History Can Answer the Inexplicable: An Interview with Madeline Hsu

This is the third installment of Freedom Education, a seven-part series of conversations between graduate students and luminary scholars. Presented in partnership with Johns Hopkins University’s Program in Racism, Immigration, and Citizenship, this series considers reading, learning, and writing as politics. Read series editors Stuart Schrader and Nathan Connolly’s introduction here.
“The longer history of hostility toward foreigners remains latent. It has not gone away.”

Dr. Madeline Hsu is a foundational scholar of migration studies and Asian American studies. She is professor of history and Asian American studies at the University of Texas at Austin, and served as director of the Center for Asian American Studies for eight years (2006–14). She was president of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society (2018–21) and is presently representative-at-large for the International Society for the Study of Chinese Overseas. Her books, Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and South China, 1882–1943 (2000) and The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority (2015), have awards from the Society for Historians of American Foreign Relations, the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, the Asian/Pacific American Librarians Association, and the Association for Asian American Studies.

I spoke with Dr. Hsu a week after the tragic Atlanta shootings in March 2021. Our conversation reflects how history helps us understand present-day events.

Shirley Lung (SL): The Atlanta mass shooting occurred one week ago. But there are many other instances of anti-Asian violence.

We’re in a moment of Asian American activism and visibility in terms of the news media. That activism itself focuses on pan-ethnic Asian American solidarity. I feel that many of the most visible and vocal Asian American activists in this moment are second generation, college educated, and the like. It’s a type of people that diverges—sometimes quite steeply—from that of the Atlanta victims, for instance.

How can activism that centers pan-ethnic Asian American solidarity take into account social-class divides? How can more Asian and Asian American voices of different class backgrounds be heard?


Madeline Hsu (MH): Asian Pacific Americans is a census category. It does not reflect the lived experiences, in fact, of many ethnic Asian persons living in the United States, who are likely to identify much more strongly with people who share the same languages, the same sort of foodways, the same ethnic origins.

But it is politically a necessity, in part because of the racial projects at work. These killings were racially motivated.

Apart from Chinese or possibly Koreans—where profiling might be more targeted today because of the difficult US relationships with these homelands—a lot of times, racial profiling is based on physiognomy, how you look. During the past year, it’s been very evident that East Asians are being profiled for these attacks. People launching the attacks are not paying attention to whether or not people are actually Chinese. I know there have been some Latinos who also have been attacked because of their appearance.

Despite this necessity for solidarity at a moment of increasing anti-Asian attacks, there are also a couple of real barriers. One is the “model minority” stereotype. Another is the inability to register that Asians are still targeted as a race. This inability has been an issue within historian circles; I know other colleagues who have had parallel experiences. Fellow intellectuals will describe the killings as not racially motivated. Even people who are committed to issues of social justice or work on racial inequality don’t recognize this instance of anti-Asian racism. That kind of illegibility—this lack of understanding of the particular ways in which Asians and Asian Americans have been racialized—produces a barrier to solidarity.

Another challenge is the quantification of record keeping. We are 6 percent or 7 percent of the national population, and in many areas our populations will be even smaller. This means that just to have the numbers to register that these attacks are a serious set of ongoing problems requiring attention can be difficult.

It is critical that Asians and Pacific Islanders try to mobilize together. We need enough heft to leverage more attention and to be taken seriously.


SL: What might that organizing look like?


MH: One of my favorite advocacy groups is the National Domestic Workers Alliance [NDWA], founded by Ai-jen Poo, who won a MacArthur “Genius” Fellowship. She’s Taiwanese American, college educated, and from an elite background. But what she has undertaken is to try to organize and advocate on behalf of domestic workers and caregivers who are largely women, mostly immigrants, and who don’t have very high educational attainment. This organization involves them in organizing and advocacy.

NDWA also uses practical approaches, one of which is to try to publicize the ways every American’s life will be touched by the need to have a domestic caregiver, a health-care worker, whether personally or for a family member. It is critical to ensure that the workers who provide this essential care are valued for their work and that they have guaranteed work hours, work standards, and rates of pay.

