With many of us sheltering-in-place or at risk in essential job functions, Asian Pacific American Heritage Month hits differently this year. The continued COVID-19 scapegoating (re)produces racial tensions across the United States, resulting in acts of violence, hate, and discrimination against Asian Americans. In this moment, it is more vital than ever to turn to Asian American history — often unrecorded and censored by hegemonic American lore — to recognize the legacy of racial oppression, exclusion, and antagonism as well as highlight our successes and survival (at times, even at the expense of others).
I strongly recommend that you watch “Asian Americans.” All five hours of it. If you have never heard of “the bamboo ceiling,” “paper sons,” or Vincent Chin, take a seat. If you know Daniel Inouye, but not Patsy Mink, strap on in. If you think Angel Island in San Francisco is merely the Ellis Island of the west, you are deeply mistaken. Director Renee Tajima-Peña, a UCLA professor in Asian American studies, gathers Asian American scholars, descendants, and cultural creators to tell our story. Daniel Dae Kim, the first Asian American celebrity to publicly address the violence of COVID-19 scapegoating, fittingly co-narrates the docuseries with Japanese-American actor Tamlyn Tomita.
Over the course of five riveting episodes, the docuseries covers 150 years of history, making connections between and beyond Asian American populations. Celebratory, vulnerable, and honest, “Asian Americans” does not shy away from the exploitation and loss of life we have experienced (e.g. the Chinese men who built the western end of the transcontinental railroad), nor the pain we have been complicit in, such as the Vietnam War. Moving beyond the stereotypical representation of only east Asians as Asian, the documentary shines a light on figures like the 19th century Moksad Ali, a Bengali Muslim trader, and his 21st century African American descendants as well as American Muslims subjugated to Islamophobia in a post-9/11 United States.
While the docuseries is visionary in its broad and accurate representation of Asian ethnicities, there is a lack of reflection regarding the panethnic label “Asian American,” leaving the question of what makes us a collective to the closing sequence of the final episode. Staying true to chronological order allows for viewers to witness the ebbs and flows as Asians settle and make America their homes.
In the first episode, “Breaking Ground,” we are introduced to Asian American arrivals Antero Cabrera, a 12-year-old Filipino taken and displayed at the World Fair as a “savage” Igorot villager; the above-mentioned Moksad Ali; and Joseph and Mary Tape, one of the first Chinese American families. While this approach taps into the kind of diversity that the first Asian American organizers aspired to, the average viewer may not immediately recognize these seemingly disparate threads as different waves in a single ocean. By not starting with an introduction to the panethnic categorization of Asian American as an identity created in 1968 in order to promote solidarity among Asians with other people of color, the production downplays in-group tensions, risks essentialization rather than promoting collective memory, and leverages model minority privilege.
When push comes to shove, discrimination between Asian Americans is a side note, left unresolved; colorism and classism between Asian communities is never addressed. A great starting point that recovers the story of Asian America, the docuseries hesitates to answer: What makes us all Asian Americans?
Tajima-Peña Holds Us Accountable
Filled with strong narrative arches, “Asian Americans” holds viewers through the good, bad and the ugly. The choice to include other people of color as an integral part of our story is radically refreshing. For instance, after decades of exclusion, Asian Americans rise to the status of “model minority” in the 1950s. Immediately mentioned is how that title produces a further marginalization of Black families and communities. We are not held on a pedestal and instead, held accountable.
In 1949, after 40 years of American occupation, the colonized nation of Hawaii was recognized as the 50th state of the union. Asian Americans, who immigrated to Hawaii to work low wage plantation jobs, rejoice as Daniel Inouye and his compatriots launch themselves into delegated Congress seats, the first state to present a majority of Asian Americans. Patsy Mink, the first woman of color elected to Congress, co-authors Title IX to protect all women from unequal treatment. A moment of celebration to be sure, but the episode titled “Good Americans” does not let us rest on those laurels, instead asking: Should Hawaii, a sovereign state, have been claimed to begin with or returned their independence, like the annexed Philippines was? Was statehood wanted by Native Hawaiians? By campaigning for statehood, Asian Americans in Hawaii overlooked the indigenous population in exchange for greater political power and played into the agenda of American imperialism.
