Daryl Joji Maeda
The Asian American Movement was a social movement for racial justice, most active during the late 1960s through the mid-1970s, which brought together people of various Asian ancestries in the United States who protested against racism and U.S. neo-imperialism, demanded changes in institutions such as colleges and universities, organized workers, and sought to provide social services such as housing, food, and healthcare to poor people. As one of its signal achievements, the Movement created the category “Asian American,” (coined by historian and activist Yuji Ichioka), which encompasses the multiple Asian ethnic groups who have migrated to the United States. Its founding principle of coalitional politics emphasizes solidarity among Asians of all ethnicities, multiracial solidarity among Asian Americans as well as with African, Latino, and Native Americans in the United States, and transnational solidarity with peoples around the globe impacted by U.S. militarism.
The movement participated in solidarity work with other Third World peoples in the United States, including the Third World Liberation Front strikes at San Francisco State College and University of California, Berkeley. The Movement fought for housing rights for poor people in the urban cores of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York City, Seattle, and Philadelphia; it created arts collectives, published newspapers and magazines, and protested vigorously against the Vietnam War. It also extended to Honolulu, where activists sought to preserve land rights in rural Hawai’i. It contributed to the larger radical movement for power and justice that critiqued capitalism and neo-imperialism, which flourished during the 1960s and 1970s.
Cambodians entered the United States as refugees after a group of Cambodian Communists named Khmer Rouge, led by the French-educated Pol Pot, won a civil war that had raged from March 1970 to April 1975 and proceeded to rule the country with extraordinary brutality. In power from April 17, 1975, to January 7, 1979, they destroyed all the major institutions in the country. An estimated 1.7 million people out of an estimated total population of 7.9 million died from executions, hunger, disease, injuries, coerced labor, and exposure to the elements. The refuge-seekers came in three waves: (1) just before the Khmer Rouge takeover, (2) during the regime’s existence, and (3) after the regime was overthrown. Some former Khmer Rouge personnel, who had escaped to Vietnam because they opposed Pol Pot’s extremist ideology and savage practices, returned in late December 1978, accompanied by 120,000 Vietnamese troops, to topple the government of their former comrades. A second civil war then erupted along the Thai-Cambodian border pitting the rump Khmer Rouge against two groups of non-communist combatants. Though fighting among themselves, all three groups opposed the new Cambodian government that was supported and controlled by Vietnam. When hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, along with Laotians and Vietnamese, showed up at the Thai-Cambodian border to seek refuge in Thailand, the Thai government and military did not welcome them. Thailand treated the Cambodians especially harshly for reasons related to the Thai officials’ concerns about the internal security of their country.
Almost 158,000 Cambodians gained entry into the United States between 1975 and 1994, mainly as refugees but with a smaller number as immigrants and “humanitarian parolees.” Cambodian ethnic communities sprang up on American soil, many of them in locations chosen by the U.S. Office of Refugee Resettlement. By the time the 1990 U.S. census was taken, Cambodians could be found in all fifty states. The refugees encountered enormous difficulties adapting to life in the United States. Only about 5 percent of them, mostly educated people from the first wave of refugees who came in 1975 and who, therefore, did not experience the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge era, managed to find white-collar jobs, often serving as intermediaries between their compatriots and the larger American society. About 40 to 50 percent of the Cambodian newcomers who arrived in the second and third waves found employment in blue-collar occupations. The rest of the population has relied on welfare and other forms of public assistance. A significant portion of this last group is composed of households headed by women whose fathers, husbands, or sons the Khmer Rouge had killed. It is they who have had to struggle the hardest to keep themselves and their children alive. Many women had to learn to become the main bread winners in their families even though they had never engaged in wage labor in their homeland. Large numbers of refugees have suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder but have received very little help to deal with the symptoms. Some children, lacking role models, have not done well academically and dropped out of school. Others have joined gangs. Despite myriad difficulties, Cambodians in the United States are determined to resuscitate their social institutions and culture that the Khmer Rouge had tried to destroy during their reign of terror. By reviving Cambodian classical dance, music, and other performing and visual arts, and by rebuilding institutions, particularly Buddhist temples, they are trying valiantly to transcend the tragedies that befell them in order to survive as a people and a culture.
Post-1945 immigration to the United States differed fairly dramatically from America’s earlier 20th- and 19th-century immigration patterns, most notably in the dramatic rise in numbers of immigrants from Asia. Beginning in the late 19th century, the U.S. government took steps to bar immigration from Asia. The establishment of the national origins quota system in the 1924 Immigration Act narrowed the entryway for eastern and central Europeans, making western Europe the dominant source of immigrants. These policies shaped the racial and ethnic profile of the American population before 1945. Signs of change began to occur during and after World War II. The recruitment of temporary agricultural workers from Mexico led to an influx of Mexicans, and the repeal of Asian exclusion laws opened the door for Asian immigrants. Responding to complex international politics during the Cold War, the United States also formulated a series of refugee policies, admitting refugees from Europe, the western hemisphere, and later Southeast Asia. The movement of people to the United States increased drastically after 1965, when immigration reform ended the national origins quota system. The intricate and intriguing history of U.S. immigration after 1945 thus demonstrates how the United States related to a fast-changing world, its less restrictive immigration policies increasing the fluidity of the American population, with a substantial impact on American identity and domestic policy.
The “Chinese 49’ers” who arrived in the United States a decade before the American Civil War constituted the first large wave of Asian migrants to America and transplanted the first Asian cuisine to America. Chinese food was the first ethnic cuisine to be highly commodified at the national level as a type of food primarily to be prepared and consumed away from home. At the end of the 19th century, food from China began to attract a fast-growing non-Chinese clientele of diverse ethnic backgrounds in major cities across the nation, and by 1980 Chinese food had become the most popular ethnic cuisine in the United States, aided by a renewal of Chinese immigration to America. Chinese food also has been a vital economic lifeline for Chinese Americans as one of the two main sources of employment (laundries being the other) for Chinese immigrants and families for decades. Its development, therefore, is an important chapter in American history and a central part of the Chinese American experience.
The multiple and often divergent trends in the U.S. Chinese-food industry show that it is at a crossroads today. Its future hinges on the extent to which Chinese Americans can significantly alter their position in the social and political arena and on China’s ability to transform the economic equation in its relationship with the United States.