How to Write about Ethnic Studies...

...and live to tell about it.
a guide for teachers, writers, journalists

The first obstacle

The first obstacle to multiculturalism is that most of us weren't educated to teach it, and information has been hard to come by. But the second obstacle is that the topic is so politicized, we wonder if we even dare teach it, even if we are of the ethnicity we are teaching! When teaching a newer canon means having to undertake a second education anyway, who could blame people for deciding it's just not worth it?

Ethnic studies frequently involves politics, and hot politics at that. It makes for fascinating classes and articles. No bones about it, it's dangerous to teach or report on a subject that excites people that much.

I'll get to methodology in a second, but (at the risk of sounding like I'm making a pitch) start by using our book. We've put lots of it on the internet here for free, and it's in most public libraries by now. Our book overcomes this first obstacle by giving the person at the front of the classroom a reference work constructed according to a rigorous methodology. In this volume-- as in all the others in this Series -- all the authors are not only renowned in their specialties, most are from the ethnic group being written about, and absolutely everyone was nominated by or worked under the direct editorship of distinguished advisory editors from that ethnicity.

Furthermore, all authors worked with novel and unique freedom. You cannot just talk about multiculturalism, you have to do multiculturalism. For that reason I refused to impose a "house style" on the authors, aside from a few agreements about typography. You cannot create a book celebrating diversity by pouring their essays into the old prose melting pot.

I do not by any means wish to imply that only scholars from an ethnicity can write about its art. Each perspective has value and validity. However, I do claim that, by having leading scholars of a particular ethnicity supervise, we produced a portrait of what they think their emerging canon is, and what topics they think need to be understood. We have all thereby gained something historically valuable.

I hope the wealth of information in this volume will newly encourage people to break out from the old canon, to dare to teach exciting new works, to dare discuss in class the most controversial, and important, topics in America today. I repeat: For too long everyone has been telling teachers "do it" without telling them how they are to do it, or even how they would be protected if they tried doing such a risky thing. This volume will help them dare do it.


My advisory editors and I faced various methodological questions, which I'll summarize here. Most of them have obvious parallels to what a reporter faces, doing a story.

The first question my advisory editors and I faced was the question of fairness to the different Asian Pacific ethnicities. If there is an article on a nationally known Chinese American novelist and a nationally known Japanese American novelist, one's instinctive reaction is to say that, to be fair, there should be an article on a nationally known Cambodian American novelist. (One's first thought, as a reporter, might be, "I should get interviews from all the groups.")

While that method sounds "fair," it ignores an important, often stated truth about Asian Pacific America how divergent a group of ethnicities the umbrella term has had to include. The Cambodian Americans, for instance, simply have not had much time to produce a nationally known novelist, writing in English. The median age of Cambodian Americans is 4.7 years old. In 1990, 91 percent of Cambodian Americans were under the age of 10. The 13,266 individuals over the age of 10 were almost entirely first-generation immigrants who, if they were writing in English, would be writing it as a foreign language. "Asian Pacific America," Bill Ong Hing summarizes, "is tremendously diverse." (1990 Census of the Population, Five Percent Public Use Microdata Survey, cited in Bill Ong Hing and Ronald Lee, eds. The State of Asian Pacific America: Reframing the Immigration Debate, Los Angeles: LEAP Asian Pacific American Public Policy Institute and UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 1996, pp. 3, 48.)

Chinese Americans, by contrast, arrived in America almost simultaneously with the Irish and the Germans, half a century before the Jews and Italians arrived en masse. Japanese Americans began arriving not long after the Exclusion Act of 1882 set great restrictions on the Chinese. The Chinese Americans and Japanese Americans, accordingly, simply have had much more time, and sufficient numbers, to produce masters of English prose fiction than, say, the Cambodians. It implies no disrespect to the Cambodian Americans to take note of this.

Indeed, it implies some disrespect for the hardships the Cambodian Americans have overcome to be asking them, at this stage, where their English language novelists are. As Gen Leigh Lee has pointed out, "Nearly all Cambodians who have arrived since 1979 are survivors of war and genocide." (We could say the same of other Southeast Asian groups.) Yet even though the Cambodians "arrived penniless," the vast majority from an "agricultural background," their hard work and powerful family loyalties have led them to "dominate," as the Wall Street Journal put it, at least one industry in California. They now own 80 percent of the donut shops in California, and there are nearly 2,450 Cambodian owned stores. (Gen Leigh Lee, "Chinese Cambodian Donut Makers in Orange County: Case Studies of Family Labor and Socioeconomic Adaptations," op. cit. pp. 205 -- 219.)

My editors and I look forward happily to the day, only 10 or 15 years from now, when the English-speaking children of those resilient and hardworking people start making their mark on American literature. It is as inevitable as the sunrise. We will eagerly revise our article list to explicate their novels.

