Monday, February 25, 2008

(Lisa Leong) My People's History

Everything I learned about Asian Americans in my K-12 education can be summed up in one sentence: Chinese laborers built one half of the Transcontinental Railroad. I accepted that that was all there was. Here it was, my people’s greatest and sole contribution to the country: getting exploited.

I remember that the Chinese were good workers willing to risk their lives blowing up mountains to make way for train tracks. Some died from the dynamite blasts. They were well-behaved in contrast to the Irish workers who drank and gambled. Because of their diligence, the Chinese finished their half of the railroad before the Irish.

This is a pretty racist version of history to learn in the fourth grade. While the stereotyping of Irish people is obvious, the depiction of the Chinese laborers seems like a compliment. “Positive” stereotypes are deceptive like that. Good, diligent, and hard-working is the model minority stereotype about Asian Americans, which shades how elementary school kids learn Asian American history. Everyone who goes through the American education system gets the standardized version of U.S. history—from which Asian Americans are largely absent.

Asian American Studies gives the alternative to the standard curriculum. I re-learned about the Transcontinental Railroad in Asian American History class. I think my mouth fell open when the professor cited Ronald Takaki and told us that the Chinese railroad laborers organized a strike in 1867. They demanded the same wages and hours as the Irish laborers. What? I thought they sacrificed their lives setting off dynamite inside mountains so America would be the first to have a transcontinental railroad? Oh, this makes so much more sense.

Recovering this information reversed everything I knew about Asian Americans (my people!) from years of U.S. History—all one sentence of it. They weren’t entirely obedient. They contested their exploitation. The strike wasn’t successful, but they had fought back. I’m addicted to this empowering kind of information. I’ve been taking Asian American Studies for a year, and have had the privilege of getting five hundred thousand more sentences about Asian Americans (rough estimate).

The impact of Asian American Studies can be measured in much more than sentences, though. The Chinese railroad workers’ strike is just one example of how “forgotten” information can change our perceptions. Along with history, Asian American Studies covers literature, art, gender studies, politics, economics, everything we experience. It’s a way of learning about the world and my connection to it. In many ways, I’m learning how to be comfortable in my own skin, and I sense that my classmates feel the same way. There’s a feel-good buzz in Asian American Studies classes.

So when I heard about Harvard’s lack of Asian American Studies, it was kind of a buzzkill. I thought of all the Asian American students at Harvard who don’t get access to a source of empowerment. The students are protesting, rekindling the spirit of the 1980s movement, and asking the university to expand its scope of education. As the classic college institution, Harvard gets the newspaper headline, but Asian American Studies needs to grow everywhere. Half of all Asian American Studies undergraduate programs are in California and there are only two graduate degree programs (San Francisco State University and UCLA). Beyond the university system, I think that Asian American Studies should be more integrated with K-12 education.


Anonymous said...

Hello Lisa Leong, My name is James Williams Jr. I know where your coming from with your Asian American studies. You left off how many Asian Americans were killed during the gold rush, not to mention the rapes and cover ups. See I'm part Native American Indian Cherokee! Your people and my people don't have enough class to teach the children the truth! I learn Native American History in one week in school, Unlike my other sides of my culture which is Black and White American. See Black history month is in Feb, Native American History Week was taught in Feb. Chinese New Year is in Feb.

Funny how we have so much in common already right! Well Asians Build most of the Railroads on the west Cost but John Herny MUST of really impressed them to be the only black man who build more then most of the railroads. History has covered all of my peoples and yours up with circles and lies.

They don't have A Native American Studies that I am aware of and I'm happy that some one brought up the fact that they only have Asian American studies mostly on the west coast colleges. We may have them here at UVA but I go to community College PVCC. We don't have them because if we did I'd would of taken them. Mostly since I am a master of Kung-Fu. I want to know if your Asian American history talks about how when the Chinese and Japanese faught back and for their rights that it was then that they gave the Gweilo the first taste of Kung-Fu. Something that was well worth the wait!

