Last summer marked a watershed of sorts. Crazy Rich Asians became one of the most successful romantic comedies ever, grossing over $165 million in the US and Canada through the end of September. It starred a mostly Asian American and Asian cast. The film’s protagonist, played by Constance Wu, was easy to identify with, and the supporting roles were full of variety and humor. Characters could be virtuous and sincere, but also villainous, catty, selfish, and tortured. It had been decades since Hollywood had made a film like this, where Asian American audiences could stare at the big screen and see characters who looked like them, and this was the first to be so financially successful.
At the same time, most of the faces on-screen were from East Asia. Where were the Southeast Asians? Why were the only South Asian actors playing Sikh guards at the entryway to the mansion where the main party was happening? Just as important, the film reaffirmed the widely accepted perception that Asians are wealth-obsessed, constantly striving for money and inclined to spend it conspicuously.
For academics whose research focuses on the study of Asian Americans, the success of Crazy Rich Asians poses a tricky problem. We want to be respectful of how meaningful it is to the many filmgoers who seem starved for this very kind of representation. We want to acknowledge that this is a work of narrative fantasy, where audiences can indulge larger-than-life stories against lush backgrounds. We also don’t want to judge it more harshly than any other blockbuster movie that similarly trades in fantasy. At the same time, the film’s preoccupation with, and celebration of, wealth is a problem for a field of study that was founded on exploring the experiences of Asian Americans as a racial minority.
The guiding ethos of our field can perhaps be boiled down to this: the need to take Asian Americans seriously. And taking Asian Americans seriously entails being critical of the film’s many ideological erasures and assumptions. A few recent scholarly books—Jan Padios’s A Nation on the Line: Call Centers as Postcolonial Predicaments in the Philippines, Aimee Bahng’s Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times, and Crystal Parikh’s Writing Human Rights: The Political Imaginaries of Writers of Color—help spotlight how Asian American studies continues to carry out this work.
Work, migration, and rights: these seem to me the keywords guiding each of these volumes. These also happen to be keywords from Asian America’s past—for what wave after wave of immigrants and refugees from Asia to the United States, and elsewhere, have had to struggle with most is the need to find work and have it properly valued; to make sense of the many feelings, and to meet the many exigent immediate needs, that accompany migration; and to demand recognition of rights that don’t just flow specifically to them but to everyone. It’s the centrality of these keywords in Asian American studies that makes the field so important now, at a time when nationalism everywhere seems on the rise. And just as importantly, it’s these books’ insistence that we cannot focus on these keywords without also thinking about how history, finance, and literature puncture the walls nationalism seeks to put up that makes them (and the many like them) so worthy of our attention.
The need to take Asian Americans seriously partially motivated the founding of the field dedicated to them, in the wake of student protests in the late 1960s. The field grew steadily throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and then by leaps in the 1990s and 2000s. In the current decade, it has languished, with some important programs under attack by administrators and state lawmakers.
The field has throughout its history struggled against fierce political opposition and caricatures of its mission as another form of identity politics, exactly because so many do not take this racial group seriously. The number of Asian Americans is small compared to other racial groups in the United States. The group is heterogeneous, and therefore difficult to make generalizations about. At the same time its members uniformly seem like foreigners, and like perceived foreigners everywhere have the most tenuous claims to national belonging.
It was the mid-1990s, during a moment of great expansion for the field, that witnessed a debate among scholars in Asian American studies (mirroring a debate taking place in American studies) about what we called the “transnational turn,” which led many to connect a preoccupation with imperialism to the problem of globalization. Scholars involved in this turn argued that, while it was certainly important to insist that Asian Americans are also Americans, it was at least equally important to center attention on a long history of American imperial expansion and conquest.
For example, US military interventions in the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam (which are more often than not viewed as imperial adventures by Asian American studies scholars), helped to encourage migration from those countries to the United States; continued US military, political, and economic involvement with these countries meant that the experiences of migrants were powerfully shaped by what happened between nations as much as by what was happening in any one given country. The ties thus established between the United States and these Asian countries would later facilitate the growth of an international system of sourcing raw materials where they could be purchased at the lowest prices, turning them into finished goods where labor is cheap, transporting the finished goods for sale in wealthy countries, and dumping the same goods back again in poor countries when they reached the end of their life cycle—the foundations for what would eventually be called globalization.