They’ve managed to succeed in gaining acknowledgment of the work. Something like 10 different state legislatures have passed laws to protect these domestic workers and caregivers as a result. The work to make them legible and visible, and to get us to acknowledge their roles in the United States, is coalitional. It’s not just Asian American.


SL: Thinking of coalitional approaches, what types of research do you think require a pan-ethnic kind of Asian American grouping? Are there types of research where a pan-ethnic perspective may be less conceptually or theoretically helpful, particularly to the end goal of establishing the basis for political solidarity and coalition?


MH: It’s a really good question. But it’s difficult to answer.

For example, from the perspective of migration studies, at the big-picture level, we want to be able to emphasize that most human beings pretty much have the capacity, the instincts, to be migrants. All migrants share the kinds of personal and motivational traits that lead them to migrate, to move around: this includes economic motivations or the search for a more stable and safer society. Many times, people are driven by certain shared kinds of aspirations, even as they remain embedded in particular networks. We can talk about migration in general as a very intrinsically human activity.

However, we also need to identify migrants’ specificities and particularities. These include the situations that drive people to migrate; the different conditions that will shape their options; their reception; the networks in which they are embedded; who will be part of their migrant communities; where they migrate to and from; and so forth. All of these are very specific. We can’t flatten these conditions out, because then that prevents us from seeing what’s actually going on.

It’s important to pay attention to the specifics. But you need to be able to have an awareness of the broader picture.

Asian American is a broadly relational category. It brings together many different groups. It includes over 40 different language groups, extending from West Asia all the way through the Pacific. It’s an incredible array of persons and backgrounds and different trajectories. But, beyond that, it’s critical now to have a narrative and perspectives that situate Asian Pacific Americans with regard to other populations of color, such as Black, Indigenous, and Latino populations.

Take North America. You can’t really understand racial inequality unless you’re able to situate the relative trajectories of Asians against African Americans, against Native Americans, against Latinos. There is growing attention to and institutionalization of measures that increasingly render Mexican Americans as illegal and deportable, which is dissimilar to the recent experiences of Asian Americans.

Since the 1980s, we have had an ever-increasing investment in border enforcement. But to understand what’s going on, you have to have a sense of what’s happening respectively across all of these groups. And that also helps you pay attention to the ongoing traces and the latent survival of anti-Asian sentiments.

SL: Asian American studies is often criticized for being too “American-centric” and thus for its methodological nationalism. Yet your books The Good Immigrants and Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home take a transnational approach to understanding the model-minority stereotype.

Fortunately, frameworks now seem to be leaning toward diaspora, transnationalism, and globalization. How do you think that shift will impact the ethnic-boundary drawing in Asian American or Chinese American scholarship?


MH: It’s important to understand the political stakes for that kind of US-centric bias: the study of Asians in the United States launched with the civil rights movement. There was some scholarship previously; foundational scholars in Asian American studies were certainly active before the 1960s. But the political push for undertaking these research projects came from the necessity of being able to claim Americanness. The idea was that we deserve fair consideration.

The Atlanta shootings reveal that there are many ways in which that is an unfinished set of campaigns and projects. Nonetheless, the stakes are incredibly important, and I think also underscore the dangers and vulnerabilities of being an ethnic agent in the United States: our racialization particularly emphasizes that we are the essential foreigners, we are unassimilable; racially, we will always be bound to our homeland countries.

Correcting this produces another kind of bias toward assimilation, but this correction has been critical. Even so, it flattens out migrant realities. There are powerful tendencies to categorize migratory peoples in terms of nations. In this schema, you can only be of one nationality even if you move from place to place, especially if you are racialized according to country of ancestry.

There are many other factors shaping how migratory persons identify, including religion, which can be stronger and more immediate than national identification. Historically, in the Chae Chan Ping case, as Mae Ngai talks about in Impossible Subjects, the argument was that the Chinese were dangerous in the United States because they were acting as agents of the Chinese government.

That is untrue for the vast majority of ethnic Chinese, and even more so for ethnic South Koreans. Most people are simply going about their lives. They want better opportunities or political stability. They want to rejoin relatives. Some people are traveling simply because they want to see other places.

These accusations of political agendas are not relevant to what most migrants do. And yet there is a tendency to categorize many Asians as being not just foreigners but also acting on behalf of a foreign government.

