As The Making of Asian America ships out and hits bookstore shelves today, I’m reflecting on how and when I started thinking about writing it; in other words, how it all began.
Although I did not know it at the time, this book first began many years ago when I was in college and started learning about Asian American history for the first time. There had been no mention of Asian Americans in my high school history classes, and like many Chinese American families who had lived under the shadow of the Chinese exclusion laws, my own family did not talk about our past. I’ll never forget my shock when I learned about the history of the violent and hate-filled anti-Chinese movement for the first time. “I never knew that this happened,” I remember thinking.
By the time I finished college, Sucheng Chan and Ron Takaki had published their seminal histories of Asian Americans. I had the privilege of meeting both of them when they visited Tufts University where I was an undergraduate. They helped me imagine the possibility of becoming a historian and contributing to the ongoing work of preserving and writing Asian American history.
A lot has changed since then. There are now award-winning books, documentary films, and historic sites that preserve many aspects of Asian American history. However, more often than not, my students still tell me that they “never knew this happened.” I hear this nearly every semester at the University of Minnesota and whenever I give a public talk around the country and abroad. I could be talking to undergraduates at an elite Ivy League university, New York City museum docents, or high school teachers from the South. “I never knew that this happened” has become a constant refrain and points to the continuing invisibility of Asian Americans in American history and life.
As the fastest growing group in the United States today, Asian Americans should no longer be lost to history. It’s my hope that this book will help make sure that this does not happen.