President Trump, who recently made headlines by allegedly referring to Haiti and African nations as “s—hole countries,” has also displayed ignorance about Asian Americans, according to two anonymous officials.
The officials told NBC News that the incident occurred last fall in the Oval Office when an unnamed career intelligence analyst specializing in hostage policy explained to Trump the impending release of a family that had been held in Pakistan. The sources gave the following account:
After the briefing, Trump asked the analyst, “Where are you from?” She replied that she was from New York, and when Trump seemed unsatisfied, she added that she was from Manhattan. The president then asked her where “your people” were from, and she said that her parents are from South Korea.
Trump asked an advisor in the room why the “pretty Korean lady” wasn’t negotiating with North Korea, despite the fact that she is trained in hostage negotiation, not diplomacy.
According to the NBC News report, the officials said that Trump “likely meant no harm with his inquiry, but it raised concern of a lack of cultural sensitivity and decorum.”
Rep. Judy Chu (D-Monterey Park), chair of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, tweeted on Jan. 12, “Another awful story on how Trump cannot see women for more than their looks and only sees minorities as others, not Americans. If true, this story that he called a skilled analyst just a ‘pretty Korean lady’ is latest evidence he is unfit for this office.”
Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Manhattan Beach) tweeted, “Hey @realDonaldTrump: Everyone in America or their ancestors (other than Native Americans) came from another country. I came from Taiwan. The pretty Korean lady you identified (or her ancestors) came from Korea. We are AMERICAN. If you don’t understand that, you need to resign.”
In another tweet, Lieu said, “Hey @realDonaldTrump: Where are your people from? The answer to that question is somewhere else. Everyone in America is either an immigrant or their ancestors were immigrants. But we are all now Americans. Get it yet?”
Asian Americans Advancing Justice-Los Angeles asked, “Why do Asian Americans constantly have to field the ‘where are you from’ questions? And why is not being from a foreign country not a satisfying answer?”
In a commentary for Fortune, Jessica Lee, who served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and for a senior member of the Ways and Means Committee, wrote: “For the nearly two million Korean Americans who vote, pay taxes, and love their country, such typecasting is a red flag that must be challenged. If the Korean American intelligence officer should work only on the North Korea issue, why don’t we expect the same standard for others? By that logic, Henry Kissinger should only have been consulted on matters affecting German Jews, Samantha Power should have only advised on Ireland-related issues, and Zbigniew Brzezinski should not have played an integral role in establishing diplomatic relations with China. Think of how much talent our national security apparatus would lose if we pigeonholed everyone based on their ethnicity.
“Despite our economic successes and high levels of educational attainment, Korean Americans still lack political power and visibility in the mainstream media. We are underrepresented in Congress and other visible leadership positions. We don’t have our own version of Congressman John Lewis, a storied figure with the courage and stature to stand up against racism directed toward people of Korean descent. That could change, but it will take time. Six Korean Americans are currently running for the House of Representatives.
“Until we have strong voices to inform and shape public discourse, we will forever be painted in broad strokes by those who do not truly understand our lived experience.”
Positive Experience at White House
In a series of tweets that have gone viral, Gary Lee, a former assistant staff secretary for President Obama, responded on Jan. 13 by recounting his positive experiences at the White House:
“I’ve never tweeted before but today felt like a good day to start. President Trump made a lot of upsetting remarks this week including this one. ‘Where are you from?’ is a question that many Asian Americans dread.
“This struck a chord with me not only because I’m Korean American, but also because I worked at the White House, for President Obama. I left the White House in 2011 for a Fulbright scholarship in Korea. President Obama knew I was leaving to learn more about the culture and language of my parents.
“On my last day, I went into the Oval Office and POTUS greeted me by saying … hello, in Korean. I’m lucky because (White House photographer) Pete Souza captured that exact moment.
“In early 2007, my senior year of college, I mailed my resume and a cover letter in a manila envelope to the Obama for America headquarters in Chicago. Two weeks before graduation, I received a phone call that a correspondence volunteer had found my letter in a mail pile. She gave my letter to her boss, who then called and asked if I wanted to move to Chicago to work on the campaign.
“That’s how I got hired on the campaign. That’s how I ended up at the White House. That’s how I got to work for President Barack Obama.
“After my departure photo with POTUS, I left the Oval Office in a daze and ran into Kal Penn in the West Wing lobby. I recounted the interaction with the president and he started tearing up. ‘Why are you crying?’ I asked.
“He replied, ‘Think about what you just said. How incredible that is. On your last day of work at the White House, after your years of service, the first African American president greeted you in your parents’ native language.’ I started crying too.
“My parents could never have fathomed such an idea. My mom came to the U.S. when she was 18, my father when he was 26. They worked multiple full-time and part-time jobs, opened a small business, and at one point, had only $20 in their checking account.
“They made incalculable sacrifices so their sons could have the opportunities they never had. They sacrificed so we could achieve whatever we wanted to. They could have never imagined that their eldest son would work in the White House.
“In what other country is that even possible? In what other country are you allowed to dream, and despite all odds, pursue and achieve your dreams? In what country could a chubby, ’90s hip-hop and R&B-loving Asian kid from New Mexico end up working for Barack Obama? What a beautiful, incredible nation of immigrants we are.
“Happy Korean American Day and MLK weekend. As Dr. King said, ‘Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.’”