Tag Archives: Japanese

A Union of Sikh, Japanese, and Mexican Americans

Mainstream South Asian American diasporic fiction focuses mostly on the post-1965 generation of immigrants, beneficiaries of the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, which abolished national origins quota and facilitated the arrival of highly skilled workers from India and other Asian countries to help the U.S.

Yet the history of immigration from India, China, and Japan to the U.S goes back much further to the early years of the twentieth century, at least, when many Indians, particularly Sikhs from the state of Punjab arrived in California to work in the logging and farming industries. Although historians like Karen Leonard and Ronald Takaki among others have documented this early history of Asian immigration, very few fiction writers have tapped into this rich history for their fictional explorations. Rishi Reddi breaks new ground by undertaking this ambitious project in Passage West.

The novel follows a group of Sikh men, particularly two friends Ram and Karak from 1914 to 1974. The novel begins with the death of Karak and Ram’s preparation of a eulogy which provides a narrative flashback into the life of his friend. The early part of the novel sets up the geographical landscape of Imperial Valley, California, where the two friends find themselves after stints in the British army, time in Hong Kong, and a brief experience in the logging industry in Oregon, for Ram.

Readers are gradually introduced to tumultuous events sweeping through the world, the growing farming community in the Imperial Valley consisting of Sikh and Japanese farmers, the restrictions to land ownership and citizenship rights, the inability for Sikh farmworkers to bring their families with them leading to the growth of bachelor communities, the growing racial hostility, and violence against Asians in the U.S, expressing itself in infamous incidents like Komagata Maru, a Japanese ship that carried passengers who were British subjects from India and who were denied landing rights in Vancouver, Canada, which was also a British colony and were forced to return to India.

Sikhs on board the “Komogata Maru” in English Bay, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. 1914

We also notice the growth of revolutionary politics with the rising influence of the Ghadhar Party, which consisted of expatriate Indians who raised funds to support armed anti-colonial resistance against the British, going so far as to support Germany during World War 1. 

The emotional core of the novel resides in the compelling description of two forbidden love stories. Both Karak and Ram develop relationships with Mexican women who they meet in the farming community. In spite of the anti-miscegenation laws, religious and linguistic differences, Karak marries Rosa and starts a new family and life with her. Ram, on the other hand, is attracted to Rosa’s cousin Adela but feels torn by his loyalty to his wife, Padma, and the son born out of their brief union. Ram and Padma at the beginning of the novel are deeply in love with each other, but as vagaries of their lives and the cruel immigration laws unfold, their ties gradually attenuate.

The racist immigration system is rendered most visible in their harrowing separation. At a more public level, we see the passage of Alien Land laws that restrict land ownership by non-white races, forcing many farmers to become internal refugees looking for land in other states or underpaid employees of farming corporations.  Even more poignant is the depiction of Sikh and Japanese soldiers joining the U.S. Army in the First World War, being lured to this task by the promise of citizenship. Yet, in spite of their service, they are denied recognition and dignity for their brave service.  Reddi provides us glimpses of the losses faced in the trench warfare as well as the deadly attack of the Spanish influenza of 1918 which claims the life of Amarjeet’s best friend, the Japanese American Harry Moriyama.

The most brutal rendition of racism is offered in Reddi’s depiction of the sustained attempts by agricultural corporations to exploit the Sikh farmers, not having the right of land ownership, by cheating them of their harvests. This results in the climactic episode in the novel which leads to a murder, the near lynching of a Sikh man, and the long-term effects of this traumatic event in Ram’s ability to return to India.

Reddi’s novel is the product of sustained archival research. She has conducted interviews with descendants of Sikh Mexican families, as well as historical research on the harassment, racism, and violence that these early immigrants were subjected to. She seamlessly weaves historical characters and events in the rich tapestry of her novel. This novel dispels the monolithic model minority myth of South Asian Americans. It celebrates the working-class roots of early immigrants from India, the multiplicity of religions and faith traditions that these immigrants came from and united to fight against common injustices.

