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In Orange County, Another Asian American Public Official Fends Off Xenophobia, Racism

A Korean American woman with a bob haircut sits at the city council dais.
Irvine Vice-Mayor Tammy Kim faced a xenophobic tirade at a council meeting this week.
(Irvine City Council video)
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In just a matter of years, Irvine's political leadership has evolved to reflect the growing Asian population of the city — the largest of any in Orange County. The five-member City Council went from all-white in 2018 to having a new majority of three Asian American members in 2020.

But a xenophobic attack on Vice-Mayor Tammy Kim at a council meeting this week serves as a reminder to politicians of Asian descent of their ongoing struggle to prove their American bona fides.

Eugene Kaplan is part of a group of residents that wants to build a new veterans cemetery in Irvine. Kim backs a plan to build it on county-owned land in Anaheim Hills. An irritated Kaplan asked Kim how she felt about the tens of thousands of American service members who died during the Korean War. Kim responded: "This is my country!"

As Kaplan persisted in talking, Kim's voice grew tighter and louder.

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"This is my country," she repeated. "And I'm an American!"

Kaplan responded, "Yeah, you're American because you were lucky enough to live to get here."

Kaplan's comments were condemned by Mayor Farrah Khan and Councilman Mike Carrol, Asian American politicians in other cities and the Democrats of Greater Irvine.

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But the exchange between Kaplan and Kim also spawned an online discourse where some commenters accused the vice mayor of overblowing his remarks.

The incident echoed attacks earlier this year on Orange County Supervisor Andrew Do. Anti-COVID vaccination activists angry about the county's pandemic policies targeted Do’s Vietnamese heritage 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, an Irvine resident 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 certain anti-Aslan slurs. "But there's also this insidious kind of thing of, Well, you're from Korea, we helped your people, we're saving you. You should be grateful to us."

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Kim, who has spoken extensively against the rise in anti-Asian hate incidents during the pandemic, said she's used to racist attacks online, like when she sponsored a controversial anti-Asian hate resolution earlier this year.

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

"A white elected official is never questioned on their origin or their ethnicity, or made to feel that they need to be grateful," said Kim who emigrated from South Korea with her family as an infant. "But it's those of color, those of Asian American descent who are treated consistently as perpetual foreigners."

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

"When she said 'I am an American,' I wanted to cry," Foo said, "because how many times have I felt that or said that?"

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More education is needed, Foo said, even somewhere as diverse as Irvine. It is California's fastest-growing large city, in part because of the influx of Asian households.

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.