views in many ways.

(How white are these areas? A few years ago, when NJ Advance Media broke down the census data into a graphic detailing the state’s racial makeup, I could figure out exactly which dot on the map was me.)

As a result, I have always been aware of my own “otherness,” even if I have never embraced it.

And I don’t know if times have changed — but no one brings up my daughters’ Asian heritage the way mine was a regular topic of conversation when I grew up.

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When people talk these days about racial microaggressions, I think of some of the things I encountered as a child. The silly: I would be asked if I knew karate (a Chinese martial art). The stupid: My high school soccer teammates, searching for a nickname, temporarily settled on “Sushi” (a Japanese food). Or the scary: When some kid asked if I thought their father killed my father during the war.

To be fair, some of the teasing was good-natured; some was even an attempt to bridge the divide, not widen it — after all, a nickname on a team is usually a sign you belong.

In return, I’ve often tried to compensate with humor. As I often say, the best part of being adopted is that I get to tell all the Asian jokes … and all the Jewish jokes.

And I wasn’t alone in fighting fire with jokes in rural Pennsylvania. In school, after the guidance counselor droned out the requirements for an NAACP scholarship, the only Black young man in the room yelled out, “I won!”

We all laughed.

That’s one good thing about a small town, whether it’s in Columbia County, Pennsylvania, or Sussex County, New Jersey. Sometimes, you’re not an “other” … because you’re actually a person, a local, not a vague part of a little-understood ethnic group.

Because, back home, they knew me. Knew my parents. Had seen me grow up. Were used to my skin. I wasn’t just “an Asian,” I was Eric, Professor and Mrs. Strauss’ son.

But it wasn’t without its flaws. When I was growing up, someone burned a cross on the steps of the nearby university.

Today, I’d like to think that my hometown — where my parents still live — has come a long way. There was a rally this spring supporting Black Lives Matter.

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As I’ve gotten older, I’ve also found that Southeast Asians seem to exist in this in-between world, not Black, not white. Trapped by the so-called “model minority” stereotype that makes us in some ways invisible and in some ways welcomed as beneficial to society.

A war orphan lives in another in-between world, too. After all, I’m living the American dream. I have a beautiful wife, two beautiful girls. I own a home, I have a good job, I drive an SUV and spend too much money at Target.

I always think: America has done so much for me. It brought me to my parents, who have loved me unconditionally. It gave me a chance at a life, a family. The American way has brought me everything I have.

But, today, I can see so clearly that this is not everyone’s experience. And I know that, when Black men and women — and those who support them — kneel for the national anthem, it is not about disrespecting the flag. It’s about righting the country’s wrongs, correcting its flaws. My soul cries out to kneel with them.

In my heart, though, I agonize. Because I believe in the best of the American way, just as I believe in the best of the American dream. It’s how I was raised, it’s how I’ve been given a good life, a life I’ve tried to live in service, informing the public through journalism for more than half my years.

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For the record, I’ve never had a bad interaction with a cop. Not when I got pulled over for speeding, not when we were in a near-fatal accident. Not at the bus stop, where I drink my morning coffee alongside a state trooper and a university officer — my neighbors … and friends.

Is that white privilege? It sure sounds like it.

But I’m not white, as I’ve often been made painfully aware.

It’s a truth as hard for me to reconcile as the idea of judging someone purely by their skin. Trapped in-between.

But, I’ve always thought, it could be worse.

Well, at least until COVID-19 — the “Kung flu,” as President Donald Trump, who has made no secret of his disdain for immigrants (except when they work at his properties or are willing to marry him) so ineloquently puts it.

There’s a truck I see around my Sussex County town these days with a big sticker on the back window that says, “Thanks China.” The copy editor in me desperately wants to add a comma. The redneck in me chalks it off as some local’s misplaced frustration at the economic downturn.

The father in me bristles when my daughters see it and complain that it’s not fair.

And that’s really the core of it, isn’t it?

I want a better world for my daughters — and yours. I want a better world for my girls than the one I grew up in. I want a world where they are judged by who they are, not how they look.

I was going to type, “not judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” Am I entitled to borrow that phrase?

I think about how close my girls are to living that reality. How far we’ve come as a society in the years since I was their age. How far we’ve come in just a few weeks.

But, sometimes, I also think about how lucky they are that they look white.

And then I think about how far we still have to go.

Eric Strauss | estrauss@roi-nj.com | @acerimrat