“Asian American voices: Language in the Asian American community” by Thom Huebner and Linda Uyechi discusses the Asian contribution to culture in the United States. Since cultural integration is such an important part of what our country is, it is essential to understand what this contribution and how it affects our daily lives. Most importantly, this chapter necessitates the ability to speak English in this country so that others are able to learn and cherish these ideas. In addition to non-Asian’s learning more about the Asian culture, learning English is also beneficial to native Asian speakers who will be able to receive advanced positions in work and the community as a whole as a result of their increased ability to communicate. Therefore, my thesis is that it is essential to learn more about the Asian culture because of their exciting history, but it is equally important for Asian’s to learn about other cultures of the world because will help everyone spread new ideas and learn to appreciate one another to a greater extent.
Chapter 13 begins by discussing the origins of the “Asian American” identity in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Despite this sudden dominance of Asian culture in the United States during this time period, historians have shown that there was evidence of Asian presence on this continent since before the time of Columbus. Although Asian’s clearly arrived in North America on the Pacific coast based on artifact evidence, Asian’s primarily immigrated here in two waves; the first one began in mid-nineteenth century in Hawaii in 1898 and the second in 1965 after laws that allowed for easier immigration had been passed. Although the reasons for this immigration weren’t positive at the time, since they included military unrest in Asia and aggressive US colonialism, the increased integration of Asians into the United States culture has benefitted us in many ways.
The first wave of immigrants from Asia who entered Hawaii were mainly unskilled laborers who came from impoverished backgrounds to seek a new life. The idea of leaving one’s native land to seek a new life in the United States is far from unique in our history. Many other ethnic groups also left their native lands to do the same thing; this is why we as Americans can brag about the diversity and uniqueness of our country. Although some unfortunate problems have occurred as a result of this over the years, such as racism and terrorism, one could argue that the benefits outweigh the negatives. The diverse cultures, languages, and histories we have learned about from first and second hand experiences with other groups of people have allowed us to grow as a society. We are able to appreciate many forms of art, music, and drama more easily than people in other countries could ever hope to. This is essentially what we can consider to be “the American dream”.
Despite the positives of immigrating to the United States that are now evident, the people who initially moved to Hawaii from China, Japan, Korea, and the Philippines faced a hard life. The majority of them became farmers who worked the fields. Since farming was hard work and there were many threats from Chinese sugar planters who wanted to form unions, Asian immigrants who were from other countries decided to find other places to work. This battle for work led to the United States government passing the Chinese Exclusion Act which prevented further Asians from immigrating to the United States in addition to preventing those who were born here from becoming naturalized citizens. As a result, there was a lull in the movement of people from Asia to the United States while this act was legal, and there was no major change in the proportion of Asian people in the United States until the second wave of immigration in 1965.
Despite the lack of immigration into the country during the period that the Chinese Exclusion Act was active, the Asians who originated in Hawaii and California migrated to different parts of the country and their influence increased as a result. This was the first time that people from Asia and who were of Asian descent spread to the South and East to places like New York. A majority of Asian immigrants were male, and therefore those that spread to different areas of the United States ending up marrying people from other cultures, including Mexican, Native American, and African American women. The major exception to this trend was the Japanese, who had a generally equal number of men and women in their immigration populations. On the mainland, Asian workers switched from just farming jobs to jobs that included mining, building the railroads, and running fisheries and other business. Soon, Asian Americans became an extremely important labor force in the United States. Without the increase in population that these workers provided, we wouldn’t have many of the main infrastructures in this country that we do today.
There were clearly diverse cultural patterns that existed as a result of the wide variety of Asian cultures that were now reflected in Asian culture at this point in time. In order to protect their heritages, many different groups of Asian people founded schools for people of their own culture in order to transmit language and cultural ideas that they believed would be lost otherwise. Koreans were more geographically dispersed compared to other groups of Asians, but managed to achieve this goal by congregating in church and forming nationalist organizations. Some minorities such as Asian Indians and Filipinos didn’t have a large enough community in the United States to be able to form such organizations and needed to perform many activities by interacting with interpreters.
