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Sunday, Oct. 14, 2001

Flash points along the road to recognition

ASIAN AMERICAN DREAMS: The Emergence of an American People, by Helen Zia. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, 319 pp., $26.00 (cloth)

The book to read to get up to speed on Asian and Pacific Island Americans (APAs) is Helen Zia's "Asian American Dreams." Part personal memoir, part history, part social and political analysis, "Dreams" recounts the past 30 years of Asian-American history through a discussion of defining moments for individual groups and for Asian America.

Zia, who has been, among other things, an auto-worker in Detroit and a magazine editor, is a journalist and activist whose political views and commitments were formed during the late 1960s and early '70s, when the Asian-American movement began calling for racial equality and political empowerment. Her narrative of the recent past is that of the conflict historian: Change or at least the potential for meaningful change emerges from flash points, moments that bring into focus tensions, conflicts of values and loyalties.

A chain of these moments over the past few decades has led to a self-defining process for Asians in the United States. Zia's book is organized to demonstrate how, through this process, "we were reclaiming our stake in a land and a history that excluded us."

For 100 years, from the 1850s to the 1950s, laws and court decisions discriminated against Asian-Americans, the only group of immigrants permanently ineligible for citizenship. An act passed in 1882 that prohibited Chinese immigration was followed by the exclusion of Japanese migrants in the 1920s. Alien land laws in the western states prevented Asians from owning (eventually from even leasing) land, and during the Pacific War, Japanese-Americans, two-thirds of them citizens born in America, were forcibly removed from their homes and put in internment camps.

One harmful result of this past has been that APAs have been slow to stake political claims, to organize within and among their various communities and to make their views heard in the wider society. "Dreams" tells the story of the frustratingly slow and sometimes painful attempts to reverse this tendency.

Three complex situations between 1982 and 1990 highlight these difficulties. The murder of Vincent Chin, who was beaten to death in Detroit in 1982 by two disgruntled Caucasian autoworkers who thought he was Japanese, and the three-year suspended sentence his killers subsequently received caused outrage in the Chinese-American community and led to the formation of American Citizens for Justice, Asian America's first national grassroots advocacy organization. A long civil-rights suit against Chin's killers ultimately failed but was important in bringing APAs together.

However, the long boycott of the Red Apple Market in Brooklyn by blacks following an incident in which a young black woman claimed to have been beaten by the store's owner ended in the breakdown of communication between Koreans and African-Americans and the failure of pan-Asian alliances.

APA actors' protests against the opening of "Miss Saigon" in New York and their efforts to get an Asian-American actor hired, or even given an audition, for the part of the Engineer, one of the lead roles, also had disappointing results, but were instrumental in raising awareness of continuing discrimination in employment as well as in the way Asians are portrayed in the arts and media.

In the detailed unfolding of these and other events -- notably the convoluted 20-year court cases brought by Filipino workers against the Alaskan salmon canneries, the 1991 murder of Latasha Harlins (a young black woman who was shot by a Korean store owner for trying to steal a can of juice) and the Los Angeles riots that followed soon after -- a number of lessons emerge for Asian-American communities and for the nation.

One such lesson involves the fact that, as Zia repeatedly notes, the majority of Asians in the U.S. are foreign-born, having entered the country as beneficiaries of a 1965 law that eased immigration restrictions on Asians, or as refugees following the Vietnam War. A variety of cultural factors have led to increased misunderstanding between these more recent arrivals and both non-Asian groups and more established APAs. In the boycott and demonstrations against the Red Apple Market and in the L.A. riots, for example, African-Americans accused Korean shop owners of disrespecting them.

Zia believes that neither group has made enough of an effort to understand the other; the shopkeepers do not relate to their black customers, and the blacks do not understand behaviors that are not disrespectful in a Korean context. More, and more meaningful, conversation is essential.

For Zia, the most important lesson of the past three decades has been that the moral high ground is not enough in American politics. Her personal struggle against the Confucian beliefs of her family paralleled the efforts of Asian-Americans to come together and become more visible in society. They have done this by slowly but steadily organizing in their ethnic communities, building pan-Asian coalitions and increasing their participation in mainstream politics and society.

Zia's comprehensive study is at once unnerving and inspiring, a smart and sympathetic account of the emergence of an American people.

William Clark is an associate professor of American Studies at Temple University Japan.

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