Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans presents the story of how Asians of diverse ethnic origins and nationalities came to the United States and how they fared in their new country. As such, it is broad in scope and contains a wealth of detail. Yet the pace of Ronald Takaki’s narrative never flags. This reflects the author’s superior writing skill and the drama of the story he is telling, one of “extravagant” hope, bitter disappointment, endless struggle, and occasional triumph. Skillfully blending together statistical and anecdotal evidence, Takaki also provides painful insights into the broken promises and tragic irony that have been fundamental to the American Dream in practice, particularly for those who are not white-skinned Caucasians.
Takaki is well qualified, both professionally and personally, to tell this story. As professor of ethnic studies at the University of California, Berkeley, Takaki has authored a number of solid scholarly works, including one on race prejudice (Iron Cages: Race and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, 1979) and one on immigrants in Hawaii (Pau Hana: Plantation Life and Labor in Hawaii, 1983). In addition, he himself is the grandson of immigrant plantation workers from Japan. His father died when Takaki was five years old; his mother was remarried to a Chinese immigrant who brought the family to the American mainland. These credentials combine to produce a work that is impressively researched yet also impassioned. With very few exceptions, Takaki’s professionalism keeps him detached enough to be thoroughly convincing. At the same time, his personal involvement is translated into a conspicuous rapport with and sympathy for the people he interviewed and about whom he is writing. The overall result is a work of profound credibility and great emotional power.
Takaki’s chronological narrative is according to the patterns of settlement and nationality of the diverse immigrant groups. The immigration of Asians into the United States and Hawaii began during the middle of the nineteenth century. Driven by difficult economic conditions at home and drawn by the promise of unforeseen prosperity (what Takaki calls the elements of “push” and “pull”), Asians found conditions anything but easy in their new country. Many returned to their homeland as soon as the opportunity arose. Many others ended up staying, however, some out of choice, others out of necessity. By the end of the nineteenth century, a small but substantial second generation of Asian Americans was taking root. The turn of the century brought a successful effort on the part of white Americans to limit severely Asian-American presence on the mainland. Despite the now notoriously unjust internment of Japanese Americans, World War II ultimately reversed this trend. Chinese and other non-Japanese Asians became American allies in arms. Asian Americans (including a significant number of Japanese) enlisted or were drafted into the armed forces and served with distinction. In addition, the United States was forced to alter its long-standing policies of excluding Asian immigrants in order to counter Japanese propaganda efforts. The revelations of Nazi atrocities in the name of racial purity also made it impossible to return to the overtly racist policies of the prewar years. These factors combined to allow a new wave of immigrants from Asia and establishment of some basic civil rights (for example, citizenship and ownership of property) for those of Asian origin already in residence. The war in Vietnam also led to an influx of Asian Americans seeking refuge from the military and political turmoil of Indochina.
Geographically, Takaki points out the different patterns of immigration and assimilation in Hawaii, where various groups of Asian immigrants were able to achieve a substantial level of acceptance and equality, and the mainland United States, where Asians suffered from unabashed racial discrimination right up until the end of World War II and remain a decided racial minority even today. Hawaii’s plantation economy demanded a large, inexpensive work force. The position of the plantation owners made diverse ethnic representation highly desirable, since in that way workers of different national and ethnic backgrounds could be played off against one another instead of uniting to counterbalance the power of their bosses. The result was a culture of diversity in which native Hawaiians and various Asian groups were a clear majority. Thus, while economic exploitiveness was quite common, in fact, the rule rather than the exception, conditions were not right for the establishment of the outright racism. In short, Asian immigrants in Hawaii may not have achieved economic justice, but they did avoid the status of second-class citizens. Indicative of this condition was the fact that internment of ethnic Japanese did not take place in Hawaii after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, despite strong pressure from authorities on the mainland. The internment of Japanese Americans on the mainland, on the other hand, was a predictable extension of nearly a century’s worth of discrimination against Asian minorities. In the United...
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