In addition, the novel highlights solidarities between various minority groups, not only the marriages between Mexicans and Sikhs, which is very different from the mostly endogamous marriage traditions of South Asian marriages but also the solidarities between Japanese Americans and Indian Americans. This is a novel that deserves serious scholarly attention and should be embraced by more courses in South Asian American literature and history. However, even though this novel is the product of intense scholarship, the research does not burden the writing. The novel flows effortlessly. It is deceptive in its elegance and simplicity and powerful in its empathetic portrayal of early South Asian Americans.

Lopamudra Basu is a professor of English at the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She grew up in Calcutta and currently lives in Eau Claire, Wisconsin.

A Legacy That Belongs to All of Us

For years, Asian-Americans donned a cultural Invisibility cloak before Western audiences. And although undiscovered, their stories have unfolded silently and beautifully from generation to generation. That’s why the five-part documentary series, Asian Americans, created by an all-Asian American team of filmmakers, plays such a critical role in chronicling the immigrant experience. 

Narrated by Daniel Dae Kim and Tamlyn Tomita, Asian Americans strings together the stories of the many struggles for freedom – from the Japanese incarcerations during World War II to anti-Asian immigration laws. The storytelling, accompanied by the power of the documentary’s visual component, delivers a poignant narrative about what it means to belong to a country unconditionally, in the face of both adversity and animosity. Asian Americans features interviews with some of our community’s most celebrated individuals, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, Chinese-American journalist Helen Zia, academic expert Erika Lee,  and Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu. Their stories highlight the difficulty in navigating identity between two dichotomous cultures. 

The trailer for Asian Americans ends with the words, “and their legacy belongs to all of us!” As I reflect on my own experience as Indian-American, I realize how much I identify with these words. So many trailblazers have carved out a voice for our community — and PBS’s Asian Americans gives them the credit they rightfully deserve. 

While the documentary is impactful on its own, its content becomes more topical against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The current coronavirus outbreak marks an alarming rise in anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobic paranoia. According to a poll conducted in New York, residents have reported roughly 248 cases of racial prejudice since January. 1600 hundred attacks have been reported nationwide — a number which can only be an undercount, due to the shame and fear that contributes to such attacks. Divisive language surrounding this situation, such as calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus” turn Asian-Americans into a convenient scapegoat for unprecedented circumstances. Social media platforms document shocking tales of bigoted attacks against law-abiding Asian Americans, such as a video of two girls at Garden Grove’s Bolsda Grande High “screaming ‘coronavirus’ at Asian American students”. COVID-19’s impact on race relations is not making national headlines because of its novelty. Rather, it’s only chillingly familiar for the Asian American community.

Virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media.

In a virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media, producers and members of this documentary discussed what it means to be of Asian descent during an international crisis. Some of the panelists included Viet Thanh Nguyen, Amna Nawaz, Hari Kondabolu, and more. And in a critical segment of this Town Hall, the panelists pointed out how coronavirus fears play into America’s history of race-based discrimination. It was only one generation ago, for instance, that Chinese-American draftsman Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men in Wayne County, Detroit. While Chin’s assailants were originally charged with second-degree murder, their only punishment was $3,000 dollars and no jail time. “It reminded Asian-Americans that progress hadn’t really been made.” 

Today, every voice in the United States has the opportunity to change our country’s cycle of systematic abuse. Rather than using a national tragedy to fuel dangerous and divisive rhetoric, we have the chance to truly move forward. And Asian Americans represent that effort towards a liberated future for the next generation of immigrants. “As much as tragedy is a part of our heritage here, so is possibility.”

The documentary premieres Money and Tuesday, May 11 & 12, 2020 at 8pm on PBS. To watch the trailer, click here! 

To find out more about the Digital Town Hall, watch a recording of the panel here.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being a Youth Editor for India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

A Mason Jar of Fortunes

The most far-fetched prophecy I have ever received is: maybe you can live on the moon in the next century! Although all Bollywood and Western romantic numbers croon about flying up to the moon, I feel safer on terra firma.

To pull out a fortune from a cookie seems gimmicky to me. Regardless, it’s okay to succumb to a little bit of self-love and to justify this behaviour,  we read our message in a cookie with an enthusiasm that slowly dwindles as we go around the table and read each other’s luck. 

