A New History of Being Asian-American
Originally published on The New Yorker - May 14, 2020
By Hua Hsu
This sentence in The New Yorker review of the new PBS five-part documentary series, “The Asian Americans,” caught my eye--"Watching 'The Asian Americans' is a bit surreal, since it’s a story about mobility, at a time when that is impossible, and about choices, which have come to seem illusory." Let's hope the choices we make moving forward are well-reasoned, wise, and real.
Most politicians mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month each May with some kind of rote message of tribute to the nation’s twenty million or so Americans of Asian descent—a sizable population, and the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group. In contrast, President Trump decided to speak not to Asian Americans but for them. On Monday, after he berated Weijia Jiang, a reporter for CBS News, at a press conference, and hinted that she was somehow intimate with China, he fended off accusations of racism by tweeting that he was very much on the side of Asian-Americans: “Asian Americans are VERY angry at what China has done to our Country, and the World. Chinese Americans are the most angry of all. I don’t blame them!”
Regardless of how Trump gleaned this information, it was a reminder of how, during the past two hundred years, Asian-Americans have grown accustomed to life as a kind of movable chess piece, beholden to political whims beyond their control. Most often, Asian-Americans are met with indifference because we lack the critical mass (and shared interests) to shape national conversations on our terms. We seem invisible and, if scrutinized, indistinguishable. During bad times, such as the Second World War or the collapse of the auto industry in the eighties, we are scapegoats. The coronavirus pandemic has revived a gamut of often contradictory stereotypes about Asian people. On the one hand, the Chinese are accused of being the primary bearers of the disease, drawing from nineteenth-century stereotypes that they are dirty and disgusting. On the other hand, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan are praised for halting the disease’s spread, owing to more recent, twentieth-century stereotypes about Asians being passive, collective-minded, and obsessed with hygiene.
When Andrew Yang published an op-ed early in the pandemic about how Asian-Americans had to double down on their Americanness, it was an almost note-perfect echo of what the Japanese American Citizens League had told internees during the Second World War. A few weeks later, one of Joe Biden’s boldest yet attacks on President Trump was actually an attack on China, accusing Trump of being overly permissive toward the authoritarian regime. Biden was once again challenging the average American to distinguish the Chinese government from its people, and the Chinese from other Asian people in general. Meanwhile, many Asian-Americans, fearful of rising incidents of anti-Asian violence, wonder if stories of slurs and assaultwill unite a diffuse and seemingly fractured community.
This week, PBS airs the five-part documentary series “The Asian Americans,” an ambitious attempt to make Asian-American history accessible to a broader public. (It will stream on PBS until June 8th.) The PBS treatment suggests a kind of citizenship test, taking subjects like baseball or jazz and offering them as a purely American product. In this case, “The Asian Americans” celebrates a community that has become synonymous with American possibilities. How else to explain the rags-to-riches trajectory of Asian America, in which, during the course of a couple generations, a stereotype of Asians can change from godless subhumans snacking on rats to a model minority whose achievements seem to rationalize the whole of American meritocracy?
The production team behind “The Asian Americans” was led by the award-winning documentarian Renee Tajima-Peña, and the episodes, which follow a chronological story, were directed by a collection of talented and experienced Asian-American filmmakers. Thematically, the series moves from the early struggles for citizenship and dignity, in which Asian immigrants were instrumental in challenging the legal definition of whiteness and the segregation of public schools, to questions of fitting into Eisenhower-era America. From there, the series focusses on the more proactive movements toward self-definition in the sixties, when the term “Asian-American” became part of the lexicon, and what contemporary generations have done with that identity.
The first episode of “The Asian Americans” begins with a teasingly brief look at the life of Antero Cabrera, one of eleven hundred Filipinos brought to America as part of the Philippines Exposition at the 1904 World’s Fair, in St. Louis. The exposition was one of the fair’s most popular, a celebration of America’s acquisition of the archipelago after the Philippine-American War, and also possibly its most garish—described later as a “human zoo.” Cabrera had come to America to portray an Igorot “savage,” yet he stays, building a nice life for himself, even while continuing to act out a racist trope at subsequent fairs. Most people interacting with him, as part of the fair, or in the polite, genteel company of civilized, white society, probably never bothered to recognize the difference between the two roles that Cabrera inhabited.
Much of the episode focusses on the Chinese railroad workers and their struggles to make a living as white working-class organizers sought to push them out of the country. Many wondered, “Return to China, or carve out a future in America?” History shows that a lot of these workers, who rarely had the means to return, didn’t actually have the luxury of a choice. Instead, they stayed, building Chinatowns on the edges of American cities, enclaves out of necessity. The episode closes at Promontory, Utah, with a ceremony commemorating the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. When it was originally completed, the Chinese workers weren’t included in the official photographs. But, generations later, things have changed. At the celebration, one even sees the Chinese-American politician Elaine Chao, who is currently the Secretary of Transportation, offering platitudes from the podium. Like many postwar immigrants—especially ones who found fortune in international shipping and trading—her connection to these railroad workers is largely abstract. Her association with the Asian-American community has often been strained, given her allegiance to the conservative establishment. But few will bother to distinguish these different versions of the Chinese-American experience, either.
