Asian Americans

“In the totality of American perception,” Joann Faung Jean Lee writes in her introduction, “all Asians are somehow lumped together into one racial group, devoid of distinctive ethnic and cultural differences.” Lee’s book is one of a number of recent publications that should help to correct this misperception. Indeed, the range of groups represented here is even wider than the subtitle suggests. One of the most thoughtful interview subjects is a thirty-year-old Korean American who came to the United States at the age of seventeen. One of the Chinese Americans included here was born in Australia, one in Taiwan, while yet another emigrated from the People’s Republic of China to Hong Kong, living there for some time before coming to the United States.

ASIAN AMERICANS is divided into three sections. In the first, “Living in America,” individuals talk about their lives and in particular about the ways in which their ethnicity has shaped their experience. As well as representing many different cultures and countries of origin, Lee’s subjects range widely in age and occupation. Among them are an eleven-year-old Japanese American girl who lives in New Jersey, a Chinese American lawyer in his thirties who was born and reared in Clarksdale, Mississippi, and a forty-year-old Filipino American, born on a U.S. military base in Manila, who is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. Part 2, “Aspects of Americanization,” organizes recollections and brief observations under topical headings. The section titled “Exodus,” for example, features several post-1975 refugees from Southeast Asia. In part 3, “Reflections on Interracial Marriage,” couples from a variety of ethnic backgrounds are represented; in several cases both husband and wife are interviewed.

Lee’s collection has the strengths and weaknesses typical of oral history. The people she interviews tend to ramble. Even as they describe stereotypes with justifiable resentment, they fall into dubious generalizations of their own. And their memories, like all human memories, are fallible. Still, from the chorus of idiosyncratic voices gathered here we get intimations of the reality that underlies abstractions such as “multiculturalism.” How Walt Whitman would have loved this book!