Before I leave you I want you to know, when I was younger my Great Grandmother a fullblooded Cherokee woman once said that our greast mistake as people is our ability to love strangers and share then land the way the great spirit wanted us too! It was something I've held dear to me when I look at the world and how Racist people have destroyed would could of been so great! American belongs to all people now but her people once ran free. They once had powerful magic and they once were great warriors and lovers of the land which we all now call home! My grandmother was always a free spirit no matter how much she hated having to suffer in life! She loved people and maybe she really hated the fact that my father's father was black but she also knew that love doesn't see color! Sorry I got off track there for a minute!

See I love history and only three cultures suffered more then any in this country for us to live here and call home! My Native American Inidan ancestors; my Black American ancestoers and your Asian American ancestors. See back in that time they had it bad and it would only get worse after the years of rapes and bad blooded children being born. However I'm not sure if you are Chinese or Japanese but I didn't learn about the Japanese treatment in this country until I got into college! These where some of the things that made me hate being American! For a time I was greatly ashamed of it! However being that my bloodline is more Cherokee then anything else I found my honor and I can say I'm not ashamed to be American I'm a shamed of our country's bad past. The one good thing is that most of the Japanese Americans got their checks. The blacks we still haven't and the Native Americans all we have is the Rez, casinos and tribal police. However no amount of money can ever give back or make up for the sins of this country! Nuff Said and Be seeing ya! 1 more thing if you've got a myspace site come and fine me at jameswilliamsjr. on myspace. if not there then use my email which is all lower case letters. It's been nice venting to you! History is always been and will be my favorite subject! later darling!

Anonymous said...

Lisa - I definitely agree that Asian-American studies are important and should be included in higher education curiculums. Children from K-12 should have more exposure to the rolls of Asian-Americans in their schools, too. However, even though I agree with you that the Chinese were exploited for their skills in earlier days in this country, I believe that all races in America are, or have been at one time, exploited. We are a "melting pot" of nationalities and, unless we were born here, are allowed to come to America for what we can offer the culture. That seems to be exploitation to me even though it is with good intent.

Anonymous said...

All non-white importance to American history has been supressed in for students in grade school. It is truly not until you reach the university level that you find out there is more to American History than the "white Man's" version.
As a person of "color" you must find it within yourself to discover your own racial history. It may often take the form of oral history from grandparents and great grandparents. Speak with them now and often to better understand your place in American History. Just as Lisa and John have discovered that there is more than just one-liners in history books regarding the importance of the contribution of their ancestors, so must we all.
People who lived in the American concentration camps and who lived through the Holocaust are dying away. If we do not capture their memoried for the future it will be lost forever and history can be written by those who would have no stake in the impact of what it could do for young people growing up in the future.
The history of America is not about the contribution of a single group of people but of all the different minorities that inhabit this land. Remember all the contributions that have been made.

Anonymous said...

All cultures characterized as "minority" are not given their just due when it comes to the contributions each has made to make America great. Sadly, they are stereotyped in movies, TV, and other forms of media. And, sadly, these stereotypes are perpetuated by many within each culture.

I am African-American (not pure - as most of us are mixed race) but I identify with Aficans. (I know some but not much about my other heritages - Native American and European).

It would be utopia if all our histories would be truthfully written in the school texts so all people would learn of and appreciate all cultures. Yes, we are all humans - but each American in this country is unique and each made America, America!

kbevel said...

No matter how hard you try to find your identity as an “Asian,” you will never be successful. Everything available in this country that is “Asian” is a product of either mass media or someone else’s interpretation of what it means to be “Asian.” It is a category based on appearance that devoid of culture is lumped together. Choosing a subcategory, Going to another country, “home land”/”Mother land” is equally as useless. It will be as alien to you as you feel alien in America. Before you go hunting for something you think you aught to be, find your self first. Define your self through what fits right whether it is African culture or British punk, whatever. Don’t go based on appearance or family or anything external.