Asian Americans Documentary – initial thoughts

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I’ve eagerly anticipated the new Asian Americans documentary that aired on PBS the last two days. I viewed the previews and promoted it heavily among my friends. And I was not disappointed.

Asian Americans is a five hour patchwork of intriguing personal and family stories woven into a long, complex and rich history. Under the shadow of white supremacy in U.S. history, various Asian Americans have struggled to survive, fought for civil rights, and refused to be silenced. The documentary’s dominant meta-narrative is that of heroic Asian Americans who battled racial exclusion and marginalization to prove that they are Americans. Thus, resilient victims, vocal social activists, conscientious political leaders, achievers and celebrities who reflected on their Asian American identities were the given the most attention in this documentary.

One of the participants in a post-air watch party wondered who this documentary’s audience was. Many thought that it was primarily for Asian Americans and questioned whether non-Asians American would be much interested. I agreed that Asian Americans would be most interested in the documentary. It resonated with me and many of my friends who can identify with the experience of being marginalized and silenced. There were many cathartic moments in the documentary that left me in tears: the devastating impact of the World War II concentration camps on one Japanese American family, the trauma of the Southeast Asian refugee experience, or the all-too familiar images of Vincent Chin’s grieving mom. Indeed, the recent surge of anti-Asian racist incidents in the wake of COVID-19 is a visceral reminder that anti-Asian sentiment, despite recent Asian American progress, lie just beneath the surface, waiting to be sparked. So, yes, this documentary is an important reminder to Asian Americans that despite our “breakthrough” (the title of the final episode), the hard fought victories of the past can be easily snatched away.

But the documentary was also for a mainstream American audience. This is not just our story, but an American story. Rather, a revision of the American story that centers the narrative on a racialized people. Those who despise multiculturalism or bemoan the deletion of Western Civilization in the curriculum cannot escape the truth of the whole story of America. This is a truth that I’ve engaged in my scholarship. This is the truth of “The 1619 Project” that the New York Times featured last August to commemorate the 400 anniversary of slavery in the U.S. Namely, that the United States was build on the backs of people of color. Or more generously, America was built by people of color.

I spent much of my adult life trying to persuade Asian American Christians that this truth needed to be part of our theology and ministry. As long as American Christianity is complicit with perpetuating a narrative that centers on Euro-American heroism and leadership, we’ll never see how truly global Christianity has become. For example, Douglas Jacobsen notes that

When the twentieth century began, Christianity was still a predominantly European faith. Today, two-thirds of the world’s Christians live in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. No other religion has ever experienced so much change in such a short period of time. Global Gospel (2015), p. xv

But, in the end, despite its efforts to speak a broader truth to mainstream Americans, Asian Americans is still quintessentially patriotic and doesn’t question the American dream all that much. I appreciate the nuanced and honest snippets that appear occasionally (e.g., the mystery of Buddy Uno, the Korean and Black conflict just prior to the 1991 Los Angeles uprising, the huge economic divide among Asian Americans in Silicon Valley, etc.). But the core values of equality, inclusivity, and opportunity drives the documentary. As one of the interviewees noted, “Asian American can become whatever they want to be.”

The one major shortcoming that I see in the documentary may be self-serving, but I think it is important. Religion is virtually no where to be found. Sure, Alex Koh talks about going to church in Koreatown before the 1991 L.A. uprising. Erika Lee nonchalantly equated being Christian with trying to quietly fit in to America during the 1950s. But the omission of religion, something that would be unthinkable in documentaries of African Americans and Latinx, continues despite more than twenty years of rich scholarship about Asian Americans and religion. The most obvious erasure, in my opinion, can be found in the discussion about Joseph and Mary Tape’s fight against the exclusion of their daughter from San Francisco’s public school in the 19th century. We are shown their protest letter that was published in a local newspaper. While the letter explicitly appeals to Christian values as a reason to include their daughter, that part was completely ignored.

Asian American studies is no longer as dogmatically anti-religion (though there continues to be a feeling that ethnic studies is hostile to Christianity, largely due to its association with Western colonialism. See Robert Chao Romero, “Towards a Perspective of the Christian-Ethnic Studies Borderlands and Critical Race Theory in Christianity,” Christianity Next (Winter 2017), pp. 45-66). Since the publication of the 1999 issue of AmerAsia Journal that was dedicated to religion, a generation of scholarship have highlighted the richness and nuances of AAPI religion. I wonder if any of the scholars who participate in Asian North American Religion and Cultural Studies group (ANARCS) at the American Academy of Religion or the Asian Pacific American Religious Research Initiative (APARRI) were consulted in the making of the documentary? If they were, the producers would have had to contend with Josh Padison’s important point:

religion was central to the formations of race and citizenship in the post-Civil War United States…Most studies emphasize economics in the development of race…Though the strength of such economic forces is undeniable, attention to the public and private discourses of the nineteenth century – the way in which Americans talked, wrote, and thought – shows the powerful ways religion shaped the day-to-day expression of those forces. — American Heathen: Religion, Race, and Reconstruction in California (2012), page 4

But, by erasing religion, intentionally or not, a very big part of the AAPI story is missing. Recent studies have revealed how religion (in particular, Christian faith) has provided inspiration, philosophical grounding, and the moral impetus for much of AAPI social activism. Religious institutions and facilities were often centers for assembling workers and gathering places for communities to organize. Religious leaders – Asian, white, Black, and Latino – joined, and in some instances, led campaigns for civil rights, Native Hawaiian resistance, immigration reform, and Japanese American internment camp redress.

Despite this critique, Asian Americans, is, to me, a remarkable achievement. We are witnessing a new generation of AAPI scholars, community leaders, artists, and workers who can build the United States of the future, a nation that will, hopefully, be more true its democratic vision. I especially pray for a new generation of AAPI Christians who will not only contribute to the common good, but, through their witness, also be the conscience of the nation.

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2 Comments

  1. Hi Tim, Yes, I agree, the series is a great step in making known the contributions of Asian Americans to everyone. I also noticed the omission of religion, but wasn’t surprised. As a film producer with an Asian American Christian story, I’m having a hard time figuring out where this story fits. Asian Americans, in general, may not resonate with it because it’s Christian and Christians, in general, may not, I hate to say, pay attention to it because only a small percentage of American Christians are Asian.

    I’m looking forward to viewing the last two episodes of the series.

    Carol Hall

    Reply
    • Thank you, Carol, for your comments! I actually did not mean to imply that the documentary should have focused on Asian American Christians. It was more a concern about not giving space to the importance of religion (all religions) in the experiences of Asian Americans. Despite the difficulty of “fitting” religion (and Christianity) into the story of Asian Americans, I feel that responsible scholarship needs to make the attempt.

      Reply

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