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Admittedly, I'm a hostile witness, but I think it's fair to say that in the world view of the egalitarian Left, if you are presented with a small ethnic group which enjoys higher incomes, better health, greater educational attainment, and so forth, across the entire panoply of social measures, that group would be considered an elite, and would be assumed to have achieved their position at the expense of others. So what are we to make of a book by a radical, feminist, lesbian, Asian American, which dwells at length on the deleterious effects of racial oppression on America's Asian population, which just happens to be that elite group ? Predictably, given the divergence of socioeconomic reality from the author's subject, the resulting book is rather uneven.
In this pronouncedly personal vision of race relations as they have impacted Asian American in the United States, Helen Zia mixes personal memoir, a brief history of Asian immigration and systematic discrimination against Asians, and then a series of vignettes from the past twenty years which, in her view, have resulted in the politicization of the Asian American community. Her personal recollections are so anecdotal that they don't add much to the book. The historical section is very interesting and, since it pertains to the period during which white America truly did oppress Asian immigrants, is important for all Americans to recall, even as we recall the similarly ugly treatment of blacks, Hispanics, Jews, the Irish, etc. But the chapters on recent events very nearly border on the trivial, at least in so far as they are intended to reflect continuing discrimination against Asian Americans.
We must all cringe at the alternately subservient or malevolent portrayals of Asians in old movies and fiction, but an entire chapter on the controversy over Jonathan Pryce playing a Eurasian in Miss Saigon ? And what is the point of the whole episode ? If whites can not play Asian roles, should Asians be banned from white parts ? Who will be hurt more by such a standard ?
There's also a chapter on the righteous struggle of New York City cab drivers against Rudy Guliani and his attempts to impose safety standards on them. Even with a predominance of those drivers being Asians, it's awfully hard to see either Guliani's actions as racially motivated, or the resistance to him as a great civil rights issue.
Truly odd is the chapter on the fight for same sex marriages in Hawaii. While this battle is cast as a political awakening and moment of bonding among Asian Americans, the referendum did lose 70%-30% in a state which is predominantly Asian American.
Meanwhile, the most interesting chapters concern the literal battles between black patrons and Korean grocers in New York and Los Angeles. Of course, this conflict between minorities does little to advance an argument about white discrimination against Asians, while raising important--and insufficiently dealt with here--questions about the racism of these minority groups. Similarly, an underdeveloped plot line that keeps cropping up in the book is the differences, even antagonisms, between the various ethnicities which comprise the broader grouping of "Asian American." This is particularly evident in the ambivalent reaction of other Asian groups to the difficulties of the Korean store owners. Entirely absent is any sense of the historical animosities among the several groups--Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Korean, Vietnamese, etc.. Zia's hesitancy to get involved in all these issues, though understandable, leaves much fertile ground unplowed.
Completely unacceptable is the author's stated reason for writing the book :
QUESTION: What inspired you to write this book?
ANSWER: I felt we were being catapulted back to the
1800s [by portrayals of
The assertion that both the Chinagate fund raising scandal and the Wen Ho Lee case were products of racism, is itself a form of race baiting, intended to silence people by impugning their motives. I have little doubt that the Clintons fed their Asian donors to the wolves, hoping to deflect attention from their own misdeeds, and their allies in Congress and the media were only too happy to exploit them. Nor do I doubt that the fact that so many of those implicated were Asians helped to give the whole mess a certain exotic flavor (who will ever forget the video of Al Gore at the Buddhist Temple?) But the fact remains that Asians, Asian Americans, and the Chinese Government were deeply involved. How could responsible law enforcement officials not focus on the interlocking connections and the possibility that American National security had been bartered for campaign cash ?
Likewise, it would be ridiculous to argue that Wen Ho Lee's ethnicity did not count against him when the Los Alamos security breaches were discovered, but the fact remains that he repeatedly and massively violated security procedures. Moreover, he'd been under suspicion for several years because of other questionable behavior. Given these factors and the knowledge that China had made America's nuclear secrets a top target of its intelligence operations, how could Lee not be a target of the investigation ? No, neither of these dogs will hunt. There were certainly excesses in the media coverage of, and political rhetoric about, these scandals, and where all Asian Americans were tarred with an overbroad brush it should not be tolerated. But as a general matter the ethnicity of the suspects in these cases was incidental and the hysteria would have been no different had they been Russians at the height of the Cold War. (And it is important to recognize, as Zia does not, that China is now the primary remaining enemy of democracy generally and of America in particular.)
