What is Asian American Studies?

(And why does it matter?)

1. Literally, it’s the study of Asian populations in the United States. Temporary residents, immigrants, children of immigrants, third, fourth, and fifth generation Americans. Chinese, Japanese, Korean. Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, Thai. Burmese. Nepali. Hmong, Indian, Pakistani. Urban and rural. From the Pilipino sailors jumping ship in Louisiana before it was part of the Union, to the current wave of Asian American Youtube sensations. Where else do you see Asian Americans in standard curricula? In my experience, they’re few and far between.

2. It’s part of something bigger, too, called Ethnic Studies. Ethnic Studies includes African American/African diaspora, Chican@, Native American, Arab American populations, too. The cool thing about comparative Ethnic Studies is that its a place to build solidarity among people of color. Race isn’t a black v. white issue, no matter what the media says. Our experiences often overlap– our neighborhoods, the laws that affect us, the way our communities are racialized, etc. People of color can learn a lot from each other.

3. It’s interdisciplinary. Asian American Studies grows out of Asian American experiences, and so it needs to encompass all the things that form and affect our lives. It means that Asian American Studies uses literary criticism, archaeology, law, sociology, psychology, public health, feminist theory, and performance art. It uses all of it to examine Asian American experiences. It’s a lens to understand the world through.

4. It’s personal. Whether or not you’re Asian American, Asian American works under the assumption that personal experience is critical to academic work. Our personal experience informs our world view and creates our biases. Unless we understand our own experiences, we won’t understand why we react to materials the way that we do. We need to uncover our own biases to work past them. And if we understand our personal strengths, we can sympathize more deeply with the people we study, and capitalize on our strengths.

5. It’s committed to making the world a better place. Not everyone agrees that Asian American Studies should participate in activism, but I think it must. The discipline, after all, grew out of activism– Asian American students and communities who wanted their histories and needs reflected in high school and college classes, who wanted their communities to benefit from research and grant money. What good is academics for the sake of academics? Learning should actively work for the good.

Happy Asian American Heritage Month!

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