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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.

May 31, 2010

Written by C.N.

New Books: Diverse Forms of Asian American Heritage

As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.

As we prepare to close May as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, the following recently released books describe a wide and interesting range of experiences, contributions, and legacies that are part of Asian American heritage, and how this heritage fits into the larger American mainstream.

Asian Americans in the Twenty-First Century: Oral Histories of First- to Fourth-Generation Americans from China, Japan, India, Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam, and Laos, by Joann Lee (New Press)

Asian American Oral Histories, by Joann Lee

The collective term “Asian American” comprises more than twenty distinct nationalities and ethnic groups, and today there are more than 12 million Asian Pacific Americans living in the United States. In this all-new collection of fascinating interviews with students, lawyers, engineers, politicians, stay-at-home moms, and activists, Joann Faung Jean Lee again draws upon her great skill and sensitivity as a journalist to reveal a rich mosaic of Asian American identities.

We hear a range of voices: Dale Minami recounts his historic involvement in a landmark legal case that changed the way America understands the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II; Ruby Chow remembers how she used her position as a beloved restaurateur to launch a successful campaign for county councilwoman in Seattle, Washington; and Daniel Jung speaks of the complexities of African American and Korean relations in Los Angeles, where his father owned a liquor store when Daniel was a teenager in the 1990s.

Candid and compelling, the interviews reveal intimate and often conflicting thoughts about Asian American identities, immigration, family, relationships, and educational and professional achievement.

Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today, edited by Edith Wen-Chu Chen and Grace J. Yoo (Greenwood Press)

Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today, edited by Chen and Yoo

Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today is the first major reference work focused on the full expanse of contemporary Asian American experiences in the United States. Drawing on over two decades of research, it takes an unprecedented look at the major issues confronting the Asian American community as a whole, and the specific ethnic identities within that community — from established groups such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans to newer groups such as Cambodian and Hmong Americans.

Across two volumes, Encyclopedia of Asian American Issues Today offers 110 entries on the current state of affairs, controversies, successes, and outlooks for future for Asian Americans. The set is divided into 11 thematic sections including diversity and demographics; education; health; identity; immigrants, refugees, and citizenship; law; media; politics; war; work and economy; youth, family, and the aged. Contributors include leading experts in the fields of Asian American studies, education, public health, political science, law, economics, and psychology.

The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles, by Scott Kurashige (Princeton University Press)

Shifting Grounds of Race, by Scott Kurashige

Los Angeles has attracted intense attention as a “world city” characterized by multiculturalism and globalization. Yet, little is known about the historical transformation of a place whose leaders proudly proclaimed themselves white supremacists less than a century ago. In The Shifting Grounds of Race, Scott Kurashige highlights the role African Americans and Japanese Americans played in the social and political struggles that remade twentieth-century Los Angeles.

Linking paradigmatic events like Japanese American internment and the Black civil rights movement, Kurashige transcends the usual “black/white” dichotomy to explore the multiethnic dimensions of segregation and integration. Racism and sprawl shaped the dominant image of Los Angeles as a “white city.” But they simultaneously fostered a shared oppositional consciousness among Black and Japanese Americans living as neighbors within diverse urban communities.

Kurashige demonstrates why African Americans and Japanese Americans joined forces in the battle against discrimination and why the trajectories of the two groups diverged. Connecting local developments to national and international concerns, he reveals how critical shifts in postwar politics were shaped by a multiracial discourse that promoted the acceptance of Japanese Americans as a “model minority” while binding African Americans to the social ills underlying the 1965 Watts Rebellion. Multicultural Los Angeles ultimately encompassed both the new prosperity arising from transpacific commerce and the enduring problem of race and class divisions.

This extraordinarily ambitious book adds new depth and complexity to our understanding of the “urban crisis” and offers a window into America’s multiethnic future.

Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South, by Leslie Bow (New York University Press)

Partly Colored, by Leslie Bow

Arkansas, 1943. The Deep South during the heart of Jim Crow-era segregation. A Japanese-American person boards a bus, and immediately is faced with a dilemma. Not white. Not black. Where to sit?

By elucidating the experience of interstitial ethnic groups such as Mexican, Asian, and Native Americans—groups that are held to be neither black nor white — Leslie Bow explores how the color line accommodated — or refused to accommodate — “other” ethnicities within a binary racial system. Analyzing pre- and post-1954 American literature, film, autobiography, government documents, ethnography, photographs, and popular culture, Bow investigates the ways in which racially “in-between” people and communities were brought to heel within the South’s prevailing cultural logic, while locating the interstitial as a site of cultural anxiety and negotiation.

