Who is the most famous Asian American

No more invisibility

For a long time, Asian immigrants in the USA were barely noticed in comparison to the Afro-Americans or Latinos. Now they too are claiming their place in history and society.

California is the US state with the largest number of inhabitants and at the same time the greatest ethnic diversity. Just as important as immigration from Latin America and Mexico is that via the Pacific: Asians from all regions of the world are part of everyday demographic life in Californian cities, but if we Europeans call an image of California to our minds, then no Asian is guaranteed to figure on it . For us whites on this side of the Atlantic, the American is white, this is especially true for the American in California. “But most people in North America also have this image in their minds. Here on the west coast, on the other hand, we are very much aware of the Pacific tradition, ”says the writer Maxine Hong Kingston from Oakland / Bay Area. The local contradictions are also nothing new to them. You walk through Chinatown in the morning - settled by Chinese since 1850, today with 80,000 inhabitants, but the streets are called Grant Street, Washington Street or Kearny Street. Then in the afternoon you can take the public bus to the Sunset and Richmond districts, with loudspeaker announcements in English, Spanish and - Mandarin!

Silence instead of myths

“Chinatown is only the visible enclave of Chinese migration; the majority of Asian immigrants live in other districts. But Asian Americans are often missing from cultural memory, starting with the founding myths. There was immigration from Asian countries even before California became a member state in 1850, ”explains the Chinese-American writer. It did not take very long, however, for a stop to this Asian immigration, because after the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, the journey to the west coast was considerably shortened for the migrants coming from the east from Europe, and for them workers from Asia were one annoying competition. The Atlantic lobby was strong, and so the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882: From then on only entrepreneurs and tourists, students and relatives of Americans were allowed to enter from China; from 1924 this applied to all Asian countries.

The Chinese Exclusion Act has it all: on the one hand, it was supposed to protect newly immigrants from the east coast from cheap wages, which did not succeed in the long term, but it did hinder the integration of those Asians who had contributed enormously to the country's development. Nevertheless, California retained its attraction for the people in the Far East - and that ultimately led many new migrants to resort to illegal methods: "My mother came to the USA with the real immigration papers of a certain Ms. Hong, but she was not the real Ms. Hong", says Maxine Hong Kingston. "The husband of the real Mrs. Hong, who had an American passport and was allowed to bring his wife up, had lost her papers - at the gaming table." This is not fiction, even if Maxine Hong Kingston was one of the first women writers to deal with such taboo topics in novels. They are often unheroic family stories that have been kept covered, which contributed to the fact that the history of Asians in America remained underexposed for a long time.

Today the author gazes from her home on the Oakland Hills over the landscape of the state of California, of which up to 14 percent of the total population consists of Asia-Pacific immigrants. Across the Bay is the secret capital of Asian America, San Francisco, where of the 800,000 inhabitants 300,000 are Asian Americans, including the mayor and many important politicians. As a group of voters, they have even become interesting for presidents: For example, Barack Obama played the African-American card, but also did not fail to mention his Indonesian half-sister and her Chinese-American spouse - in 2012, 73 percent of the Asian-American votes belonged to him.

Asian America in transition

The Asian Americans are the fastest growing group of immigrants, and their importance is slowly being recognized, but it has taken a long time. In the beginning there was the urge to place them on the edge or even to make them invisible. An early example of this are the Chinese railroad workers, tens of thousands of whom were involved in building the First Transcontinental Railroad. Almost nothing is known about them, and they had made great sacrifices to build the western route - but this story is missing from a crucial national founding myth of the USA. “There's a famous photo of the Golden Nail being hammered in at Promontory Point, where the Union Pacific Railroad and Central Pacific Railroad meet at the end. There it is teeming with people, engineers, administrators, workers, on the locomotive, in the area, everywhere. But you don't see any Chinese. That is invisibility. "

When Professor Gordon Chang of Stanford University speaks of invisibility, he also mentions a key concept of Asian American Studies, a subject that he himself co-founded at a young age at Berkeley. At times it was called Yellow Studies, has made it easier for generations of young Asians to integrate into the American educational system and refers to the radical beginnings of a successful history of emancipation. Its central protagonist is the Asian American Movement, and in 2010 the Japanese-American writer Karen Yamashita published a highly acclaimed novel about this movement and its most important struggles in San Francisco.

"In 1968 these political movements arose everywhere at universities, be it in Paris, Prague or Tokyo," says the author. “So the Bay Area is no exception, but the Bay Area has been the center of the movement in the United States. At the colleges in Berkeley and San Francisco it was about the establishment of Ethnic Studies. The result was that the African Americans set up their Black Studies, the Asian Americans wanted Yellow Studies. All of this was heavily influenced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution or whatever it was thought to be. Marxism, too, has strongly influenced the Asian Americans, even if they did not formulate it so explicitly, as did the Black Panthers and the entire African American Movement. " Karen Yamashita researched the novel "I Hotel" for ten years and conducted 150 long interviews. She not only gets under the skin of her ethnically diverse novelists, but also reproduces sociolects and political linguistic styles of various stripes and brings the seething San Francisco of the seventies back to life.

As an author, Yamashita has dealt with the history of transpacific migration in several works, for example with the large Japanese community in Brazil. In the “I Hotel”, of course, the Japantown of San Francisco plays a role, because the young Sansei, the second-generation Japanese-Americans, were very active. They felt reminded of another displacement by the urban renewal plans, which at that time the entire Manilatown of the Filipino community fell victim to: During World War II, their parents, over 100,000 Americans of Japanese descent, were locked in camps for military quarantine. One sees this as a racist action by the US government, because the white German-Americans were not interned. Yamashita is working on a collective trauma that only came to light through initiatives by the Asian American Movement.

A "better minority"?

Today Karen Yamashita teaches at the University of California Santa Cruz. It is a quiet, nature park-like campus, where the Grateful Dead Museum in the central library reminds us of the eventful 68s - and the large number of Asian students that a new era has dawned. Gordon Chang also sees a lot of young Asian Americans on the Stanford campus, up to 25 percent of the students: “It's a completely different generation. These are the children of the new immigrants who immigrated after 1965, when the Hart-Celler Act put an end to the exclusion of Asians. The new immigrants were often better off before they arrived and usually have no direct experience with the times of repression and exclusion. " They will tell a different story, perhaps even that of an exemplary minority - because myths with Asian influences are actually emerging, such as that of the famous Tiger Mom, who leads her children to educational success with relentless rigor. The Asian Americans as a model minority, as a “better minority” - this is, however, an attribution of conservative forces that the Asian American Movement itself rejects: the term should only divide.