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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

August 31, 2010

Written by C.N.

Best Asian American Documentaries (Part 1)

As the new academic year starts for many colleges around the country, like many professors, I am busy preparing to teach my courses. In my case, I usually teach two courses in the fall semester: “The Asian American Experience” (a ‘conventional’ classroom course with 40 students) and “Bridging Asia and Asian America” (a once-a-week, two-hour colloquium with 30 students, taught in the lounge of one of the residence halls). While these two courses are distinct, obviously there is a lot of overlap in terms of examining the histories and experiences of Asian Americans and their connections back to Asia.

With that in mind, I would like to share my list of films, videos, and documentaries that I think are good choices for showing in introductory Asian American Studies classes (the videos are most suited for college and advanced high school courses). As the study of Asian Americans continues to grow, hopefully instructors of these kind of courses and others interested in Asian Americans in general will find this list useful.

The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Asian American Experience” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary (or for some topics, two or more) that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that I consider to be good choices for that topic as well.

Basic Concepts: The Racialized Landscape

In this first section of the course, I lay out the sociological framework and institutional nature of the U.S.’s racial/ethnic landscape into which Asian Americans fit. I focus on how, contrary to historical and contemporary ideals of being “colorblind,” American society has been and continues to be highly racialized and how social institutions reinforce and perpetuate racial distinctions.

  • The Color of Fear: Made in 1992, this video is “just” a group of men from various racial backgrounds sitting around talking about race, but their words sharply illustrate many of the basic and also subtle ways in which racialization gets played out on the individual level and ultimately highlights the failures of trying to be colorblind.
  • White Like Me/em>: An excellent documentary that focuses on the life and work of anti-racism activist and author Tim Wise and how he tries to address ongoing racism int he U.S. by trying to get White Americans to see how racism affects them and their everyday lives.
  • Race: Power of an Illusion
  • Race, the World’s Most Dangerous Myth
  • Understanding Race

Immigration and Settlement

In this section, I describe the history of Asian immigration to the U.S., how the 1965 Immigration Act has impacted the current demographics of the Asian American population, and the dynamics of Asian American ethnic communities, from the first urban Chinatowns to emerging suburban enclaves like Little Saigon.

Assimilation and Ethnic Identity

This section explores the multidimensional and multi-level process of assimilation and ethnic identity formation. I discuss how these ideas involve more than just acculturation, how ideas of what it means to be an American have evolved through the years, and how these dynamics play out among adopted and mixed-race Asian Americans.

  • Daughter From Danang: This critically-acclaimed documentary chronicles the experiences of an Amerasian from Viet Nam who was adopted by a White mother and her journey back to reconnect with her birth family in Viet Nam. Along the way, she comes to some powerful and painful realizations about her identity.
  • Wo Ai Ni Mommy: Another critically-acclaimed documentary that focuses on the assimilation of adopted Asian Americans by, in this particular case, following the adoption and adjustment of an seven-year old (older than most Asian adoptees) girl from China by a White American family on Long Island, New York. Illuminating, touching, and very thought-provoking.
  • Banana Split
  • First Person Plural
  • Sentenced Home
  • Passing Through
  • Refugee
  • From a Different Shore: The Japanese-American Experience
  • Who is Albert Woo?
  • Yellow Tale Blues
  • No Turning Back

Women, Gender, and Family

Emphasizing the histories, experiences, challenges, and contributions of Asian American women, I highlight their paths of immigration into American society and the contemporary and often contradictory pressures they face, from familial expectations, to academic success, to dealing with exoticization and “yellow fever.”

  • Never Perfect: This video portrait follows a young Vietnamese American woman and her decision to have eyelid surgery. In between, it highlights the historical and contemporary pressures on how Asian American women are expected to look and behave.
  • Seeking Asian Female: This very personal documentary was created by Debbie Lum as she tries to explore the “Yellow Fever” fetishization of Asian women. She does so by profiling a White American man and a Chinese woman and the ups and downs of their relationship.
  • Slaying the Dragon
  • Quiet Passages
  • Good for Her
  • Miss India Georgia
  • Knowing Her Place
  • A Life Without Fear

The Model Minority Image

This section examines the origins of Asian Americans portrayed as the “model minority” and in what ways a seemingly “positive” stereotype is true and beneficial to Asian Americans, and how it also distorts the reality of life for many of us as it overgeneralizes and carelessly lumps all Asian Americans together.

  • Linsanity: The Movie: As the title implies, it focuses on jeremy Lin’s rise to meteoric rise to superstardom and into popular American culture. In the process, it describes the ups and downs of his amateur and professional career and is an interesting look into how he both reinforces and challenges model minority notions of Asian Americans.
  • “The Governor” segment of Searching for Asian America: This segment of the Searching for Asian America video features Gary Locke and his victory as Governor of Washington state in 1992 and how his personal story both reinforces and contradicts the model minority image.
  • aka Don Bonus
  • Whatever It Takes
  • The Story of Vinh
  • Kelly Loves Tony
  • Another America
  • Wet Sand

Work and Employment

How do Asian Americans differ in terms in terms of their occupational and employment success? I analyze two different aspects of that question in this section — glass ceiling barriers that many Asian Americans still confront in the workplace and secondly, how many choose to bypass those hurdles altogether by owning their own small business.

  • Patsy Mink: Ahead of the Majority: An excellent profile and biography of the remarkable and irrepressible Patsy Mink. It follows the trials and tribulations of her life and career and how she overcame each successive challenge and glass ceiling barrier that she encountered on the way to becoming one of the most beloved, respected, and revered Asian Americans ever.
  • Labor Women: This documentary profiles three young Asian American women who work as labor organizers in the Los Angeles area and in the process, fight against the traditional patriarchal notions of women’s work in their communities while forging important ties to other communities of color.
  • “Outsourcing” episode of 30 Days
  • Nalini by Day, Nancy by Night
  • “Oklahoma Home” segment of Searching for Asian America
  • Roots in the Sand
  • Punjabi Cab
  • Taxi Vala

Part 2 of my list of best documentaries about Asian Americans will focus on videos relating to discrimination & racism, interracial relationships, faith, spirituality, & religion, sexuality & creative expression, social movements & collective action, and emerging issues in the 21st century.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "Best Asian American Documentaries (Part 1)" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2010/08/best-asian-american-documentaries-1/> ().

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