Sarita Sarvate




Sunday, March 26, 2000
Section: Books
Edition: Morning Final
Page: 5


Memo: Ethnic Identities
Sarita Sarvate was trained as a physicist and came to the United States in 1976 to attend graduate school at the University of California-Berkeley. She writes commentaries for the Pacific News Service and for KQED radio.

ASIAN AMERICAN DREAMS: The Emergence of an American People

By Helen Zia
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 319 pp., $25

A WEEK before his wedding in 1982, a Chinese-American man named Vincent Chin was slain in Detroit by two white men who, mistaking him for Japanese, made him the target for their anger at the decline of the American auto industry. Although the perpetrators pleaded guilty to Chin’s beating death, a white judge sentenced them only to probation and $3,780 in fines and court costs. San Francisco author Helen Zia, an activist in Detroit at the time, identifies the political mobilization sparked by Chin’s death as a turning point in Asian-American history.

“Asian American Dreams” is rich with such turning points, and they are told in moving detail. In the Detroit case, for example, the killers were tried and convicted in federal court for violating Chin’s civil rights. Then that conviction was overturned on appeal by a mostly white jury in Cincinnati. “Vincent’s soul will never rest. My life is over,” Chin’s mother wailed upon hearing the final verdict.

Chapter by chapter, the book opens up like the petals of an Asian water lily. From stories of individuals battling personal discrimination and prejudice, it progresses to stirring tales of civic struggles in which entire neighborhoods, cities and communities are involved. These stories might have taken on maudlin overtones had they not been fortified with rigorous accounts of the legal, social and political activism springing forth in their wake.

“Asian American Dreams” begins with a well-documented history of the first immigrants to arrive in the United States from China, Japan and India. Unable to own property, vote or bring wives into this country, they persevered and eventually participated in the civic life of the United States.

Zia skillfully relates this history to contemporary events, which often have a backdrop of national and international politics. A case in point is the saga of the migrant Filipinos who for decades worked in the Alaskan salmon canneries. The Filipinos first came in large numbers to Alaska in 1911, as replacements for Chinese and Japanese workers who had been excluded by nativist policies. (Filipinos weren’t excluded at that time because the Philippines had been annexed by the United States after the Spanish-American War.) By the 1970s, thousands of Filipinos migrated to the canneries each year, working in plantation-hard conditions.

Student and labor activists filed lawsuits that took years to wind their way through the courts. In this tale, as in many others, the politics in the immigrants’ native country comes into play as well: The Filipino workers union stood directly in conflict with Marcos loyalists in the United States. Union organizers Silme Domingo and Gene Viernes were slain by hit men, and their families sued Marcos for the role his agents played in the conspiracy. The community continued the labor battle under the slogan “Turn anguish to anger.”

Alas, Hollywood-style happy endings are not in store for the major players in this and many other controversies Zia covers — the tensions between blacks and Korean-American grocers in New York City, the Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict, the casting of non-Asian actor Jonathan Pryce in “Miss Saigon” on Broadway. Instead, it is through the defeats or setbacks in specific cases that larger change in American attitudes and institutions is brought about.

Interspersed with this reporting are brief autobiographical essays from Zia’s life — from childhood in a working-class Chinese family in New Jersey, to Princeton, to the auto assembly line in Detroit, to her life as a community activist. The autobiographical material is so intriguing that the reader longs for more. However, the connections between the personal and the political are not handled evenly across the chapters in the book. Asian-American involvement in the movement to legalize same-sex marriage gets extensive attention, nearly sidetracking the book, after Zia reveals her sexual orientation as a lesbian. Other, perhaps more relevant, connections lack that intimate appeal.

Asian-American readers may well find themselves turning to the index to look up their specific ethnic community. Zia discusses the successful, affluent South Asian immigrant community, of which I happen to be a member. Her observations about the class distinctions within the Indian immigrant community are astute, as are her remarks about the conflicting demands faced by women and girls in the group. She notes the rise in domestic violence and the recent spurt in Indian women’s organizations to combat it.

Silicon Valley Indians might feel stung by what Zia considers the failure of The IndUS Entrepreneurs (TIE) to embrace social and political causes. It is ironic, she notes, that the very people who became entrepreneurs and millionaires as a result of the discrimination they faced in the form of a glass ceiling in Silicon Valley refuse to act against it. Her comments are so much on the mark that one wonders why she is not equally incisive about internal tensions within her own Chinese-American community.

One glaring omission in the book is a full discussion of the successful campaign to win reparations for the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II. Perhaps Zia considered it an altogether familiar story. But subsequent generations would have benefited from a rigorous narration of it, as they will from her other accounts.

Scholars and historians will be able to use “Asian American Dreams” as a treatise on civil rights, and an average reader will learn much from the personal civic struggles of the main characters. Moving, and at times disturbing, it is an inspiring book.

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