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  • Introduction: New Perspectives on the Studies of Asian American Folklores
  • Juwen Zhang (bio)

The ultimate goal of defining the differences between “us” and “them” is to achieve a harmony that preserves these differences.

—Author’s note

the purpose of this special issue of the Journal of American Folklore (JAF) is to advocate, to the academic and public folklore sectors, that (1) the commonly classified “Asian Americans” (by the US census) are to be recognized and acknowledged as diverse groups within and integral to the traditionally defined “American folk groups”; and (2) as such, their folklores are rightfully to be studied as legitimate fields of American folklore scholarship; and, subsequently, (3) relevant methodologies are to be developed to facilitate the study of the folklores of Asian American groups. Despite the fast-growing population and wide-ranging impact of Asian American groups in everyday life in the United States, efforts to acknowledge the rightful place of Asian American folklores within the field of American folklore are long overdue.

The importance of recognizing Asian Americans as “folk groups” as legitimate as those groups traditionally defined in American folkloristics compels the authors herein first to define who the folk groups are and what constitutes their folklores in both a folkloristic context and an American social context, and, second, to explore what methodologies are best suited to the study of their folklores. In defining the Asian American groups and their folklores, we are reminded that, as the folklorist Elliott Oring points out: “[Folk groups] do not exist until someone claims that they exist. . . . Ethnic groups, like other folk groups, can exist only after a claim has been made for their existence” (1986:25). The concept of Asian Americans as folk groups lacks clarity; it is, therefore, valid to question the completeness and inclusiveness of their academic representations. This kind of questioning of the academic treatment of newly recognized folk groups has been done by John Roberts for African Americans as a folk group (1993:158–9); by Flores, for Latinos (1997); by Clarke, for the Yoruba (2004); and by Rivera-Servera, through proposing the idea of “productive frictions,” for other diversities (2012). Clearly, “any discussion of the ‘American community’ must be inclusive” (Flores 1997:184) of not only the Euro-American, the African American, and the Latino, but also the Asian American communities. In fact, the authors in this volume believe that Asian American groups have already defined who they are by their folklore practices, as reflected in literary (Hagedorn 1993, 2004) and ethnic [End Page 373] studies (Takaki 1987, 1993). One task in this volume is to further the effort of “defining identity through folklore” (Dundes 1983), considering it as a “paradigm shift” (in Thomas Kuhn’s sense) along the notion of “folkloric identity” (more discussion in the section called “Challenges” in this Introduction, and in Juwen Zhang’s article in this issue of JAF). What we see as the marginalizing of Asian Americans and their folklores is inseparable from the marginalizing of the many important and long-term contributions Asian Americans have made in all areas of American society.

We realize that there are two problems in using terms like “Asian American folk group” and “Asian American folklore”: (1) the terms ignore the diversity among various Asian American groups and the diversity within each Asian American group, and (2) the terms reinforce stereotypes like “all Asian (or Chinese) Americans are the same in doing such and such.” Thus we currently are forced to use such terms as “Asian American folklores,” “Asian American folklore,” “Asian American groups,” or “folklores of Asian American groups” in various contexts—until better, more appropriate terms have been coined. Here, we rely on Alan Dundes’s definition of “folk” being “any group of people whatsoever who share at least one common factor” (1965:2; emphasis in original), Noyes’s notion that a “group” has common practices (1995:449), and Ben-Amos’s statement that “folklore is artistic communication in small groups” (1972:12).

We recognize that Asian American groups share a history of discrimination and exclusion during imperialist and colonialist eras in Asia (except in Japan). Their experience of racial and religious discrimination in the United States is different...


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pp. 373-394
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