It’s not just the United States that we must stop thinking about as a self-contained entity, but all nation-states.
The double move of focusing on the United States and examining international linkages made further sense during the 1990s, because that was when Asian immigrants, many of whom were highly educated and already professionals before they arrived, began to send their kids off to college in significant numbers, and in the process began to dramatically alter the demographics of college campuses. There were also large numbers of refugees who had arrived in the United States after the war in Vietnam, and their children too were going to colleges and universities starting around this time. Just as importantly, many states in Asia—from Japan to the Republic of Korea, Singapore, China, and India—were altering global flows of capital and forcing new understandings about where wealth and power could be found. The emerging middle classes in these countries saw in American universities and colleges a route toward greater socioeconomic mobility, which further swelled the numbers of Asians on their campuses.
Changes in the demographics of higher education, then, reflected changes in the country at large and beyond. Asians were no longer the poor, tradition-bound, perhaps subhuman beings the West had long imagined them as. This shift in perception had major repercussions for conceptions of class, race, gender, and sexuality in the United States, and scholars were needed—many departments and administrators concluded—to make sense of these repercussions. Thus, again, the field’s transnational turn, or a movement away from focusing exclusively on the United States as a self-contained entity toward thinking about how this country has always been an inextricable part of a greater world.
Such a turn necessarily required a movement away from ethnocentric ways of thinking that viewed Asians as an Other to the West. Indeed, as Jan Padios observes in her book, the term transnational itself refers “to a standpoint of critique of the nation-state as an entity socially and culturally constructed in relation to other nations.” In other words, it’s not just the United States that we must stop thinking about as a self-contained entity, but all nation-states.
One major contribution of A Nation on the Line, a thoroughly researched ethnography of the call center industry in the Philippines, is an idea Padios calls “colonial recall,” which paradoxically recognizes the trauma of empire while seeking to transform the meaning of this trauma so as to find gain in the present. It works in two ways.
The first way colonial recall works is fairly straightforward; it conjures the memory of a long struggle with imperialism. As one Filipino call center industry executive told Padios, “We were a colony of Spain, and then the United States, the Japanese invaded us during the war, and then poverty really pushed us under.” The second, however, is more troubling. The lesson the same executive draws from this history is that Filipinos’ legacy of imperial subjugation is what makes them such effective operators when we—mostly customers in the United States—call them with questions about internet service or have a problem with our airline tickets, or when they call us about debts we may owe. As he remembers telling a collections agency client (who happened to be from Australia), “The Philippine psyche is perfect for helping them collect on debts from customers. We know what it means to be in debt. We present ourselves as part of the solution, as someone who can help manage their money.” Another executive in the industry comments, “We are good at working with the heart.”
Or perhaps I should say that the second part of this explanation is troubling to me. I tend to think that remembering this long, painful history of imperialism would lead someone to become critical of current geopolitical relations and more skeptical about claims of essential national character. That it would lead people to militate against the arrival of an industry where workers are forced to trade their proficiency in English—itself a legacy of the imperial war the US fought against the Philippines at the turn of the 19th century—for precarious work responding to the complaints of often abusive and condescending customers. One service call Padios listens to ends with a customer from the United States telling the agent, “You are both complete idiots who should be fucking fired!”
This is where careful listening to agents, and to other people involved in this business, allows the reader to hear something that might not otherwise be audible. Many of the people involved in the industry, as Padios points out, are from a highly educated middle class in the Philippines and already have an impressive command of English, including vernacular phrases and technical knowledge. What they lack are good employment opportunities. So while they may be “cheap labor”—after all, call centers have moved out of the United States exactly because it saves companies money—the workers Padios talks to “often did not perceive themselves as such.” Being a call center agent in the Philippines is very much a white-collar, professional job. The agents’ precarity, it should also be pointed out, is not anomalous. The status of many white-collar professions in the United States has become similarly fraught and uncertain. Just think about what’s happening to college instruction. When an interviewee tells Padios, “It’s difficult to tell who is middle class anymore,” it’s difficult to tell if this statement is about the Philippines, or the United States.
