After a Long Journey…
A History of What Asians Endured After Stepping off the Boat
review written by Graham Pezzuti | book written by Helen Zia
The United States never used to be a country where ethnicities from all over the world could coexist. For it to go from a wilderness full of tribal natives to a culturally diverse world power, massive changes had to take place, but massive changes don’t come cheaply. The book Asian American Dreams is about how Asian immigrants began to mesh with the rest of America to create the Asian American culture that is prevalent today.
Asian Americans. When people hear these words, what do they think of: Asians or Americans? The United States and the Orient are on opposite sides of the globe, calling into question the meaning of this oxymoronic phrase. The quest to understand the meaning of something begins with trying to understanding the origin, and journalist Helen Zia has embarked on this quest to better understand the relationship between "Asian" and "American." Intrigued "by the notion that [people can] ‘turn’ into or adopt another culture so vastly different from [their] own," she wrote Asian American Dreams to not only chronicle the events of the past contributing to the origin of Asian American culture, but to demonstrate the enormous shift that these Asian immigrants underwent by going from being the silent minority to becoming an active voice in the United States, and the obstacles they overcame to accomplish this goal.1
Everything has a beginning, and Zia naturally brands the original waves of immigrants from Asia as this starting point. As far back as the days of Columbus, sailors from the Orient were used on Spanish vessels, and according to the author, “a number of them jumped ship for freedom” in the New World and “established a settlement on the coast of Louisiana”, becoming the first Asians to settle the Americas.2 Later, mass migrations occurred periodically, including 40,000 rushing to California during the Gold Rush and a surge of 7000 Koreans who arrived at the very beginning of the twentieth century. In any case, of the roughly 489,000 Asians who arrived in the United States by 1924, 99% of them came to the Americas as laborers. However, this marked the end of Asian immigration for a few decades. After the passing of the Immigration Act of 1924 – rightfully called the Asian Exclusion Act – the US government indirectly put an official, legal end to immigration from Asian countries. Since the act made the number of immigrants allowed to enter the county contingent on the number of United States citizen of the corresponding nationality, and since Asians couldn’t become citizens during this period, 0 citizens who descend from the Orient equals 0 new immigrants from that area. It remained this way until 1965, when the Immigration and Neutrality Act was passed, abolishing all quota restrictions for immigrants from any country. Unfortunately, the Asian immigrants problems didn’t end upon getting into the country, they were just beginning.
Just because the law accepted them into the country, that doesn’t automatically ensure that those already living in the United States will welcome them in. Even the country itself as an ideological entity put boards over the doors initially. Immigrants often had difficulties assimilating into American culture, and while some protected the integrity of their heritage, many tried to find their own place in their new home. The author’s parents underwent such a process, and she remembers how they “couldn’t tell [her and her siblings] what it meant to Chinese in America”; “they didn’t know” themselves, since “they were just learning about America themselves.”3 Unfortunately, the rest of the country wasn’t about to give them all a hand. In fact, quite the opposite occurred. With the economic downturn during the late 1980’s, people felt cornered and wanted to lash out, and Asian Americans became prime targets. Countless incidents occurred. In 1988, two black women accused the owner of a Korean market of assault, and the entire black community began organizing boycotts of all Korean owned markets. While these two ethnic communities made amends over this issue, the market owner – the victim of this whole ordeal – was thrown under the bus in exchange for successful negotiations. Another, more violent example occurred in 1989 in the town of Stockton, California. A mentally ill Vietnam War vet opened fire on the play ground of an elementary school, which was attended by many refugees from Cambodia and Vietnam. Five children died, and many more, including a teacher, were wounded. Just as African Americans had to endure discrimination even after obtaining legal equality, Asian immigrants and Asian Americans endured a similar hardship.
