May 20, 2020

Thoughts around the new Asian Americans PBS series

I'm ecstatic that they've included Filipino-American history in the series. Too often, we're ignored in the greater Asian-American historical record, with one book highlighting this fact in its subtitle (Filipinos: Forgotten Asian Americans.) However, as noted by E. J. R. David in his article for Psychology Today, there's still not enough representation for Southeast Asians and South Asians in the series, both of which have significant histories in the US.

Despite all of the above, this series couldn't have come out at a better time, especially when anti-Asian racism is on the rise across the West - with COVID-19 related racist attacks happening across the country that mirror sentiments toward Asians throughout US history, we're also seeing history repeat itself with concentration camps across the US for refugees fleeing conflict in Guatemala and other places in central America, something that we've seen in the past with Japanese-Americans during WW2. I saw myself in the faces of all of the people in the series - I kept thinking to myself, "this easily could have been me in this human zoo," or, "maybe I would've been on the frontlines of WW2 just to prove that I deserve to be a US citizen." On that same note, it is a shame that they did not cover the fact that Trump ended family reunification for Filipino WW2 veterans who fought for the US, and that Filipino WW2 veteran groups have fought for their promised benefits for decades until they finally got some recompense in 2009 (yet, the corresponding bureaucracy is still difficult to navigate.)

My family arrived after the US lifted their immigration restrictions from Asia - my grandparents were the first to arrive to the US. I learned a lot from my mom about both of my grandparents: my grandmother was from Ilocos Norte, served a lengthy tenure as a teacher in the Philippines, then as an educator working to provide solutions around primary education across the SEA region. I did a little bit of sleuthing: she worked for Innotech, and there's a mention of her in a UNESCO document on education methods. My mom recounted how my grandmother was a part of the hurried evacuation out of Saigon right before the Vietnam War reached its conclusion - she's also recounted how this was not her first experience with war. Both of my grandparents were in hiding in the mountains of the Philippines during WW2 - my grandfather, a civil engineer at the time, was held captive by the Japanese and nearly died of torture, saved only by his Japanese foreman who said that my grandfather was working for him. My grandparents had portraits of their relatives who passed away in the Bataan Death March. At the time, I was mostly afraid of my brother's portrait hidden in a dark corner of a stairway leading down to the basement. I don't know if those portraits of my granduncles are still around somewhere.

They both settled in Seattle after they retired from their respective careers, likely in the early 80's or late 70's. Soon after, my uncles migrated over, then my mom and older brother, then eventually my dad. I was born in the US as a second generation immigrant - I learned via the Asian American series that this wasn't automatically extended to those of Asian descent several decades ago, before the repeal of the "National Origins Formula" method of immigration in 1965.

I remember interviewing my grandmother back high school and writing down a bunch of notes; I wish she was still alive so I could ask her more pointed questions. I still wonder if those notes are floating around somewhere in my parents' garage.

At the tail end of the series, Hari Kondabolu talks a bit about the fallout of 9/11 in the US and a little bit of his experience growing up in Queens. I wish they delved a bit more into this. I recall a conversation with a Lyft driver a while back - he's Sikh, but I could not tell at first glance since he did not have a dastar. He told me and my girlfriend at the time that he had to completely shave all of his facial hair and cut his hair as a direct result of 9/11, since everyone thought he was a terrorist.

Ending thoughts: there's a lot to explore. Lots of political history, activism, critical turning points, and all kinds of responses to hatred and bigotry that many Asian groups can talk about. It is clear that we need to reclaim the term "Asian-American" not as a cultural catch-all, but as a political bloc that represents all Asians in the fight for a radical new vision of the US that includes everyone. We must also not allow the "Asian-American" moniker to erase the nuances that exist within each ethnicity represented under the umbrella. I hope PBS has plans in the future for future episodes in this series, and if not, I hope this encourages more people to come forward and talk about their personal histories with being Asian in the US.