Moreover, the ways in which a colonial past casts Filipinos as caring, patient, and understanding allows these workers to think of their “relatability” as “a source of empowerment, a cultural attribute and affective orientation of the Filipino people defined by an exceptional ability to understand and force cultural connections to Americans.” In this way, imperialism—which workers continue to be critical of—is also made into a resource, a way of not only getting by but getting ahead in a ruthless global capitalist economy. This is, again, Padios’s colonial recall, which explicitly acknowledges a painful past and makes it into a resource that can be exploited.
As an example of the transnational turn in Asian American studies, Padios’s book gives us insight into how work is being reinvented, and the ways in which this reinvention has muddled distinctions between the United States and a place like the Philippines. I personally found it difficult not to think about A Nation on the Line when I recently called my cell phone provider. Where in the world was the agent I was talking to located? What historical, financial, and cultural ties made it possible for us to talk to each other in the forms our exchange took? And how did the agent understand the work she’s doing, answering a question about my bill? Fittingly, I was calling because I didn’t understand how the charges for some international calls my family made worked.
The same ruthless global capitalist economy that makes colonial recall possible comes into sharp focus in Aimee Bahng’s Migrant Futures: Decolonizing Speculation in Financial Times, which highlights the ways in which the transnational turn in Asian American studies necessarily involves attention to finance and speculation. Its opening reminds readers of the enormous amounts of money—about $710 trillion in 2014—that are traded in the global financial derivatives market, “a metamarket of trading in commodity futures, options, and swaps.” In other words, this is speculation in the sense of investing in goods and services whose value doesn’t exactly yet exist. What will a commodity be worth at some future date? How can we minimize the risk that analyst predictions about this worth are inaccurate?
Moving beyond these kinds of concerns, Bahng wonders what happens to the futures of those who must live with the consequences of all of this trading. She is not talking about just Asian Americans here, but about poor people everywhere and the ways in which their financial precarity leads them to a migratory existence. As she elegantly puts it: “The financial colonization of the future builds on preexisting disparities of wealth held over from earlier histories of empire and neocolonial enterprises that break at the fault line between what has been called the Global North and South. Meanwhile, mass migrations of the undocumented, unbanked, and state-less workers move in and out of geopolitical spaces.” The history of imperialism figures large in this account too, as it is necessary for making sense of the movement of people as well as goods and finance. One doesn’t even have to move to feel the effects of all of this mobility.
My favorite moment in this book is when it discusses Sonny Liew’s Malinky Robot, a collection of five short graphic narratives depicting a small band of poor young people trying to make a living amid Singapore’s showy wealth, the same wealth showcased by Crazy Rich Asians. What Liew offers, according to Bahng, are characters who are on the receiving end of a lot of movement. As they “make their way through their everyday encounters with poverty, despair, and boredom,” she explains, the protagonists and their friends “enliven worlds of possibility in everyday practices of care. They help each other relocate, pool resources, and hatch plans to make money in unsanctioned ways.” More importantly, they also dream collectively about “imaginative worlds that look, smell, and feel different from their immediate surroundings.” If Crazy Rich Asians indulges in the fantasy of an Asian American woman participating in the opulence made possible by financial speculation in Asian productivity, what Malinky Robot shows for Bahng is the other side of this fantasy—what it’s like to live in the daunting shadow of such opulence.
Another example of how rich the transnational turn has been for contemporary scholarship in Asian American studies, Crystal Parikh’s Writing Human Rights: The Political Imaginaries of Writers of Color insists that we not dismiss human rights as a hopelessly flawed idea. This is because the idea names a crucial set of propositions: that “all human beings are … equal with respect to rights,” that “these rights are … not contingent on the whims of political authority,” and that “any government’s legitimacy depends upon its ability to secure these rights for its subjects.”