Unfortunately, the United States has the largest number of COVID-19 infections in the world and with it, we have seen a rise in anti-Asian sentiment. I chose to remind you of all of the precious fortune cookies that unite families at a dinner table.

In 2013, our friendly yoga teacher gave us a mason jar with a picture of her place of worship, a fragrant herb, and a colored strip of paper with a blessing. Mine was – “Get up and out, the day is bursting with moments.” by Rabindranath Tagore. We all went home with our jars and I put mine on my kitchen alcove. Over the years I kept putting other blessings in this jar along with strips of fortune. 

Growing up, we ate Indian food at home every day and so to change our taste we went once a week for and Indian Chinese dinner in Mumbai. Hakka noodles, American chop suey, chili chicken/paneer, and big bowls of hot and sour soup were our favorite entrees.  Indian Chinese food is not available in Huntsville but the next best option for my Indian friends is the American style Chinese food at PF CHANGS, doused generously with extra hot chili sauce. After spicing our palettes and clearing the sinuses, it’s time to read our fortunes. Unlike my other friends, I don’t like to eat the sugar cookie. I just hold the twisted fortune crisp in my hand and take a tentative bite of the vanilla and sesame flavored shell. Then I put it down and after everyone else has read their fortunes, I read the vague aphorism silently. Then I put it in my purse and at home transfer it to the mason jar. Every time I open the jar, I think of my yoga teacher and once again I read my fortune. I turn it over in the palm of my hand, look at the random lotto numbers and stash it away in my jar.  

I did not know that these fortune cookies are not Chinese. They were popularized in America by Japanese immigrants in the 19th century. They were first made in the Benkyodo bakery in San Francisco and served with hot tea. Later, Kito the founder of “Little Tokyo” in Los Angeles sold his flour tea cakes with fortune slips to the Chinese. During World War II, when 100,000 Japanese were in internment in America, the Chinese started mass producing these cookies. Ever since that time, they appear as a courtesy dessert along with the check at Chinese restaurants. These cookies are accepted all over the world, including India, where people are fond of fortune-tellers, soothsayers, and Palm readers. Strangely enough, they are not popular in China and are considered to be too American. 

I have never visited China but I have lived in America for almost three decades. We live in a sparsely populated region in the South but my American friends, family members, and strangers are all sheltered in place. A few of us go for solitary walks or wave at people from our porches. Friends FaceTime us to update us about their health or share their thoughts on social media. We wash our hands, run fingers through our hair, take naps, and spend days and nights in our pajamas. Time as we know it has slowed down. There’s nothing rushed. We all are running out of projects at home. We clean, purge, organize, sort, grow herb gardens, sew and donate masks, cook, share jokes, indulge in arts and crafts, read the stack of books put aside for a rainy day. 

Today, I decided to open my jar of fortunes to look for a clue to solve the viral pandemic. I pour a cup of coffee and pour out my fortunes on the floor and arrange them in a cyclic semblance of destiny.  

Affirmative:

  • You will be honored with a prestigious prize or award.
  • Your dearest wish will come true.
  • A pleasant surprise is in store for you.
  • You will always be surrounded by true friends.
  • You have a strong desire for home, family comes first.
  • Good news will come to you by mail.
  • You have the ability to sense and know higher truth.
  • You will conquer obstacles to achieve success.

Sarcastic:

  • You are an evening star in someone’s romantic eyes.
  • You are competent, creative, careful. Prove it.
  • Generosity and perfection are your everlasting goals.
  • Focus on your long-term goals. 
  • Good things will happen sooner or later.
  • Golden hours are coming to you eventually.
  • A cynic is only a frustrated optimist.

These strange words remind me of the hilarious attempts of two Asian women working at the Fortune cookie factory in Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” who are not able to translate these proverbs into Chinese. They give up thinking that they don’t contain any wisdom but just bad instruction.

Cryptic:

  • Your smile is a curve that gets a lot of things straight. Answer the call to help a friend.
  • Now is the time to call loved ones. Share your news.
  • Don’t pursue happiness, create it (Mango?!).
  • Your luck has been completely changed today.
  • Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen?
  • The joyfulness of a man prolongs his days.
  • What you plant now you will harvest later.
  • You will learn about love and a peaceful heart. A smiley face and a Spanish translation. 

