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Asian American Resources for Under $40

For the last Bargain Buys column, I have decided to focus on media about Asian Americans. Asian studies and Asian American studies are of course separate fields - to suggest otherwise is to reinforce the notion that Asian Americans are perpetual foreigners. That said, many K-12 teachers are motivated to teach about Asia because of growing numbers of Asian American and newly immigrated Asian students in their classrooms. In order for these children to be better understood by their peers, it is important to teach about not just their ancestral background (in China, Korea, India, etc.), but also the circumstances of their family's arrival and adaptation to this country. The media I have chosen highlights important transitional moments for Asian Americans: immigration to the U.S., incidents of discrimination (most memorably the Japanese internment), and finally success accompanied by continued struggle.

The First Generation: 1900-1940
Asian began arriving to this country en masse right around the Civil War period. Chinese immigration was sparked by the gold rush in California starting in 1849 and continued as Chinese laborers found work on the Northern Pacific Railroad and in the mines. In 1884, there was large-scale immigration to Hawaii by Japanese people coming to work the sugar plantations. By the turn of the century, there were 120,248 foreign-born Asian immigrants living in this country, predominately on the West Coast. By 1930, that figure had more than doubled.[1]

Moving Memories, a documentary produced by the Japanese American National Museum and hosted by Star Trek star George Takei, features home videos taken by several of these early Asian pioneers. Since the lives of Japanese immigrants during the 20s and 30s were not recorded in early newsreels and motion pictures, amateur footage taken by businessmen, priests, teachers, etc. are an invaluable addition to the historical record. The clips in Moving Memories, divided into sections by filmmaker, depict family life, community events, and economic development during that period.

Many Caucasians on the West Coast were not thrilled to see Asians establishing themselves. A series of anti-Chinese demonstrations resulted in dozens of deaths and thousands of residents being forcefully evicted from their homes. At the same time, legislation was passed limiting further immigration. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 prevented additional Chinese laborers from coming to the United States. The "Gentlemen's Agreement" of 1907 between the U.S. and Japan reduced immigration from Japan. By the 1920s, Asian immigrants could not own land, become citizens, or marry white people.

The Multicultural Peoples of North America series deals with these events, chronicling how they affected Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans in three separate videos. In addition to discussing the group's history, each video profiles a family, emphasizing the differences and desires of each generation, and features a short biography of an influential member of that ethnic group. Aimed at grades 4-10, this series explores important issues including identity formation and the effects of racial discrimination. I would recommend choosing only one of these videos to purchase, however, because they are too similar to one another to warrant screening all three. Another similar series, American Cultures for Children for grades K-4, includes videos about the same three ethnic groups, as well as one about Vietnamese Americans. American Cultures spends less time on Asian American history than Multicultural Peoples, focusing more on cultural aspects, such as food, festivals, language, and literature.

The Japanese Internment: 1942-1945
The Japanese American National Museum has developed an excellent documentary series for teaching about the Japanese Internment called Once Upon a Camp. Each video is targeted toward a particular grade level and is accompanied by an extensive teacher's guide featuring historical background and suggested activities. The Bracelet, intended for grades K-5, features a Japanese American teacher reading a children's book to her second grade class. The book, also titled "The Bracelet" is about a young girl named Emi who is forced to leave her home for the camps. Right before she leaves, her best friend (a little white girl) gives Emi a bracelet so that she will always remember their friendship. At the camp, Emi accidentally loses the bracelet, but learns that some memories are carried in our hearts.

The Once Upon a Camp video for middle school students, Dear Miss Breed, features letters written by young people in the camps to children's librarian Clara Breed. This short film combines old footage of camp life with the voices of children reading excerpts of the letters. The result is a moving account of the frustration and sadness felt by Japanese people during this period. Interactions, the final video in the series, follows four high school students as they learn about the Internment. Initially they knew almost nothing about the event, but after surfing the web for information, visiting the Japanese American National Museum, talking with several Japanese people who had been sent to the camps as teenagers, and visiting Manzanar, a desolate former camp in eastern California, they came to better understand the injustice perpetrated by the U.S. government.

Asian Americans Today
Despite reparations for the Internment and the elimination of racially based immigration laws, discrimination against people of Asian descent persists in this country. After the Vietnam War, thousands of Southeast Asian refugees poured into this country. Generally poorer and less educated compared to recent East Asian immigrants, these people have been deprived of many necessary social services and occasionally have even become the victims of attacks. During the early 1990s, a group of Hmong teenagers in Wisconsin produced several amateur films about their life in America. My favorite, titled Color Blind, is comprised of a series of interviews with minority students, at least half of whom are Asian, talking about racism, culture, and identity. Filmed on video, this program does an excellent job dealing with the realities of modern racism.

But Asian Americans are more than just victims of oppression. Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision, won the 1995 Academy Award for Best Feature Documentary, for its portrayal of the brilliant architect and artist Maya Lin. Lin, a second generation Chinese American, is most famous for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial while just a 21-year-old undergraduate at Yale. Since then she has designed the Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama, the Yale's Women's Table, and the Juniata Peace Chapel in central Pennsylvania. Ideal for older high school and college students, the film begins by looking at the controversy surrounding the Vietnam Veterans Memorial design and goes on to discuss other projects she has worked on. Throughout the documentary, insights about Lin's past and personality are slowly revealed. While race is never the central theme of Maya's story, it is indicative of how far minorities (and women) have come and how much our country has to gain by giving everyone a voice.

Addendum: After writing this review, I found out about a video called Chinatown that was produced by KQED San Francisco and aired on PBS in 1997. Among other honors, it received a CINE Golden Eagle and a Silver Apple from the National Educational Media Network. For more information visit:

[1] According to the table: Immigration to U.S.: 1850-1930, 1960-1990. Reported in a U.S. Census Bureau document on March 9, 1999. Can be located online at:
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