From The Asian Reporter, V13, #24 (June 10-16, 2003), page 16.
Maybe thatís (Asian) America
The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American
Edited by Franklin Odo
Columbia University Press, 2002
Hardcover, 590 pages, $65.00
Every so often, maybe just often enough, someone pulls our present
together by assembling some sort of common past. Then, the assembler binds
it, say, six hundred pages worth, between a couple of hardback covers. And
there you have it: history. Our story.
An ambitious and honest effort at this ultimately subjective
undertaking is made by Franklin Odo and his crew of scholars, students,
archivists, and librarians, as the collectors, assayers, and authors of The
Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience. Their
weighty work is made up of 155 essays, articles, interviews, speeches,
executive, legislative, and judicial declarations, intended in the
aggregate to define Asian America.
Gathering, then screening in or out, whatís common enough among a
mťlange of folk mingling in an immigrant nation, is tough. The essential
decision on who constitutes your subject population (Asians in America)
is, bottomline, embarrassingly arbitrary. But okay, in aid of this
enterprise someoneís already made that onerous determination ó the
Census Bureau of the U.S. Department of Commerce under President Richard
M. Nixon. Blame Census Bureau bureaucrats if you were born and raised
Okinawan or Cebuano or Papua but are now told youíre "Asian."
Blame President Nixon if you think Gobis should also be Asians, but
believe Baluchis should not. Take a deep breath if these same offices
turning Mid-eastern peoples into "West Asian" ones is going to
At least on one thing we can agree, as Professor Odo points out
in his introduction to "Part 2, Migration and Settlement: Through
1924" ó "While it is true that there were Asians in America
from very early times (however that phrase is defined), it is also a fact
that significant migrations only began in the second half of the
nineteenth century." And all that is to say: our troublesome task of
constructing some kind of racial/ethnic/geography of origin in-group is
limited to looking back no more than 155 years. That, is plenty.
Given all these unsettled considerations about who and what makes folks
American Asians, The Columbia Documentary History, as conceived and
executed by Professor Odo, is ultimately liberating. His work is a
documentary history. He and his crew donít write the history, they
select and frame whatís already said contemporaneously by scholars and
activists; politicians, poets, and priests; musicians, yellow journalists,
and one inconsolable mother. As a result, Professor Odoís text avoids
the awful Eurocentrism and inevitable arrogance of those eight-pound
Schlessenger-style history books my generation was sentenced to hump
around in our university days.
The Columbia Documentary History is divided into six sections. They
are: Contact and Conflict: Asia and the Pacific: Through 1900; Migration
and Settlement: Through 1924; Accommodation and Hostility: Through 1941;
World War II: Through 1945; The Pacific Ocean: An American Lake: Through
1975; and finally, Brave New World: Through 2000.
These donít seem like cheery titles and, indeed, theyíre not rosy
chapters despite the myth and truth of "the model minority."
Despite it all, Professor Odoís text will probably leave readers
optimistic, even inspired. Maybe itís the passions fueling the angry but
invigorating debate around Little Saigon video store owner Truong Van Tranís
window display of Uncle Ho and the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam flag;
maybe itís the at-long-last official apology for our governmentís
sudden imprisonment of Japanese America, or our governmentís
nearly-too-late acknowledgment of its cruel betrayal of elderly Filipino
U.S. servicemen, or its final recognition of our hasty abandonment of
Hmong freedom fighters to the ethnocidal Pathet Lao.
Maybe itís no more than this distinguished University of Hawaiíi (Manoa)
professorís generous socio-cultural ethos or maybe even his political
idealism showing through his edits. Maybe itís the unabashed
sentimentality of this reviewer. But then, maybe, thatís our story, our
history, in America.