Mysterious:

  • Be prepared to receive something special.
  • The best times of your life have not yet been lived.
  • Everything will now come your way.
  • You will discover an unexpected treasure.
  • Now is a lucky time for you to take a chance.
  • You are going to change your present line of work.
  • Soon someone will make you very proud.
  • You were born with a sixth sense. 
  • Confidence is at a high? Whose?

Ominous:

  • If it seems fate is against you today. You are right!
  •  A closed mouth gathers no feet!
  • You will die alone and poorly dressed!

Duds:

  • How about another fortune
    • Blank fortunes are the scariest because you freak out that something bad is going to happen to you. 

I look at all these fortunes and put them back in the Mason jar and sit on my deck under a blue sky. I pray for all the people who are ill with this virus and especially for those who have succumbed to this terrible illness. I take a strip of green paper and tune into higher consciousness. I breathe in and out. I write, “VIRUS BEGONE!” and put it back into my mason jar.

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.

Harmonious blend of Hinduism, Buddhism, Shinto strains in Japan

The 900 year old Sanjusangen-do Zen temple in Kyoto

Sanjusangen-do (Built in 1164 CE and reconstructed in 1266 after a fire broke out) is a Buddhist temple in Kyoto that’s guarded by around 1000- Armed Human sized statues of Kannon, the Japanese Goddess of compassion. 500 statues sit on either side of the main Deity of Sahasrabhuja-Arya-Avalokiteśvara.

The 1000 armed Kannons

The 1000 life size Kannons carved from wood, have 28 guardian deities in front, that are larger in size. These Guardian deities are of Indian origin and primarily Hindu Gods.

In ancient Japanese Buddhism, Hindu Deities are revered and given their place of respect in the Buddhist realm of deities. The Hindu deities are considered guardian Deities of the Buddhist concept of the ‘Clear Mind Buddha’, which according to them is the Buddha that is of prime importance. The physical Buddha is seen as holy and revered, but he is also seen as an example of human bondage and suffering in samsara. Like a normal human Buddha had to overcome his delusions and finally had to shed the body. The ‘Clear Mind Buddha’ who is pristine and pure in thought (Nirgun as the Hindus say) however, is the primordial state without beginning or end and is the state which all humans must aspire to achieve to get salvation from rebirth. One has to not get obsessed with the physical Buddha, as he is external to you, while the ‘Clear Mind Buddha’ is the object of possible achievement for all humans through meditation and practice of dharma. This realization which arises from within is considered more important than bondage to external objects, however revered or holy they are.

This ‘Clear Mind Buddha’ as the silent observer, is similar to the concept of the ‘Nirgun Bhraman or Paramatma’ in Hinduism, with all other Gods/Goddesses being considered its emanations with specific energies, which is very similar to the Shinto concepts of Kami. The beautiful Harmony with which the ancient Japanese monks have managed to fit all gods and deities from the parent stream of Hinduism into its brilliant offshoot Buddhism is remarkable. It is a brilliant testimony to their abilities and vast intelligence to bring harmony, accommodation, respect and deep understanding to the evolving spiritual streams, as well as merger of existing streams. After all there is only one truth and no one has the monopoly on it. This is something the ancient Japanese masters understood so well.

An achievement, one has to bow down to in deep respect.

Shintoism the original indigenous religion of Japan, Shinto teaches that everything in nature consists of a spiritual essence, or a spirit called a Kami. The Kami resides in all things. But there are certain designated places where the Kami interfaces more intensely with people. There are 8 million kami (not literally, but just a representation of many Kami that exist). The primary Kami is Amaterasu or the Goddess of the sun. Hence Japan is called the land of the rising sun. This is extremely similar to Hinduism where we are considered Suryavanshi (descendents of the sun). In Hinduism, the entire universe is considered an emanation of Paramatma; hence everything in it carries the spirit of the great creator. Lay people get confused that Hinduism has a million deities, and villagers are busy creating one every day. What an outsider does not see is that Hindus consider everything in nature as having a spirit that is derived from that one source to manifest. So having a million deities is the same as having one. Shintoism too is similar to that form and belief system in Hinduism. Ancestors are considered Kami too and just as we worship and follow the system of gotras (descendents of Rishis), they worship their ancestors.

