Thoughts on “The Making of Asian America” & What I Didn’t Learn in School

It’s still May, the month of my people, and I am late to the game with my thoughts after reading Erika Lee’s The Making of Asian America.

If you are Asian American you should read the book. It covers generations of Asian, American history that will teach you what our school textbooks didn’t and what our family stories couldn’t due to gaps in language, culture, information, and access.

If you aren’t Asian American you should read the book. It covers generations of American history that will teach you what our school textbooks didn’t, mainly that Asian Americans have been a part of U.S. history since the 1500s.

For example things I didn’t learn in school:

  1. During the Japanese internment the government enacted a loyalty review program where draft-age males were asked if they would be willing to serve in combat duty with the US armed forces and if they would be willing to “swear unqualified allegiance to the United States of America.” (p. 238) Our government incarcerated them and then asks them to prove their loyalty by using them in combat. (Oh, and why weren’t Germans rounded up and incarcerated?)
  2. U.S. Census data confirms Asian Americans are overrepresented on both ends of the educational and socioeconomic spectrum of privilege AND poverty. (p. 376)
  3. Did you learn about the Black Panthers in school? How about I Wor Kuen, the largest revolutionary organization aligned with the Black Panther movement.
  4. African Americans weren’t the only ones who were prohibited from giving testimony in cases involving a white person. Chinese immigrants and Native Americans also could not be believed. (p. 92)
  5. South Asians who had been naturalized citizens were also denaturalized in the 1920s. (p. 172)

I recall learning a little bit about the Korean Conflict, the Japanese Internment, and the Vietnam War. I don’t know about you but those were the units that made me a bit uncomfortable as one of the few if not only Asian American in the classroom when these were being discussed because when you’re one of a few if not the only one in the classroom people look at you like you were the reason America went to war when really America’s best interests were to go to war which included everyone in that room. And it was as if those history units gave the racist classmates permission to say ugly, unAmerican things to me.

The book made me stop to think about what I knew and thought I knew about my family’s immigration story and how that has impacted my understanding of who I am, uniquely and powerfully created in God’s image. It made me consider how I have too often been quick to judge my parents’ generation for a litany of wrongs without fully understanding the context of their journeys both here in the U.S. and “home” in the motherland. It made me think about how their stories and they themselves too are created in God’s image. Lee’s book reminded me that I ought to be quick to listen and slow to speak, especially when it comes to understanding how my parents’ and earlier generations’ stories are also part of God’s story.

The book was also published to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, the very piece of legislation that made it possible for me and my family to immigrate to the U.S. in 1971. History I had not learned in school is what made it possible for me to read this book and write this blog in English while still connecting to my Korean roots knowing what it means to be an alien, a stranger in a foreign land even when I am “home.”

Towards the end of the book there were two quotes that comfort and challenge me as one who sits in the tension of privilege as a college-educated upper middle-class, heterosexual, cisgender, married, and documented & naturalized citizen and racism and sexism I experience as a Korean American woman in Christian/evangelical circles.

“Historian Franklin Odo argues that the model minority label ‘encourages Asian Americans to endure contemporary forms of racism without complaint and to provide brave and loyal service above and beyond that required of other Americans.’…

Musician Vijay Iyer goes further: privileged and unquestioning Asian Americans have become ‘complicit’ in their acceptance of ongoing American inequality.” The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee p. 380.

For my dear Asian American readers, what are your stories of enduring, swallowing, dismissing, forgetting racism and how has that impacted the way you engage with contemporary justice movements? Do you see yourself as complicit in the ongoing American inequality? What are the ways in which you question inequality?

For my dear non-Asian American readers, what behaviors and beliefs might you need to reconsider as you learn about Asian American history and the ways in which the United States’ past greatness was built on racism? How might you also be complicit in the the ongoing American inequality? What are the ways in which you question inequality?

And for my readers of all racial and ethnic backgrounds who share the intersection of Christian faith, how does Jesus challenge our understanding of persecution, persecuting, and systemic injustice?

 

 

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