In response, to produce scholarship and conduct research that captures migrant realities, the language I use is transnationalism. We need to keep on trying to develop concepts and language, to circulate the stories and the narratives that help us to understand the ways in which people move around, people migrate. It’s something that is intrinsic to human nature. As we go back millennia, people have always been mobile and migratory. To remove the sense of danger and conflict that is frequently attached to this behavior, it is important to recognize how it often emerges from powerful beliefs people maintain about the primacy of the nation-state.


SL: How do you locate your work within Asian American studies? What kinds of problems, gaps, or oversights in the field do you see your work addressing?


MH: I consider myself chiefly located in migration studies, with a focus in Asian American and also Chinese American history. In migration studies, one of our big struggles has been to try to decenter the nation-state in terms of how we conduct research. The influence of national frameworks has been overwhelming. You could say it is terribly distorting in terms of how we have evaluated and tried to understand migrant experiences. These are some of the major challenges in Asian American studies.

My first monograph was Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home: Transnationalism and Migration between the United States and South China, 1882–1943. That was basically inspired by what I knew of my mother’s family history. The second monograph was The Good Immigrants: How the Yellow Peril Became the Model Minority. And that was inspired by what I knew of my father’s family history.

In both books, the kinds of questions and the sorts of experiences I was seeking to situate historically were driven by absences in published accounts that I saw. These stories did not appear. Consequently, I could not explain and I could not situate the kinds of experiences that my family had gone through in their history of immigration and settlement in the United States. Even the legal conditions—much less their family dynamics—could not be accounted for in the existing historical accounts.

That was what drove me. How do families manage and navigate what are now widely known as transnational formations and identifications?


SL: You say you couldn’t locate your family histories in the literature as it existed at the time. How did you deal with this challenge?


MH: Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home was based on my dissertation, written about three decades ago. But I started thinking about these ideas even earlier.

I went to a small liberal arts college, and I still have a very good relationship with my undergraduate mentor, Samuel Yamashita. He encouraged me to be located in Asian history, not Asian American history. He was concerned that, in the 1980s, Asian American studies was not an established field. It was emergent. I went to Pomona College, in Southern California, and a foundational scholar and institution builder in Asian American studies, Don Nakanishi at UCLA, had experienced horrendous struggles in terms of getting tenured and acknowledged for his work. My advisor was very concerned about this.

I’m very glad that he pressed me to go into Asian history, because it meant that I developed my Asian-language skills. I did live extensively in Hong Kong and Taiwan growing up, so I already had strong foundations. But it meant that I had the language capacities to do research using Chinese-language resources and also to spend extensive amounts of time in East Asia, in addition to doing research in the United States.

A challenge for Asian American studies is that for many of us born in the United States, we actually lack some of the necessary capacities in Asian languages. This is a tension, and it’s one of the reasons why an immigrant scholar can do really important work. For example, Eiichiro Azuma has the full language capacities to use Japanese-language materials.

In the 1990s, we were at a juncture: the naturalized existence of the nation-state was coming into question, inspired by scholarship like Benedict Anderson’s Imagined Communities, which influenced the kinds of questions transnational scholarship asked. I could ask new questions, based on knowing and understanding that these Chinese, mostly men, during the Exclusion period, when Chinese immigration was severely restricted by race, had significant and ongoing evolving ties to families and communities back in China. You could not understand or measure their existence if you simply focused on a framework in the United States.

I consider myself fortunate that multiple fields were shifting at this moment. The scholars who took the lead in terms of transnational projects were, in fact, sociologists and anthropologists, which shaped the historical thinking I was able to do in Dreaming of Gold, Dreaming of Home.

To me, it was also very important that this broader lens could make my subjects three-dimensional: the Chinese American men whom I study are rendered more human. And they are rendered so we can see them not just as a very odd population of mostly men, stereotypically a bachelor society working hard in domestic-service occupations, largely restaurants and laundries. By expanding our lens to include their families and communities, we can see the extent of their aspirations, as well as their sacrifices. They performed important kinds of support for their families and their home communities. They were not simply trapped in dead-end lives—though some, of course, were.


