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Asian American Studies Must Go Beyond America to Succeed

July 13, 1997|Xiao-huang Yin | Xiao-huang Yin, an associate professor of Occidental College, is a visiting professor at Harvard University

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Born of the civil rights movement and antiwar activities in the 1960s, Asian American studies as an academic discipline faces a new challenge. Continuing Asian immigration and the emergence of a transpacific economic network require the discipline to broaden its domestic-centered agenda. What's now needed is a curriculum with an international dimension. To remain relevant, Asian American studies must maintain its roots in U.S. soil while it embraces Asia.

For the past 30 years, the influx of Asian immigrants into the United States, which cuts across all ethnic, cultural and class identities, has transformed Asian Americans into a predominantly first-generation and highly diverse community. While the Asian Pacific population in the United States grew from 1 million in 1965 to more than 9 million in 1995, the number of native-born Asians dropped from 60% to about 30%. Three decades ago, Asian Americans were mainly Chinese, Japanese and Filipino; today, they include virtually every ethnic group from Asia and the Pacific Rim.

Accordingly, the human profile of individual Asian American groups has undergone dramatic changes. For example, until the early 1960s, the vast majority of the Chinese in America were Cantonese from South China and their U.S.-born descendants; Filipinos were mainly migrant farm workers from Luzon Island. By contrast, Chinese Americans today include immigrants from all over China, Taiwan and Hong Kong, as well as ethnic Chinese from Southeast Asia. The arrival of large numbers of Filipino nurses has significantly changed the demographic and socioeconomic structure of the Filipino American community.

The effect of such diversified immigration on Asian American studies is many fold. The rapid growth of their population has greatly boosted Asian American political and economic power, which has had important academic consequences. Since Asian Pacific Americans are the largest or fastest-growing minority on most U.S. campuses, their strong interest in Asian American studies helps build the discipline at a time when financial difficulty constrains curriculum development in most academic fields.

But diversity can also spawn conflicting interests and a sense of separateness in Asian American communities. A Hmong refugee and a medical doctor from Punjab may feel they share little in their backgrounds. Furthermore, as newcomers, they tend to maintain close relations with their homelands in Asia. Their interest in events in their old countries have distracted the domestic focus of the Asian American movement and sometimes even damaged community unity. As the controversy among Chinese Americans over last spring's China-Taiwan confrontation shows, the involvement of Asian immigrants in the politics of their native lands makes it difficult to organize them into an effective and coherent force to combat anti-Asian racism in American society.

That Asian Americans are a predominantly immigrant community underscores the need for Asian American studies to emphasize instruction in Asian languages and U.S.-Asia relations. For example, a course such as "America's Chinatowns," focusing only on the Chinese in this country, could be broadened to include how the historical relations between the United States and China affected Chinese Americans.

Since so many Asian immigrants speak their mother tongues, it is impossible to understand their experiences without knowing their languages. According to the 1990 Census, about 80% of Chinese Americans, both overseas- and native-born, speak some Chinese at home. The situation is similar in other Asian American groups like the Korean and Vietnamese. The fact that most jobs in Asian American community organizations require proficiency in an Asian language shows just how relevant Asian languages are in Asian American life.

More significant, incorporating U.S.-Asia relations into Asian American studies could help Asians uncover their "buried past" and reconstruct a shared communality for a new pan-Asian American ethnicity. For example, despite differences in their backgrounds, Asian immigrants all served, at one time or another, as "cheap" yet valuable labor for the development of the U.S. economy.

The rise of an industrialized Asia and the formation of the transpacific economic network have further enlarged the role of U.S.-Asia relations in Asian American life. This is manifested in the phenomenal growth of Asian-owned businesses in the United States and the expansion of U.S. companies into Asia. The result is that a disproportionately large number of Asian Americans, both immigrant and native-born, are now employed in Asia-related jobs at home and abroad. Such a pattern of transpacific migration, increasingly popular among Asian Americans, may help create a bicontinental identity that transcends individual Asian ethnicities.

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