A Closer look at Asian Americans

Learning about Asian America at Luther College

In 1978, the US government proclaimed the first ten days of May as Asian-Pacific Heritage Week. In 1992, the government officially extended this designation to the entire month of May. Congressional leaders who introduced the legislation at the time chose May in order to commemorate the first immigration of Japanese subjects to the United States and the completion of the US transcontinental railroad, carried out in part by the earliest Chinese immigrants. They did not have in mind the academic calendar, filled in May with end-of-term exams, papers, and projects. Thus, at Luther, we do what we can in April to observe Asian-Pacific Heritage Month.

Luther College has a modestly long history of including the study of Asia in its curriculum, but the study of Asian America has lagged behind. Asian texts have been part of the first-year common curriculum since 1973, and earlier some courses entirely or partially on Asia offered in History, Political Science, and Religion. In the early 1980s, Luther College enrolled an increased number of first-generation Asian-American students; they, with a few more international students, formed in 1984 the Asian Students Association, whose primary purposes were, in the words of one of its founders, “to introduce to the Luther College community the culture and traditions of their countries” and to “exchange their knowledge in classes, like history or Paideia, as primary sources.” The ASA’s first major event in 1984 was a cultural fair called “Ethnic Arts ’84,” which has since expanded to include cultures beyond Asia and has shifted in the calendar from April to February. The ASA seems to have had little effect on Asia in the overall curriculum; what changes have occurred were driven by the college administration, the Board of Regents, or the faculty. Unlike the Black Student Union, who demanded that the experiences of African-Americans be added to the college curriculum, the ASA did not make a parallel demand for adding the experiences of Asian-Americans to the curriculum. Asian-Americans did appear in a smattering of courses across the curriculum, but never in a way that was made visible in course descriptions or titles, until Prof. Jacqueline Wilkie offered a history of Hawai’i as a “Topics in US History” course in Spring 2016.

Asian America in my own teaching has been similarly sporadic. I came to Luther in 2003, having just completed a Ph.D. in South Asian history and in need of a topic for the Spring term research unit for Paideia I (now 112). I made what turned out to be a pretty bad choice for topic that first year, so I needed a better one. Though I had read nearly nothing in the subject, I chose “Asian America” as the new topic because it seemed the best way to merge what I knew best (Asia) with the strong desire of undergraduate students to study what they consider “us” (for most Luther students, America). Students gamely read through Ronald Takaki’s Strangers from a Different Shore and navigated the thin store of resources on Asian America in Preus Library. For this and the next four years, students produced thoughtful papers on a range of topics, from the effects of internment on Japanese-Americans after WWII to the meteoric rise of former Louisiana governor Bobby Jindal. But students had trouble finding primary sources, so I shifted away from this topic for Spring 2009. Over the following years, students had ready access to primary sources but little interest in the topic. After a brief hiatus from teaching in Paideia 112, I returned to Asian America for Spring 2016, hopeful that the increasing digitization of primary sources would resolve at least some of the problems that had confronted students in the previous decade. Students responded with an ever-widening range of paper topics, from Asian-American identities in the entertainment sector, to spirituality across Asian-American ethnicities. Keeping a Paideia 112 research unit section devoted to Asian America is no substitute for a course that is in whole or in part devoted to the subject, but I hope it does inspire students to take up this important work in the places across the curriculum where they can find a place for it.

Brian Caton