SL: And your next book looks at a different group of people?


MH: The Good Immigrants also emerged from a set of questions about people who did not fit into the dominant concepts.

For example, I knew that Taiwanese had been coming over to the United States since the 1950s as students. In fact, many of them ended up staying. Yet this kind of immigration wasn’t allowed by law. It didn’t make sense in terms of what we knew of the Exclusion era. So I tried to find out what was happening.

This led me to consider the very special relationship between Taiwan and the United States during the Cold War period. But it also led me to scrutinize student migrations. That resulted in a new rationale for immigration, which was refugee migrations. It showed how the state was also evaluating potential immigrants on the basis of shared politics, which in some ways superseded race.

There is a long history in the United States of privileging migration by agents who were of the student class and also of the merchant class. Paying attention to different rationales and values, in terms of regulating migration, allows us to see that it’s more complex than the emphasis on race and national origin that we previously would have focused on in our scholarship. The result is that we can better understand what happened in 1965 with the Immigration and Nationality Act. The major changes after 1965 have deeper roots.

Of course, this is the historians’ view. We always must look at the past in order to understand more fully changes that take place over time.


SL: To me, social scientists often emphasize interviewing Asian American individuals about their experiences of being stereotyped, of being characterized as the model minority. We tend to focus on the lived experience of imposition, rather than how those impositions came to be.

Yet in The Good Immigrants, you specified the institutional and geopolitical origins of the model minority: in the form of missionaries, political actors, and the like.

As a historian, then, how do you think scholars of contemporary Chinese America can more meaningfully integrate Chinese American historiography, not just as a background section in an article but as analytically integral to our frameworks on contemporary issues?


MH: We could look at, for example, coverage of the six women who were killed in Atlanta. There have been a lot of pieces published interviewing particularly Asian American women about how it feels in this moment. And yet, within such a framework, there are aspects of the tragedy and its violence that are inexplicable.

This is not really to place a value judgment. Instead, the goal is to try to understand how these killings could have happened. It is to ask why, though it seems evident to me that this was a hate crime—given that six of the eight people killed were Asian women—it has not been acknowledged as such by the Atlanta-area police or by the FBI.1

When aspects of events seem inexplicable or don’t make sense, then paying attention to the historical conditions is useful—for example, trying to understand what could have driven Robert Aaron Long to make these choices. He made a choice to go out and buy a gun, and he decided which businesses he was going to target: Asian American massage businesses. He chose to kill six Asian women.

How does that, then, relate to his claim that he was motivated by his sex-addiction problem? What could have led him to think that taking these sets of actions would be the solution?

Unfortunately, if you start digging through American history, it’s very apparent why. Look at the long history of sexualization of Asian women, particularly East Asian women. The 1875 Page Act targeted the importation of women for immoral purposes, and it was chiefly enforced against Chinese women. That’s how far back this goes, if not even further.

We have the entire trope of the deaths of Asian women being celebrated in Western culture. In Madama Butterfly, the opera by Puccini, the climax is the unnecessary suicide of the title character. Madam Butterfly, Cio-Cio-San, has this ill-fated relationship with an American military officer, who’s going to leave her for his white American wife. She has to commit suicide, but why?

This trope is replicated, unfortunately, in the 1980s and 1990s, in Miss Saigon, which transplants the story to Vietnam and the US war there. It’s grounded in extensive actual history and personal interactions between the many US military personnel, who were in US military bases in Asia, and the many red-light districts, bars, and brothels that sprung up in response to US wealth and power.

That Robert Aaron Long had these perceptions of Asian women—that he also saw them as suitable targets for his violence—actually has been nurtured and fostered by many aspects of US culture and history.

One of the problems of registering anti-Asian racism is that many people like to think of Asian Americans as model minorities. Such a status, to some, demonstrates that the United States has resolved at least some of its racial problems. But how receptive many people were to the ugly rhetoric of the “China virus” and the “kung flu” reveals that the longer history of hostility toward foreigners remains latent. It has not gone away. It is very easily revived and transforms into action in our present.

To me, there are certain kinds of events or conditions or situations that cannot be explained, that cannot be understood, unless we know these longer histories. That is my disciplinary approach, that is how I understand things as a historian.