During the Vietnam War, patriotic Asian American soldiers found themselves face to face with an enemy that looked just like them, leaving these men scarred by this realization. And while the majority of those who died in Vietnam were Asian, Hollywood narratives to this day center white trauma, heroism, and sacrifice in the war; the only Asian faces represented belonging to communists perpetrating violence or dying at the hands of Rambo. Pulitzer-prize winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen recalls growing up in the San Francisco Bay Area as a refugee family, shedding a tear as he recalls his parents being shot in their store on Christmas Eve.
Violence against Asian Americans is given space throughout the documentary and connected to the larger system of violence against people of color.
In “Breaking Through,” the fifth episode, Tajima-Peña tackles the story of Vincent Chin with grace and gusto. She did after all co-produce and co-direct the Academy Award nominated “Who Killed Vincent Chin?” (1987). In 1982, Vincent Chin, living in Detroit, a city rapidly in decline due to Asian car imports, was followed and murdered by an unemployed father-son duo. One of them, Ronald Ebins is rightly convicted but only serves three years probation and pays a $3,000 fine. The judge claims, “These aren’t the kind of men you send to prison.” We are reminded that a hundred years prior, in 1892, one could get off for the crime of lynching a “China man” by paying a dollar.
African American activists stood with Lily Chin, Vincent’s mother, but Asian Americans failed to — and still do not — return the favor in kind.
Picture South Los Angeles in 1991: nearly 70% of stores are owned by Korean immigrants. In March of that year, Rodney King is brutally murdered in the streets by LAPD. The Black community is angered by the acquittal of the police officers. Three years after Chin’s murder, the similarities are striking, but the opportunity to unite is missed.
Tajima-Peña does not flinch in naming Latasha Harlins: a 15-year-old girl shot by Soon Ja Du, a Korean convenience store owner, 13 days after King’s death. Asian American professor Alex Fabros and African American historian Brenda Stevenson break down the 1992 LA Riots: Korean shopkeepers were painfully unaware of the history behind the liberties made accessible to them because African Americans’ fight for civil rights. In the wake of King’s and Harlin’s murder, Koreatown is left to simmer in Asian and Black tensions, heightened by the media rounds that rile up antagonism between Korean store owners and the grieving African American community.
These wounds still blister.
Asian Americans Are More Alike Than Unlike
The model minority myth is often readily embraced by newer immigrants who are able to bring their families to the United States on account of their skills. Nevertheless, Asian American stereotypes entrench us no matter when we arrive. Despite being the fastest growing demographic in the United States, in the eyes of European American settler colonists, we will always just have arrived.
In the 1990s, my immigrant mother got, “Go home to where you came from.” As a first-generation American-born Chinese woman, I get the less aggressive, “Where are you from?” Yet among people of color, Asian Americans are becoming increasingly suspect. Just the other day I was asked if I identify as a person of color, which makes sense in a time where groups of Asian Americans call affirmative action admissions discriminatory and file lawsuits against Harvard. Flashback to 50 years ago, when we stood alongside Latinx and African American students. The identity category Asian American was used for the first time in order to energize solidarity with Black student unions in the Third World Strike.
In a time where we celebrate “Crazy Rich Asians” and greater media representation, the docuseries reminds us how early Hollywood films featured both blackface and yellowface performances. Different legacies, but a similar agenda. Blackface was born from the minstrel show and is a reminder of inhumanity American slaves faced.
Yellowface stemmed from a fear of cheap immigrant labor. On screen, Asian women were depicted as domicile, sacrificially suicidal, or conniving, and Asian men were villains. White actors routinely portrayed Asian characters, many using face tape to mimic a “chinky” eye. One of the only Asian actors of her time, Anna May Wong was denied the lead role in the highly acclaimed 1937 film “The Good Earth,” a story about the survival of Chinese farmers.
