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  • Guest Editors’ Introduction:What is Transnational Asian American History? Recent Trends and Challenges
  • Erika Lee (bio) and Naoko Shibusawa (bio)

Beginning in the 1990s, the term "globalization" became a catchall phrase to explain a multitude of economic, cultural, and political transformations taking place around the world in everything from finance markets and technologies to fast food and popular culture. Pundits and laypeople alike asserted that internet technology, cell phones, and faster and more frequent air travel made the world a smaller place. People were on the move, too, migrating not only along the older patterns of south to north and east to west, but also in newer and unpredictable patterns of remigration and secondary migration. Scholars generally recognized globalization as an intensification and acceleration of centuries-old patterns of trade and migration, and nearly everyone—regardless of whether they decried or celebrated globalization—saw it as a process that denied the centrality of the nation-state. In the age of globalization, consumer products, capital, and people supposedly traveled, or should be able to travel, across national boundaries "freely," without undue state hindrance.1

Within academia, the call came loud and clear from many different fronts that it was time to examine and explain these changes by widening the traditional focus on the nation-state to a transnational framework. In the field of U.S. history, the Organization of American Historians sponsored a working group devoted to "rethinking American history in a global age." In 2000, the resulting LaPietra Report to the profession urged scholars to "extend our analysis of [national histories] to incorporate an [End Page vii] awareness of larger, transnational contexts, processes, and identities."2 The Journal of American History encouraged the field to consider transnational U.S. history with its special issue in 1999.3 Similarly, the American Studies Association sponsored conferences with themes emphasizing crossing borders and national, transnational, and postnational issues.4 In 2004, Shelly Fisher Fishkin noted the "transnational turn" in American Studies, explaining that the field was an "increasingly important site of knowledge . . . a place where borders both within and outside the nation are interrogated and studied, rather than reified and reinforced."5 And as a sign of the growing scholarship on transnationalism within the field of Asian Studies, the Journal of Asian Studies also began to include a section on "Comparative and Transnational" work in its book review section beginning in 2001.6

The term "transnational" has admittedly now become an academic buzzword. Scholars in different disciplines and areas of studies have used the term so loosely that its very meaning is in danger of being diluted. This special issue, born of a plenary session organized by Lon Kurashige and Naoko Shibusawa at the 2005 Association for Asian American Studies annual meeting in Los Angeles, is an attempt to define what we mean by "transnational Asian American history," to give recent examples, and to start exploring its possibilities and challenges.

First, it is useful to think about the terminology more carefully. The terms "transnational," "global," "international," and "diaspora" are also often used interchangeably and often complement each other. But, they are best understood as describing distinct, though often related, processes and phenomena. As Nina Glick-Schiller explains, "global" refers to processes, such as the development of capitalism, that are "not located in a single state but happen throughout the entire globe." "Transnational," on the other hand, refers to "political, economic, social and cultural processes that extend beyond the borders of a particular state, include actors that are not states, but are shaped by the policies and institutional practices of states."7 David Thelen, editor of a special issue on transnational U.S. history in the Journal of American History, offers an even broader definition of "transnational" that would "interrogate, and not assume the centrality of the nation-state as an organizing theme in American history." Scholarship would explore how "people and ideas and institutions [End Page viii] and cultures moved above, below, through, and around, as well as within, the nation-state."8 "Transnational" processes should also be understood as related to, but distinct from, "international" and "diasporic" ones. Daniel Mato defines "international" as referring to "those relations maintained between governments (or their...


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