This semester, I am taking a class taught by Dr. Leanne Day, AAPI 140B: Introduction to Asian American and Pacific Islander Studies. On most days, I have found myself letting out squeaks a couple times a day while doing readings for class. Asian American history, as I have learned, is not always pretty.
“What are you reading?” my friends ask every time they see me reading. I am a psychology major with minors in economics and German Studies, so it is fairly easy to distinguish my economics and neuroscience textbooks from my paperback memoirs for AAPI class.
“Just reading for my AAPI class,” I respond casually. “Someone just got shot in the book I am reading.” There are an alarming number of deaths, interspersed between pages after pages of injustices in the material I read for this class.
I am an international student from Hong Kong. This is my sixth year going to school in America, and this class is my first exposure to Asian American history.
For 15 weeks, I learned about the history of Asian Americans—the various ways they migrated to the U.S., the racism they faced and the ways they responded. From the early years of working on labor plantations in Hawaii to immigration restrictions, Asian Americans have always been considered “foreign” and “other.”
Otherness is an interesting phenomenon to study because Asian Americans are a diverse, growing and constantly evolving population. According to the U.S. Census conducted in 2010, Asian Americans make up 5.8 percent of the American population. In certain states and cities, Asian Americans proportionally make up a much larger part of the local population. For example, over 50 percent of Hawaii’s population identifies as Asian American; most of the laborers who worked on Hawaiian historical sugar plantations were Asian migrants.
For our final paper, we were instructed to interview someone we knew well and interpret their lives based on what we have learned in class lectures and readings. While talking to my interviewee off the record, they told me that as someone who is not a U.S. citizen, they do not know a lot about Asian American history, though they knew enough to know that many Asian Americans found their “American Dream” in working hard and staying silent. We began to talk about the anti-blackness associated with the model minority myth, and our conversation shifted shortly after when they brought up the point that Asians and Asian Americans had it a little easier because, unlike their African American counterparts, Asian Americans were not lynched. At the time of the interview, I agreed. I thought that was the case. One of my recently-assigned readings says otherwise; in the mid-1990s, Asians suffered the highest per capita rate of hate crimes in major metropolitans such as Boston.
It is fitting that my assignment for that weekend, besides reading about Hmong refugees in Thailand and the U.S., was to watch a 50-minute long documentary called “Vincent Who?” Prior to this assignment, I had no clue who Vincent Chin was.
Vincent Chin was a Chinese-American man who was murdered in 1982. While drinking at a bar in Detroit, M.I., Chin was dragged outside and beaten to death with a baseball bat by two white auto workers who were disgruntled about being laid off due to the successes of the Japanese auto industry. The two lashed out on Chin because they mistakenly thought that he was a Japanese man.
Chin fell into a coma and passed away after the baseball bat broke his skull. The two white men were fined $3,000 and given three years of probation; the $3,000 is often referred to as a “license to kill” Chinese. What is even worse is that the men were ultimately let go without charges. Asian American communities across the country united to publicize the case and seek justice and equality.
The murder of Vincent Chin is just one of the many things I wish I knew before taking this class. I grew up believing that it was easy being Asian in the United States and that the “model minority” mindset—to work hard, to stay quiet and passive—would lead to success.
In reality, the “model minority” ideology was used to pit various ethnic groups against each other, and different groups’ values were determined by their proximity to whiteness. Everything I have learned in this past semester has shown me that all of that is false. Generations of Asian American activists have fought to survive, to stay and naturalize, to acculturate. Yet Asians and Asian Americans continue to face the same problems today, only more implicit. Racism comes up in questions like “No, where are you really from?” and comments such as “Wow, your English is really good.”
There is no denying that race is an incredibly intricate, delicate topic. Race has created numerous divisions throughout history, and the same gaps remain today; Vincent Chin’s case reveals deeply rooted, intrinsic racism and perpetual fear of foreigners that contradicts America’s myth of the melting pot.
As this semester comes to a close, I encourage everyone to take an Asian American history class, or to join clubs like the Brandeis Asian American Task Force (BAATF) and Brandeis Asian American Student Association (BAASA) to learn more about various groups’ histories and cultures.
Even though I am not a U.S. citizen myself, I have gained a lot of insight into how various groups came to and made America their home, and much of this knowledge can be applied into understanding my place in the U.S. I promise you, regardless of where you are coming from, it relates to you more than you think.