SL: That’s a great way to approach the question—things that seem inexplicable at the time.

In my research, I interviewed an Asian American person who used the term “China virus” to refer to COVID-19. At the time, I couldn’t understand why someone who is Asian in the United States was using the term, especially in the wake of the surge in anti-Asian violence. And, thereafter, they, like others I’ve spoken to, were very persistent in mapping the coronavirus pandemic onto the People’s Republic of China.

As a second-generation Asian American, my initial reaction to these types of sentiments was confusion, but upon a deeper investigation of the very broad—and sometimes ambiguous—ethnic label of “Chinese,” it became apparent to me that many people grouped under that label don’t identify as Chinese and even express resistance to being labeled like that due to various historical and contemporary conflicts. Suddenly, I realized that there are instances when the pan-ethnic Asian American or Chinese American label is fitting, but there are other situations in which it would not make sense. In that sense, I understand what you mean when you talk about the past coming to bear on the present.


MH: In that situation—to explain this person having those sets of beliefs—it is important to remember that they heard it from someone who has a lot of authority. The most powerful person in the world is saying these things, so that provides a certain kind of validity to that interpretation.

They probably do not think they’re being racist. Certain kinds of beliefs, certain kinds of tropes circulate and become resonant. People just accept them without trying to unpack whether they’re true, without asking: Is this actually a rational way of understanding what’s going on and does it actually follow scientific facts?

This is something that I try to do in my classes, which always deal with race, inequality, and migration. It’s important for us to try to understand that, into the present, but certainly historically, many people truly believed in racial difference and incompatibility. Many people, in fact, believed that something like segregation was a biological, cultural, and civilizational necessity. For this Asian American person, it is important to situate them in terms of a longer trajectory of the projection of racial differences: their ongoing power to shape people’s beliefs and their actions.

Historically situating something, however, may not answer the more difficult challenge. How do you have a conversation with this person when your fundamental views and beliefs about the world are so different? How do you speak across those divides, across information silos?

This is one of our contemporary realities. I think we have not come close to being able to figure out how to build or rebuild coalitions in our current set of circumstances.


SL: It’s difficult for scholars to navigate re-essentializing or stereotyping Asians and Asian Americans or erasing their experiences altogether. What are some theories or ways of doing research that can help us overcome this problem?


MH: Moving away from language that enshrines some essential version of being Chinese is critical. Some cultural-studies scholars, influenced by a long tradition of cultural anthropology, reject ideas like Chineseness or Taiwaneseness. Instead, they develop points of reference—perhaps of culture, language, or family dynamics—with the understanding that they are constantly evolving and shifting. In that thinking, something like Chineseness is not an essential form; it’s a set of ways people navigate social life. It’s adaptable and it then allows for tremendous fluidity, hybridity, and heterogeneity, but it’s not fixed. It’s not a determining characteristic. It is a constantly evolving, shifting way of signifying your experiences.

But the difficulty is that there remains a tremendous tendency to essentialize people who have, for instance, Chinese ancestry. And this framing has become even more problematic when you have the People’s Republic of China acting in assertive ways that are chauvinistic and nationalistic.

To be attached to this polity, in fact, has produced risks and vulnerabilities for ethnic Chinese outside China. If you keep track of Chinese-immigrant social media, there is a lot of attention to the ways Chinese and Chinese American scientists and technicians are profiled. They face additional scrutiny, if not actual prosecution.

If you go back to early 20th-century studies, people did believe that you could quantitatively map out different races of people: based on things like behaviors, head measurements, people’s facial features, and body types. We have moved a long, long way from that. But there are many ways in which our identities, the categories applied to us, are still deeply essentialized.

In response, we must try to de-essentialize these categories. Categories of American behaviors or Chinese behaviors or Irish behaviors cannot be measured and cannot be listed out that simplistically.


This article was commissioned by N. D. B. Connolly and Stuart Schrader. icon

  1. On July 28, 2021, the Fulton County prosecutor announced plans to prosecute the accused shooter under Georgia’s new hate-crimes law, with the support of family members of the victims.
Featured image: Madeline Hsu. Photograph courtesy of Madeline Hsu