The similarities in discriminatory treatment proliferate: first-generation Asian Americans in San Francisco are subjected to segregated public schools and neighborhoods display signs reading “No Chinese allowed.” Coverage of Japanese concentration camps follows activist Satsuki Ina, from her birth in Tule Lake Segregation Center during WWII to today as she leads strikes at detention camps currently holding migrant children.
In the 1960s, Filipinos working the fields of central California move to strike, but are easily replaced by Mexican laborers. Instead of turning against one another, Larry Itliong and the Filipino manongs team up with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to create the United Farm Workers. Over the course of 5 years, the Delano grape boycott becomes a national movement. What is happening in California mirrors the civil rights movement.
What does it mean to be American?
In total, “Asian Americans,” the docuseries, teeters between recognizing pivotal moments of solidarity between people of color and privileging Asian success in a rigged system. Tajima-Peña works hard to point us toward liberation in solidarity with others, but still privileges the American dream, the laboring Asian, and fails to recognize the pitfalls in continuing those neoliberal and capitalist agendas.
Fighting the role of the perpetual foreigner, Asian Americans yearn for acceptance, digging their heels in deep to claim the title “American.” The documentary makes it a point to say that Asian American civil rights is about immigration and naturalization rights. This perspective neglects how Asian Americans connect to the places their families originate from and paints the immigration story as a journey of progress and liberty from orientalized and poverty-stricken lands.
When will we stop proliferating the myth that America is the land of opportunity? When will we address that our success comes at the oppression of others? Who are Asian Americans trying to find belonging with? By not addressing these crucial questions, we perpetuate hegemonic American standards, such as the two-parent household, the fairness of meritocracy, and ableist individualism, elements which form the foundation of anti-Blackness, anti-immigration laws, and other forms of racial hate and discrimination.
In the middle of the final installment, Viet Thanh Nguyen eloquently summarizes our predicament: “Asian Americans have choices to make. They can dwell on their own victimization. […] They can choose to side with power or to be complicit with power and to be perpetrators. Or at least, enjoy the profits of being aligned with perpetrators. Or they could refuse these choices and choose to transform the system into something more just, more equitable for everyone.”
Yet the series ends by reflecting on the endless range of possibilities that Asian Americans have today. Closing with the claim: “That is the story of America and that is the story of Asian America.”
Conflating America with the Asian American is a dangerous proposition. We cannot claim liberty simply because our people’s experiences run the gamut of the rags-to-riches myth — i.e. from undocumented immigrants to Silicon Valley tech titans. It is time that we acknowledge that our neoliberal mindsets hurt others.
“From Wong to Lee, it is not stories of how Asians become Americans, but how Asians shape America,” Tajima-Peña comments.
I fear that we are shaping America to white standards of success. As the fastest growing racial grouping, we must be cautious not to leverage our panethnic identity in the name of power, as whiteness is used by the European American settlers. Does this mean setting limits on our claims to Americanness? Yes, and it means we clearly define which America we want to live in.
More contemporarily, the pressing questions are: How will COVID-19 register in the annals of Asian American history? Will we recognize the Filipina nurses put at risk day in and day out in Los Angeles? Will we brush off the in-group racism (i.e. other Asians differentiating themselves as not Chinese, while white political leaders scapegoat Chinese people around the world) allowing it to happen again?
We need to embrace the fact that the identity “Asian American” was one fought for and not bestowed. In the future, we might need to recognize that the identity is not one that works for our goals. Let us keep in mind this definition of Asian American brought to us by Caitlin Yoshiko Kandil in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Asian American student coalition: “a radical label of self-determination that indicated a political agenda of equality, anti-racism and anti-imperialism.” In choosing to be Asian American, we must proactively choose what we stand for and who we stand with.
Catch “Asian Americans” in celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month streaming on PBS until June 8. The comprehensive 5-part documentary series co-produced by Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and WETA spans “150 years of immigration, racial politics, international relations and cultural innovation.” Watch here and hashtag #AsianAmPBS.