Power and Politics - I am Not the Yellow Peril

The life and times of an Asian American activist who tells all the truth (and dishes news and analysis) but with a leftwards slant.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Learn Chinese . . . American history

I saw this article off of one of the Asian American email lists that I belong to about how there is an increase in the numbers of Chinese language courses being taught here in the United States, and a rise in interest in having more AP Chinese courses. I have a different take from angry asian man on this one.

The first thing I thought was 1) what about learning Chinese American history and culture? and 2) why didn't this stuff count when I was in high school so that I could have further polished my resume?

Don't get me wrong - I think that Chinese is a beautiful language. It's particularly meaningful if you study calligraphy and the ancient scripts - being able to know exactly what pictographs a word is derived from gives me the same kind of joy as when I can trace an English word back to its Latin roots. There is meaning and simplicity, tranquility behind the seeming madness of a character that seems chaotic and opaque at first glance.

The article describes how Chinese classes were originally filled with adoptees from China, or Chinese Americans, and now have racially and ethnically diverse enrollments. But I think that regardless of our background we could all benefit from not simply learning the language itself, but also the contributions and the culture of the Chinese Americans who came before us, the ones who maybe mostly spoke Chinese when they were building America's railroads.

The picture above refers to the infamous golden spike ceremony on May 10, 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, which marked the joining together of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific railroad lines, thus creating the first Transcontinental Railroad in the US. This railroad traversed the land from Council Bluffs, Iowa to Sacramento, California. This was the railroad that brought together disparate parts of the Union during the Civil War and eventually allowed for white homesteaders to mark their territory in virgin (i.e. American Indian-owned) lands spreading all the way to the promised land of California.

Why infamous? And why does this photo tear at the heart of Asian American history?

Because like in many versions of American history, and particularly school textbooks, the Chinese American laborers were not included in the photo despite their many hours of hard labor. This photo happens to be one of the most famous and enduring of that pivotal point in American history, yet there is no commemoration of the labor that went into it, no acknowledgement of the full history.

No doubt it's useful to know Mandarin Chinese if this is going to be the "Chinese century" but Chinese Americans are never going to get the proper cultural or political respect in this country if people do not understand our history of struggle within the United States. I took Chinese language courses which I thoroughly enjoyed, despite or maybe because of my parents, but what really made a difference in my life were the Asian American history courses that I took. I'm glad I'm able to communicate with my grandparents, but I'm also incredibly proud of our history in this country - our collective histories.


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