Most politicians mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month each May with some kind of rote message of tribute to the nation’s twenty million or so Americans of Asian descent—a sizable population, and the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group. In contrast, President Trump decided to speak not to Asian Americans but for them. On Monday, after he berated Weijia Jiang, a reporter for CBS News, at a press conference, and hinted that she was somehow intimate with China, he fended off accusations of racism by tweeting that he was very much on the side of Asian-Americans: “Asian Americans are VERY angry at what China has done to our Country, and the World. Chinese Americans are the most angry of all. I don’t blame them!”
Regardless of how Trump gleaned this information, it was a reminder of how, during the past two hundred years, Asian-Americans have grown accustomed to life as a kind of movable chess piece, beholden to political whims beyond their control. Most often, Asian-Americans are met with indifference because we lack the critical mass (and shared interests) to shape national conversations on our terms. We seem invisible and, if scrutinized, indistinguishable. During bad times, such as the Second World War or the collapse of the auto industry in the eighties, we are scapegoats. The coronavirus pandemic has revived a gamut of often contradictory stereotypes about Asian people. On the one hand, the Chinese are accused of being the primary bearers of the disease, drawing from nineteenth-century stereotypes that they are dirty and disgusting. On the other hand, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan are praised for halting the disease’s spread, owing to more recent, twentieth-century stereotypes about Asians being passive, collective-minded, and obsessed with hygiene.
When Andrew Yang published an op-ed early in the pandemic about how Asian-Americans had to double down on their Americanness, it was an almost note-perfect echo of what the Japanese American Citizens League had told internees during the Second World War. A few weeks later, one of Joe Biden’s boldest yet attacks on President Trump was actually an attack on China, accusing Trump of being overly permissive toward the authoritarian regime. Biden was once again challenging the average American to distinguish the Chinese government from its people, and the Chinese from other Asian people in general. Meanwhile, many Asian-Americans, fearful of rising incidents of anti-Asian violence, wonder if stories of slurs and assault will unite a diffuse and seemingly fractured community.
This week, PBS airs the five-part documentary series “The Asian Americans,” an ambitious attempt to make Asian-American history accessible to a broader public. (It will stream on PBS until June 8th.) The PBS treatment suggests a kind of citizenship test, taking subjects like baseball or jazz and offering them as a purely American product. In this case, “The Asian Americans” celebrates a community that has become synonymous with American possibilities. How else to explain the rags-to-riches trajectory of Asian America, in which, during the course of a couple generations, a stereotype of Asians can change from godless subhumans snacking on rats to a model minority whose achievements seem to rationalize the whole of American meritocracy?
The production team behind “The Asian Americans” was led by the award-winning documentarian Renee Tajima-Peña, and the episodes, which follow a chronological story, were directed by a collection of talented and experienced Asian-American filmmakers. Thematically, the series moves from the early struggles for citizenship and dignity, in which Asian immigrants were instrumental in challenging the legal definition of whiteness and the segregation of public schools, to questions of fitting into Eisenhower-era America. From there, the series focusses on the more proactive movements toward self-definition in the sixties, when the term “Asian-American” became part of the lexicon, and what contemporary generations have done with that identity.
The first episode of “The Asian Americans” begins with a teasingly brief look at the life of Antero Cabrera, one of eleven hundred Filipinos brought to America as part of the Philippines Exposition at the 1904 World’s Fair, in St. Louis. The exposition was one of the fair’s most popular, a celebration of America’s acquisition of the archipelago after the Philippine-American War, and also possibly its most garish—described later as a “human zoo.” Cabrera had come to America to portray an Igorot “savage,” yet he stays, building a nice life for himself, even while continuing to act out a racist trope at subsequent fairs. Most people interacting with him, as part of the fair, or in the polite, genteel company of civilized, white society, probably never bothered to recognize the difference between the two roles that Cabrera inhabited.
Much of the episode focusses on the Chinese railroad workers and their struggles to make a living as white working-class organizers sought to push them out of the country. Many wondered, “Return to China, or carve out a future in America?” History shows that a lot of these workers, who rarely had the means to return, didn’t actually have the luxury of a choice. Instead, they stayed, building Chinatowns on the edges of American cities, enclaves out of necessity. The episode closes at Promontory, Utah, with a ceremony commemorating the hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad. When it was originally completed, the Chinese workers weren’t included in the official photographs. But, generations later, things have changed. At the celebration, one even sees the Chinese-American politician Elaine Chao, who is currently the Secretary of Transportation, offering platitudes from the podium. Like many postwar immigrants—especially ones who found fortune in international shipping and trading—her connection to these railroad workers is largely abstract. Her association with the Asian-American community has often been strained, given her allegiance to the conservative establishment. But few will bother to distinguish these different versions of the Chinese-American experience, either.
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