There's enough here that's interesting, and underreported in the mainstream media, to make the book worth reading. But the subject really deserves a fuller and more objective treatment than it gets here. As Asian Americans become an ever greater portion of the population and begin to flex their political and economic muscle, it is all to the good for the rest of America to know their history (which after all is our history) and what they've overcome to get where they are. There will be better books than this, and I look forward to them, but this is an adequate start.
-Asian American Village (Columnist)
-Ms Magazine (Contributing Editor)
-National Asian Pacific American Womens' Forum (Founding Member)
-BOOK SITE : Asian American Dreams : The Emergence of an American People. By Helen Zia (FSB Associates)
-ESSAY : Presumed Guilt @ Los Alamos : Questions Mainstream Reporters (Who Should Know Better) Should be Asking Themselves (Helen Zia, AAV Columnist, iMinorities Diversity)
-ESSAY : I Am Not a Spy -- Are You? (Helen Zia, Asian Week)
-ESSAY : Ready or Not -- My Own Brush with Violence (Helen Zia, AAV Columnist, iMinorities Diversity)
-ESSAY : Asian American Women: Why We Are Everywhere (Helen Zia, AAV Columnist, iMinorities Diversity)
-ESSAY : Boom Times in America--For Whom? (Helen Zia, AAV Columnist, iMinorities Diversity)
-ESSAY : Missing in Action (Helen Zia, Underwire)
-ESSAY : CHINA : The Other Half of the Sky (Helen Zia, Global Frontlines)
-ESSAY : Helen Zia Tells Us Her Dreams (Helen Zia, Womens' E News)
-ESSAY : The F Word (Helen, Zia, Ms)
-INTERVIEW : helen zia, woman warrior (momo chang, hardboiled)
-INTERVIEW : with Helen Zia (Jade Magazine)
-INTERVIEW : In Question: Helen Zia (Kim Boatman, SV [Silicon Valley] Magazine)
-INTERVIEW : with Helen Zia (Alice M. Lee, Jun Magazine)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW : ASIAN-AMERICANS -- Writer Helen Zia says that the arrest and detention of Wen Ho Lee is a reminder of decades of discrimination against Asian Americans (NPR)
-PROFILE : Asian American history is Helen Zia's story (Yayoi Lena Winfrey, NW Asian Weekly)
-PROFILE : Helen Zia : Author of "Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People" (Asian Life)
-PROFILE : Writer campaigns to end Asian American stereotypes (Elaine Masters, September 4, 2000, The Honolulu Advertiser)
-PROFILE : Asian Sightings: Looking Past the Stereotypes (TRAN HA, Poynter.org)
-PROFILE : A voice for social justice : Helen Zia '73 tells the stories that have galvanized Asian Americans (Princeton Alumni Weekly)
-PROFILE : Book describes stories of Asian-Americans' struggle in the 'beautiful country' : 'What does it take to be an American?' asks 'Asian-American Dreams' author (Associated Press)
-PROFILE : Keeping Current (Stephanie Williams, Chicago Reporter)
-PROFILE : Ms. Powerhouse (Sandra Wu, BOF)
-ARTICLE : Wen Ho Lee Book to Be Written with Help of Helen Zia (Associated Press)
-ARCHIVES : "helen zia" (Find Articles)
-ARCHIVES : "helen zia" (Mag Portal)
-REVIEW : of ASIAN AMERICAN DREAMS The Emergence of an American People. By Helen Zia (Somini Sengupta, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams : The Emergence of an American People ( Roger Yim, SF Chronicle)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Andrew Hsiao, Village Voice)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Alice M. Lee, Jun Magazine)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Polo, Asian Reporter)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Allison Martin, Come Unity)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Rod McLeod, Pacific Rim Voices)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Jeet Thayil, India Abroad)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Oliver Wang, San Francisco Bay Guardian)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Herb Boyd, Black World Today)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Kristen Rutherford, Also Known As)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Sara Scribner, LA New Times)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Ferdinand M. de Leon, Seattle Times)
-REVIEW : of Asian American Dreams (Sam Cacas, Epinions)
WEN HO LEE :