The question of when Asian American history begins is a complicated one. If looking for the first known presence of a person from Asia on American soil, we might consider the findings of a 2007 Canadian archaeological project, which theorized that North America’s first inhabitants were seafarers from the Japanese islands who sailed the coastal waters of the North Pacific about 16,000 years ago.1
Using this as a starting point for Asian American history, however, does little to illuminate the long and continuous presence of Asians in the United States and North America. We could instead begin with the appearance of discrete populations of Asians in what is now the United States. Here we might look to 1763, when Filipino sailors aboard Spanish galleons on the Manila–Acapulco trade jumped ship and settled in the New Orleans area. Yet another approach would be to start with more sustained and large-scale migrations that led to a permanent presence of Asians in America. In this case, the California gold rush, which drew tens of thousands of Chinese in the late 1840s and early 1850s, stands out. Finally, we could start when persons of Asian descent in the United States consciously identified themselves as “Asian American.” This would make for a brief history, as it was not until the late 1960s that activists proclaimed an Asian American identity that rejected old labels, signaled pan-Asian solidarity, and made assertive claims to American belonging.
This is all to say that pinpointing when and where Asian American history begins, while an interesting exercise, can detract from a productive exploration of the subject. Rather than seeking to mark a definitive starting point for when Asians and Asian Americans become a presence in U.S. history, I suggest we first reflect upon what constitutes a presence. Here, it helps to consider ideas as well as bodies, and in this regard, it is important to note that traditions in Western thought about Asia, or the “Orient,” long predating the nineteenth century migrations informed the Asian American experience. Having inherited much cultural baggage from Europe, white Americans, from the dawn of independence, displayed distinct attitudes about Asia and the differences between Europeans and Asians, which in turn would shape how they viewed and treated Asian people in America. While the particular ideas about Oriental–Occidental difference changed over time and place, they pivoted consistently on a presumption of Western superiority and evinced a simultaneous fascination
with and revulsion of the “East.” Such thinking not only shored up Western, European—and subsequently white—identity, but also helped to rationalize political, economic, and military domination and interventions over “weak” Asian powers.
I realize that Westerners’ (i.e., white people’s) perceptions of Asians in history may seem an unconventional way to begin an exploration of Asian American history. To do so might implicitly give too much weight to racism and the views of outsiders, and marginalize or make secondary the agency, distinctiveness, and vitality of Asian American people and their communities. This is not the book’s intention, and as the reader will see in the chapters that follow, the lives and viewpoints of Asian Americans themselves are the centerpiece of A New History of Asian America. I do believe, however, that the discussions in this chapter are crucial because they underscore how Asian immigrants did not enter a blank slate. Their experiences were not shaped just by the baggage and expectations they brought with them, but also by the society they came into. Furthermore, while racism is not the only or most important theme in Asian American history, it is, I emphasize, a critical one that merits a sustained exploration.
As former colonial subjects, Americans in the late eighteenth century had a much different relationship with Asia than Europe did, although they inherited the outlook that Asia was an exotic and otherworldly place. As the young nation grew and matured over the nineteenth century, its perception of the “East” underwent numerous permutations, from a land of mysterious, ancient knowledge and desired luxury goods to a barbaric place to be opened, dominated, and civilized. However, more than just a far-flung part of the world and the site of Western civilization’s opposite, Asia—its people and things—would become intimately tied up in notions of American freedom and nationhood at key historical junctures. Furthermore, these moments—during which dominant thought with respect to East–West difference and the inherent foreignness of people from the “Orient” crystallized—revealed stark intellectual and ideological boundaries that cast Asians and Asian Americans as outsiders from the national civic body.
