By Erika Lee
As someone who became a historian after doing an oral history with my grandparents while I was still in college, I still love reading about the experiences of everyday immigrants and refugees and their children. They provide a window into the contemporary issues and trends in immigrant America.
I am reminded of the importance of oral history every grading season when I read sixty or so oral history projects conducted by undergraduate students in my Asian American history course. The project consists of an assignment to conduct an oral history interview with an Asian American subject or someone who has worked closely on Asian American issues or with Asian American populations. Students then take the interview and contextualize their interviewee's experiences within larger contexts of immigration and Asian American history. I have been assigning this project for eleven years, and it is absolutely my favorite undergraduate assignment.
My students' subjects reflect the great diversity of Asian Americans in the 21st century, but also the unique regional characteristics of Asian Americans in the Midwest and in Minnesota. About one third of the papers focused on Hmong refugees or Hmong in America. Post-1965 immigrants from China, South Asia, the Philippines and adopted Korean Americans were also common. My international students from China interviewed other international students from China. A few interviewees were multiracial Asian Americans. Most projects focused on the migration narrative of why their subjects came to America as well as the immigrant narrative of finding success in the U.S. Common themes included: post-1965 opportunities to pursue education and professional training in the U.S., the escape from Communist persecution in Laos, adaptation to the U.S., struggles, hardship, and discrimination. But the interviews also documented refugees and immigrants who earned their GEDs, opened up nail salons, restaurants, and engineering firms, and who took pleasure in seeing their children pursue higher education. A significant change from years past is the decrease in the number of interviews involving grandparents and an increase in the number of projects on 1.5 and second generation Americans and on issues that reflect internal divisions and disparities within ethnic communities. Older siblings, cousins, and teachers who came to the U.S. as refugee children and who are now teachers, police officers, and counselors involved in the Hmong American community were common subjects. One student interviewed a Hmong lesbian activist whose parents refuse to acknowledge her sexual orientation. Another interviewed Hmong families with children with developmental disabilities who feel marginalized and ignored by mainstream Hmong social service organizations. Other students have begun to more critically analyze the ways in which history and family narratives are produced and why. One student focused on his family's "family nights" during which his parents tell and retell their reasons for coming to the United States and the hardships they faced once here as a way to inspire the second generation to achieve educational and economic success.
I finished grading at midnight last night (grades are due today!) and I am tired from a lack of sleep. But I have learned a lot about this snapshot of Asian Americans in the twenty-first century. I'm already looking forward to next year's papers.
By Erika Lee, Director, Asian American Studies Program; Associate Professor, Department of History and Asian American Studies, University of Minnesota.