Spanning the pre- to the post- segregation eras, Partly Colored traces the compelling history of “third race” individuals in the U.S. South, and in the process forces us to contend with the multiracial panorama that constitutes American culture and history.

Cultural Citizenship and Immigrant Community Identity: Constructing a Multi-Ethnic Asian American Community, by Hye-Kyung Kang (LFB Scholarly Publishing)

Cultural Citizenship and Immigrant Community Identity, by Hye-Kyung Kang

Kang explores cultural citizenship and immigrant community identity development in the International District (ID) of Seattle, WA. She investigates the particular social, political, and historical contexts within which a “multi-ethnic Asian American community” identity arose.

She finds that the ID as a subject is produced and sustained not through a singular identity but through multiple and contingent discourses of history, contribution, and change. Similarly, it is constructed through a constant processes of engagement, contestation and negotiation between the community and the various larger social and political structures of society, as well as among community members. The results suggest that it may be possible for immigrant subjects to alter the discourses that constitute them by generating counter-discourses.

Asian American Chronology: Chronologies of the American Mosaic, by Xiaojian Zhao (Greenwood Press)

Asian American Chronology, by Xiaojian Zhao

Understanding the history of Asians in America is key to understanding the development of America itself. Asian American Chronology: Chronologies of the American Mosaic presents the most influential events in Asian American history as well as key moments that have remained under the historical radar. This in-depth record covers events from the 18th century to the present day, including the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.

Entries, organized chronologically by category, allow readers to trace the development of Asian peoples and culture in the United States over time, including the role of Chinese labor in building railroads, the importation of Filipino slaves, labor strikes and civil rights issues, Japanese-American internment, women’s roles, literature, music, politics, and increased immigration in the mid-20th century.

In addition to these broad topics, the book also treats individual events from the Rock Springs Massacre to the Gold Rush to the current prevalence of Japanese players in Major League Baseball.


August 10, 2009

Written by C.N.

Young Hip-Hop Asians: Promoting Diversity or Stereotypes?

A reader sent me a link to a recent article from the Seattle Weekly that follows and describes in detail the late-night activities of young Asian American hip-hop club goers in the Seattle area. The article itself is relatively long and to understand the debate that I’m going to discuss below, you should read it in its entirety. Here are just a few excerpts:

Pham is Vietnamese. He’s invited several friends to his Tukwila townhome that Friday to pre-funk before going out to one of their favorite Seattle clubs: Venom. All the 20-somethings pre-funking at his house are also Asian—most of them Vietnamese or Cambodian. Almost every weekend, they hit up Venom, a Belltown dance club that draws a predominately Asian crowd. . . .

“I have some white friends who won’t even go [to Venom],” [22 year old Cambodian American Somealear] Mom says, laughing. “It’s too Asian for them. For us, it’s like family. Everybody knows each other there.”

That’s exactly what club promoters targeting the Asian demographic are going for. The nights that draw the most Asians are the ones that have a crowd within “two to three degrees of separation,” according to Tony Truong, managing partner of the Seattle office of Visionshock, the largest Asian-American nightlife company in the country. . . .

“Asians are like neon tetra fish—they travel in schools,” Truong says. “You always see masses of them together. Once you get the group leader to come, you get the entire group. Then you get the friends of people in that group, and so forth.”

The trend has become increasingly visible in Seattle’s Asian nightlife scene over the past several years. Promoter Nam Ho of Steady Productions organizes weekly parties at Venom, War Room, and Sea Sound Lounge—all notorious hot spots for Asian club-goers. He attributes the rise in popularity of these parties to the fact that Asians have long had to create their own nightlife scene.

“A lot of Asian-Americans that you see out there don’t go to a four-year university or have a scene they really fit into,” Ho explains. “They aren’t going to frat parties or dive bars or sports bars. But many of them have been born and raised here, so they’re incredibly in tune to the city. The club is a good comfort zone for them to go out with other Asian-Americans.”

It may be familiar territory now, but the club scene is a far cry from the atmosphere in which many of these 20-something Asians were raised. They grew up accustomed to having their strict first-generation parents forbid them from engaging in the social activities of their teenage peers. . . .