In his rumination on where Asian American history begins, the historian Gary Okihiro poses as a conceptual starting point the entry of Asians into the Western historical consciousness. “The when and where of the Asian American experience,” he states, “can be found within the European imagination and construction of Asians and Asia.”2
Indeed, Europeans have been thinking about Asia for a long time, and while the content of that thought and the contours of Europe–Asia relations have constantly shifted, remaining remarkably consistent was the upper hand that Europeans presupposed or sought over Asia, culturally, politically, economically, and militarily. This authority was bolstered by the one-sided production and unidirectional flow of knowledge whereby Westerners wrote and spoke about and for the East without allowing the East to speak for itself. The theorist of Orientalism Edward Said has explained that the “Orient’s” position as Europe’s most recurrent “other” stems from its position as the site of Europe’s “greatest and richest colonies, the source of its civilizations and languages, and its cultural contestant.”3
As such, Asia has been imagined variously as romantic, exotic, terrifying, and disgusting, but always otherworldly. Moreover, the function
of such notions has been to root and substantiate Europe’s identity rather than to understand Asia in an accurate or nuanced manner.4
Early Western articulations of the differences between Europe and Asia can be traced as far as the fourth century B.C.E. A nascent East–West awareness informs, for instance, ancient Greek plays such as The Bacchae
by Euripides and The Persians
The physician Hippocrates, in ruminating on the area between the Mediterranean and Black Seas, said that the people of Asia were unlike Europeans in every respect. Asia’s lush environment, he believed, produced monotony and indulgence amongst its inhabitants, while Europe, by contrast, had less natural abundance, and, thus, developed a more energetic and courageous people.6
Divisions between savagery and civilization animated ancient Greeks’ understandings of the East–West divide, solidified during encounters such as the Persia–Greece conflict in the fourth century B.C.E. Likewise, during his push into India in the third century B.C.E., Alexander the Great characterized his journey as a contest between civilization and barbarism. With civilization on their side, the Greeks triumphed over the undisciplined, slavish, and effeminate Asians. Echoing earlier writers, Alexander’s exoticized descriptions of Asia were influenced by his belief in the “generative relationship between the environment and race and culture.”7
Hundreds of years later, medieval writers reflected and reinforced the European awareness of the world as fundamentally divided between Eastern and Western civilizations, with their depictions of the East still entrenched in fantastical imaginings. Considered the most influential book about Asia from its publication in 1356 until the eighteenth century, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville
captured the imaginations of Europeans for generations. Mandeville was a pseudonym for several authors who purportedly traveled from England to the Holy Land, Egypt, Arabia, and Cathay. Like Marco Polo before him, Mandeville described the “marvels and monsters of the East, from the bounties of gold, silver, precious stones, cloves, nutmeg, and ginger to the horrors of one-eyed and headless beasts, giants, pygmies, and cannibals.”8
Also emphasizing the bizarre physical appearance of Orientals, Wonders of the East
, of which Alexander the Great is the hero, described Asian women with “boars’ tusks and hair down to their heels and oxen’s tails growing out of their loins. [They] are thirteen feet tall, and their bodies have the whiteness of marble, and they have camels’ feet and donkeys’ teeth.”9
During the thirteenth century, the Mongol invasions made immediately terrifying what to many Europeans had long been a strange but otherwise distant people. In 1225, Friar William of Rubruck described the Mongols as “swarming like locusts over the face of the earth” and bringing “terrible devastation to the eastern parts [of Europe], laying waste with fire and carnage.”10
Despite their military prowess, they remained a filthy and barbaric people.
Also by the medieval period, religion—more specifically Europeans’ perceptions of the differences between Christians and non-Christians—had emerged as a major axis of East–West difference. Here, the rise of Islam in the Near East and parts of southern Europe and Asia in the seventh through fifteenth centuries framed European views of non-Christian others.11
Islam was, Edward Said explains, to Europe “a lasting trauma,” for until the end of the 1600s, the “‘Ottoman peril’ lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger.”12
By the twelfth century, it was a common belief that Arabia was “on the fringe of the Christian world, a natural asylum for heretical outlaws,” and that Mohammed, Islam’s founder, was a “cunning apostate,” for Islam itself, as the
sixteenth-century Orientalist Barthelemy d’Herbelot maintained, was merely a “fraudulent version of Christianity.”13
Such assumptions explain depictions of Muslims in such works as Dante’s The Inferno
. In this fourteenth-century poem in which Dante journeys through the nine circles of hell, he encounters in the eighth circle “Maometto” (Mohammed) who is condemned to a fate in which he is “endlessly cut from his chin to anus.” In the first circle, he meets a group of Muslims who, despite being “virtuous heathens,” are nonetheless damned to hell because they have not experienced Christian revelation.14
As noted in some of the descriptions above, gender was a pronounced aspect of Europeans’ understanding of East–West difference. This was apparent in ancient Greek representations of “soft men and erotic women,” as well as “hard, cruel men and virile, martial women.”15
According to Arrian, the second-century Greek historian, the women of Asia were hypersexual, untamed, and wild. Marco Polo’s writings also highlighted the unusual gender formations in Asian societies. There, he found “chaste women and diabolical men, and grotesque and wondrous objects and people, including unicorns, Amazons, dog-headed creatures, mountain streams flowing with diamonds, and deserts full of ghouls.”16
Yet Chinese women were “the most delicate and Angelique things, and raised gently, and with great delicacy, and they clothe themselves with so many ornaments and of silk and of jewels, that the value of them cannot be estimated.”17
Such observations spoke to the feminization of Asia in the European consciousness, which would be folded into perceptions of Asian inferiority and used to rationalize colonization from the sixteenth century onward.18
Over the centuries, accumulated impressions of Asia, drawn from direct encounters, the writings of others, and powerful stereotypes, developed into a self-reinforcing worldview in which the Orient and Occident represented separate categories of humanity. As noted earlier, this served to develop and refine European identity.19
As historical relationships and the particular interests of Westerners in the “Orient” changed, what was remarkably enduring and took on the authority of “common sense” as late as the nineteenth century (and perhaps today) was the perceived East–West dichotomy and familiar set of images that the “Orient” evoked: backwardness, irrationality, sensuality, and stagnation. Orientalism flattens the Orient and gives authority to the Orientalist who claims to “know” the area. Furthermore, it enthralls and elevates the Western consumer with tales and objects from s...