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The Asian Reporter's

From The Asian Reporter, V15, #4 (January 25, 2005), page 15.

An intelligent view of the history of Asian Americans

Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History (2004 Edition)

By Himilce Novas and Lan Cao, with Rosemary Silva

Plume, 2004

Paperback, 410 pages, $15.00

By Mike Street

Special to the Asian Reporter

Looking around in a bookstore today, one can easily see the explosion of non-fiction books intending to educate the reader as simply as possible, from Windows for Dummies to The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Bridge. Recently, these books have been expanding to more scholarly territory — The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Hinduism, for example, or Calculus for Dummies. Penguin, already the publisher of the Complete Idiot series, has introduced a new series at the higher end of the intellectual scale with the Plume titles Everything You Need To Know About Latino History and Everything You Need To Know About Asian-American History. The 2004 edition of Asian-American History lies somewhere between a highbrow scholarly work and a "dumbed-down" version of the same. There is something for every level of reader here, from serious researcher to casual fact-browser, even if the uncertain tone and organization weaken this otherwise important volume.

A great deal of cultural and historical data lies in the pages of this book, focusing largely on the prejudice, racism, and xenophobic legislation faced by Asian immigrants. Much is made of "nativists" in America, who wish to exclude foreigners of all kinds, and the exploitative tendencies of businesses who brought Asian immigrants to America as cheap labor. Racially inspired incidents and legislation are also given prominent placement, along with explanations for the motivations behind them. These are interspersed with less emotionally charged accounts of, for example, the origins and beginning of the Korean War, or the differences among the generations of Japanese-American immigrants.

The book is organized by ethnic group, beginning with the earliest Asian immigrants, the Chinese, and concluding with the most recent arrivals, migrants from the Pacific Islands. Within each section, questions and answers about that group are arranged by subject matter, beginning with the history and politics of immigration and assimilation and continuing with cultural characteristics unique to that ethnic group. This gives the book a looser organizational style, so that readers who read it cover-to-cover will encounter a fair share of repetition and cross-referencing to other sections. In a broad sense, however, there is a narrative flow to the historical questions, proceeding forward through time and explaining important historical moments in great detail, such as the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.

The book’s overall mission is to use education and historical fact to dispel myth, prejudice, and stereotypes, and it does a good job of this. Along with the various difficulties each ethnic group has faced, Novas and Cao explain the geographic basis for each group, often providing a history of the native countries, especially those events that spurred immigration to America. The cultural characteristics of each group include its major holidays and religions, cuisine components and flavors, and its geographic distribution in the United States. For those looking for heroes and celebrities, each section also gives a list of important scientists, actors, writers, and politicians from that ethnic group. The authors clearly believe that knowledge of the different national identities will make those peoples both more distinct and less mysterious; they hope to eliminate misperceptions by non-Asians while bolstering the pride and historical knowledge of curious Asian Americans.

The book does suffer from organizational and layout problems, as if the authors began to adopt a less formal approach, and then never finished the job. Gray information boxes, often repeating data contained elsewhere, are dropped in so infrequently — the book contains only eight such boxes in nearly four hundred pages — that they are more annoying than informative. And the informal question-and-answer format often leads to the first sentence of the answer repeating the question, much as politicians do at press conferences. This, too, suggests that the editors re-formed a more pedagogical work into the question-and-answer format, using leading questions as a way of transitioning from one paragraph to the next. Additional problems are produced by the decision to place lists of statistics, such as the accounting of census data about each group, in a narrative account. Better presented in a table or as an appendix, this information comes across poorly in sentence form, making it harder to read, digest, or refer to quickly.

Finally, the book makes it difficult to find some specific information, in spite of a list of the questions answered in each section and an index at the back of the book. Question topics rarely refer to specific data contained within the answer, and the index focuses more on people and places than concepts.

As an example of this, try to find the answer to the very first question posed in the book’s introductory material: "Do you know why chopsticks are used to eat Chinese food?" It isn’t contained in the index, isn’t referred to in any question, and doesn’t appear in the section about Chinese cuisine. In fact, this reviewer was unable to find the answer anywhere in the book.

Difficulties or oversights such as these seem to indicate either the haste or carelessness with which this book was written and edited, but it does not significantly detract from the wealth of data between this book’s covers. Anyone with either a casual or a scholarly interest will find plenty of material here, even if it can be sometimes difficult to locate. In a tone both light and engaging, the authors have presented a thorough account of the difficulties Asian Americans have had both reaching America and assimilating themselves into our country’s culture. For a work aimed at the "For Dummies" crowd, this is a smart book, indeed.

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