In the next few frames , I shall post pictures of some of the critical Hindu “Guardian Deities “ that have been exhibited in the Great 120 meter hall, which is 900 years old. These Guardian deities stand on either side of the Avalokiteshwara Deity (The Buddhist God of compassion) and in front of the 1000 Kannons. The Hindu deities don’t resemble the Indian versions as there were conceptually transplanted about 900 years ago and are carved based on Japanese interpretations of Indian and Chinese Sutras.

The descriptions are brief and have been copied from the official booklet available at the Sanjusangen-do Centre. It is highly recommended for any visitor to Japan to visit this center and buy this book.

Japanese Name: Naraen Kengo, Sanskrit: Narayana

The original Sanskrit name of this deity is Narayna, also called Vishnu in India, the Hindu God of preservation of all creation. This God/statue is used in many ancient Buddhist temples of Japan at the gates where Narayan keeps his mouth open in conjunction with Vajra Pani (Shiva), who keeps his mouth closed. This according to them symbolizes that the deities swallow all evil and let only virtue pass into the temple through the gates. Another interpretation says they symbolize within lies all the secrets of the universe from beginning to end. The most amazing example of these Deities is at the entrance to the Todai-ji temple at Nara. Amazingly Nara has 7 prime temples (Much like the Tirupathy temple, where the Lord is considered the lord of the seven hills which represent the Adisesha or the serpent of Vishnu with 7 heads that is supposed to hold up creation).

The placement of Narayna (Vishnu) and Vajra Pani (Shiva) in the entrance to symbolize AUM is amazing. A (mouth opens to symbolize beginning of all creation from Brahma, who is born of Vishnu), and M (mouth shuts to symbolize the destroyer and therefore the end of existence) is Shiva, the God of death. The Japanese Buddhist integration with Hinduism is breath taking.

Japanese Name : Raijin the Thunder God, Sanskrit Name : Varuna

This deity has its origin in the God of water Varuna which later transformed into Thunder God as water was always associated with thunder. The iconography of this statue is based on Senju Darani-kyo’ Buddhist Sutra. As per the Rig Veda, Varuna is considered the counterpart of Mitra, Varuna rules the night and Mitra rules during the day.

Japanese Name: Basu senin Sanskrit: Vasu

Vasu in Hindu tradition can be interpreted in many ways. Vasudewa was the father of Krishna. Related to this name is an early Hindu belief system, sometimes called Bhagavatism that was largely formed by the 4th century BC. Vasudeva was worshiped as the supreme Deity in a strongly monotheistic format, where Vasudewa was considered the Supreme Being because he had the attributes of being perfect, eternal and full of grace.

Vasu could also mean God of all the elements in creation which is very similar to Japanese Shintoism wherein they recognize about 8 million Gods of various elements called Kami. Hinduism on the other hand recognizes eight primary elements and all else are its combinations. That is why Vasu is the god of the eight Gods or the various base elements.

Japanese Name: Nanda Ryu-o Sanskrit: Nanda Naga Raja

If the Sanskrit translation were to be applied directly, it would mean The King of the snakes from the Nanda Dewi Mountain (The abode of Lord Shiva). In this carving at some point of time the snakes became dragons through Chinese influence and came to be in Japan, as Buddhism reached Japan via China and Tibet.

Japanese Name: Fujin Sanskrit; Vayu

As introduced in the ancient Indian sacred texts Rig Veda, Vayu is the deity that pulls carriages through the air, defeating armies, bring fame, fortune. The design is completely based on Japanese interpretations of texts from Indian and Chinese sutras.

Japanese Name: Birubakusha Sanskrit: Virupaksha

The Japanese translation means the deity with many eyes and a wider vision. Notice the third eye between the two eyes, and the weapon in the hand is the same as Shiva’s. In Hindu Tradition Virupaksha is a form of Shiva’s and there is indeed a Virupaksha temple in Hampi Karnataka with the same Sanskrit name as in Japan.

