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From The Asian Reporter, V13, #24 (June 10-16, 2003), page 16.

Maybe thatís (Asian) America

The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience

Edited by Franklin Odo

Columbia University Press, 2002

Hardcover, 590 pages, $65.00

By Polo

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 bother you.

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 not.

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.


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