- Asian American Studies in the MidwestNew Questions, Approaches, and Communities
It has been ten years since I first started teaching in the History Department at the University of Minnesota. My first few years here were full of personal as well as professional transformations, and more than a little bit of culture shock. I had grown up in the San Francisco Bay Area, attended school on the East and West coasts, but had never been to the Midwest before. This was my first job out of graduate school, so much of the anxiety I felt stemmed from the common self-doubts that plague new assistant professors. Other stresses came from adapting to life in Minnesota and trying to answer two pressing questions: What does it mean to do Asian American studies in the Midwest? What does it mean to be Asian American in the Midwest?
What little had been written about Asian Americans in the Midwest painted a dismal picture. The female protagonist in Eleanor Wong Tele-maque’s novel It’s Crazy to Stay Chinese in Minnesota struggled to form a Chinese American identity in a small town in Minnesota.1 And scholars writing about Asian Americans in the Midwest characterized the region as a “vast banana wasteland” that Asian Americans had left to “search for their roots” in Asian ethnic communities on the coasts.2
The vibrant growth of Asian American studies in the Midwest in the past two decades, however, reflects a very different reality. It is certainly true that Asian American studies and Asian Americanness are not the same in the Midwest as they are along the coasts, but many of us in the [End Page 247] field believe that this is an exciting thing. This article begins by examining the recent growth in Asian American studies in the Midwest and by posing central questions that have framed that growth: What does Asian American studies scholarship, pedagogy, and outreach look like in the Midwest? How does a Midwest focus complicate existing narratives, approaches, and canons of the field? What particular questions, histories, and ethnic groups emerge from a Midwest perspective, and how might they transform the field more generally? My findings tilt toward the two areas with which I am most familiar, history and Minnesota-based scholarship. Programmatic data on the big public research institutions in the region was also more readily available than for liberal arts colleges. But this tentative survey reveals several trends that I think are relevant across fields, institutions, and geography. Relocating Asian American studies to the Midwest illuminates new issues facing Asian Americans in general. It also challenges some of the field’s key assumptions and paradigms and draws attention to new ways of doing research, teaching, and outreach.
The Growth in Asian American Communities and Asian American Studies in the Midwest
The U.S. Census Bureau defines the Midwest as comprising twelve states: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, South Dakota, and Wisconsin.3 According to the 2000 census, Asian Pacific Americans (APA) made up 2.3 percent of the mid-western population, or about 1.45 million people. Some states, especially in the urban areas of Illinois, Minnesota, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, have higher percentages of APA. The growth in the APA population in the Midwest was an astounding 86.5 percent from 1990 to 2000.4
Eight midwestern universities are among the top twenty largest degree-granting institutions in the entire nation. They include Michigan State University, Ohio State University, Pennsylvania State University, Purdue University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Michigan, the University of Minnesota, and the University of Wisconsin–Madison.5 The region also includes top-ranked universities and liberal arts colleges such as Carleton College, Grinnell College, Macalester College, Northwestern University, Oberlin College, and the [End Page 248] University of Chicago. The sheer size of midwestern schools and the number of students they serve point to the broad impact that Asian American studies has in the Midwest.
The growth of Asian American studies programs across the country was a direct result of the demographic transformations in Asian America following the 1965 Immigration Act...