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The Emergence of an American People

by Helen Zia

Pub Date: March 1st, 2000
ISBN: 0-374-14774-4
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Zia, a Chinese-American and co-editor of the reference Asian American Biography, intertwines a memoir of her own life

with an informal history of Asians in America.

Unless one starts with prehistoric immigrants crossing the Bering Straits, the first Asians to arrive in America were Filipinos.

Spanish traders impressed them as seaman, and many jumped ship in Louisiana in the 16th century. After the Spanish-American

War, Filipinos, technically US citizens, immigrated in large numbers to Alaska, where they worked, under barbarous conditions,

in salmon canneries. Of course, as Zia points out, the Japanese fared even worse, rounded up and placed in internment camps

as WWII began, even as many of the first-born, the nisei, fought both in Europe and the Pacific. In fact, in one of Zia's many

telling anecdotes, an all-Japanese unit was set to liberate Dachau, but was held back because of the publicity problem. Zia is

perhaps most passionate describing the Chinese, reminding us of the infamous exclusion law of the 1880s—instituted after many

of them had died to build the railroads and the country, in a sense, was done with them. Into the larger Chinese story Zia weaves

her own more intimate history. A child of the 1960s and initially a traditional, compliant daughter on the path toward becoming

a physician, she threw off the traces, joining forces with black activists and groups opposing the Vietnam War. Yet Asians were

special, "invisible" and yet discriminated against even among activists. Instead of following in the mold of other activists, Zia

took yet another route—to Detroit, where she bolted together automobiles and came to see herself as a writer and agitator for

Chinese-American rights.

Evenhanded, subtle, and engaging, though Zia’s interwoven memoir is less compelling than the vast story of these many

peoples, laboring mightily to become Americans. (B&w photos, not seen)