Sensitive, Sweeping Study of Asian Americans


STRANGERS FROM A DIFFERENT SHORE: A HISTORY OF ASIAN AMERICANS by Ronald Takaki, Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 570 pp., $24.95

IN July of 1982, Vincent Chin, a young Chinese-American, was beaten to death with a baseball bat by a pair of white autoworkers in Detroit, who called him a ``Jap'' and blamed him for their being out of work.

They were fined, put on probation, and, when last glimpsed on a television news program, still smarting from the ``injustice'' of having been arrested and put in jail (overnight) in the first place. The only thing more appalling than these workers' racism is the attitude of the judge whose sentence excused their racism.

As Ronald Takaki's ambitious study shows, the history of Americans who came to the United States from Asia is an immensely rich, diverse, and complicated cluster of many different stories: of successive deployments of Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Filipinos who came to work on Hawaiian sugar cane plantations; of Chinese who laid the tracks of the transcontinental railway; of Japanese fruit farmers who already produced 70 percent of California's strawberries by 1910; of Korean professionals reduced to working as greengrocers; of Punjab Indians working in the orchards of Washington and Oregon; and more recently, of Vietnamese boat people, Hmong tribesmen from the mountains of Laos, and traumatized survivors of Cambodia's killing fields.

It is a story about people ``pushed'' out by disastrous economic and political upheavals in their homelands and ``pulled'' in by America's need for cheap labor, particularly so in the case of the first great wave of Asian immigration, from 1849, the start of the California Gold Rush, to 1924, year of the restrictive Immigration Act. And, as the reams of personal testimony - interviews, letters, journals, and poems - assembled in these pages reveal, it is a story of people driven by the dream of a better life.

It is also, shamingly, a story of racism. For, unlike European immigrants (who also faced initial hostility and discrimination), Asian Americans, even as they became acculturated in the second and third generations, remained racially identifiable. Classified as ``non-whites'' (Asian Indians, acknowledged as fellow ``Caucasians,'' were quickly set apart from ``white Caucasians''), Asian immigrants found themselves in a position like that of blacks, and in some ways more anomalous.

While immigrants' children born in America were automatically citizens, the first generations of Asians were prevented from becoming citizens.) Even being citizens did not save Japanese Americans from being interned during World War II, when two-thirds of those in camps were Americans by birth.

Currently the fastest growing immigrant group in the nation, as Takaki (a Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley) reminds us, Asian Americans are often praised nowadays as a ``model minority'': hard-working, enterprising people with strong family ties and a respect for education. Yet it's still the rule that the average white American seeing a black man presumes him to be an American (even if he happens to be a visiting African), yet, when encountering an Asian, presumes him to be foreign (even though he probably is not).

One of the chief aims of this sweeping, highly detailed history of ``Strangers from a Different Shore'' is to demonstrate how much Asian Americans are a part of our national landscape, so to speak: to help us recognize these ``strangers'' as ``familiar.''

Himself the grandson of Japanese immigrants who worked on Hawaii's sugar cane plantations, Takaki believes there's a danger that the image of Asians as a ``model minority'' can mask realities of discrimination, discomfort, and dislocation. These range from the ``glass ceiling'' faced by well-educated Asian-Americans hired as technicians but prevented from rising into the higher echelons of management all the way to the mysterious ``sudden death syndrome'' afflicting Hmong refugees lacerated by survivors' guilt and disoriented by extreme culture shock.

This book deftly combines traditional historical techniques with the methods of oral history - stories told by ordinary people from many backgrounds talking about their lives.

The result is a portrait of great diversity and many unexpected sidelights, a history that not only records the different experiences of various national groups - and subgroups - but also gives us the voices of individuals, each with his or her own distinctive hopes, ideas, and aspirations.

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