SAN FRANCISCO — The old voices and their stories haunted Ronald Takaki. He heard them as he wrote in his book-lined study, as he strode down shady Berkeley streets and as he taught his popular history classes at the University of California campus.
The voices echoed across the century: A Chinese railroad worker. A Japanese "picture bride." A Filipino farm laborer. They were poor sojourners who had crossed the ocean in quest of a good life in mainland America and Hawaii--the "Gold Mountain" and "Fragrant Sandalwood Hills."
Their stories rarely had been told, Takaki knew. Reflections of their lives could be found only in musty archives or obscure textbooks. The 50-year-old Berkeley scholar and native of Hawaii also felt that most Americans were "ignorant" of Asian Americans.
But Takaki now hopes his new book, "Strangers From a Different Shore" (Little, Brown & Co.), will speak loudly to those unaware of the history of Americans who trace their roots to China, Japan, Korea, the Philippines, India and Southeast Asia. "By giving our people their voices we give them power," Takaki said in an interview last week. "By telling our stories, we define our families and our communities."
"Strangers," which already has received favorable reviews, is creating considerable excitement for an academic book. Its major promotional tour starts this week on the East Coast and includes a guest appearance for Takaki on the "Today" show.
"This is the year of Asian Americans!" said a giddy Takaki. "We're hot, we're trendy! This is our time!"
In contrast to so many dry academic works, Takaki took the time to craft "Strangers" so parts of it read like classical Greek or Roman epic and lyric poetry. Other passages reflect the sing-song rhythms and down-home imagery of pidgin English, the mixed language spoken by Hawaiian plantation workers. No other work on Asian Americans--and few on other ethnic peoples--boasts its scope and power.
When discussing his work, Takaki, a lover of American literature, quotes Whitman and Melville as easily as he once sliced vegetables at his stepfather's Chinese restaurant in Honolulu. "When I write about immigrants working in hot Chinatown kitchens, I know how they feel," said Takaki, laughing and chopping the air with his hands. "I grew up peeling shrimp, cutting onions and reading 'Moby Dick.' "
The silver-haired Takaki is a kind of minority Everyman. He is a rare hybrid, a multicultural scholar who blends the intellectual traditions of the West and East, of the white and nonwhite worlds. After growing up in ethnically diverse Hawaii, he studied history at the College of Wooster in Ohio. He earned his history doctorate at UC Berkeley, then was hired by UCLA in 1967 as the school's first teacher of Afro-American history.
When the civil rights movement erupted, Takaki, the son of Japanese sugar-cane workers, found himself chanting alongside militant protesters and a well-known historian, Angela Davis. "This is one bad Asian brother," black students told him then.
Five years later, Takaki's fiery belief in the study of ethnic history led him back to Berkeley. Despite protests of professors who felt that ethnic studies were not a true academic discipline, Takaki fought for faculty positions and new courses.
"We were scorned on campus, viewed as illegitimate," Takaki said, spearing his shrimp scampi at a chi-chi restaurant. "Most thought the only reason we existed was because the university had capitulated to student radicals. It took a long time, but we're finally gaining respect."
Takaki is a passionate, even overzealous man. He seems to talk and think at hyperspeed, the synapses in his brain flashing like a super-computer. To some he is a crusader, a yellow knight in shining armor. "Ron and his students are always on a journey of self-discovery," said Liz Medina, a friend and counselor at UC Berkeley.
Takaki credits his mother, a restaurant worker with an eighth-grade education, and Shunji Nishi, a retired high school instructor and theologian, for teaching him about social justice and dignity. When Takaki left Hawaii for college in the Midwest, his mother wrote him "beautiful letters" filled with simple truths.
Found Old Letters
Two decades later, he broke down and cried after stumbling across the tattered letters in his basement. One note quoted St. Augustine: "O Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace." Another read, "Son, I'm getting a college education through you. I'm learning words like 'epistemology' and 'illustrious.' " In a third letter she wrote, "You are exceptional. You can and must be. "
But not surprisingly, Takaki's life has been dominated by issues of racial equality.
At his all-white Episcopalian college, Takaki grew puzzled, then angry as he pursued his studies. He realized that the stories of minorities--of his mother and his people--were missing from traditional curricula. "American history meant white history," he said.