Sunday, November 8, 2015

The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee

Erika Lee's The Making of Asian America is pretty much what I expected: a thorough, chronological discussion of how many different groups of people made their way from parts of Asia to North (and sometimes South) American, the discrimination and abuse they faced, and what has become of them and their descendants.

Some facts I didn't know at all:
  • Asian immigrants were common in Central and South America. There's a road in Baja California from Acapulco to Veracruz called El Camino de Chino (the Chinese Road) because moving Chinese immigrants inland was its main purpose. Chinese and Indian workers were also common in Cuba and the Caribbean.
  • The workers in these countries came in with indentured status and the understanding they would work five years at 10 hours a day, six days a week, with housing and food provided. They were to be paid 16 to 24 cents a day and have their return passage paid. Instead they worked as much as 20 or 22 hours a day, seven days a week, and then were not released when their contracts were up. Others were kidnapped outright and brought to work in these conditions.
  • Almost all of the 19th century Asian immigrants were male. This has been true of most other Asian immigrant groups into the early 20th century, when more women began to come just in time for the whole thing to be shut down by the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924. It wasn't until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that Asian immigrants could once again come into the U.S. in any numbers.
  • The creation of Chinese laundries and Chinese restaurants did not come from an existing tradition in Chinese culture. Instead, Chinese men took the only business niches that were available to them: women's work in laundry and cooking. In San Francisco in the years after the Gold Rush, the price of laundry was astonishing ($8 to wash and iron a dozen shirts, the equivalent of $225 today). There was a lot of room for the immigrant Chinese to compete with that high price and make a decent living.
  • The concept of birth-right citizenship, while grounded in the 14th Amendment from 1865, was not fully established until 1897 when a U.S.-born American citizen of Chinese descent took his case to the Supreme Court. He had left San Francisco to visit China, and when he returned he was denied reentry because his parents were immigrants and customs said he wasn't a citizen. His case, United States v. Wong Kim Ark, affirmed that anyone born in the U.S. was a citizen, regardless of parental status. (Notably, this finding was just a year after the Plessy v. Ferguson separate but equal finding, so the justices were probably the same men in both cases.)
  • More civilians were killed during the U.S.'s secret, illegal bombing in Cambodia, 1969-1970, than American soldiers were killed in the entire Vietnam war.
Some facts I already knew that Lee's book illuminated further:
  • You can't understand our current immigration debate without recognizing the ways Asians were excluded from immigrating, starting in the 19th century.
  • There were no "coolies" in the U.S., but the term was often used in the ongoing fight by white Americans against Asian immigration. (Coolie, ironically, is derived from the Urdu word kuli, which means day laborer. The people in these types of positions in the Western Hemisphere were anything but day laborers; they were in perpetual servitude.)
  • The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II was initially opposed by the Attorney General and even the Secretary of War. But West Coast politicians and media pressured the federal government about "military necessity." People in Washington, Oregon, and California had their property taken from them without compensation as they were moved inland to desert camps. Japanese-Americans in Hawaii, though, were "allowed" to remain in Hawaii because their labor was needed there. Somehow they weren't threatening if they were needed as workers, but if they were successful businessmen or farmers, as on the coast, they couldn't be allowed to stay.
  • The head of the Western Defense Command, Lieutenant General John DeWitt, is quoted as saying one of the most illogical things I've ever heard. He started proposing removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans just after Pearl Harbor. "When asked to explain his rationale in light of the fact that there was no evidence of actual incidents of sabotage by Japanese Americans, DeWitt later told a Congressional committee that 'the very fact that no sabotage has taken place to date is a disturbing and confirming indication that such action will take place'."
All in all, The Making of Asian America is a fine history reading, full of insights and little-known facts. I can imagine it as a classroom text or reference for anyone who cares about American history.

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