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The Asian American Experience

Research on the Asian American experience covers a rich history of the immigrant story of persons from China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines. Your research can cover the early immigrant experience or focus on the Japanese internment that tarnished the reputation of America as the land of the free.

When the immigrant story of the late 19th century is told, the overwhelming imagery concerns Ellis Island, the Statue of Liberty, and the trials and tribulations of Eastern European immigrants dominate.  But as Sucheng Chan points out in Asian Americans: An Interpretive History (Twayne Publishers, 1991), almost one million immigrants from various Asian nations arrived in America and Hawaii. These nations included the following:

  • China
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • The Philippines
  • India

Asian American ExperienceEach of these groups came for different reasons and faced different circumstances in America.  But like all immigrant groups, they came in search of better lives.

In 19th century America, hungry for industrial workers, the search for better lives often meant hard work, brutal working conditions, and meager pay.  “Asian international migration was part of a larger, global phenomenon: the movement of workers, capital, and technology across national boundaries to enable entrepreneurs to exploit natural resources in more and more parts of the world”.  The Chinese are famous for helping to build the Transcontinental Railroad eastward from Sacramento. “Asians provided most of the backbending labor in mining, commercial agriculture, public works, and domestic service”.  There are three specific affects economics had on Asian immigrants:

  1. Asians concentrated in specific occupations. 
  2. There was a specific gender composition in the Asian workforce.
  3. Limited occupational opportunities directly affected Asian residential patterns.
Asians, like other immigrants, came to America to earn a living.  The Chinese were the earliest immigrants to enter into the Western United States.  When their first groups arrived in before the Civil War, California and Hawaii were largely frontier regions.  There was a general labor shortage in the region, allowing Chinese workers to fill in a wide variety of occupations.  “But as more and more Euro-Americans settled along the Pacific Coast after the first transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, they wanted the better jobs for themselves.  Through a variety of means—including discriminatory legislation and taxes, boycotts, and barring nonwhites from unions and consequently unionized jobs—they increasingly confined the Chinese and other Asians who came after them to low-status menial work”.

Persons of Asian Ancestry in America

Chinese came to California like most other people in 1849: to join in the Gold Rush.  By 1860, 100 percent of the Chinese population in America was living in California.  Almost all of the Chinese involved in mining were placer miners, the method that required the least amount of capital (unlike hydraulic mining) or involved unionized labor, which the Chinese were barred from (deep-shaft mining).  “The presence of so many miners among the Chinese influenced what other Chinese did for a living.  Wherever groups of miners congregated, merchants opened stores to provision them and to serve their social and recreational needs”.

The second main occupation for Chinese was the aforementioned transcontinental railroad.  When this work was done, many Chinese went into agriculture.  But many more went back to San Francisco.  Early light manufacturing efforts by Chinese workers were virtually eliminated by the late 19th century through a series of boycotts.  This led to the stereotypical Chinese occupation: laundry.  “Large numbers of Chinese eventually became laundrymen, not because washing clothes was a traditional male occupation in China, but because there were very few women…in gold-rush California”.  The gender difference in the Asian workforce was the direct result of the shortage of women.  By the time Asian women arrived in significant numbers, the occupational patterns were set.

Also, being largely relegated to the laundry industry trapped many Chinese in a racist cycle: they were considered racially inferior because of their occupation, and their occupation kept them in inferior social status.  This cultural marginalization kept the Chinese in their own isolated neighborhood enclaves.  “Though Chinese laundries were located primarily in white neighborhoods, their occupants lived in a self-contained world”.

Other Asian groups faced similar circumstances to the Chinese.  Indeed, the growing levels of discrimination that were placed upon the Chinese throughout the 19th century made for even fewer opportunities for the groups that followed.  Men made up the first waves of immigration, in search of jobs.  For the Chinese, a series of legislation severely restricted immigration, including female immigration.  In 1890, the sex ratio among Chinese immigrants was 27:1.  The Japanese created the custom of “picture brides,” in which wives were imported from Japan, but Congress curtailed this practice.

Loss of Dreams

The development of Asian immigrant families was especially difficult given these conditions.  Most of the Asian women had to work in America, and there were few female relatives to help with childcare.  “Almost all Asian immigrant working women—prostitutes, laundresses, farm women, cooks, and seamstresses—continued to work after their babies came”.  This version of women’s work was physically demanding.  In Hawaii, for example, “the women earned money by working in the fields and by cooking and washing clothes for the unattached men.  They arose before dawn, cooked breakfast for their families and boarders, prepared dozens of boxed lunches, dressed their children for school, and then put in full days” in agricultural labor.  After returning from a day in the fields, women had to prepare dinners, wash and iron clothes.  “In short, in the evening hours, while men relaxed, women continued to work at various chores”.

At some levels, the Asian immigrant experience is not all that different from that of other groups.  They came for the same reasons—economics—as other groups, but the Asians faced a more severe threat: racial discrimination.  A Pole or German or Slovak who came to America could blend into the larger society, his children, who spoke English without an accent, would be accepted as American.  “But as people of nonwhite origins bearing distinct physical differences, [Asians] have been perceived as ‘perpetual foreigners’ who can never be completely absorbed into American society and its body politic”.  No other immigrant group, especially in its second or third generation, faced anything similar to the Japanese internment camps of World War II.

Asian immigrants were forced to accept minority status in America, acting with deference toward the majority Euro-American culture in order to survive. Since they were physically unable to assimilate into white society, Asians faced restricted access to occupational opportunities. They immigration numbers were restricted, leading to imbalanced sex ratios, and this whole pattern of racism restricted them to their own isolated communities along the Pacific coast.  America was their land of both dreams and nightmares.

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