Reflections on Asian American Literature
Before my first semester at Wesleyan, where I took an Asian American Literature class, the exposure I had to Asian American studies was nearly nonexistent. The Chinese laborers who labored over the transcontinental railroad were mentioned in my tenth grade history class, and those remarks would have been my only exposure to Asian American history if I had not chosen to research it on my own time. Needless to say, the only time Asian America was incorporated in my education was when I wrote an essay on the Chinese Exclusion Act... by choice.
My experience in Asian American Literature this past semester was nothing short of amazing. I looked forward to my assigned readings each night, furiously highlighting selected passages and scribbling annotations in the margins. I felt enormously validated as I read about how other Asian American women fell into silence as a result of their oppression, just in the way I had. I learned the history of the model minority myth and how to explain its toxicity to other people; I read novels written by Asian American authors that actually featured complex Asian American characters. I cannot state how satisfying it felt to see previously-erased aspects of myself actually being represented and discussed in the classroom.
This semester, I am taking a course called "Asian Americans in Popular Culture," and I plan to take another Asian American Literature course next year. After that, however, it seems that I will have exhausted my university's selection of Asian American courses. While Wesleyan has a College of East Asian Studies, their lack of Asian American studies is troubling to me. Janie Mortell, another Asian American student at Wesleyan, writes,
"I am certainly not the first or last university student who needs more classes regarding Asian American history. I am certainly not willing to let my identity and the identity of so many others in America go untaught, unlearned, and even just unheard of. Asian Americans have indeed sacrificed their blood, sweat, and tears alongside other "Americans" and yet our history, our woe, and our triumphs go unsung. Why is that? Why is this pan-ethnic identity unrecognized to have any value or meaning to the construction of America, and, moreover, why is it disconnected from American history altogether? Who, ultimately, decides what makes the cut into our history books and into our national mindset?"
Asian Americans, as a group, are largely invisible within American culture. Asian American studies, then, not only provides us with visibility but also allows us to understand why Asian America's dominant narrative (read: stereotypes) is the way that it is. Through the study of this racial identity, we can make sense of ourselves and the societies we live in... so long as Asian American studies are offered in the first place.