Asian Americans found another enemy in the media and press. The cultures of the different Asian heritages, which are very widely diverse from each other, appear to non-Asians to be the same. The media, consisting of almost no Asian members, grossly misunderstand all the Asian countries’ people and culture. Instead, with the way the media portrayed them, the wide variety of Asian cultures became blended together into what the author calls a “one-size-fits-all Asian stereotype.”4 Out of this stereotype, three sub-stereotypes of this character were produced. The positive – being a very charitable use of the word – stereotype grew into the geek, portrayed as an ineffectual, emasculated nerd. The negative stereotype – if there is any other kind – was the gook, which simply became synonymous with an untrustworthy, evil male. The third stereotype was the geisha, which implied the person was a subservient, passive female. This media created discrimination not only from the stereotypes it produced, but also from how artistic productions related to Asian people or cultures were conducted. By far the most notable example that the author provided was the controversies over the play Miss Saigon. When the play was first produced, all the lead roles of plays were assigned to white actors, regardless of if the character was white, black, or Asian. In fact, when white actors played Asian parts, they were “celebrated for their ‘interpretation’ of ‘Orientals’” by the critics.5 The Asian American actors that were cast only played the minor roles or were extras. When asked about this, a white casting director named Vincent Liff actually listed every Asian American actor he knew and why he wouldn’t cast them as one of the Vietnamese in a play. As a result of the media stereotypes the persisted during this time, the Asian American identity was reduced to media-spawned stereotypes and “artistic recreation” by whites.
The question that still remains unanswered is the outcome of the future, and Zia ends her quest with evidence of the coming dawn and eminent resolution of a dream. Political scientists feel that in almost every case, and not just that of the Asian Americans, a lack of political involvement in the society a group is living in ultimately yields a slowing of cultural advancements in the region. When discussing how to reverse this, the author quotes the political scientist Don Nakanishi, who said that “if Asian Americans are to advance politically, they must understand the importance of establishing a broad base of support both within and beyond their ethnic community.”6 For almost 100 years, very few Asian Americans ever spoke out politically to better pursue equality for Asian Americans, but one the author mentions multiple times is the Japanese American Citizens League, or JACL. Ever since 1929, they have worked to promote rights for Japanese Americans, and, in support of other minority group, even taken a stand in support of gay rights. The author attributes all the political shortcomings of Asian Americans to the simple fact that, since Asian Americans never obtained any sort of political equality until at least the mid twentieth century, other ethnic groups have a three generation head start. But as the present time approaches and her chronology draws to a close – at least the present that was when the book was written – she turns here attention to a sign of change that occurred in the state Washington. In 1997, Gary Locke won the election for governor in the state, making him, to this day, the only Chinese American to ever be the governor of any state. (In fact, a few months ago, he official assumed the office of the 36th Secretary of Commerce under Barrack Obama.) The author optimistically concludes that, with the demographic projection that the 10 million Asian Americans living in the United States will double by 2010, the means of her people to achieve that dream will soon come true.
Speak up. Be heard. No matter the outcome of the situation the author describes, one common theme remained prevalent: the silence of the Asian American community was their weakness and the downfall of their community. Zia herself truly believes in the power of peoples voices. Not only from the research she has done, but she participated in many protests about multiple topics, giving her first hand experience on the effectiveness of the message she is trying to deliver. She voiced her anti-war opinions in opposition to the war in Vietnam, as well as expressed a firm believe in feminism. Even so, the lack of political participation of Asian Americans remains as just the tip of the iceberg. The evidence leading to this statement remains credible, as confirmed by the political scientist she quoted, but all these facts accomplish little more than to create a tangible, logical sounding reason for the troubles Asian Americans face. They do nothing to explain the true plight that plagued the Asian American community: their reluctance to unify with each other into a single voice capable of defining and separating out the Asian American ethnicities and cultures from all of the other ethnicities and cultures present in the United States. Before modern transportation methods were available, back when walking was the norm and horses were a luxury, the people of an area were a homogeneous mixture; the same race, the same religion, the same culture, and the same customs were prevalent in any one region. All these variables were an absolute. Immigration took this simplistic state which lacked any inkling of diversity and spun it up side down and all around into a cultural melting pot where different heritages clashed all throughout a heterogeneous gumbo of people from every corner of the world. The world’s borders went from “that rock over there” (a mountain) to a giant celestial body that houses a vast expanse of very different “little worlds”. The United States, with its promise of freedom, a new life, and in some cases gold, underwent a similar paradigm shift from being a wilderness inhabited by nothing more than native tribes and herds of animals to a multitude of cultures from all over the globe flooding into one cultural reservoir; the United States was ready to overflow. The author gave her people one last ultimatum: “if they don’t define themselves, others will.”7
