Out of the Shadows

Asian America—at once a rickety racial box and a semiutopian, panethnic political project—is barely 30 years old, but already it is experiencing a midlife crisis.

On the one hand, decades of activism—and explosive population increases—have finally brought Asians in America "out of the shadows and into the light," as Helen Zia puts it. On the other hand, that spotlight has increasingly thrust Asians into the midst of the American racial passion play—and largely in the role of model minority. To many, like Vijay Prashad, the role is not only a bad fit, but a thoroughly distasteful one: "I am to be the perpetual solution to what is seen as the crisis of black America. I am to be a weapon in the war against black America. . . . How does it feel to be a solution?" Should Asian Americans celebrate our new, key role in society? Or contemplate career suicide?

Of course, to many Asian Americans, it's simply gratifying to have a central role in debates over affirmative action, welfare, immigration, and so on—after all, who wants to keep singing the invisibility blues? Zia, whose Asian American Dreams intersperses autobiography with social history, recalls a New Jersey childhood in the '50s and '60s in which Asian American perspectives were so absent she herself could not imagine them. Prompted for pictures by a Scottish pen pal, the U.S.-born-and-bred Zia responded by cutting off the correspondence, since "with my 12-year-old's logic, I was certain that my pen pal would reject me, since, after all, she had wanted an American pen pal, not a Chinese one."

Demonstrators at the Broadway opening of Miss Saigon in 1991
photo: Corky Lee
Demonstrators at the Broadway opening of Miss Saigon in 1991


Asian American Dreams
By Helen Zia
Farrar, Straus & Giroux,
356 pp., $26
Buy this book

The Karma of Brown Folk
By Vijay Prashad
University of Minnesota Press,
253 pp., $24.95
Buy this book

Like many second-and third-generation Asians who came of political age on '60s campuses, Zia writes her story as a kind of racial coming-out tale, featuring a passage from "the Invisible Society of Asian America" to "Yellow Power" (a narrative that acquires all the more resonance when Zia recounts how, years later as a Ms. magazine editor, she came out as a lesbian). In naming themselves Asian Americans, Zia's generation were not only responding to a common activist agenda but to an even deeper, nearly ontological urge—"to make ourselves real to other Americans."

These days it seems like Asian Americans—now 10 million strong—are everywhere in the news. Indeed, Zia's book focuses on recent conflicts in which Asians were the flashpoint of national conflagration, among them the 20-year battle of Filipino American workers in the Alaskan salmon canneries that helped spur the 1991 Civil Rights Act; the Miss Saigon casting controversy of 1990; the 1989-1991 boycott of Korean groceries in New York; and sa-i-gu, or April 2-9, the name Korean Americans give to the destruction of Koreatown during the L.A. riots. Each of these episodes ended tragically for Asian Americans. Still, one of Zia's virtues is her demonstration of how Asian Americans have built a national infrastructure in the wake of calamity. Nowhere is this truer than in Zia's account of the Vincent Chin murder.

In June 1982, when two white autoworkers in Detroit were given probation for beating 27-year-old Chin to death with a baseball bat (they'd taken the Chinese American for Japanese), Zia was living in the city—epicenter of American recession and Japan-bashing. She threw herself into the effort to win some measure of justice for Chin. It turned out to be a tall order simply to convince progressive Detroit that Chin had been victimized by race hate, so ambiguous was the racial position of Asians. A local constitutional law professor argued that Chin's supporters couldn't seek redress under federal law, since "Asians are considered white." Even the ACLU declined to help.

Meanwhile, white liberal incredulity was mirrored by Asian American fear. Zia recounts one Chinese American's question when the prospect of a federal suit was first broached: " 'If we try to pursue a civil rights case,' he asked, 'is it necessary for us to talk about race?' " Ultimately, Chin's supporters went ahead, a decision that, Zia argues, not only prompted national pan-Asian organizing but made "an Asian American-initiated issue" national front-page news for the first time.

For many Asian Americans, the Chin campaign has taken on a mythic power akin to Rosa Parks's protest; for Zia it represents an early step in the community's move from obscurity to visibility. But if Asian Americans have had to struggle with invisibility, it isn't exactly because Asians have been absent from the American scene. Asians—at least, phantom Orientals—have loomed large in the American con-sciousness from the early days of the republic, prompting exclusionist hysteria in the 19th century and concentration camps during WWII. Since the mid '60s, of course, another specter has haunted Asian America—the specter of the model minority.

Zia reviews some of the fallacies of the model minority myth (pointing out, for example, that Asians make less, not more, than other Americans if we are counted per capita, and not by our larger households). But for her, the myth is a subtext. Not so for Vijay Prashad, whose The Karma of Brown Folk is both a fascinating genealogy of the idea of India in America and a love/hate letter to his fellow desis, or South Asian immigrants. Indeed, Prashad calls on desis to commit "model minority suicide."

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