A Pop History of Asian Americans from the Nineties to Now

The title of this post is the subtitle of the book, even though it describes it perfectly. The much more cryptic title is simply Rise.

This is not the kind of book you read cover-to-cover. It’s more the type you leave on your coffee table for guests to dip into randomly. In some ways it reminds me of the Whole Earth Catalog from my youth; there are hundreds of small articles, lots of lovely photos and drawings, and even some mini-graphic novels. For instance, when I open at random, I come across a two-page fold-out called “The Asian American Yearbook,” with 20 full-color drawings comprising 28 celebrities:

Now you probably want to know how many of those names and pictures I recognize. Well, I won’t tell you how many. But I will mention that I recognize Michelle Kwan, Tiger Woods, Kristi Yamaguchi, Gary Locke, and Margaret Cho. All right, so that’s five out of 28, which is better than I would have expected. It should be four, as I don’t think Gary Locke counts as pop culture, as the subtitle promises.

Another example: When I open the centerfold, I find behind it a lovely article about Asian-American grocery stores. “Lovely” for two reasons: the full-color drawings are attractive, and the text manages to be both humorous and informative.

I could go on with snippets of descriptions of the other hundreds of articles. But I won’t; there is just too much that I could say. So I will conclude with my two criticisms of the book, one unfair and one fair. The unfair one is that the book focuses on entertainers, athletes, movie stars, musicians, and performers, most of whom are unknown to me! They’re unknown because I am almost entirely ignorant of pop culture. This criticism is unfair because I strongly believe that no one should criticize a work because of disagreeing with its goals: you can criticize it if you think it does a poor job of accomplishing its own goal. And since I know nothing about pop culture, I can’t comment in an informed way about its coverage of that topic. After all, I knew what I was getting into because it’s right there in the subtitle, and my ignorance of pop culture is my problem, not theirs.

My other criticism, however, is fair. While the book purports to cover Asian Americans, it limits itself almost entirely to those who are ethnically Chinese, Korean, or Japanese. (Yes, there are three pages—out of 471—written by Kamala Harris’s sister, but that’s pretty weak.) I know that many Americans (not those in my neighborhood, though) can only think of Chinese, Korean, and Japanese when asked to name Asian American ethnicities, but those are not even the top three and actually make up only 38% of Asian Americans combined! According to the Census Bureau, the six ethnicities with the highest percentages out of the total number of Asian Americans are as follows:

Vietnamese   9.4%
Korean  8.3%
Japanese   6.7%

So why so little coverage of Indians, Filipinos, and Vietnamese? Perhaps they don’t have enough of a pop-culture presence in the U.S.? I wouldn’t know.

Categories: Books