Story by DIEM LY
Asian American Studies is nearing middle age. What has it learned? What conflicts has it faced and triumphs can it boast? Arguably, AAS has had to struggle all its life against the same adversity that its very establishment tried to abolish. They had to fight university administrators to be respected and supported, not to mention to be considered a legitimate, necessary and appealing course of study for all students.
AAS has faced an uphill battle as the “underdog” of academia. The students have grown in numbers and demographics have changed, but the amount of courses, instructors and funds has not. With these pressures resulting in a stunted growth of Asian American Studies, can a bright future be realized and achieved?
Looking to the beliefs and principles that inspired the establishment of AAS may shed some light as to why the program has been facing difficulties. An evaluation of the struggles to keep the program afloat and a review of the history of Asian American Studies, including a discussion on the state of AAS today, can provide insight as to where AAS is going and the road it will take to achieve a bright future.
Asian American Studies is established in the late 1960s
Supporters of establishing an AAS program included students, faculty and community members. They rode the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement and found inspiration in the fight for equality and justice. Up to this point, courses about Asia failed to promote awareness of the status of Asians in America and put Asian history in the context of an Asian American perspective. Supporters were dissatisfied with the perspectives given by the academic establishment, which failed to discuss the oppression of Asians and related problems of racism and discrimination.
In 1969, the largest student strike in history took place at San Francisco State University (SFSU) to establish these very principles into the development of an AAS department, the first in the country. UC Berkeley would follow soon after.
The organizers of AAS wanted what they, as a community, had been deprived of: a voice and the power to act on it. In this way, they have power over how their story is told to generations, an opportunity to share their struggles, a chance to speak out against oppression and discrimination, and the ability to unite all people under this common experience. The development of an AAS program may have seemed insignificant to those who weren’t there, but it was an unprecedented achievement meant to solidify the future of Asian Americans.
The first classes are designed
The first classes were held on Sept. 22, 1969.
Within the curriculum, there were four substantive topics taught: history, identity and personality, community and culture, and politics, especially empowerment and social change. These included discussions on labor issues, immigration and current events to name a few. The very term “Asian American” was made known by these courses.
In most cases, published works and readily available information about Asian Americans were hard to come by or did not exist at all.
But soon works began to emerge like “Aieeeee: An Anthology of Asian American Writers” in 1974, which coined the term “racist love” to describe the way America treats Asians through oppression by racism, sexism and stereotypes. Even older works were re-discovered, such as Carlos Bulosan’s semi-autobiography of the Filipino American experience, written as early as the 1920s, titled “America is in the Heart.” Bulosan would describe the harsh reality of immigrant work and the misconceptions so many have over the “American Dream.”
The community was eager when new progressive works emerged as well. Plays like “Chickencoop Chinaman” and “Year of the Dragon,” both written by Frank Chin, were applauded for their unnerving, realistic rendering of Asian Americans living in the “preserve for endangered species [Chinatown].” Chin wrote on the conditions of Chinatown, living in America as an Asian, and the stereotypes of Asian men.
It was through these works and their examples that the courses aimed at raising awareness and shattered any misconceptions held by both non-Asians and Asian Americans.
By the early 1970s, only a few years after the establishment of the first AAS program in 1969, university administrators were accused of trying to keep a lid on protests, controlling funds and the direction of departments and stripping the program of one of its most sacred guiding principles: autonomy.
Others had a view that emphasized the turmoil occurring within the young AAS departments.
By the 1980s, Asian American Studies was threatened with imposing administrative involvement and arguments against the program’s legitimacy and necessity. It was a frustrating uphill battle. Many programs believed that administrative control was putting a stranglehold on their ability to carry out their work in ways “faithful to the field’s counter-hegemonic stance.” Meaning, AAS departments felt the administrators were stripping away their self-determination and self-governance as a program, the very independence they had fought for.
HERE TODAY GONE TOMORROW?
Throughout the 1980s until present day, little has changed the dissatisfaction and often outrage many faculty and students feel regarding the lack of support from university administrators towards their AAS Departments. In some cases, no support to establish an AAS program, undergraduate or graduate, is offered nor approved of at all.
In these instances, the most common reason given is the lack of interest of an AAS program beyond Asian American students or ethnic studies in general. And since ethnic students fill only a percentage of the total student population and are thus considered a minority in race, numbers (and power), low enrollment rates are predicted.
Supporters of AAS appeal to administrators to see the future — and invest in it. In fact, the population is there, the growth is there, and so are the young adults attending college.
By April 2004, there were 13.1 million Asian Americans in the United States. A growth rate of 63.2 percent between 1990-2000 shows that they are the fastest growing ethnic group. Asian Americans also had proportionally more young adults with college degrees at 44 percent, compared to 24 percent of the total population.
When AAS courses were first taught, there were four major ethnic groups covered: Chinese, Japanese, Filipino and Korean. Since then, immigration has produced several new crops of Asian Americans that are substantial in growth and contribution including Southeast Asians and Asian Indians, not to mention the growing demand to recognize APA women, gays and lesbians.
“Administrators must respond to the demographic realization,” said Lauro Flores, chair of the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington, “and give [AAS] the respect it merits.”
The sheer numbers of non-Asian and Asian students enrolling into AAS courses in universities across the country testify to its interest, demand and popularity, asserted Connie So, senior lecturer of Asian American Studies at the University of Washington. “The fact is AAS is growing more rapidly than even African American Studies or Chicano Studies.”
At the University of Washington, the AAS program boasts high enrollment rates, wide popularity among diverse students, and a growing number of students majoring in AAS. There are two full-time professors, an assistant professor, an associate professor and a senior lecturer. Yet, no graduate program exists and a finite number of courses restricts growth of the curriculum and representation of all Asian American groups.
The fact that the UW does not have an AAS graduate program is not a new issue nor is it rare. In the United States, after 37 years, there are only a handful of AAS graduate programs. The most dominant ones are located at the University of Hawaii, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of California at San Diego, and the University of California at Irvine. SFSU, although the first to establish an undergraduate program in the country, has yet to develop a graduate program. The University of Washington established an undergraduate program only since 1995. This meager figure of graduate programs alone attest to the fact that AAS continues in its struggle to flourish and receive respect from those who, unfortunately but ultimately, are in control of it.
THE FUTURE OF AAS
Can high enrollment rates, popularity and a growing demographic force universities to expand AAS?
So and UW graduate student Third Andresen agree that the state of AAS is only as good its surrounding community.
AAS and American Ethnic Studies are closely tied to their related communities. It is a universally held belief by the departments that it is important, in fact necessary, to be involved in the community and make an impact. The same is true for the community to interact, influence and make demands upon academia.
Therein lies a view of its future. A great advantage to AAS is its community: a resource separate from the politics of the university. The community provides a down-to-earth reality: where AAS came from, to whom it is responsible, and most importantly, a tangible image of the state of its program today.
An example of this interaction includes AAS’s evolution to educate not only college students, but in the spirit of community, to pass the knowledge along to high school students. This is done through an educational outreach program that currently exists between the AAS at UW and some Seattle Public High Schools. So educates local school teachers on APA history and relevant Asian issues. In turn, the teachers educate their students to steer them clear of misinterpretation, and to provide a more accurate understanding of APA identity, condition, and American history itself. The ultimate goal for this approach is to elevate all ethnic groups of American society through representation and the telling of their contribution to America — a story usually left untold.
“I think it’s great that we have the freedom to voice ourselves and see through another cultural lens,” said Andresen.
It is the students and their communities that are learning the histories and keeping the truths alive, testifying to the legacy not only Asian American Studies holds, but the bright future that it undoubtedly can achieve.