A ‘vibrant,’ non-linear approach to Asian America’s histories



By Catherine Ceniza Choy (Boston: Beacon Press, 2022, 206 pp. $26.95, hard cover)
In the mid-1990s, while teaching history classes at California State University, Fullerton, I was asked to join a professor from the Education Department in designing an academic minor curriculum for the university’s new Asian American Studies Program. Since neither of us had taught Asian American classes, we relied heavily in our collaboration upon the curricular models then in use at other California universities. The most influential for us was the University of California, Santa Barbara one designed by the celebrated scholar Sucheng Chan. Moreover, when I was tasked with teaching the introductory course for our fledgling program, I chose to use Chan’s 1991 survey book, “Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Immigrant Heritage of America Series,)” as the primary text. Deeply researched, meticulously documented and pellucidly written, this outstanding book covered its topic for the period extending from the mid-19th century to the present in a linear manner expressed chiefly from a third-person perspective.

In striking contrast to the style Chen employed, is that utilized so innovatively and effectively by Catherine Ceniza Choy in “Asian American Histories of the United States.” A seasoned Ethnic Studies professor at the University of California, Berkeley, who is of Filipino American heritage, Choy treats the 150-year socio-historical experience of 11 diverse Asian American communities (together comprising the fastest growing group in today’s United States) in a non-linear fashion. In so doing, she writes about it in the first and second person, as well as the more traditional third person (that is, more like a drama or other artistic work than a traditional historical narrative) with a premium placed upon vibrant storytelling to render the still elusive Asian American story more palpable and consequential to readers.

Choy contends that Asian American history lacks a single origin story, having instead multiple ones stretching “back as well as forward in time and space” (p. 1). Accordingly, she rivets upon a series of distinctively significant origin stories that have been somehow lost within standard histories of the United States, and opines that when viewed together as a constellation, they can reclaim their former resonance. To cite but one example of such a landmark Asian American origin story, Choy references the 1975 plight of Southeast Asian refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia that in time led to their resettlement in all 50 U.S. states. In fleshing out such far-reaching origin stories, Choy grapples resourcefully and brilliantly with the overriding question of just how and why in the current time it is that Asian Americans find themselves, notwithstanding their lengthy history, the target of so much hate in this country. In response to this rhetorical question, she lays emphasis as an impassioned feminist activist upon three salient themes of Asian American histories: violence, erasure and resistance.

My one concern with this exemplary book is its lack of an index. For a non-linear work such as Choy’s, this poses an inordinately thorny problem for readers in terms of efficient information retrieval.

To better grasp Choy’s reasons for writing this book at this particular juncture, I strongly recommend that readers access her April 11, 2022, videotaped interview transacted by Asia Society President Kevin Rudd: https://asiasociety.org/video/author-catherine-choy-lessons-asian-american-history.

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