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‘The Making of Asian America’ chronicles the past and connects it to the present

The Los Angeles Times described U of M professor Erika Lee’s book as “long overdue.” 

Erika Lee
University of Minnesota
Erika Lee

Amid a heated debate among presidential candidates over immigration reform, Minnesota historian Erika Lee chronicles the long, challenging journey of Asian-Americans in her latest book, “The Making of Asian America: A History.”

Today (Wednesday, Oct. 14) at 4 p.m., Lee will be featured at a book event at the University of Minnesota Bookstore in Coffman Memorial Union. The U of M professor will share glimpses of the lives and legacies of the first wave of Asian immigrants as well as the challenges and contributions of their American-born descendants and the Southeast Asians who have made Minnesota home over the last four decades.

Among other things, the discussion will also explore the seemingly forgotten dark pages of U.S. history, including the Anti-Chinese Movement, which barred the Chinese from coming to live in the country and prevented those who were already here from becoming naturalized citizens.

‘Considered to be threats’

“They were considered to be threats to the American family, a danger to American civilization,” said Lee, the granddaughter of Chinese immigrants. “They were massacred in some of the worst episodes of racial violence in our history.”

Lee came of age in the 1980s in the San Francisco Bay area after that fateful history she now writes and talks about had passed — a history she would discover as a college student.

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It was while listening to a lecture on the history of U.S. immigration that Lee first learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was signed into law in 1882 to prevent Chinese immigrants from coming to the U.S. in response to economic fears.

The law, which remained on the books for 60 years, also thwarted Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans from owning land and going into certain occupations, relegating them mostly to jobs in laundries, restaurants and service industries.

Some of Lee’s family members had lived this experience: They started out as restaurant and laundry owners in California, but ended up in New York when the Chinatowns on the West Coast became crowded with the same businesses.    

“So learning all of that was completely earth shattering,” Lee said. “Since then I wanted to preserve and share Asian-American and other immigration history — and to connect it to the present.”

And that’s what Lee, the Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History and director of the Immigration History Research Center at the U of M does in “The Making of Asian America,” which was published in September.

Minnesota immigrants in the book

Lee, 45, explained that she was proactive in documenting the stories of the diverse Southeast Asian immigrants in the Twin Cities. While Asians are generally the fastest-growing groups in the state, Lee said that Hmong and Indian immigrants are particularly swelling the community’s population.

“Minnesota is fascinating in that it both mirrors some of the national trends, but also is pretty unique,” she added. “We have the largest concentration of Hmong in the United States … and the large population of Korean adoptees, who are active, vocal, have a long history here.”

In the past, she continued, Los Angeles and New York were among the longstanding immigration entryways for new immigrants and refugees. Today, however, the new Americans are transforming the Twin Cities metro area, also home to the largest Karen, Liberian, Oromo and Somali populations in the U.S.

Lee said that she dedicated two chapters to Southeast Asian resettlement in the United States in her book: one focusing on the conflicts that forced these communities from their homelands, the other documenting their lives in Minnesota.

Many Asian-Americans have applauded Lee, an active public intellectual and the author of award-winning books on Asian immigration in America, for highlighting the rich stories of the community — and accentuating their diversity.

“It’s really great to have someone actually come and capture our voices in Minnesota and share it with the world,” said Amee Xiong, an educator and community organizer in the Twin Cities. “A lot of times, we read things that don’t tell the story of everybody.”

Chong Lee, community partnership program manager at the St. Paul Promise Neighborhood, said that she’s pleased to hear about an Asian-American author writing about her own community. “Oftentimes, white American authors or European authors tell Asian-American stories through their own perspective,” she said. “But now it’s different. It’s really coming from someone who is part of the community.”

The ‘model minority’ myth  

By the time Erika Lee arrived at adulthood, the anti-Asian sentiment her grandparents experienced had faded, with white Americans now viewing their Asian counterparts as the “model minority,” a myth that Asian-Americans — as University of Southern California professor Viet Nguyen described it — are “natural-born geniuses who work hard and quietly, making no trouble.”

Census data have shown that Asian-Americans earn the highest incomes and are the best-educated racial group in the United States. To add to that, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote on Sunday: “It’s no secret that Asian-Americans are disproportionately stars in American schools, and even in American society as a whole.”

Lee, however, rebutted the model minority idea that sometimes links the achievement of Asian-Americans to unique cultural values. “The whole model of minority myth is inaccurate,” she explained. “It does not apply to the great diversity of Asian-Americans.”

The achievements of Asian-Americans are often cited in comparison with those of minority groups, Lee said, including African-Americans and Latinos. “This is divisive language,” she added. “The way they’re talking about it is not only pitting one group against the other, but also it’s a zero-sum game.”

Some Southeast Asian-Americans in Minnesota also emphasized that the generalization that all Asian-Americans are highly educated and economically prosperous is harmful.

‘We don’t fit in that model’

“The model minority myth is hurting the Asians in the Midwest because we don’t fit in that model,” said St. Paul school board member Chue Vue. “And if you look at the economical and educational disparities, we’re still pretty far at the bottom.”

Vue, who has yet to read “The Making of Asian America,” added that many reports he sees in the national mainstream media about Asian-Americans don’t reflect on the realities of his Southeast Asian-American communities in the Midwest, a sentiment that Lee agrees with.

Vue said he hopes Lee’s book will call attention to the authentic voices from the community, which he said are often overlooked when documenting the history of Asian-Americans.

This afternoon, the author will also sign copies of “The Making of Asian America,” which she spent 10 years researching and writing — an important document of history that the Los Angeles Times described as “a stirring chronicle long overdue.”

Ibrahim Hirsi can be reached at Follow him on Twitter at @IHirsi.