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
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
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