Book Preface

The Asian-Pacific American HeritageBack

The Asian Pacific American Heritage:
a Companion to Literature and Arts

Author's Note

I confess to a personal agenda. I have a son-- half-Jewish, half-Chinese, all American-- and I don't want him, or anyone else's sons or daughters, growing up studying a curriculum that marginalizes or trivializes them. This work, then, has been a labor of love.

There is nothing new or radical about multiculturalism. It is the logical continuation of the Western humanist project. The finest art works, the poet Shelley claimed, have a power no polemic has: they make us human to each other. "The great secret of morals is love," Shelley argued. By enlisting our imagination, art can put us "In the place of another, and many others," so that the "pains and pleasures" of all humankind become "our own" (A Defence of Poetry, 1821). This volume will, I hope, help ethnic art works "leap the gap" to the wider audience and accomplish that noble goal-- long a central goal for the best spirits in Western culture.


The new American multicultural curriculum is one of the greatest challenges American education has ever faced. In the next few years reference librarians will be besieged by people seeking answers to new questions--besieged not only by students in the multicultural courses, but by instructors attempting to teach multiculturalism for the first time.

When novelist Amy Tan refers to the "Moon Lady" or to the "Kitchen God," what does she mean? Is that "Confucianism?" Is "Confucianism" actually a religion? It's hard for a novelist to stop the plot and explain. When we do figure out that the Japanese American poet has used "happa," a Hawaiian pidgin term (cf. "half a") for someone half-White, half-Japanese, we are still in the dark. Is it a positive, a neutral or a pejorative term? Are we reading irony or affection? Try to fit all that into a poem!

This book began many years ago when I took my class on ethnic literature to hear a fine young Japanese American poet. My mostly "Anglo" class could hear the beauty of his language, but the poems were unintelligible to them. Just a few casual, but important references to "my issei father," "the 442nd," "my happa child" and a curtain descended between the class and the poems.

Here we all were, well-meaning modern people trying to escape the "Eurocentric" curriculum, trying to bridge the gap, and it wouldn't work. How is a student to learn?

What's more, not only the student, but the teacher/professor will be asking the librarian for help. Multiculturalism is so new that few of us were educated to teach it! People who quite likely took their degree in Chaucer or Dickens, will be asked to explain a reference to the Year of the Rat, nipa huts, hangul, durians, the Great Cultural Revolution or Basho's haiku.

If the student reading Madame Bovary is puzzled by a reference to Joan of Arc or to a "viscount," he or she can turn to Sir Paul Harvey's classic Oxford Companion to French Literature. But no such help existed for the student facing Asian Pacific American literature. (This volume follows the technical usage of the Association for Asian American Studies, of the LEAP Asian Pacific American Public Policy Institute, and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center in using "Asian Pacific" to refer to Americans with roots in Asia and the Pacific, from east of the Indian subcontintent to Hawaii. The largest "Pacific" group is the "Filipinos," as Americans with roots in the Philippine Islands are now conventionally designated.)

If we'd written our 63 articles about 63 different authors we'd have to include, over and over, the same introductory explanations about the Confucian family tradition or Japanese internment, or Filipino folk religion. Instead we wrote long articles on the topics that would unlock for the reader the greatest number of writers and artists now, and for years to come: topics like "Confucius and the Asian American Family," "The Nisei go to War," "Asian Naming Systems," "The Model Minority Discourse," "the Chinese Diaspora," "Tea," "Filipino American Values." "Reading Asian Characters in English." We tried to create a tool kit, which the reader could use for a long time to come.

Although there are now single volumes dedicated to explicating, say, Amy Tan or Maxine Hong Kingston, there is no Companion to the whole field of Asian Pacific American humanistic studies, offering help with the greatest variety of authors and artists-- those working now, and others as they appear for years to come. Our long specialized articles on Japanese internment, on Mao's Great Cultural Revolution, on the Korean alphabet, on Vietnamese food, on Filipino folk religion, on Hmong needlework will help the user understand thousands of works, literary and artistic, now and for decades to come. We give you the keys to unlock the greatest number of authors and artists-- now and to come.

We have, to be sure, articles on the most-taught authors, and in all cases by great experts on them. If we do Frank Chin, we have his mentor Jeff Chan discussing him. If we do Maxine Hong Kingston, we have Amy Ling and Patricia Chu. If we do the Korean American classic, Clay Walls, we have the author's daughter, and the critic who discovered the author, each writing articles. If we do director Wayne Wang's Dim Sum, his star and co screenwriter explains her role; if we do Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, the film's translator explains all the Mandarin expressions.

This is a crisis. We've mandated not only multicultural courses all over the country, but even the old courses are being given multicultural additions. A college course on Romanticism now will, to be modern, try to include ethnic American authors. The anthologies are adding them as rapidly as they can.

The new American multicultural curriculum is one of the greatest challenges American education has ever faced. Across the nation, school administrations and Presidential commissions have been telling teachers "do it" without telling them how they were to do it or even exactly what they were to do. Students, encountering literature and art from each other's ethnic cultures, have needed special help. Yet few people now teaching were educated to give the help needed.

Our book is aimed at a new audience-- the new multicultural classroom. This volume supports those students, instructors, and librarians facing this great change in the American canon.

I had to create the first xeroxed versions of these articles for my classes because there was no reference work to which I could send my kind of students. I emphasize "my kind of students." Ethnic studies--itself so new--was being taught, and is still generally taught, by experts teaching insiders. The professors trained in ethnic studies were almost always people from the ethnicity whose works they were teaching. As it turned out, they were usually speaking to classrooms filled with students primarily from the same ethnicity. There was a lot that didn't need to be explained. The artist's Weltanschauung was partly shared, or at least easily entered. Work, teacher, and class drew from a common store of experiences.