For now though, the presence of articles about two Chinese American novelists -- Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston -- although no article on a Cambodian American novelist appears, simply reflects the different historical situations. Space was not allocated mechanically, so many pages to each ethnicity, however diverse their situations. We are here to help our users. We include information to help people understand the existing works of literature and art that they are most likely to encounter in a multicultural course during the next decade.

It is an unavoidable effect of America's political history -- which led to a certain demographic history -- that Asian American literature has been Chinese American literature and -- later, and to a lesser extent -- Japanese American and Filipino American literature. Nor was Chinese American dominance purely a question of their earlier entrance or greater numbers. We must not forget how differently World War II affected the communities. The thriving Little Tokyos were erased from the American map, their citizens forced to sell all their possessions within 48 or 72 hours and enter concentration camps.

Simultaneously Chinese Americans, as Jeff Chan reports in this volume, found to their amazement that China's brave fight against the Japanese aggressors had changed China's status in America from "Yellow Peril" to Heroic Ally. Media titan Henry Luce, entranced by Chiang Kai Shek and Madame Chiang Kai Shek, threw Time and Life behind the Chinese people, who became his special project. The changed climate immediately led to a spate of books about and by Chinese Americans -- a period that culminated with a Chinese American novel reaching 1950s Pop Apotheosis: it was made into a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Flower Drum Song. By contrast, no Japanese American author found, or could find, such fond interest in the eyes of the broad American audience.

Our book, then, does not pretend that the terrible injustice of the Japanese American concentration camps did not happen. All such factors affected, and still affect, the cultural output of the victimized groups. At the end of the 1990s, a book explicating nationally known Asian American literature and arts will still find itself explicating more Chinese American work than work by other groups. Since we include sociological or historical articles only as background to the literature and arts, that also means -- for now -- more articles on the Chinese and Chinese American cultural context.

However, even by the next edition of this book, we expect that to change. In 1990, 22.6 percent of the Asian Americans were Chinese Americans, but the Filipinos, at 19.3 percent of the total, were close behind. Within a mere10 years, the percentage of Cambodians -- just as an example -- who write English as their native language, will increase from about 10 percent to 90 percent, and the same will happen with more than 600,000 Vietnamese Americans. In this edition we already have included a variety of Korean American articles that 20 years ago there would have been no urgency to include. Asian American literature and arts, 20 years from now, will have diversified to reflect the diversified historical, statistical, and socioeconomic conditions.

A second decision we faced in organizing this book was more subjective. If we decided we could allot 130 pages to Asian American writers, say, we might have decided to give 15 writers 10 pages each. Again, when we thought of the users' actual situations, we decided otherwise.

From all the heated media discussion, you would think that the traditional curriculum was about to be thrown away. Even when multicultural courses are required for graduation, however, they are still getting, at best, a semester of the student's time. This means that in the few weeks, at most, that an omnibus course could devote to Asian America, there would be -- again, at most -- two novels assigned. For the next decade, that virtually guarantees that those novels be by Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston.

The Modern Language Association reports them the most frequently assigned now; Kingston's headstart and Tan's popular appeal make them hard to beat. Users will he asking questions about, and professors and librarians are going to be fielding questions about, those books. Tan's The Joy Luck Club comes complete with an excellent, and successful, Hollywood movie. Her youthful heroines face problems the classroom audience faces, finding romance and dealing with manipulative moms. The teacher trying to humanize an unfamiliar culture to a classroom filled with young people falls into The Joy Luck Club's arms with relief. (In schools where the ethnic writers are mainstreamed" into general literature courses, competing with Whitman, Melville, and Dickinson for space, the likely outcome is worse: Tan or Kingston, not both.)

We'll come to the researchers in a moment; but what the students need most is not a smattering of information about 15 writers -- 13 of whom, sad to say, are unlikely to be assigned. They need a lot of help with Amy Tan and Maxine Hong Kingston, and there should be back-up articles at higher levels of difficulty intended for the instructor and advanced students. On the chance that time permits the instructor to go beyond, or that they try (through classwork or individual term projects) to situate the main authors within the general discourse we included the most likely other candidates: Okada (Japanese American), Hagedorn and Bacho (Filipinos), Kim Ronyoung (Korean American) and some others. But Tan and Kingston received a far greater amount of space.

To determine what advanced researchers would need, we asked Rhona Klein, a reference librarian advising us, to design a computer search of the PMLA (Publication of the Modern Language Association) since 1970. Asking questions such as "Maxine Hong Kingston and Ö" and "Asian American authors and Ö" and then counting the number of "hits," we learned where the interest of researchers has been going and allocated space accordingly. (This method, by the way, gave some "hard statistical evidence" that the vast majority of scholarly interest still centers on Chinese American and Japanese American authors.)

Thus were our choices made. Whenever in doubt, we remembered who would be using the book, and the pedagogical realities for instructors and librarians alike that would result.