Setting My Roots As(ian) I Am(erican)

By Joyce
New Organizing Project blogger
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For me, an integral part of exploring and defining my identity as an Asian American has been in making a consistent effort to unearth and learn more about the history of Asians in the U.S. Learning the history of Asian Americans has given me a better sense of self and a clearer framework to use when shaping my identity. While I acknowledge and understand that I have roots in Taiwan and China because of my mother and father, this reeducation process has helped me feel less disjointed about where I ‘belong.’

I think what has been helpful is learning that Asian Americans do have a relatively long history in the US., even dating back to the 1500s. Just knowing that we’ve been here for so long has allowed me plant my own American roots here and have a sense of stability — to have a historical context to work off of, to know how certain, pivotal events came about and influenced how and why our society and government function the way they do today.

Chinese Working on Transcontinental Railroad. Photo Credit: asianweek.com.

But what has been hugely disturbing, albeit unsurprising, to me throughout this whole process is how much is left out in our U.S. History classes. I remember sitting in class and learning over and over again about the Constitution, the Industrial Revolution and so on and so forth with a casual paragraph [if that] here and there about slavery, women’s suffrage,  the Civil Rights movement, etc. Asians/Asian Americans were generally nowhere to be found. Sure, you maybe had the occasional brief mention of the the Chinese building the transcontinental railroad and  Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 but that was about it. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think that U.S. history and present society were filled with nothing but white, male, heterosexual men with a sprinkling of an oppressed group here and there.

But I do know better. I bring all of this up because December 17th will mark the 66th anniversary of when U.S. Major General Henry C. Pratt issued a public proclamation that stated that Japanese Americans placed in internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor would be released and allowed to return to their homes. I remember reading one line about the internment of Japanese Americans in my U.S. history textbook. One line. I  guess that’s better than most textbooks which don’t even mention the internment at all.

Japanese American Behind Barbed Wire in Internment Camp. Photo Credit: americanhistory.si.edu.

But one line? Really? At that time, I didn’t think too much about it as I hadn’t really come into my own consciousness as an Asian American and woman of color. But one could say that this was part of my ‘awakening.’ For the first time, I considered the thought that a U.S. history might exist that wasn’t centered around white men.

My point is, and I will continue to say this until I’m on my death bed, knowledge is power. Pursuing knowledge that was outside of what was taught to me within educational insitutions was and still is one of the most empowering decisions I’ve made. Not only has it helped me as an activist but it’s given me a better sense of self as an Asian American in the U.S.

During the L.A. Riots. Photo Credit: understandingrace.org.

So I strongly encourage you to go out and do a little re-educating of your own. Learn more about the extremely harsh living conditions for Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. Take a look at photos of Angel Island, a portal through which hundreds of thousands of Asian Immigrants passed through between 1910 and 1940. Investigate the horrific murder of Vincent Chin and the effect of the L.A. Riots, or L.A. Civil Unrest, on the Korean American community.

Unfortunately, it will probably be some time before textbooks around the country are comprehensive and inclusive of all people’s history in the U.S. So it is up to you to take it upon yourself and be in charge of your own reeducation. Trust me, you won’t regret it.