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Asian-Americans: From 'Asian Invaders' to Emergent Americans

By Zia, Helen | The Quill, May 2000 | Go to article overview

Asian-Americans: From 'Asian Invaders' to Emergent Americans


Zia, Helen, The Quill


News coverage of AsianAmericans has improved, but many old stereotypes remain.

When I embarked on my book about the coming of age of AsianAmericans, it was not my inten tion to spotlight the role that journalists played. But as a long-time journalist myself, I suppose it was inevitable.

Indeed, reporters and editors have had considerable impact in shaping perceptions of who Asian-Americans are, which I chronicle in "Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux). Each encounter - good, bad and ugly - offers a window into the impact of journalists and on any community that is sparsely covered or poorly understood.

Those lessons are especially relevant nowadays, when Asian-Americans make the headlines with regularity. It's a far cry from a time, not long ago, when our diverse communities were virtually nonexistent in the news, visited only by reporters on the prowl for some Chinese or other Asian food. I never saw a single story about or bylined by people like me, a Chinese-American, when I was growing up, even into the 1970s. That invisibility kept me from imagining a life as a journalist or writer until I was well into adulthood.

In my book, I trace the evolution of an Asian-American consciousness through a national campaign for justice in the racist slaying of a Chinese-American man in Detroit, who was mistaken for being Japanese; the Los Angeles riots and civil unrest of 1992; the Supreme Court case involving Filipino-American migrant workers that paved the way for the Civil Rights Act of 1991; the same-sex marriage vote in Hawaii and how Asian-Americans took an historic stance on gay and lesbian issues; the election of Gary Locke as governor of Washington; and a massive taxicab driver strike in New York City, led by working-class immigrant Americans from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh - hardly the "model minority" Asians.

Through it all, some constant themes persist in the news coverage. Chief among them is the assumption that Americans of Asian descent are foreigners, either portrayed as alien invaders or too "exotic" to be included in domestic stories. In most of the flashpoints I cite in my book, the Asian-American viewpoint was missing altogether, even in stories where they were directly involved, perhaps because they were not considered to be newsworthy American voices. The Los Angeles Times, for example, conducted a post-riot survey of Angelenos, soliciting their reactions; White, Black, Hispanic and Other opinions were recorded - editors explained that the Asian-American population in Los Angeles wasn't statistically significant, even though its numbers exceeded African-Americans in population.

Yet when Asian-Americans do break into the news, they are most often presented as a threat to "real" Americans. A content analysis performed by the Center for Improvement and Integration in Journalism at San Francisco State College found the most common headline used for Asian-American stories to be "Asian Invasion;" the headline covered topics ranging from movies, to college campuses, to business and real estate, to new strains of garlic. When Matt Fong, a fourth generation American, ran for the U.S. Senate two years ago, a reporter from a national newsweekly asked, if the U.S. went to war with China, where his loyalties would lie?

Such assumptions still afflict coverage today - for example, with campaign finance stories and alleged espionage. Seasoned journalists referred to AsianAmericans as "those strange Asians at the White House" and "mysterious Asians" intent on "infecting the American political system." Those Asian-Americans didn't seem strange or mysterious to me, nor was their presence at the White House a surprise to anyone familiar with the push toward political involvement underway in many communities.

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