At the heart of these propositions, then, is the principle that any one of us, stripped of the protections we may enjoy as citizens of a nation-state, are entitled to some inalienable rights. We might say, for instance, that we have the right to exist. This right to exist would also entail the right to have access to clean water, nourishing food, clothing, and shelter. We might even say we have the right to free movement, for the right to exist would mean nothing if we were unable to move to access the means of existence should wherever we currently reside no longer afford such means. Most important of all, as Hannah Arendt famously put it in The Origins of Totalitarianism, we must have “the right to have rights,” or some kind of standing to make a claim to what we believe is owed to us by virtue of a shared humanity. The claiming of such rights, then, might be thought of as a logical outcome of the transnational turn, for these are universal rights that everyone possesses without any national encumbrances.
Bringing the transnational turn back to the United States context means considering how human rights discourses have been shaped by self-serving U.S. national interests.
But to whom will such a claim be made? As Parikh observes, there’s a contradiction here in that the guarantor of human rights are nation-states, which have also often been the greatest violators of these same rights. The United States in particular has taken full advantage of this contradiction, as, for example, when it incarcerated over a 100,000 Japanese Americans during the Second World War (which Arendt alludes to in a footnote in Origins). The US first imagines itself as being a place where human rights are most fully enjoyed, then insists its version of these rights must be enforceable elsewhere. This was seen most clearly in the post–World War II era, as the United States asserted its influence over a quickly decolonizing world. What policy makers championed and the US culture industries eventually adopted, Parikh writes, was “affective identifications,” the promotion of “free trade,” and the championing of liberal individualism, all of which gave rise “to sentimental discourses of equality and tolerance.”
Bringing the transnational turn back to the United States context, then, means considering how human rights discourses have been shaped by self-serving US national interests. To make this case is also to consider how Asian American literature, alongside other literature focused on racial minorities in the United States that rose to prominence at the end of the 20th century, channeled “antiracist energy into a representational politics of diversity, tolerance, and inclusion.” This, in turn, took energy away from “the structuralist critiques of racial capital at the heart of prior radical social movements.”
The question Parikh poses is, can American writers of color, including Asian American writers, lead their readers back to such critiques and to ideas of the human with inalienable rights that aren’t defined overmuch by liberal individualism? The answer she provides is a qualified yes. “The rights and freedoms of minor subjects,” she insists in a reading of Toni Morrison’s Beloved, “entail a necessary reckoning with the submerged history of settler colonial displacement.” Only though such a reckoning, then, can American writers of color offer their readers a vision of “self-determination” based on “the kind of ethical hospitality with which [Beloved character] Paul D is received” by a group of Native Americans.
Or, as Parikh argues in a reading of Susan Choi’s The Foreign Student, what this novel about a Korean War refugee remaking himself into a US college student gives its readers is a vision of a subject who, in the end, rejects “the promises of the modern sovereign state.” In choosing to leave college and join the ranks of a mostly African American working class in Chicago, the protagonist chooses “the Other, from whose existence one’s own being can never and ought not to be secured.” It is in the collective bonding of people to other people in a relationship that is necessarily fraught that makes possible an idea of human rights that isn’t simply beholden to the nation-state.
In the three books I discuss here, work, migration, and rights figure as sites of struggle: for meaning, for survival, and for the promise of something better than what’s on offer from the status quo. These same struggles are also, of course, not exclusive to Asian Americans, and if anything they are multiplying in number and intensity around the planet. Indeed, I’ve often found that my professional specialization in Asian American studies brings me into conversation with many different kinds of intellectual endeavors, and many different kinds of struggles. When I started my career, I thought my interests were niche and particular. As time has gone by, this opinion has itself turned out to be an example of not taking Asian Americans seriously enough. I am grateful for scholars like Jan Padios, Amy Bahng, and Crystal Parikh, who show their readers how serious Asian American studies is, and how its concerns reach across borders of every kind.
This article was commissioned by Sharon Marcus.