Asian Americans must define themselves differently from all the other cultures they must compete with for survival; they can’t try to work themselves into someone else’s definition. While that seems redundant, groups have attempted the latter – trying to blend right in to the white community – and such attempts ended in failure. When that 7000 Korean surge occurred, they attempted to blend in because they thought the reason immigrants from other countries failed to find any real success in America was because they held on to too much of their old heritage. In fact, over 40% of these Koreans were already practicing Christians. Even so, these Koreans never accomplished any more than immigrants from other Asian countries. They still never obtained suffrage, citizenship, or other legal rights that European immigrants were given. Europeans first settled America – if you exclude the native Indians who beat them by a few thousand years – they established the first government, and they easily make up the vast majority of the population. As such, with the United States being a democracy, Europeans have the majority, and thus the greatest say. Politically, non-European immigrants are of secondary importance, and a sense of superiority inevitably spawned from that fact. The author demonstrates how, regardless of actions or intentions, “anti-Asian racism subjected [all Asian immigrants] to the same treatment.”8 Immigration requires people to adapt to the new surroundings, lifestyles, and politics of their new home, and while most immigrants were looking for a new life, the author insists they never truly discard their heritage, least they end up being consumed by the “greater good”, which itched to make everyone just another cog in the machine, in which the European ethnicity strives to remain the pendulum.
In the end, the author’s optimism for the future and the dream she talks so much about may be on the verge of reality: complete, harmonious coexistence between the many different Asian nationalities that immigrated to the United States to form one united, Asian American entity. For the longest of times, all those troubles associated with immigration separated and scattered the different nationalities all over the country, and almost in parallel with Asia itself, where all the different countries dislike each other over what happened in the past – the Rape of Nanking comes to mind. The different Asian immigrants ignored the plights of each other, much more content with being disjointed, and Zia feels the biggest factor that sparked the unification of the Asian nationalities was adversity; when enough non-Asian groups delivered plight onto the lives of different Asians nationwide, the atrocities united the Asians into a single cry of outrage. Even when growing up, the author saw that “people were angry” and “ready to lash out at anyone,”9 and while adversity isn’t always caused by death or destruction, the most notable event of this kind remains the Los Angeles Riot of 1992. She discussed this event in one of the chapters, and it best demonstrates the kind of adversity Asian American had to overcome. Because of the riots, Korean Americans in Los Angeles suffered over a billions dollars in damages, an example of when uncontrollable anger is unleashed, and the worst part: the rioters weren’t even angry at Koreans. They became victims of someone else’s rage, and unjustly suffered for it. Zia highlighted events like these as those key occurrences that first galvanized the Asian American community, and lead them to unite in outrage to ensure atrocities such as these never become commonplace. After shouldering those burdens as a united force, the Asian American community started down the path to becoming the fastest growing self-identified group to emerge in the United States.
Immigration. Circumstances cause people to embark on a journey across the ocean to find a new home. Some desired religious tolerance; many dreamed of a better, less oppressive government; some hoped to escape a hole they have been unable to climb out of, praying for their place in the American dream; and a select few even wanted to strike it rich. Unfortunately, immigrants soon came to find the vision of America welcoming them with open arms to be a painful delusion. When the law didn’t allow them to enter the country, and the United States government shut off the valve, immigrants simply waited for it to reopen. The true trials and tribulations of immigrants entering the United States didn’t come from the journey; it came from the extreme conditions they found themselves in once they arrived at their new home. Asian immigrants had to fight against racism, discrimination, and lack of rights, but the legal end to the problems presented little more than the breathing room to try and act upon the problem at hand. One fact was inescapable: they were newcomers to a foreign land, which had built its own pillars of right and wrong, conventional and abnormal, and acceptable and disgraceful. It would inevitably become a futile effort to completely rewrite this pillars, so the task at hand remained not how to become American, but rather “how to become accepted as Americans.”10
1. Zia, Helen. Asian American Dreams. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2000. ix.
2. Zia, Helen. 24.
3. Zia, Helen. 9.
4. Zia, Helen. 117.
5. Zia, Helen. 114.
6. Zia, Helen. 289.
7. Zia, Helen. 164.
8. Zia, Helen. 34.
9. Zia, Helen. 85.
10. Zia, Helen. ix.