Helen Zia

Asian American Dreams

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Asian American Dreams Summary

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Asian American Dreams (2000), Asian-American author Helen Zia’s part memoir, part social history, traces the evolution of marginalized Asian ethnic groups in nineteenth- and twentieth-century United States history. Zia portrays this evolution as starting with an initial set of discrete “categories” of Asian-American culture stemming from unique immigrant histories, which exchanged ideas, norms, and cultural capital over time and gradually morphed into a larger, more inclusive, and more powerful collectivity. The book is widely considered a contribution to recent discourse in historical anthropology on the process of human demographic change, and the categories people create over time to reinforce perceptions of difference.

Zia offers her own unique lens, informed by her experience as an Asian-American journalist and the daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her narrative draws psychological insights from the struggles she recounts as a primary and secondary observer. She covers a wide range of topics, including the attempted unionization of Filipino people in Alaskan canned goods industries; tension between Korean-Americans and other immigrant groups in Los Angeles, Detroit, and New York; same-sex marriage in Hawaii; and New York City’s use of South Asian taxi drivers’ plights for political ends. The book uses the Japanese internment camps of World War II as its central refrain.

Zia begins by contextualizing herself within the larger framework of Asian immigrant groups in the U.S. In the 1950s and 1960s, she grew up in New Jersey, privileged with a strong education system. In school, she recalls being taught what she only later realized was a very elliptical, optimistic brand of American history. Eventually, Zia perceived a huge resistance in American history to the addition of Asian-American perspectives or an acknowledgment of their historical and cultural contributions. Zia’s understanding of this missing chunk of American history compels her to research and conceive it for herself.

The first major event Zia recalls is the Yellow Power movement, a spinoff of the Black Power movement, in San Francisco. At the time, she was a medical student acutely aware of racial protests around the U.S. She dropped out, moving to Detroit to take part in labor activism as a machine operator at an industrial plant.

In the Midwest, Zia became embroiled in a crisis that provoked Asian-Americans to rapidly organize. In Detroit during the 1982 recession, two white automobile technicians fatally beat a Chinese-American engineer, Vincent Chin, who was about to celebrate his wedding. The men mistook him for Japanese, blaming him and Japanese immigrants in general for their financial troubles. After pleading guilty, the men were merely given probation and a small fine. Zia recalls the outrage with which this decision was met, even among those Asian-Americans who usually advocated for quietism and conformity.

In response to the murder, Zia led the creation of an organization called American Citizens for Justice, which pursued federal charges against Chin’s murderers on the grounds of violating his civil rights. The trials were unsuccessful, but American Citizens for Justice persisted, moving its attention to other cases.

Zia investigates other acts of racial violence. She recalls the black community in New York’s boycotting of small Asian-owned shops, and the turmoil following the Rodney King beating trial in 1992, in which Asian-Americans were scapegoated, and their businesses suffered greatly. She balances this event with others where Asian-Americans were antagonists, but chooses not to fixate on these patterns as unsolvable interracial conflicts, but rather symptoms of the United States’ disenfranchisement of minority groups.

Next, Zia considers the debate on gay marriage fielded by the Japanese-American Citizen’s League. She remarks how the Citizen’s League rested on a very specific conception of homosexuality in stating its opposition to gay marriage, recalling how she felt excluded from the debate, and alienated from her wider family, as a non-heterosexual woman of Asian descent.

Acknowledging the rhetorical dominance of narratives of Asian-Americans from the East and West Coasts, Zia fixates on various other case studies from less illuminated communities. These include Filipinos who work in canneries in Alaska, Hmong people who live as refugees in Minnesota, and cab drivers from South Asia trying to make a living in Chicago. She writes that she wishes to include as many demographics as possible in the Asian-American narrative, mentioning those Asian-American children fathered by military parents, living as mixed-race individuals, or adopted by non-Asian families.

Zia concludes that the struggle for equality, for any human subject, is a matter of adapting the conditions that make one different from his or her environment. She uses the fact that Asian-Americans have historically squelched absurd stereotypes such as the war-mongering invader and the exoticized Oriental in favor of self-made identities. Zia predicts a progressive future trend heralded by the proliferation of Asian-American literature, noting that it is in every citizen’s power to make their narrative heard.