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Why Donít Most Americans Know about Angel Island?


Strangers from a Different Shore: A History of Asian Americans

Updated and Revised

By Ronald Takaki

Little, Brown and Company, Boston, Massachusetts; 1989, 1998

ISBN #0-316-83109-3 (HC)† 0-316-83130-1 (PB)


Review by Jerry Winzig


In the introduction to the revised version of his book, Strangers from a Different Shore, Ronald Takaki tells how E. D. Hirsh's book, Cultural Literacy, lists Ellis Island as one of the terms that every American should know.† However, Hirsh omits Angel Island in San Francisco Bay, the entry point for Chinese and Japanese immigrants.


That omission is telling.† Many of the experiences of America's immigrants from Asia have been intentionally excluded from mainstream America's view of its origins.† Takaki's lengthy book (591 pages) helps correct this omission by sharing information about these immigrants and --especially -- by telling the stories of those who came to America from China, Japan, Korea, India, the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand.† The stories are fascinating and compelling.


Unlike the immigrants from Europe, those who came from Asia could not become citizens under the "white-only" restriction of the 1790 Naturalization Law.† It took 162 years for this provision to be repealed.† Harry Takagi said its repeal "established our parents as the legal equal of other Americans; it gave the Japanese equality with all other immigrants."† Yet it took another 13 years for Congress to remove the national-origins restrictions against Asian immigrants.


Asian Americans have been in America for over 150 years.† Yet Takaki describes how, when he went to school in the Midwest, other students and professors would ask him how long he had been in America and where he learned to speak English.† Sometimes he would reply, "I was born in America, and my family has been here for three generations."† But Takaki's experience is all too common among Asian Americans.


Asians have been a majority of Hawaii's people for nearly a century.† The largest Chinese community outside of China is in New York City.† Asian Americans outnumber African-Americans in California.† Following two earlier waves of Asian immigration (from 1849 to 1924 and from 1965 to 1985), half of all current immigrants entering the United States are from Asia.† Asians are the fastest-growing ethnic minority group in the country.


Chinese Americans contributed greatly to California's development.† In the 1860s they constructed networks of irrigation channels and miles of levees, dikes, and ditches in the fertile San Joaquin and Sacramento River deltas.† The Central Pacific Railroad employed 12,000 Chinese -- 90 percent of its entire work force.


Yet historian Arthur Schlesinger, in his book entitled, The Disuniting of America, denounces "multicultural zealots" and says that the American ideas of liberty, democracy, and the rule of law are "European ideas, not Asian, not African, nor Middle Eastern."


Takaki makes it clear that Schlesinger is but the latest in a long line of American leaders who have been hostile to immigrants from Asia.† In 1903, Samuel Gompers, the head of the American Federation of Labor, refused to admit the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association to the AFL, saying, "Your union will under no circumstance accept membership of any Chinese or Japanese."


In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting Japanese immigrants from remigrating from Hawaii to the mainland.† In 1913, the California legislature denied land ownership to Japanese immigrants, largely because they had developed California agriculture.† As early as 1910, they produced 70 percent of California's strawberries.† By 1940, the grew 95 percent of the state's fresh snap beans, 67 percent of its fresh tomatoes, 95 percent of its spring and summer celery, 44 percent of its onions, and 40 percent of its fresh green peas.


In 1929, Rabindranath Tagore, the winner of the Nobel Prize for literature in 1913, was hassled when he applied for entry to the United States and encountered racial prejudice in Los Angeles.† He cancelled his tour and returned to India, commenting, "Jesus could not get into America because, first of all, He would not have the necessary money, and secondly, He would be an Asiatic."


It takes awhile to get through Strangers from a Different Shore.† But those who finish it all are left with a better perception of how America was built, and the difficulties that occurred along the way.



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