The Future of Asian American Studies

by James Chung Lam

The following are excerpts from a talk given at the Asian Pacific American Awareness Conference held on February 11, 1995 at UC Irvine. The full text is published in the Winter 1995 issue of The Ricepaper, UCI's Asian American publication.

I want to talk about the issue of Asian American Studies here at UC Irvine, and to place it in a historical context.... From there I will go into my personal recommendations for the direction of our program and Asian American Studies in general ....

Asian American students at UCI, through the Asian Pacific Student Association (APSA), began to pressure the university in the mid-1980s. But it wasn't until the 1990-91 school year that constructive steps were finally taken. During this year, the four major umbrella organizations of the Cross-Cultural Center formed the Ethnic Studies Coalition Against Prejudicial Education (ESCAPE). In the Spring of 1991, ESCAPE staged a mass rally during the close of Asian Heritage Week, and then disrupted UCI's 25th anniversary celebration at Wayzgoose with another mass demonstration. Two years later, however, promises made by the administration in response to the ESCAPE protests remained unfilled - no Asian American Studies professors had been hired. In the Spring of 1992, frustrated by the university's inaction, APSA ended Asian Pacific Heritage Week with another mass rally, occupying the chancellor's office for hours. An educational vigil and rotational fast followed the demonstration; it lasted for 35 days and culminated in another protest and occupation of the chancellor's office on the last day of school.

From these student efforts, four FTE (professorship) positions were allocated for the creation of an Asian American Studies program: one for a director, one for an associate professor, and two assistant professors .... presently, we are still in the process of recruiting for the directorship and the two other faculty positions.

It's pathetic that UCI does not have an Asian American Studies program when one out of every two undergraduate students is Asian American. But there are also positive aspects to the fact that the program is still in a formative stage, because students can guide the future direction of this program. So, finally, I want to make some recommendations as to how we can build a program that addresses the diversity of the Asian American community, and will stay committed to its community activist roots.

First, to address the diversity of Asian American, we need to see that "Asian America" means something different today than it did in the 1960s. The experience of newer groups, such as Southeast Asians, has not been adequately examined. At UCI, our Asian American Studies program should concentrate its research endeavors on the study of Southeast Asian communities because of Irvine's proximity to the largest Vietnamese community in the United States. By doing so, our program will be on the cutting edge of Asian American research. Moreover, Asian American Studies is not only about the experience of Asians in America. We need to move beyond this geographical limitation. The experience and identity of most Asian Americans today is constructed not only in the U.S., but also in the countries that we come from. For instance, we cannot talk about Vietnamese Americans by mentioning only what they have gone through in America; it is essential that we also discuss what Vietnamese people experienced in Vietnam, their experience with the war, with communism and imperialism, in concentration and refugee camps, etc. What they have gone through overseas in a large part determines and informs what they experience here in America, how they see themselves, and how they identify themselves as Vietnamese Americans. So our Asian American Studies needs to implement an international focus - what is going on in Asia that impacts on Asian American communities? In addition, Asian American Studies needs to be multilingual to be successful. Our efforts here to establish a strong Asian American Studies program should coincide with a new student movement to broaden the Asian Language class offerings to include languages such as Tagalog and Vietnamese.

On the political and activist side, Asian American Studies has become "depoliticized;" it needs to provide leadership on political issues by analyzing policies that affect our communities, and providing race- and gender-sensitive alternatives to public policy issues. By taking this political stance, Asian American Studies can rebuild that connection with the communities. We need to ask ourselves: how can Asian American Studies and the communities as represented by community-based organizations) be resources for each other in terms of research, providing student interns and volunteers, and in training new activists to work within these communities. Even in our discussion today, this panel lacks the representation of community-based organizations.

In sum, I hope that this talk helps us to better understand Asian American Studies and what's been going on here at UCI. We need to see that our struggle here at Irvine is a continuation of the student movement which began in the Sixties. We should be proud that we are part of this great student legacy of student and community empowerment. Looking back at our failures and accomplishments, it's scary to realize how much further we need to struggle on. But then again, I hope that our movement here empowers us and encourages us all to become more active in the pursuit of making education more equitable, inclusive, and open to alternative perspectives. So I hope this brings up more dialogue on how we can establish an Asian American Studies program that is progressive, politically active, and community- and student-oriented.

James Chung Lam is a UCI alumnus. He has served as co-editor of The RicePaper and as chair of the Vietnamese American Coalition. In Fall 1995, as a Woodrow Wilson fellow, he will be working for his masters degree in public policy at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government.