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The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee.

May 22, 2015

The Making of Asian America, Erika Lee.  New York : Simon & Schuster, 2015.

4 stars

A superb history, well-written and documented, providing global context and personal stories and everything in between about those who have come to the United States from Asia.

Erika Lee is a fine historian with a Ph.D. from University of California at Berkley and a Chair in Immigration History at the University of Minnesota. Even to those of us somewhat familiar with the narrative she tells, she brings fresh information and insights. Her writing is clear and compelling, as well as well-documented. She pulls us into immigration history with the stories of individuals, including her own grandparents who emigrated from China.

What is most unique about The Making of Asian America is perhaps the way in which it is a global account. We learn not simply a story of immigrants in America, but who people were before they came and what complex international factors lay behind their immigration. We see their relationships to those who remained behind and the ways in which actions differed by gender.

As Lee establishes, Asians in America represent a startling variety of people coming from at least 23 distinct groups. They also differ in when, why, and how they came and in whether or not they accepted their place in the unequal society of the United States. And yet some generalizations about them are possible, in part because Americans defined them as a common race, backward, inferior, and submissive. Their race denied them the right to citizenship; although some Asian families had been in the United States for generations, they were still considered outsiders. Since the Immigration Act of 1965, Asians have entered the country more freely and enjoyed more rights. Many of them remain global citizens, cherishing their multinational identities.

Asians started to arrive in North and South America as slaves and seamen during the years of Spanish Conquest in the 1500s and 1600s. The Spaniards were headquartered in Manila, and ships crossed and recrossed the Pacific, sometimes leaving Chinese and Philippines in what would become the United States. As the British Empire grew, laborers from India were brought to the Caribbean. Along with Chinese “coolies” they labored in the sugar fields. Some came to Louisiana. As plantations spread across Hawaii, various Asians came temporarily or permanently and it eventually became a stepping stone to mainland America.

The major wave of Asian migration to America occurred in the 1800s, despite strident efforts to contain or prohibit it. These were years of vigilantism against Asians when laws were passed to restrict their migration and land ownership. Unlike Ellis Island, Angel Island’s purpose was to turn back those who would enter from Asia. Some migrants did settle and have small scale success, but even these gains seemed to threaten settlers of European descent.   Lee adds many unfamiliar stories that fill in our picture of Asian migration, such as those of Koreans escaping the Japanese who had conquered their nation. She tells of people of the Philippines who resisted U.S. military takeover to become a possession with the right to migrate to the mainland. Eventually they were granted postponed independence so that migration could be controlled.   My favorite section was about the Chinese’s migration into the United States across the Rio Grande from Mexico. The U.S. Border Patrol was initially created to stop their arrival.

World War II was a turning point in migration history. While Japanese were sent to concentration camps, some older prohibitions against Asians broke down fist for Asian wives of U.S. service men and then others. In 1965, new national immigration laws were passed, and increasingly Asians came to the United States. Some of them were held up as “model migrants” but others continued to be harassed and rejected, especially after 9-11. Lee views this more recent migration as more global than earlier ones, with some immigrants arriving after living in several countries and some maintaining close ties to their former homes. She suggests that these “transnational” individuals challenge us to rethink what it means to be an American.

Although I am not an expert in migration history, I researched and wrote a book, Asian Texans, which dealt with those who have come to this state. It would have been a better book, if Lee’s survey had been available. I am simply thrilled to see it available now. I recommend it to a wide readership. It is the kind of book that can reshape how we understand who we are.

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