Japanese Name: Karura Sanskrit: Garuda

The original Sanskrit name of this deity is Garuda, In ancient India it was believed to be a giant bird that ate cobras and carried the Hindu deity Vishnu on its back. Later on it was adopted in Buddhism as a deity, and was included in the eight guardians of Buddhism. The statue represents a bird headed figure playing a flute while keeping time with the foot.

Japanese Name: Mawara-nyo. Sanskrit: Maha Bala.

Maha Bala in Hindu scriptures translates directly to Durga Dewi, based on whom, many Bala mantras exist. Mawara-Nyo represents the indomitable spirit and the gentle feminine subtle energies of the universe, gentle yet decisive.

Japanese Name: Daibenkudoku-ten Sanskrit: Sridewi

The original name for this deity is Sridewi, also called Laxmi, written in India as Lakshmi. She is born from the sea and is Vishnus (Narayana’s) wife. In Buddhism she is a daughter of the dragon King and Kishimojin (Hariti). As in Hinduism, in Buddhism too, she presides over prosperity

Japanese Name: Taishaku-ten Sanskrit: Indira

According to the ancient Indian writings in the Rig Veda, He is the most significant heroic deity. In Buddhism this deity is supposed to live in Kiken castle As the lord of the realm of Tory ten. He is considered to have helped Buddha in his novitiate years. In Hinduism Indra is the God of the lesser heavens where ordinary mortals reside for limited periods of time in their endless cycles of birth and death.

The very best for the last, This is where the Japanese place Hinduism and Buddhism in perfect equal footing. Literally as parallel similar universes with different tag names.

Japanese Name : Daibon-ten Sanskrit: Maha Brahman

The Highest Hindu god and the creator of the universe is Maha Brahman. Since Maha Brahman was adopted into Japanese Buddhism, it is believed he is a guardian of Buddhism together with the Buddhist Deity Taishaku-ten. They both are equally tasked as partners with running the universe. According to the Japanese legend when Buddha reached self- realization, he was overwhelmed but was hesitant to preach to people. Maha Brahman advised him to start preaching in order to redeem ignorant people and their souls. It is for this reason the Japanese accord Maha Brahman an equal status to the Buddhist diety Taishaku-Ten.

Sanjay Rao is in search of the ultimate truth beyond concepts and notions, in that silence, after 20 years in soulless corporate board rooms. https://twitter.com/#!/sanjayrao1010

Previously published on www.esamskriti.com. Reprinted here with permission.

Also read

 

Turning American

ASIAN AMERICAN DREAMS by Helen Zia. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York. 319 pp. $26.

Asian American Dreams by Helen Zia
Asian American Dreams by Helen Zia

A week before his wedding In 1982, a Chinese American man named Vincent Chin was murdered in Detroit by two white men who mistook him for a Japanese and vented at him their anger at the demise of the American auto industry. Although the perpetrators pleaded guilty to Chin’s beating death, a white judge sentenced them only to probation, thereby initiating the political mobilization of an entire Asian American community. Eventually, the murderers were found guilty of the racially motivated crime in a federal civil rights court in 1984, only to be acquitted upon appeal three years later by a mostly white jury in Cincinnati. “Vincent’s soul will never rest. My life is over,” Vincent’s mother wailed upon hearing the final verdict.

Through moving stories like these, Helen Zia chronicles the Asian American struggle for civil rights in her first book, Asian American Dreams. Each chapter of Asian American Dreams offers a tale from a different ethnic community.

Bong Jae Jang, the Korean owner of the Red Apple Market in Brooklyn, was arrested in 1990, for example, after Jiselaine Felissaint, a Haitian immigrant, accused him of beating her. The African American community in Brooklyn boycotted the Red Apple and other Korean stores. The lack of political will on the part of New York Mayor David Dinkins made it possible for the standoff to continue for seventeen months.

Interspersing these tales are brief autobiographical essays chronicling the author’s passage from her childhood in a working class Chinese family in New Jersey, to medical school, to the auto assembly line in Detroit, and finally, to her current life as a social activist and writer.

