Voices of Asian Americans

Against the Current, No. 136, September/October 2008

Seonghee Lim

Asian Americans:
The Movement and the Moment
edited by Steve Louie and Glenn K. Omatsu
Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2006,
322 pages, $24.95 papaerback (large format).

ASIAN AMERICAS: THE Movement and the Moment is an anthology of some 30 entries written by Asian Americans who initiated or participated in social and community movements in the late 1960s and 1970s. It is about how they perceived the world, how they became involved in the movements, what they think they accomplished and learned through their involvement, and how their experiences and lessons shaped their own lives and can be linked to present-day struggles for social justice.

The authors are of varying ethnicities, geographies, genders and sexualities, and thus their childhood experiences are diverse. For example, Pat Sumi was a Japanese American born in Colorado where her parents were relocated during the internment period, while Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz and Rose Ibanez were born in the Philippines and immigrated to California while in their late teens.

Some activists have multi-ethnic backgrounds, such as Miriam Ching Yoon Louie (whose essay was excerpted in ATC 134) and Beverly Kordziel who was the child of a Polish American and a native Filipina and decided to declare herself as Asian. Daniel C. Tsang, a self-described “gay Asian,” was born in Hong Kong.

Nevertheless, they have commonalities: Many of their families experienced economic hardship and discrimination. Housing segregation forced them to be more aware of how Asian Americans are demeaned as “coolies,” “docile” and “servile,” and this affected their self-consciousness. Gordon Lee, a Chinese American, expresses the difficulties understanding and shaping his own self-image:

“Because we have grown up as a racial minority, imbibing the customs of two cultures, our centers are not stable and single. Our consciousness is double; our vision bifocal and fluctuating. We have a need to explain ourselves to ourselves. We often look within and express the conflicts of the two cultures, whose two heritages are our own.” (127)

Despite and yet because of the circumstances, they questioned the existence of racism, discrimination, and social injustice and began to seek ways to change this environment.

Not surprisingly, their struggles began with a search for an identity beyond the stereotypes society allowed them. This search, however, led them to develop broader perspectives about social problems and participate in a host of movements for liberating all those suffering from repression, discrimination, and imperial oppression.

Nelson Nagai’s “I come from a Yellow Seed” unfolds his story in which he and several Asian boys organized a center for only Asians males in his neighborhood in Stockton, California.  At the beginning, they revolted against stereotypes by wearing black leather jackets and saying that they were the “Yellow Panthers.” (255)

However, they began to ask what “yellow power” should really mean and sought answers by reading Black Panther publications. They organized discussions on social justice issues, such as “sexism,” “racism,” “civil rights” and “imperialism,” and meetings with other groups of people in other cities, and included women as members.

In this way, these Asian Americans built networks with other minority groups and Third World people’s struggles by organizing protests against the U.S. aggression in Vietnam and the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines, and by participating in the Civil Rights, feminist, and gay rights movements and community organizing drives.

Chris Iijima in his essay correctly points out that searching for an identity should be a “means to an end” that would organize Asian American participation in progressive movements. The Asian American culture that they embraced was rooted in a “culture of resistances to oppression and in a striving to achieve a more inclusive society” (5-6), not a backward-looking search for vestiges of ethnic heritage or an exclusionary mobilization against others.

Converging in Struggle

As a result, despite these Asian-Americans’ different and diverse backgrounds, their activities converged in their journey of struggles and they influenced each other’s activism. Many of them were engaged in the Kearny Street Workshop programs and the struggle against the eviction of the International Hotel tenants in San Francisco’s “Chinatown”/“Manilatown.” Others were involved in community organizations in New York City’s Chinatown.

Many became aware of social problems by listening to the songs of Chris Iijima and the Yellow Pearl. They learned Maoist doctrines through the Black Panthers and were radicalized by alliances with Black and Latino civil rights groups and Puerto Rican independent movement activists.

Many authors point out that they found themselves transformed and changing with the world they tried to change. They met many people who mentored them: Some were well-known such as Helen Foster Snow in Brenda Paik Sunoo’s essay, but some were “normal” people like the owner of a corner grocery store in Glenn Omatsu’s story who constantly questioned “why?” and thus inadvertently helped Omatsu’s ideas mature in the process of his searching for the answers.