Watching “The Asian Americans” is a bit surreal, since it’s a story about mobility, at a time when that is impossible, and about choices, which have come to seem illusory. From early on, the question for Asian-Americans was whether to stay or go home. One of the series’ most engrossing stories is that of Buddy Uno, a Japanese-American who anticipated that the Second World War would be a tragic one for his community. He decided to go back to Japan, not so much out of a desire to serve the Emperor but because his opportunities in America seemed so limited. Meanwhile, his brothers stayed and volunteered for the all-Japanese American 442nd Battalion, leaving the family behind in the internment camps. When they came back from the front lines to visit, armed guards stood watch. “It’s just something we had to take,” Uno’s brother, Ernest, explains, of this seeming contradiction, after he had risked his life for a country that viewed his family as a domestic threat.
There’s an undercurrent of tragedy throughout the entire series. The dilemmas of a previous generation are often inscrutable to those who follow, such as the fascinating look back at the debates among Hawaiians about American statehood, and the subsequent trials of Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to the House of Representatives. Similarly, it’s hard to convey how crucial military integration once seemed to people of color, as they sought full participation in the economy and in politics. The members of Japanese-American 442nd Battalion sacrificed themselves for reasons that aren’t as legible so many decades later, with the perspective of history. But these lunges toward acceptance always seem to fall short.
What does it mean for an entire community, disparate and far-flung, to experience progress? There are material markers—the right to be a citizen, the right to vote. But these feel like low bars in a democracy. The strange thing isn’t that harassment or violence against Asian-Americans continue to happen; it’s how easily this history is forgotten, if it was ever learned. While watching “The Asian Americans,” it was hard not to feel the uniquely cyclical character of this community’s history. The way it remains obscure and tenuous, which gives every generation the feeling that they are discovering it for the first time. The way that antique stereotypes still circulate with ease. How to narrate this story as anything less than a reflection of the erratic and occasionally cruel whimsy of the American creed?
A viewer can trace a cautionary tale throughout “The Asian Americans”: the hazard of not knowing yourself or your history. Tajima-Peña, the series’ producer, was a huge part of the Asian-American political consciousness. In 1987, she and Christine Choy premièred “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” a fantastic documentary about the 1982 murder of a Chinese-American man by two disgruntled Detroit auto workers who were angry about the late-seventies ascension of Japanese car manufacturers. It proved to be one of the single most galvanizing events for Asian-Americans across the country, who suddenly understood the local and personal consequences of larger economic or geopolitical rifts. The film carried that message forward for younger audiences.
Time and again, throughout “The Asian Americans,” people recall moments when they are shocked into recognizing something about themselves. A wayward Japanese-American kid goes to Vietnam, and finally realizes that he, too, is a “gook.” He returns home and becomes part of the nascent Yellow Power movement. In one stirring scene, a classroom of young men incarcerated at San Quentin Prison find purpose and community by studying immigrant history. A young Filipino works in the agricultural fields instead of going to school, until the old-timers tell him that he should set his sights higher. He returns and becomes a pioneering historian of the Filipino-American experience.
The resilient trajectory of “The Asian Americans” means that it inevitably ends with an observation that this community is the “quintessential” American one. There are aspects of the Asian-American experience that don’t quite fit that narrative, such as the rise of conservatives like Chao, the robust communities within Asian-American churches, the internal fights around development and gentrification. Though the series tries to integrate the experiences of South Asians and Southeast Asians, these stories often feel ancillary to one dominated by immigrants from East Asia. Yet the connections are there. The majority of Asians in America arrived after 1965, and the connection of these newer populations to the struggles that paved their way remain hazy, despite the clear echoes of nineteenth-century exclusion in post-9/11 Islamophobia, the persistence of stereotypes that link yesterday’s railroad workers to today’s Silicon Valley engineers.
In 1997, Tajima-Peña put out “My America . . . Or Honk If You Love Buddha,” a moving, first-person documentary that was essentially a road trip collecting various Asian-American outliers: activists, rappers, Chinatown hippies. It captured a kind of eclecticism lacking in “The Asian Americans.” Even though the series doesn’t intend to reinforce a “good immigrants” narrative, in which Asian-Americans exist largely to flatter the national myth of meritocracy, it ends up doing something similar, anyway. The variation being that the metric celebrated here isn’t achievement so much as a kind of political consciousness, a knowledge of self. For many of the film’s subjects, this consciousness itself is progress. Rather than leaving individuals despairing and adrift in their anger, it connects them to something larger than themselves. As the prize-winning author and academic Viet Thanh Nguyen remarks at one point, it’s up to later generations to decide where they stand in relation to the past. Maybe it won’t be for him. The important part, one assumes, is that they realize they are not taking these steps alone, and that they never were.
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