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Sunday, May 01, 2005

Asian American Heritage Month, day 1

Today is the first day of Asian American Heritage Month, a month-long celebration of Asian American history, heritage and culture. Because this fact, along with almost anything having to do with APIAs, is not very well known among the average American, I'm kicking off a month-long tribute to Asian Americans. Every day, I plan on posting a perspective on Asian Americans, ranging from a historical summary of an aspect of Asian Americana to my own opinions of some important issue that Asian Americans of today face. Coupled with that, I will open myself up to questions about Asian Americans -- if there was any question you wanted to ask about Asian Americans and felt too embarassed to ask, ask me now (in the comments section of any AAHM post) and I promise to try and answer as best I can and to not bite your head off. Asian? Asian American? Who We Are, Names, and the Other Things We're Called (Also, the history of how Asian American Heritage Month Came to Be) The term 'Asian American' actually refers to a large conglomeration of people who racially, ethnically, or culturally come from any part of Asian -- which, beyond the "Big Three" regions (the areas that most people think of as Asian -- Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) also includes people from Pacific Islands, those from India, and even in some cases, extending as far west as the Middle East. 'Asian American' is actually a very recent development in the politics of the Asian American (or more precisely Asian/Pacific Islander American or APIA) movement. Therefore, to understand Asian Americana, there needs to be some idea of how panethnic and diverse the community is. In the early to mid-nineteenth century, when Asians first entered into the American landscape, there was no concept of 'Asian American'. In part because Chinese immigrants came at different times and under different circumstances than Japanese, Korean, Asian Indians, etc., and in part because of ingrained stereotypes regarding each of these individual ethnicities, the separation between these ethnicities remained very pronounced for nearly a century. Chinese immigrants intermingled primarily with Chinese immigrants, Filipino immigrants primarily with Filipino immigrants, and so on, and though there was a shared sense of being both newcomers to American and racially different, there was very little coalition-building or foundation upon which the different ethnicities could unify. (For more information on immigration, please check back tomorrow, when I'll be devoting a week to talking about immigration experiences by ethnicity and racist policies that were put into place against Asian immigrants by the U.S. government). When the Chinese first arrived to the American shores, they were referred to as 'Celestials' and treated with fear and awe. However, as male Chinese labourers quickly flooded the shores with those willing to work cheaply, a fear developed within the white Americans that the Chinese were threatening the purity of what was intended to be the foundation of a White Nation. The respect of the term 'Celestial' quickly devolved into resentment. Terms like 'Chinee', 'Chinaman' and 'Chink' became prevalent, all as derogatory terms that accompanied several instances of documented violence against Chinese labourers and an ingrained culture based upon portraying the Chinese as dirty and stupid. (It must be remembered that the term 'Chinaman' is well-accepted in parts of Europe and Australia, in part because it was never used in association with intolerant language and violent behaviours to hurt Asians. The 'slur'-ifying of the word happened mainly in America, so don't be surprised if you encounter it in mainstream European media. However, it must be remembered that in America, it is a derogatory slur). Meanwhile, slurs for Japanese immigrants included 'Jap', a term that persisted into well after the second World War and is still used today. It is a short-form for 'Japanese'. Another slur that was used against many Asians was 'gook' which is used primarily against Filipinos, Vietnamese, and Koreans. The term 'Oriental' was one of the few terms that referred to East Asians of all ethnicities, and was used as a reference to the 'Orient'. It enjoyed wide acceptance until very recently, about the 1960's or 1970's, and has now been stigmatized by most members of the APIA community. This term is associated with the belief that the 'Orient' is foreign, exotic, different, and 'Oriental' as a term was used originally to refer to exports from 'The Orient' during the time of the Silk Road, such as silk and spices. Though it was used to refer also to 'human exports' of Asia when Asians began to immigrate to America, the association with foreign, exotic and dehumanization is still extremely evident and present with the term. It must be remembered that original immigrants from Asia were seen as little better than the recently freed slaves from Africa and were often treated as thoughtlessly as one would treat livestock. In the present day, the APIA community has rejected the term 'Oriental', and the general rule of thumb is that an 'Oriental' refers to any thing (like a vase, rug or any other thing that might've been traded from 'The Orient'), whereas a person is called Asian or Asian American. With the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's, Asian Americans experienced a sort of awakening and organization of themselves into a political identity. It was only at this time that Asian Americans began to unify under a common banner, and chose for ourselves the term 'Asian American' to reflect our dual identities as both racially or ethnically Asian and culturally American. Contrary to how we had been treated for nearly a century and a half, this was the first instance of Asian Americans choosing to establish our own identity and declaring a name for ourselves -- in all other cases ('Celestial', 'Oriental', 'Chinaman'), the terms had been thrust upon us by White American culture. As an acknowledgement of the increasingly expansive scope of the pan-Asian diaspora, both the term Asian American and Asian/Pacific Islander American (APIA) are now acceptable. Because of this recent unification of Asian Americans into a common community, the politics of Asian America is very young. Most Asian American studies programs are in their infancy, and the state of Asian American politics is pitiful at best. We are highly underrepresented in many areas of political advocacy and we're still trying to establish what this identity, 'Asian American', really means. In literature, for example, most bookstores do not recognize the field of Asian American literature, and even if they do devote half a shelf to it, there are very few books with which to populate it. Nonetheless, there has been a great amount of progress in the past few years, especially with the Internet, which student activists of the Asian American community have harnessed with great effectiveness. Another sign of our increasing visibility is the act of President George H.W. Bush, who, with a series of proclamations, declared May to be Asian American Heritage Month.

2 Comments:

Blogger phillyjay said...

Ok, I got a question, how did the whole emasulated asian male stereotype come about?

5/02/2005 08:35:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

actually, that's a strange one. waaaay back when, during the silk road era, accounts of trade with china and the 'bizarre' chinese culture included very sexualized descriptions of the people -- women were hypermasculinized and thus hypersexualized, while men were seen as hyperfeminate and in many senses desexualized.

when chinese male labourers came to america, the perception switched again -- chinese men were seen as hypermasculine sexual deviants, much like black men. there was a huge fear of miscegenation between asian men and white women -- in a large part because at the time, chinese women were few and far between, not being allowed into america because of fears of prostitution.

to combat this fear of miscegenation and the hypersexualized asian male, there was a cultural shift towards depicting the chinese man as bumbling and foolish -- sort of as a way of making white men feel more secure about their own masculinity. there was a rekindling of the hyperfeminine asian male stereotype in film and novelizations, most famously in the bisexual and effeminate fu man chu character, which contributed greatly to the redefinition of asian males.

feminization became emasculation (fu man chu was still hypersexual) through the final redefinition of asians as the model minority -- as a way to cope with the concept of a non-threatening 'model' minority group, this included a sexual conquest of asians by white culture (as well as the fact that it's considered nonsexual to be highly intelligent) -- this required asian women to be conquerable and desiring to be dominated by white men and asian men to be perceived as nonthreatening to whites, neither to white males as sexual competitors nor to white females as sexual predators. this was most notable in such films as Sixteen Candles which became the quintessential asian male Hollywood stereotype.

5/02/2005 11:24:00 AM  

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