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  • Transnationalism and Asian American Studies as a Migration-Centered Project
  • Madeline Y. Hsu (bio)

In this article, I address Asian American Studies' preoccupation with borders—particularly that of the American nation-state as defined by race, by laws, and by institutions. I argue that much of Asian American Studies scholarship is concerned with the multiple roles performed by Asians in the defining and enforcing of America's boundaries—the symbolism of Asians in defining racial and cultural borders, how Asians might rearticulate both those borders and themselves to claim inclusion within, the legal and institutional manifestations of those racial and physical borders, and how deeply embedded the binaristic othering of Asians/Orientals has been in America's nation-building processes. I wish here to explore the contrasting possibilities offered by transnational approaches that permit us to relinquish this nation-based framework and to place migration and migrants—with their complicated sets of negotiations, multilayered realities, and multidirectional orientations—at the center of our discussion. In so doing, I attempt to defuse the seemingly intractable tension and threat associated with the "unassimilable foreigners" and migrants that constitute the bulk of Asian American subjects. Because they do not fit neatly into America's nation-building prerogatives, and because their transnationally constituted communities and circles of activity are so often construed as national threats, Asian Americans have faced a particularly pernicious kind of discrimination. [End Page 185] As described by Eiichiro Azuma, "Whether they were members of the first generation or the second generation, a significant number of historical agents have been omitted from intellectual inquiry and interpretation as personae non grata in history."1 My goal here is to recover some of these "lost lives" and to demonstrate the violence of their disappearance from Asian American history.

This article responds to Donna Gabaccia's call "to query the tyranny of the national in the discipline of history," albeit in Asian American Studies.2 In a 1999 essay, Gabaccia critiqued the unidirectional trajectory of "the immigrant paradigm and its well-worn paths of immigration and adaptation to the United States" and directed attention instead to "the continuous, multidirectional, and circular character of migrations."3 The image of America as a "melting pot" or "nation of immigrants" relies upon the monolithic narrative of one-way migration, settlement, adaptation, and ultimately assimilation. Such territorializing conceptualizations of the movement of human bodies tend to dominate the discourse, as described by Wang Gungwu:

People were identified by the territory, whether large or small, to which they belonged. Entities like communities, nation-states, confederations, and alliances were studied mainly in terms of the places occupied and fought over. Migration studies were generally placed in the context of local, national, and regional history or international and even an interdependent world history. Each of these approaches reflects a primary concern for the politics of physical space.4

Asian American Studies in its turn has been largely compliant by fitting its scholarship within nation-state prerogatives.

Asian American Studies was born as a redemptive project, as a concerted attempt to claim America for once outcast Asian peoples. Redemption required that Asian Americans conform to mainstream norms that for much of American history have centered on the assimilated white, male, heterosexual father and husband as the standard for citizenship. This vision was first articulated by Michael-Guillaume-Jean de Crevecoeur in Letters from an American Farmer in 1782:

What then is the American, this new man? He is either an European or the descendant of an European, hence that strange mixture of blood, [End Page 186] which you will find in no other country. I could point out to you a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who, leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced, the new government he obeys, and the new rank he holds. . . . Here individuals of all races are melted into a new race of men, whose labours and posterity will one day cause great changes in the world...


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pp. 185-197
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