“Traditional Asian culture is very conservative. Our parents teach us to study hard and to work hard. They want us to be doctors or lawyers or to start families. Sometimes, they forget to teach us to live. That’s why Asians get extravagant at the bar. We’re constantly going out and pounding Grey Goose like there’s no tomorrow because we’re playing catch-up,” [Truong says].

As I said, the article includes many more details about the activities of these young Asian Americans, which as the article’s author writes, includes using the stereotype that all Asians look alike to get underage patrons into a club. Overall, the article spends a lot of time implicitly and explicitly focused on this “neon tetra fish” analogy — how young Asian Americans clustering together during the weekends has developed into this emerging trendy club scene in the Seattle area.

Therein lies the controversy. As illustrated by the readers’ comments at the end of it, this article seems to have unleashed a debate about whether it promotes racial/ethnic diversity by publicizing the real-life activities of an institutionally underrepresented ethnic group such as Asian Americans (particularly Vietnamese Americans) who have been traditionally ignored by the mainstream media, or whether the article promotes cultural stereotypes and a one-sided view of Asian Americans as clannish and materialistic alcoholics?

As a Vietnamese American myself who is also a sociologist specializing in Asian American Studies, I will first say that, at the risk of copping out, the answer is quite complicated and that ultimately, it does both.

On the one hand, I have to give the Seattle Weekly credit for doing a story that specifically profiles Asian Americans. It is indeed true that even in areas where Asian Americans are increasingly becoming more prominent demographically, politically, economically, and culturally, they are still frequently ignored by the mainstream media and other social institutions.

In other words, sadly we are still the “invisible minority” in a lot of areas of American society. With that in mind, articles like this at least show the rest of American society that in many ways, Asian Americans are just like everybody else — after a week of working hard at their jobs, we want to cut loose on the weekends, have a good time with our friends, and from time to time, indulge in some drinking and partying.

I also credit the article’s author for quoting the Vietnamese American party promoters and their observations that in many areas of mainstream American social life, Asian Americans have felt left out, unwelcomed, and even excluded. With that in mind, the party-goers in this article have sought to develop their own sense of community. In fact, their actions continue the long history of Asian Americans reacting to systematic discrimination by forging their own communities and institutions.

However, creating their own communities have paradoxically led to and perpetuated the stereotype that Asians are insular and cliquish and only want to hang out with “their own kind.” What this criticism doesn’t acknowledge however, is that Asian Americans had to associate within their own group because they were directly excluded from participating in mainstream American society in many cases. In other words, they had to choice but to cluster together.

Fast forward to today and we can recognize that almost all examples of direct, systematic segregation against Asian Americans are a thing of the past (although not entirely, at least when it comes to other groups of color). Nonetheless, in many instances where Asian Americans congregate together, we are still accused of being cliquish. The other point to consider is that in almost all cases, these young Asian Americans spend their entire workweek completely integrated and assimilated into mainstream American society. Nonetheless and sadly, old stereotypes are hard to kill.

So, like I said, I think that this article can serve a positive purpose in promoting the wider inclusion of Asian Americans in mainstream American society and to make other Americans think hard about this sociological question of what it means to hang out within your own ethnic/cultural group.

On the other hand, the picture that this particular article promotes may not be a positive one for the Asian American community. Specifically, a casual reader might read this article and come away with reinforced stereotypes that Asian Americans are like cliquish “neon tetra fish” as I just discussed, but also that we’re superficial and materialistic, closet alcoholics who can’t hold their liquor and like to relieve ourselves in parking lots, and/or that we all look alike.

That is exactly the drawback of this particular article — it presents only one picture, one example of Asian American life. In other words, it is only one set of observations about the Asian American community. But in its defense, it was not meant to be anything more than that — it was not intended to be a comprehensive portrayal of all Asian Americans, young Asian Americans, or even young Asian Americans in the Seattle area.

Nonetheless, the danger that some Americans will see this as representative of all Asian Americans is real.

In other words, the potential that this article will perpetuate stereotypes is especially pronounced precisely because Asian Americans have been and continue to be ignored by mainstream American media. Because of this exclusion, many Americans do not have a diverse picture of who Asian Americans are and therefore, are more likely to rely on the few images and portrayals that do exist, many of whom are rather biased or, at least with this particular article, unrepresentative of Asian Americans as a whole.

Like many portrayals of Asian American experiences, this article is a double-edge sword that can both help and harm our community.