Their journeys had ups and downs and turns and detours. As Carol Ojeda-Kimbrough, who struggled to do both participating in political activities and raising her son without her boyfriend who was killed in the Philippines under Marcos’ dictatorship, recalled, they sometimes “lay low” like a soldier wounded in war, “who retreats from the front lines to heal and fight again another day.” (73)

They depend upon their memories of the movements and perspectives after some 30 years since their initial involvements, and thus it is possible that their versions are fragmented and might be inaccurate or too subjective. The Movement and the Moment is not a book in which people debate whose perspective is correct, and it does not provide readers with scholarly analyses of the “causes and effects” of their activities. Rather, it is about the participants’ self-revelation process and their own regrets.

The developmental process of their activisms and consciousness might not be particularly new to readers who have been involved in political activities for a long time. Indeed, the readers who participated in those social movements during the same period might have different perspectives about the activism. Critical readers will notice with disappointment that some of the authors’ criticisms of capitalism are based on a sense of “morality” rather than on objective retrospectives.

Nevertheless, readers will learn the situation in which the participants lived and the struggles in which they were engaged. Warren Mar shows how patriarchal order in Asian households disciplined their daughters differently than their sons — a fact that explains why Asian female activists like Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz faced more hardship than their male counterparts in their relations with their parents in the process of pursuing their political activism.

Daniel C. Tsang’s honesty grabs readers’ attention when he talks about his early “practices” of homosexuality at age 13 or 14 and reveals his personal feelings when he went to a homosexual juice bar for the first time. He discusses the difficulty having two identities together: “gay” and “Asian” — an image not easily accepted by many.

Creativity and Expression

The creative actions the authors describe will fascinate readers. Miriam Ching Yoon Louie, whose incredibly wide range of activism and “humorous” expressions of her experiences will make readers smile, writes about how she launched the Committee for Solidarity with the Korean People. The commitee subsequently decided to educate Koreans with its newsletters. It was before the advent of the internet so it wasn’t possible to communicate over email. So she and other activists “combed the phone book” and mailed their newsletter to “every Kim, Lee, Choi, and Pak listed” (94) — typical Korean last names.

In addition, the book presents philosophical perspectives about the activists’ attitude toward mass movements. Here is a part of the excerpt from The Song of Ariran that had influenced the political consciousness of such activists as Brenda Paik Sunoo and Glenn Omatsu:

“…[T]he mass is deep and dark and does not speak with a single voice until it is already in action. You must listen for whispers and the eloquence of silence. Individuals and groups shout loudly; it is easy to be confused by them. But the truth is told in a very small voice, not by shouting. When the masses hear the small voice, they reach for their guns. The mere whisper of an old village woman is enough. True leadership has keen ears and a guarded mouth. To follow the mass will is the only way to lead to victory…” (184)

Moreover, this is a visually arresting book containing many contemporary pictures, posters, and excerpts from newspapers and magazines such as Gidra and Bridge. They are beatuiful, interesting and have historical value that make Asian Americans a treasure house.

History and Today’s Mission

When the authors gathered together their stories after several decades to write about their struggles, they set a goal: They hoped to inspire a new progressive activism among the present generation of Asian Americans. Will their goal succeed?

At the beginning of the book, most readers will have such questions as:  Where was the International Hotel located? What kind of hotel was it? Who were the tenants and what happened to them? In the middle of the book, many of the answers to these questions are discovered by pulling pieces together from this person’s and that person’s story. The end result is that most readers will realize the need to learn more by googling in such words as “eviction of the International Hotel tenants,” “Manongs,” “Yellow Pearl,” and “Gidra.”

In addition to teaching about the history of earlier generations of Asian Americans, the book asks readers to set a new mission for their own era. As Iijima points out, “there is still a sense of urgency” among Asian Americans to confront present-day social injustice toward minorities and poor immigrants and imperial assaults on the Third World people in a direct form of violence as in the war in Iraq, but also indirectly in the process of privatization of land, house, and health care and casualization of employment.

It also demonstrates that continuous struggles can be sustained by standing by one another. The importance of social activists getting the encouragement of friends, mentors, and comrades is still true for our contemporary struggles. Many authors regret that they went from protest to protest, from newspaper to newspaper, and never developed a “long vision” of changing society — another lesson that is still valuable.

Although the targeted readers are Asian Americans, the book deserves a broader readership. The stories reveal how and why uniting all forces of whatever ethnic background for movements for social justice is important. Asian Americans are part of “all kinds” of movements, but simultaneously they are “only” part of them.