One of my students at Berkeley, a perceptive young man who had immigrated with his family from the People's Republic of China two years before, recently asked me why students form racial groups at schools and colleges in America. He was particularly puzzled that American-born Chinese who spoke little Chinese deliberately grouped themselves with immigrant Chinese, who spoke English haltingly. In Canton, he commented, a common language would have been a more important criterion for social compatibility than race. How could I have answered his question in a day? He had focused upon one contemporary manifestation of a fundamental problem, the roots of which are as deep as American history itself.
What I have attempted in this book is to trace the topography and rich textures of the Asian American experience as it is expressed in Asian American literature from the late nineteenth century to the present day. Although I have used my understanding of Asian American social history to interpret the literature, I have focused on the evolution of Asian American consciousness and self-image as expressed in the literature. For the purposes of this study, I have defined Asian American literature as published creative writings in English by Americans of Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Filipino descent. This definition is problematical: it does not encompass writers in Asia or even writers expressing the American experience in Asian languages, although I have included some discussions of Japanese, Chinese, and Korean poetry about the Asian American experience that has been translated into English. This is not to say that writings in Asian languages are unimportant to a study of Asian American literature and experience: they are simply beyond the purview