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Which Century Will Be Asian American?


The Asian American Century

Warren I. Cohen

Harvard University Press, Cambridge; 2002

ISBN #0-674-00765-4


Review by Jerry Winzig


I was drawn to Warren I. Cohen's short book (150 pages) because of its title.  I thought he would argue that the 21st century would have an Asian American emphasis while much of the 20th century had a European American emphasis.  Instead, Cohen's book examines how East Asia and the United States influenced and transformed each other extensively in the 20th century.


Cohen examines three aspects of the Asian American connection, the influence of political power, the "Americanization" of East Asian culture, and the "Asianization" of America.  His observations are interesting, but he never takes the next step, to apply what's happened to provide insight into the Asian American connection in the future.


Even Cohen's examination of the last century fails to explore some important concerns.  For example, in examining the influence of political power he discusses the role of the United States in East Asia (in Hawaii, the Philippines, Korea, and Vietnam for example).  But he fails to look at the lasting effects of Asian power on the United States.  For example, how was the United States changed by Japanese expansionism before and during World War II?  By the Chinese Communist revolution?


The Asian American Century presents a fairly balanced view of the last 100 years of relationships between East Asia and the United States.  He asks some pointed questions about the consequences of American foreign policy, particularly in the first part of the 20th century, but he also argues that World War II resulted in "the relatively benign effects of substituting American for Japanese dominance."


Cohen concedes that the United States helped to divide Korea, something that the Japanese never did.  But then he asks what Korea would be like today if Kim Jong Il and his colleagues were in control of a united Korea, and how many fewer Koreans would be living in the United States.


Cohen's book is most interesting when it examines the mutual cultural influences between East Asia and the United States.  He talks about a growing tendency throughout East Asia "to perceive McDonald's as local rather than American.  There are many stories of Asian children traveling anxiously in the United States who were relieved at last by the sight of the Golden Arches, the realization that their 'native' food was available in America."  He describes how Kentucky Fried Chicken has marginalized the Colonel Sanders image in China, replacing him with Qiqi ("Chicky"), a young chicken wearing an American baseball cap.


Cohen reminds us that Ang Lee's "Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon flopped in China, but won four Academy Awards in the United States and earned more than $100 million at the box office."  He tells us "there likely will be more Buddhists than Jews in America by mid-century."  In the year 2000, the United States had "a governor, two senators, several congressmen and women, a cabinet member (a second was appointed in 2001), and countless federal and state officials of East Asian ancestry, some of Asian birth."


Given all of this, I wish Cohen had explored what comes next.  Major forces are at work in Asia today.  China is moving slowly towards democracy and a free-market economy.  India's economy is growing as it moves away from socialism  The North Korean regime is on the brink of internal collapse.  Malaysia and Indonesia are struggling to revive their economies.  What will be the future interplay between Asia and the United States?  What is the future importance of America's current presence in Asia?  Isn't it significant that 10 percent of the U.S. population is now of Asian ancestry?  Perhaps it's really the next century, even more than the last, that will be known as the Asian American century.



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