What is Asian American History?

By Qiang Zhang, ECAASU Spring Intern

Growing up, I had learned snippets of Chinese history. In high school, I heard about the evolution of Chinese dynasties and the communist revolution; at home, my parents read me stories about ancient warriors and grandiose battles. I felt distanced from these feudal lords and warring dynasties, and from the customs and the cultures that I had never experienced.  Yet from these tales and lessons, I created the fragmented conception of my ethnic past.

I learned about American history too--not in brief snippets but in pages of details. While I looked nothing like the European settlers, I could tell you more about the Mayflower than about Su Shi’s legacy. It was no surprise, however, that I knew America better than I had ever known China. I was American by not only my citizenship, but also by the culture I grew up in--a culture that encompassed watching Disney movies, reading Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, listening to Adele, and saying the “Pledge of Allegiance” in classes. I had learned about America, but was I American? 

Not quite. I felt neither completely Chinese, nor fully American. I felt stuck in an identity wedged between the extremes of two nations. And I had learned no history of my past other than the history of China and the history of America, a dearth both intriguing and complex. Was there an intersection that captured the true mark of my heritage?  


This intersection existed. It started with the Asian immigrants who first came to America in the early 18th century, who faced discrimination as they helped build America’s background. These individuals were the ones who created the  “Asian-American” entity, and an identity that encompassed those like me. Yet the knowledge of this history was excluded in school, culture, and even in my family. 

I never learned about the San Francisco riots, the murder of Vincent Chin, or the Chinese Exclusion Act that wasn’t permanently repealed until 1943. I never learned about the 1790 Naturalization Act, which prevented Chinese immigrants from becoming US citizens; the 1850 People vs. Hall case, which established that Chinese in the US had no right to testify against white citizens; the 1871 Chinese Massacre, which was one of the largest mass lynching incidents of American history. I never learned about the Oriental Public School that the San Francisco school board successfully lobbied for in 1884 because of the Tape vs. Hurley case, or that an Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in 1905 to prevent the immigration of Asian Americans.

Raising the problem of lack of accessibility of our history doesn’t imply we need to entirely restructure the American education system. What it does imply is two-fold: First, the lack of Asian American historical education represents a deeper problem that needs to be changed--there is a lack of Asian American voices within not only the education system, but also within the broader political structure of America. As of 2017, there are only three Asian American senators who are currently serving on Congress. For reference, here is also a map of congressional districts represented by Asian Americans in the 114th Congress:

How can we carve out a space for our identity if we have such a small voice in the process of policy that shapes the education we get? How can we spread information about Asian American history and Asian American issues if our involvement in government is so limited? The dominating model minority myth, the Asian family culture that discourages involvement in nontraditional fields, such as in politics, all contribute to this lack of voice in government. In order to create steps to better policy, to increase opportunities to learn about Asian American history, and to encourage scholars to increase their presence within this field, we need to start with government activism. 

Another reason for government activism can be understood if we conceptualize the problem as a societal structural disease. The issue with Asian American rights is that what we are facing is not a collection of single issues that require isolated, independent pathways to solve, but rather a collective problem of a cultural system perpetuated by society. The different issues within Asian American rights, of creating more opportunities to learn Asian American history, of overcoming the model minority myth, of breaking the stereotypes associated with Asian Americans, cannot be viewed nor addressed separately, but must require an integrated approach that lies within government policy. This area is able to affect all areas of society, and most importantly, create laws and legislation that can restructure the current, accepted culture in which stereotypes have become internalized. 

Ultimately however, the holistic improvement of society cannot come with a single step. But the way in which we can promote change starts with the steps of better activism and increased involvement. Through it, we can hopefully usher in a brighter, better America, in which where future generations will no longer have to ask the question, “What is Asian American history?”.