Going Public: A Look at Asian Contributions on the Americas

Sep 16, 2016

Dr. Debra Lee-DiStefano, a professor of Spanish at Southeast Missouri State University.

 Earlier this year, Dr. Debra Lee-DiStefano, a professor of Spanish at Southeast, contributed to the book Imagining Asia in the Americas, which takes a look at the many contributions from Asians in the Americas. Recently, she joined KRCU's Marissanne Lewis-Thompson in the studio to talk more about those contributions and what it means to be Asian in America.

Lewis-Thompson: So you contributed to a book called Imagining Asia in the Americas, and one of the main components that the book talks about is the influence Asians have had on the Americas. Can you tell me a little bit about those contributions?

Lee-DiStefano: Yes and like I said historically there are people who are much I think have much more in the capacity to go into great length. But if you look at our railroad system. Our railroad system throughout the continents was largely built because of Chinese labor. When you look at the Coolie trade and different types of migration that brought people of Chinese decent and many South Asians into this hemisphere for work. If you look at that kind of system. And then those people are staying and they're building other industries here. So, you're working at you know the traditional if you're going to think of a Chinese restaurant you think of Chinese laundry. You have China towns that come into existence, and so cities such as I mean pretty much every city if you look at Los Angeles, if you look San Francisco, if you look at New York, if you look at Chicago, they're marked. The mark of these groups is still there in these. And if you go south into Mexico, I mean you've got a lot of Chinese in Sonora in Mexico. Many Mexicans don't even know about this that there's a significant Chinese contribution in Veracruz as well. Then if you go into South America it's very similar, because of the need for labor. They brought in Chinese, Japanese, South Asian workers to work on the plantations. And so, you have people affecting economies [on a] great great scale.

Lewis-Thompson: Well what about the cultural and social contributions then that we see in our day to day?

Lee-DiStefano: The contributions are a little different. So I think something you said that's perfect--in our day to day lives. And I can give you an example in Peru. There's a very famous grocery store called Wong. Every goes to Wong's. I mean and Wong family eventually became Peruvian, but at some point they migrated to Peru where originally I'm assuming from China, I don't know their background. But Wong's now is just it's just everyday. That's where you go to buy your groceries. And so, that is an element of a Chinese name that serves as a marker that's within the transcourse to be the Peruvian culture. Just going to Wong's is normal. When it becomes culture that's when it gets a little different. Brazil, I think a friend of mine Dr. Zelideth Rivas who also had worked on this book, she had some really good interesting combinations of how Japanese culture fused with Brazilian culture. And you see this in Peru, for example with Chinese food chifa. Chifa is now considered a Peruvian food. But it's Chinese food fused with Peruvian ingredients. And so, you have this whole new culinary restaurant food idea that's been created, because of the Chinese presence in Peru. But typically, the one thing I want to point out is that while people still have connections to their cultures in the past, many of these people I think most of them, because they're born there they see themselves nationally as the country they're from. So if they're from Peru, they see themselves as Peruvian. If they're from Brazil, they see themselves as Brazilian. If they're from Panama, they see themselves as Panamanian. The problem comes is when other people do not see them as their national idea, and that's where I think we get some of the trickier issues. because they're always going to expect them to be the perpetual foreigner. This is one of the things I think Asian Americans in the United States and throughout America that they have to suffer is this idea that they don't really belong.

Lewis-Thompson: Let's breakdown exactly what it means to be Asian, because it's a pretty vast concept.

Lee-DiStefano: When we're talking about Asia and we're talking about it in the context of America, I want to state from the beginning, my concept of America is the entire continent. From Alaska to Patagonia. I don't deal with just the United States, or just the United States in Canada. But I think the idea of Asia and what is Asian is one that has been fairly limited. There's a wonderful book called the "Myth of Continents" that talks about how the idea of what is east and what is Asia has consistently changed throughout history and Western tradition as the Western mind expanded into other parts. So, currently many people if they think of an Asian restaurant they're thinking perhaps a Chinese, Japanese, maybe Korean fusion and sometimes they go into southeast Asia. But what many people fail to really think about is that Asia goes all the way to Saudi Arabia. So when you're dealing with Asians, everything from Saudi Arabia to Japan and down into the islands if we're going to go into southeast Asia that's all Asia. So, Indians, you want to deal with Pakistani's, you want to work with Saudi's, you want to look at Israeli's. That's all really technically continentally what is Asia.

Lewis-Thompson: Then have we as a society grouped in all Asians together to be this one uniformed idea of what it means to be an Asian in America?

Lee-DiStefano: I think from what my friends, because I am not Asian, but from my experience and my research, yes that is typically what has happened is that we have developed this idea of what it means to be Asian. And you're typically--people are being lumped into one category of culture. And there is not one culture. So even if I were lumping Japanese, Korean, Chinese, and into southeast Asia, if we want to deal with Thailand, if we want to work with Malaysia, if we want to work with the Philippines, they all have very separate different cultures. And so, this idea of trying to develop what is an Asian culture cannot be done, because there is not one Asian culture. And secondly, I think what we tend to have happen in the United States, I think you had said it perfectly earlier is this idea of colorism. There's a phenotype and there's a color that is associated with Asian, and as we have clearly seen with transnationals, migration, etc. this is no longer the case. There is not a look that is Asian, but people still have these old world categories in their mind when they talk about Asian.

Lewis-Thompson: So to wrap things up, November is around the corner and we're basically in the homestretch of our political season. Historically speaking, where have race and politics in America coincided within the Asian American community?

Lee-DiStefano: If you look at the United States, the Black Power movement really unleashed a lot, because the Black Power movement gave I want to say to an extent when you're dealing with the Latino movement with Cesar Chavez, and when you're dealing with the Asian American movement Ronald Takaki, I believe he's dead now, he was one of the early--he was at Berkeley and there were a lot of rioters at this time who were really pushing in the Asian American movement. Typically, they followed very similar backgrounds I think and paths as the black power movement did. The problem that we see and we even see this in the Latino community, when you're dealing with Black Power people were really concentrating on a color, because sadly you don't know your backgrounds. But when you're dealing with Hispanics/Latinos and you're dealing with Asians a lot of times they know their backgrounds of origin. And so, trying to mesh 20 Spanish speaking backgrounds into movement is very difficult. And when you go into Asia, and you have all these different backgrounds and cultures. Within one country you can have different languages and different cultures. The same in Latin America. It's hard to mobilize, because there's not a single common except the fact that we want to be heard. But then how do you negotiate all those voices. And so, there are still very strong proponents in the Asian American community. It's sadly again I think part of it is media. Media does not always bring in these divergent voices. And so, the media really needs to step up it's game and really try to focus on the complexity of what is the United States, of what is this entire hemisphere. Really what is the world.