Friday, November 7, 2014

Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People by Helen Zia

I was talking to a colleague who said she loved this book because it captured her conflicted identity growing up in America as an Asian who had no voice in government. She's an activist like Helen Zia. She tells a great story of her high school principal asking her at lunch one day how he could get the Chinese, Koreans, and white students to not eat separately. My colleague suggested to the principal to organize field trips. "Friendships are formed out of the classroom and the principal took me up on my idea." She used it as a small example of one person making a difference in her world of cultural divisions. I would have liked Zia to pepper her story with more hope-filled examples like my colleague's; particularly in the beginning. I felt bad that Zia had so many negative experiences and was a bit exhausted plowing through it all. Unfortunately, that was her reality.  Her book is meant to shock people into action by the injustices suffered by minority groups such as Koreans, Japanese, Filipinos, Chinese, and Asian-Indians. It is a history of the politicization of Asians in America.

I just read Native American Tim Tingle's book called, How I became a Ghost, and he explains the first time he told the story of the Trail of Tears to a mostly white audience. He said that the first row stood up and left right away because he told about all the horrors and injustices that happened at the get-go. He changed the story to the viewpoint of a ten-year-old boy and presented a loving Native American family and rich culture, drawing the listener into the story. Later, he punched the audience between the eyes with the injustices and oppression white men inflicted on his Nation. Once he changed the tone and lured the audience into the story, he explained, they stopped walking out on him. Zia's book jumps immediately into the horrors and injustices that made me think of the white people that got up and left Tingle's talk. I wondered if white people abandoned Zia's book after the first few chapters. If you feel that way, I encourage you to not set it down.

Zia uses personal narratives at the beginning of the chapters but she can be heavy-handed at times. But I'm a white person and outsider who did not grow up poor, so my perspective is different. Or maybe her accusations toward white oppressors made me feel defensive and I need to take a harder look at my own biases. That is why I mentioned my Asian colleague at the start. She respectfully disagreed with me when I said the start of the book turned me off. She told me I couldn't understand the Asian plight because I was white. She's right. I don't. But I'm trying. Even living overseas as a minority, I get an idea but it isn't the same experience because I know I am a foreigner who will leave Taiwan and go back to America. As an expat, I don't vote. I don't speak the language. I don't pay taxes. I'm American, not Taiwanese. Asian Americans feel the same way. America is their country. They need a voice. They do vote. They do pay taxes. We had a good dialogue. Perhaps that is the strength of this book. It opens communication between different cultures, which is a cornerstone to building respect and understanding.

Zia came to our school and her speaking was more of what I wanted in her book that was written in 2000. She explained historically how cultures clash and their differences lead to conflict. Her book shows how groups overcome those conflicts. Major events in history show discrimination and hate crimes against different Asian groups. Many of these events correlate with global financial crises such as the recession in 1882 that resulted in high levels of unemployment and layoffs. The Chinese were blamed at the time for the bad economy. Thousands were driven out of America and many murdered. The government passed The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that was the beginning of a ban on Chinese immigrants that lasted sixty years. The United States enacted a discriminatory law against a particular ethnic group for the first time ever.

One hundred years later a similar incident occurred with the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit, Michigan. Chin, a Chinese man, was murdered on the night of his bachelor party because some white auto workers blamed the Japanese for the loss of auto jobs. With unemployment at 16%, people were looking for scapegoats. On the night of his death, the auto workers thought Chin was Japanese and got in a fight with him at a bar. Chin left with a friend and the men tracked him down, bludgeoning him to death in a parking lot. The recession of 1982 resulted from a global oil and energy crisis. American cars got about 5-10 miles to the gallon. Oil had gone from 20 cents a gallon to 4 dollars a gallon and American cars were gas guzzlers. The American auto industry collapsed as people bought more fuel efficient Japanese cars. Many people unjustly blamed Japan for the problem and the young engineer, Vincent Chin, became a victim of a hate crime.

The white men arrested for Chin's murder were given such light sentences that it caused the Asian community to band together as an organization, initiating the pan-Asian American movement. The killers served no jail time and the Asians knew that if Chin was white the killers would have gone to jail. Journalist Helen Zia and lawyer Liza Chan knew that they couldn't do anything after the sentence was handed down locally, so they brought federal charges against the white men saying that they violated Chin's civil rights. The man who swung the baseball bat at Chin's head killing him was sentenced to jail by a federal judge.

The book is full of major events that has resulted in the politicization of Asians: The Japanese Internment of 1942, The Immigration Act of 1965, Wards Cove vs. Atonio in 1989, Miss Saigon in 1991, the Los Angeles Riots in 1992, Hawaiian lawsuits for marriage equality in 1993, and Wen Ho Lee's wrongful imprisonment in 1999. Zia's book isn't limited to race, she dips into gender and sexuality as well. I actually liked the book more when the topic was broadened. The American Dream is the ethos for the United States. It is rooted in the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal. The ideal means that the opportunity to work hard and succeed is available to all. It can only happen if inequalities are exposed for what they are and Zia does just that in her book. While this book should make Asians feel proud and visible, it might make Caucasians feel bad or uncomfortable. This is necessary to break down discriminatory barriers and create a culture that truly strives for the American dream.

4 Smileys

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