The Vincent Chin case explains Zia’s initiation in politics, since she happened to be living in Detroit at the time and was instrumental in organizing the Chinese community there.

The chapters in the book open up like petals of an Asian water lily; from stories of individuals battling against personal discrimination and prejudice, they progress to stirring tales of civic struggles in which entire neighborhoods, cities, and communities are involved. These stories might have taken on maudlin overtones, had they not been fortified with rigorous accounts of the legal, social, and political activism springing fourth in their wake.

A case in point is the saga of the migrant Filipino workers seeking redress for segregation and hardship they faced in the salmon canneries of Alaska during the early part of the twentieth century. The story becomes especially poignant because of the strong political clout exerted in Washington by Wards Cove, the only cannery to resist settlement until the end. In this tale, as in many others, the politics in the immigrants’ native country comes into play as well, since, ironically, the Filipino workers’ union was directly in conflict with the Marcos loyalists in America.

Not all the pictures Zia paints can be seen in such black and white tones, however. There is the story of the fifteen-year-old girl Natasha Harlins, shot and killed by a Korean shopkeeper in South Central L.A. on suspicion of robbing a bottle of orange juice. The account of the subsequent Los Angeles riots in the wake of the Rodney King verdict will bring goose bumps to most readers, particularly since the white establishment’s indifference to the destruction of one minority at the hands of another is unmistakable.

Aftermath of the L.A. Riots
Aftermath of the L.A. Riots

The struggle moves on to a much broader stage, literally and figuratively speaking, when Jonathan Pryce arrives on Broadway to play an Asian pimp despite protests by Asian American actors.

Alas, Hollywood style happy endings are not in store for the major players in these stories. Most do not deliver impassioned speeches after stunning victories in court, nor do they walk out of their inner city ghettos and into a Beverly Hills sunset. Instead, it is through the very defeat of their specific causes that a larger change in American attitudes and institutions is often brought about. Asian American actors alone would play Asian characters on Broadway in future, for example, and the racist content of shows like Miss Saigon would come under increasing scrutiny.

Zia shifts gears as she discusses the successful affluent South Asian immigrant community. Her observations about the class distinctions within the Indian immigrant community are astute, as are her remarks about the conflicting demands faced by women and girls in the group. Zia points to Hindu role models many young women are asked to imitate, while also fulfilling the high academic expectations of their parents. She uncannily notes the rise in domestic violence and the recent spurt in Indian women’s organizations to combat it.

Silicon Valley Indians might feel offended by Zia’s indictment of The IndUs Entrepreneurs (TiE) for their failure to embrace social and political causes. It is ironic, she notes, that the very people who became entrepreneurs and millionaires as a result of the discrimination they faced in the form of glass ceiling in the Silicon Valley refuse to act against it. Her comments are so much on the mark that one wonders why she is not equally incisive about internal conflicts within her own Chinese American community.

The closing chapters of the book are devoted to a chronicle of the Asian American struggle for legalization of same-sex marriages. Unfortunately, as Zia reveals her own sexual orientation as a lesbian, the reader’s interest waivers and the book peters out, even as the author makes a convincing case that the banning of same-sex marriages is akin to the refusal of equal rights for Asians in prior decades.

For a weighty non-fiction book engaging in a serious discussion of law and politics, readers will find Asian American Dreams a moving, at times disturbing, but on the whole an inspiring book. Every Indian American must read this book and realize that the opportunities we have in this country might seem limitless but they are of relatively recent origin and cannot be taken for granted. operates on three levels; the microcosm of Zia’s own life, the challenges that the communities involved in the specific cases face, and the broader issues of race, gender, and ethnicity that put them in context. Zia proves herself a skillful narrator as she stages these tales against the bigger backdrop of national and international politics. begins with a well-documented history of the first immigrants to arrive in America from China, Japan, and India, only to be treated as slaves. Unable to own property, to vote, or to bring wives into this country, they persevered, to eventually participate in the civic life of America.

Sarita Sarvate writes commentaries for Pacific News Service and KQED