Instead of experts teaching insiders, the new mandated "multicultural" courses, however, will be taught primarily by first-timers teaching outsiders. The majority of professors will be people outside the ethnicity whose works they are teaching; speaking to classrooms filled with outsiders like themselves. I found myself in that situation in 1986, when---fresh from working with Los Angeles' Asian American community--- I redirected some existing courses toward "multiculturalism."

Furthermore, many ethnic authors shuttle their action back and forth between two locales with which the new teacher will probably be unfamiliar: the Asian American communities of America and the "Old Country" itself. Think of Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. Not only will teacher and student find themselves coping with unfamiliar parts of American experience, but with Chinese customs and experiences as well. Although it is highly unlikely the new teachers will speak Chinese, Tan's work, like Maxine Hong Kingston's, is studded with Chinese expressions, proverbs, and folk stories. The teacher will discover that the student who, reading the book at the beach two summers ago, permissively skimmed over everything she did not understand, is in a less forgiving mood when seated in a classroom. If you dare to stand in front of that classroom, you are Supposed To Know, and no one very much cares that you did your doctorate on Hawthorne.

There is serious peril here. John Dewey used to warn that the students are "always learning something" in class, but not necessarily what you wanted. They may be learning "math is boring" or "unlike me, boys do not have to raise their hands to speak." the new multicultural courses, taught by neophytes to outsiders, could wind up teaching them "even the teacher can't figure out these people," "nobody in class could guess why these people do these things," "I can't relate to people like this." It would be tragic if all the effort spent on enlarging the curriculum only ended up reinforcing a stereotype that Asian Americans are "mysterious" and "inscrutable."

As if that were not difficult enough, the new multicultural courses are generally taught by exposing students to literature or arts, albeit with reference to the political, sociological, and historical contexts of the works.

There are some reference works, such as the Harvard Encyclopedia of American Ethnic Groups, that address the needs of social scientists and historians. For years, however, I looked for reference works organized to help my liberal arts students comprehend ethnic literature and arts.

Books meant to help people reading novels, watching films, or confronting artworks must include much different information than books meant simply for social scientists. Indeed, standard reference works can lead the humanities student seriously astray. Imagine a student from Beijing trying to learn about Easter from, logically enough, fine books such as the New Dictionary of Theology or the Maryknoll Catholic Dictionary. "The solemn celebration of Christ's resurrection, which begins on Holy Saturday night and includes the blessing of the paschal candle . . . ." Wouldn't the student conclude that Easter in America was a "solemn" and awesome time? How then, to decipher literary references to the Easter Bunny, or Easter bonnets, or kids coloring eggs for Easter baskets, not to mention Irving Berlin's Easter Parade (A Jew writing famous songs about Easter?) . "Solemn celebration of Christ's resurrection" would be---if taken by itself---actually an obstacle to understanding American Easter's music, literature, and films.

I asked our contributors always to remember that humanists needed not only more information, but different information, than social scientists. Even when the subject matter of the essays overlaps topics in social science references, the content and emphasis will be quite different.

Special Features

This volume, The Asian Pacific American Cultural Heritage, was edited under the supervision of distinguished advisory editors from the community. Its authors, a "Who's Who" of Asian Pacific American humanistic scholarship, are frequently the founders of their disciplines.

Our authors and editors are well aware that this historic moment in American education is, for many, a time of stress, even of crisis. That crisis called forth these volumes. They offer help on a variety of levels:


Each section contains articles which are popularly written, accessible even to high school students.

FOR INSTRUCTORS NEW TO ASIAN PACIFIC STUDIES Other articles are aimed at the person at the front of the classroom who is trying to teach a multicultural course for the first time-- a person who, given America's demographics, is probably not Asian Pacific American him/herself.


Each section contains articles by unique authorities in their field, articles so original or so definitive, that experts will be grateful to have them.

The articles address women's contributions in detail. They analyze not only books but films, not only painting but music. For extra structure and background, we have created appendices that include a glossary (cultural lexicon) and a detailed chronology containing useful statistics of the Asian Pacific American experience. The articles are written in varying genres, for sometimes a first person memoir can humanize and personalize a cultural custom better than a work of formal scholarship can.

Since we assume that this is one of the first books people are using in what will be a continuing self-education in the new American canon, we encouraged all our authors to add, when appropriate, an annotated Further Reading section at the end of their articles, or to incorporate such advice clearly within the work. We have also added an appendix providing a detailed chronology detailing useful statistics of the Asian Pacific American experience.

Each article makes a speical effort to build the user's cultural vocabulary. We encouraged the authors to define as many terms and concepts as possible in their writing. This volume establishes a lexicon of key terms that inform the Asian American linguistic universe. Alphabetized in a separate Cultural Lexicon, these terms appear in the chapters in bold type.

Notice too, that we speak here of Arts, plural. Many ethnic cultures, and the women in them, practiced arts that were, until recently, dismissed as "crafts."

Connection between this book and current events

Ethnic studies frequently involves politics, and hot politics at that. It makes for fascinating classes, classes students look forward to, classes in which people who never talk at all suddenly argue points as if their lives depended on it; classes in which silent awkward immigrant newcomers are suddenly turned to as experts, and listened to with respect; classes in which friendships form across racial and ethnic bounds. No bones about it, it's dangerous to teach classes that excite students that much. But people who rely on these volumes can lead those classes with confidence.

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?

Our book overcomes this 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.