It is interesting to note here that the groups of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans who were able to form tight knit communities generally stayed within their own groups to a greater extent than the Asian minorities did. Asian Indians and Filipinos who had small groups of men who immigrated to this country were more likely to marry outside of their culture and have children who would be able to speak English in addition to the native languages of both of their parents. Although there were not many records that detailed language use that would allow us to have a greater understanding of these first wave immigrants, it is likely that the children of the Asian immigrants who were able to speak English in addition to other languages had a greater chance of spreading their culture with other English speakers. In addition, it is likely that these English speaking children had more job opportunities outside of the immediate Asian community compared to those in tight knit immigrant communities.
The second wave of Asian immigration into the United States signaled a shift from the individual Asian communities desiring to remain completely separate from one another into one that was more generally accepting of their similarities. This initial want to remain separate was prompted mainly by the initiation of Japanese internment camps in World War II; other Asian communities didn’t want to be wrongly accused of being Japanese, so they made all attempts possible to make it clear that they were from other Asian countries. Further separating the Asian races during World War II, many Asian groups who were not previously allowed to become citizens served in the war so that they would be granted citizenship. During this time, the Chinese Exclusion Act was also appealed and for one of the first times since the initial Chinese immigration, Chinese Americans were able to bring Chinese wives home with them. Although many laws were passed during this time that helped increase the numbers of Asian immigrants to come to the United States, the most significant act was the 1965 Immigration Reform Act, which significantly relaxed quotas on those who were allowed to come to the United States from Asia.
During this time period, there was again some racism due to world events. World War II and the Vietnam War made many non-Asian American citizens distrustful of Asians in the United States; although this opinion was clearly unnecessary, it was a natural reaction to the state of the world. As a result, many Asian groups started banning together in a movement that would eventually form a pan-ethnic Asian American identity. After this period, Asian Americans who descended from very different countries would come together and help defend one another’s rights. For example, a strike to organize plantation workers in Hawaii in 1946 included members of many different Asian communities to promote a common cause.
Once the Asian community as a whole found ways to come together, it was essential for them to use this ability to further themselves in this country. As someone who is living in the modern era looking back, it is difficult to think of a time where Asian people weren’t integrated in this society. Asians are now political leaders, renowned businesspeople, and lawyers. How did they make the transition from what seemed to be second class citizens in this country to who they are now?
It is clear that language played an essential role in this transition. Even those who came to this country early on and learned English had a better chance of succeeding than their counterparts. It has become easier for Asians who are second and third generation to communicate with other Americans and they are able to get better jobs as a result. It is unfortunate that this is the case because people who don’t speak English or do so with a strong accent can be equally or more intelligent as those who speak English clearly. Despite this, we seem to put an extremely strong value on the English language in this country. Although it seems unfair, it does make some sense; we need to establish some form of common language in order to ensure that the majority is able to communicate. As a result of this view however, we are more likely to discriminate against those who do not speak perfect English.
According to ACLU of Northern California, language discrimination is not currently illegal. Therefore, an employer or school can legally turn down a potential employee or student because they aren’t able to speak English as well as another applicant. Although this is not country, or any country for that matter, to learn the language that is spoken by a majority of its citizens. In addition to being able to demonstrate knowledge through use of this language, it shows respect for culture. Even though people who come to this country should know or learn English to the best of their ability, cultural respect is a two way street. Just because we believe someone who comes to the United States should know English doesn’t mean we shouldn’t attempt to learn their languages as well. Asian languages in particular are richly tied in to their culture. Even though these languages sound similar to the untrained ear, they are all very different and take a lot of effort to master.
It is impossible to truly understand a culture unless you are able to speak their language. Many aspects of communication are lost through translation and it is often better to try to understand documents, books, poems, and music in their original language in order to truly understand their content. Although Asia has many languages that are native to the continent, it would be worthwhile to understand even a few words or learn how they write out their intricate letters in an attempt to understand why their language is what it is. It is wrong for us to force others to learn our language and culture without giving others a fair share of our time to do the same.
ACLUNC. Language Discrimination. Retrieved from https://www.aclunc.org/library/publications/asset_upload_file489_3538.pdf
Clauson, Gerard. 1968. “A lexicostatistical appraisal of the Altaic theory.” Central Asiatic Journal 13: 1–23.
Chapter 13: T. Huebner and L. Uyechi, Asian American voices: language in the Asian American community