I was recently asked to write about Asian American History Month, which, since 1979,
has been observed during the month of May.
Despite the fact that I write about Asian American issues on a fairly regular basis,
and in many ways, consider myself an Asian American, it wasn’t easy to figure. The very
term, "Asian American History," makes our presence here sound so official, so
Yet, the term "Asian America" itself is problematic. Most of the people whom
others would characterize as "Asian American" most emphatically don’t think of
themselves that way. (And many, including most of those in my family, would be almost
offended: they are Gujuratis, thank you very much!) Our particular histories, ethnicities,
and nationalities are one million times more visceral and meaningful in our lives than
pan-Asianness (and what would that be, one wonders: "fusion" cooking??)
The push to unify the disparate peoples and histories of Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese,
Hmong, Pakistanis, Thais, and Indians, among others, comes from both right and left. Of
course it would be easier for the U.S. census, but also for the radicals who started the
"Yellow Power" movement in the 1960s, among others. But unlike other diverse
ethnic/racial groups, such as African Americans and Native Americans, Asian Pacific
Americans share no common historical trauma like slavery or colonization. We share no
"Asian" language or ethnicity or nation or color. What we have in common, most
of us would rather forget.
There is an undeniable strategic value in our unity. Americans know so little about
Asian cultures, in general, that the stereotypes and fantasies projected upon any one
group bleeds over onto the next. We have those in common, and it wouldn’t do any good to
resist some and not the others.
As a group, Asians have sometimes been held up as "model minorities," and at
other times pilloried as spies and interlopers, but always, it seems, we are held at a
distance, no matter how "American" we may become. This is at least partly
because our role in American society is largely defined not by our unique contributions
per se, but by our assigned roles in the unfolding drama between American labor and
capital, and between blacks and whites.
Each wave of Asian immigration to American shores has been triggered by U.S.
immigration policy or military interventions in Asia. When American labor has gotten too
expensive, due to union organizing victories and the like, immigration laws have
strategically shifted to import workers from Asia, whether poor Chinese laborers in the
1800s to build the railroads or professional Asians in the 1960s to service the
then-growing welfare state. U.S. military interventions in the Philippines, Korea,
Vietnam, and elsewhere, likewise resulted in floods of Asian refugees at American gates.
Today, the workers, farmers, and small landowners in Asia whose livelihoods have been
crushed by the demands of U.S. multinational companies-now freer than ever to do business
abroad-are being smuggled illegally into the country.
Predictably, backlashes against these workers have followed, in each case. Laws
excluding Chinese from becoming citizens, owning property, marrying or attending public
schools with whites were enacted in the mid- to late-1800s. In 1942, the U.S. government
stripped 110,000 Japanese Americans of their homes, possessions, and savings and forced
them into concentration camps; upon their release-jobless, penniless-the government served
as an employment agency, fielding the many requests for servants.
The 1980s economy sparked another wave of anti-Asian violence: in 1982, Chinese
American Vincent Chin was beaten to death with a baseball bat by unemployed auto workers
who thought he was Japanese (and who served not a single day in jail). In 1987, Navraz
Mody was beaten to death by a gang of youths in New Jersey, home of the infamous
"dotbusters" (a vicious reference to the Indian bindhi.)
Today, many Asian workers serve as a sort of middle-tier wedge between blacks and
whites, and between corporate elites and workers-most tragically in Los Angeles during the
1992 riots. Even the much-lauded professional Asians are harrassed and excluded on the
basis of their accents, their degrees often devalued and held to higher-than-usual
standards. For all the fanfare regarding their success, most of them still make less money
than whites with comparable educations. Undocumented Asian workers take the jobs nobody
else will tolerate, toiling in sweatshops and factories. In one particularly egregious
case, dozens of Thai workers were recently found to have been held against their will in a
barbed-wire-enclosed southern California sweatshop between 1990 and 1997.
The Model Minority Myth-consciously encouraged by embattled elites in Asian
communities-likewise inserts Asians into the larger drama about blacks and whites. While
an education can be had and a living made based on model minority myths (at least for
some), it is at the cost of indulging the racist delusion that there can be some
"good minorities" in implicit contrast to those other "bad
minorities," who have only themselves to blame.
Part of the double-bind of Asian Americans is that retaining our Asian heritages can be
almost as difficult as becoming American. The American media continues to be fascinated
with Asian misery and senseless oppression. When Americans gain a peek into life in Asia,
it is invariably a horror scene: Indonesians eating bark; Chinese women drinking
pesticides; Thai prostitutes chained to their beds; dead bodies in rivers, contaminated
blood supplies, mudslides, train wrecks, massacres. Non-Asians may be strangely comforted
by these tales of distant woe. But what could anyone with ties to those countries feel,
beside sorrow, shame, rage, alienation, or: Thank God we’re here and not there!
The story of Asian American history, in these ways, is a story of not-belonging, of
alienation, from America and Asia. Yet, despite all this ambivalence and contradiction
about our place in U.S. society, Asian Americans have played upon the broader American
stage, and have made lives and history change as a result.
People such as the human rights advocate Yuri Kochiyama, the feminist activist Anannya
Bhattacharjee, the queer activist Urvashi Vaid; the radical poet Janice Mirikitani; the
public intellectuals Glenn Omatsu, Peter Kwong, and Mari Matsuda; the filmmakers Richard
Fung and Renee Tajima, to name just a few, among many others, are building an inspired,
radical Asian left to improve all of our lives.
Their legacy-the future of history-are today’s vibrant Asian American immigrant worker
movements, the growing institution of Asian American Studies in universities, a
flourishing Asian American arts community, and more. These people and the institutions
they have built, against the odds, are the Asian makers of American history. They have and
will continue to force America to reckon with the realities of a diverse, multilingual,
yellow and brown, ever-more-vocal Asianized America.
You wouldn’t know it from reading progressive news media, and certainly not from the
mainstream press, but it is happening. So, hokey as it is, perhaps Asian American history
month can be used to showcase these folks and their work. Check it out!
Sonia Shah is editor of Dragon Ladies: Asian American Feminists Breathe Fire (South End