The Asian American Experience
A review of the new documentary, "Asian Americans."
By Sam, an 18 year old Asian American | 6/3/20
To celebrate 2020’s Asian Pacific American Month in May, PBS released Asian Americans, an in-depth five-hour documentary that details the tumultuous journey that Asian Americans have had to endure throughout our country’s history. While it covers the obvious topics of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the Japanese incarceration, it goes so much deeper. For example, the documentary covers United States v. Wong Kim Ark, a very important court case in 1898 that eventually led to all people being born in America being granted the right of citizenship. It also talks about Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian American World War 1 veteran who fought for citizenship under the argument that he was “Caucasian” (geographically, the term includes people from North Africa and South Asia). Essentially, Bhagat Singh Thind proved that race is only a social construct, and he forced America’s justice system to rethink how it should classify citizenship. One last person I would like to bring up who was mentioned in the documentary is Larry Itliong, a Filipino Labor organizer. He was responsible for the famous “grape strikes” that took place in the 1960s. He teamed up with prominent figures such as Caesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, and together they were able to fight for better working conditions for Filipino and Mexican Farm workers alike. Larry’s story proves that minorities can work together, despite society constantly trying to pit us against each other. Moreover, Asian Americans covers many other stories of Asian American activists, and it inspires me knowing that there are people who look like me who have made a lasting effect on our country. While it was really uplifting learning about these impactful Asian American figures, I cannot help but admit that it was a little discouraging knowing that it took this long for me to discover them.
We learn about Emmett Till and Rodney King in our American history classes, and rightfully so; however, shouldn’t there also be room for Vincent Chin as well? Vincent Chin was a Chinese American who was murdered a week before his wedding in the early 1980s. At the time, there was growing anti-Japanese sentiment due to Asia’s thriving automobile industry, leading to job loss in the States, especially in places like Detroit, Vincent’s home town. Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, two disgruntled autoworkers, decided to take out their misguided anger on Vincent, hunting him down and mercilessly beating him to death with a baseball bat. In a sense, by misidentifying him as Japanese, they not only took away his life, but his individuality. Vincent was profiled and singled out based on race alone, showing that any person of color can become a target. And while there was public outrage within the Asian American community over this egregious hate crime, Ebens and Nitz were eventually acquitted, only having to serve probation and pay a small fee. After Vincent’s death, his mother, Lily Chin, continued to fight for justice for years, speaking at rallies and meetings attempting to spread her son’s story.
I had not known about Vincent’s story until I watched this documentary, which made me wonder: who else’s story has gone untold? Incidentally, I had not heard about most of the people mentioned in the documentary, even though I found it very beneficial learning about their stories. I think our education system is doing us a great disservice by not including more Asian American history in the curriculum. And how are Asian American students supposed to learn about their own history otherwise? I highly recommend that schools start showing segments of PBS’s documentary to students, as I think it has the ability to empower minorities and reaffirms the resilience of the oppressed in our society. As we show solidarity in protesting George Floyd’s death in Minnesota and Christian Cooper’s profiling in Central Park, I think all minorities needed to be reminded that it is our job to continue to fight injustice, just like the Wong Kim Arks, Bhagat Singh Thinds, Larry Itliongs, and Lily Chins of the past.