This week, a seemingly benign Q&A turned into an awkward cultural moment on the presidential campaign trail.
Joseph Choe, a Harvard student, stood up to ask Donald Trump a question about South Korea at the No Labels Problem Solver Convention in New Hampshire on Monday.
First, Trump, who likes to tout that he went to the Wharton business school at the University of Pennsylvania, remarked on Choe’s choice of hoodie.
“Harvard?” Trump asked. “You go to Harvard?”
He does. There was some silence before Choe got the microphone. Trump started to grow impatient, urging Choe to just shout out the question.
“He’s choking!” Trump jabbed. Choe finally started to ask his question.
“Basically, you said that South Korea takes advantage of the United States in terms of the defense spending on the Korean Peninsula,” he began. “I just want to get the facts straight.”
Before he could finish, Trump interrupted.
“Are you from South Korea?” he wondered aloud.
“I’m not,” Choe said. “I was born in Texas, raised in Colorado.”
That prompted some in the audience to laugh.
He tried to go on, but wound up not getting out a question, but a statement instead. “No matter where I’m from, I like to get my facts straight,” Choe said before being cut off.
Choe, a 20-year-old economics major whose parents were born in Korea, told NPR after the event that one of the main reasons he went to the convention was to ask Trump a question.
“I don’t care who you are, whether you’re the prime minister or Donald Trump, if you say something factually wrong or do something factually wrong, I’ll call you out on it,” Choe said. “[Trump] makes all these, like, weird accusations, whether it’s toward Mexicans or women, or South Koreans; I just wanted to call him out on that.”
A fellow conference attendee who walked by Choe joked, “You’re gonna have to show him your birth certificate, man!”
Choe laughed it off. But questioning where someone is from can be loaded for Asian-Americans, said Jennifer Lee, a sociology professor at the University of California, Irvine who studies race, immigration and culture.
There’s an implied sense of foreignness in how Trump treated Choe, Lee said.
“It seems like this innocuous question, like people are just asking your identity,” Lee said, “but they’re really challenging this idea of who is American, which is, at the core, an offensive question. It’s this persistent perception that Asian-Americans are not American, that they are perpetual foreigners.”
As far as Choe goes, he said he’s not supporting Trump for president in 2016, but he wants him to know, “I’m as American as it gets.”