The Asian American Dream

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The Asian American Dream


Although the first Asian immigrants to the United States were eighteenth-century Filipino sailors making port in undeveloped territory now belonging to Louisiana, the steady migration of Asians from their home countries did not begin until a century later with the gold rush, the transcontinental railroad, and the western land boom. The Asian American dream mirrored the traditional American dream: the overwhelming desire both to escape economic, social, and political hardship and to achieve a level of prosperity and success impossible in their homeland. Asian immigrants, like other immigrants, saw America as the land of opportunity and fortune. However, for them the American dream was divided into two distinct promises for the future. Some saw America as a place where they could earn money to support a family and future back in their home country, while others saw America as a place to secure a new, prosperous identity, both personal and national. Both of these promises were difficult to realize.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the Chinese immigrant population became a vital force in the development of the western United States. By 1870, Chinese workers comprised 20 percent of California's labor force and occupied a variety of positions in mining, farming, fishing, factory work, and railroad construction. Though contract laborers from southern China had been recruited as a cheap way to ensure American progress, their strong work ethic and willingness to take even the lowest-paying jobs quickly inspired anti-Chinese sentiment. Many Americans, particularly those affected by the depression of 1876, accused the Chinese workers of taking away their jobs and, subsequently, their livelihoods. This negative and often violent opinion eventually inspired Congress to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a law making immigration and naturalization difficult for the Chinese for the next sixty years.

Despite the Chinese Exclusion Act and the volatile relationship between Chinese laborers and their American employers, the Asian American dream was not lost. Americans still wanted a discount on progress and, in the late nineteenth century, replaced the Chinese with hopeful immigrants from Japan, Korea, and India. But, as happened with the Chinese, anti-Asian sentiment soon arose. The U.S. Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s pushed for restrictions to be lifted and annual quotas dramatically increased. Around this time, the United States government, eager to lead the race in technological advancement, created legislation that encouraged foreign-born engineers, doctors, and scientists to immigrate to America. Opportunity invited young and old, and success came in the form of education, a more liberated society, and the promise of a stable future as an American.

American Opportunity

The Asian immigrants sought the traditional American dream: With a little hard work, certain success would soon follow. Ruthanne Lum McCunn's children's book Pie-Biter (1983) tells the story of Hoi, a young Chinese boy whose ingenuity, determination, and love of pies help him triumph over adversity as he works on the transcontinental railroad. To reflect the hero's journey to success, McCunn writes Hoi's tale as a combination of the American tall tale and the quintessential American success story. As Hoi grows from hopeful adolescent to strong young man, McCunn allows Hoi to be a true American hero without sacrificing his culture. Framed in the folk tradition, Pie-Biter is an obvious example of how immigrants saw America as the "Land of the Golden Mountain," as is Lawrence Yep's Dragon's Gate (1993), part of the author's Golden Mountain Chronicles. In Yep's young adult novel, Otter moves to America when he experiences racial discrimination in his home country, China. Otter, like Hoi, works on the transcontinental railroad, but when Otter arrives in America, he no longer sees the fields of gold he once imagined. In contrast to Hoi, who wants to make something of himself in his new homeland, Otter wishes to take what he learns in America back to China where he will free his people from the invading Manchus. Both Pie-Biter and Dragon's Gate, though fictional, clearly illustrate the two opposing dreams: reaping the opportunity America has to offer either to improve life back home or to make a fresh start in a young, developing nation.

American Outcasts

Those immigrants who decided to establish their futures by settling in the United States and becoming American frequently found themselves alienated, punished, and exiled for their Asian heritage. In Farewell to Manzanar (1972), Jeanne Houston writes an autobiographical account of her family's experience when the U.S. government sends them, along with 10,000 other Japanese Americans, to an internment camp in Manzanar, California, as a reaction to Japanese involvement in World War II. Houston recounts her father's desperate need to cover up their Japanese roots after Pearl Harbor was bombed: "That night Papa burned the flag he had brought with him from Hiroshima thirty-five years earlier…. He burned a lot of papers too, documents, anything that might suggest he still had some connection with Japan." However, her father's rush to secrecy is not enough, and the family is soon deported to the camp, identified as "Japanese," despite their hard-fought struggle to claim a place in American society.

Monica Itoi Sone tells a similar story in her autobiography, Nisei Daughter (1953). With chapters titled "We Meet Real Japanese" and "We Are Outcasts," Sone discusses the personal humiliation and indignities her family suffered as they were sent to a World War II internment camp in Idaho. Sone also talks about the day she first understood her ethnic heritage. She says simply: "One day when I was a happy six-year-old, I made the shocking discovery that I had Japanese blood. I was a Japanese." She was a "Nisei," or American-born child of Japanese immigrants to the United States. As learned from society, Sone believed Japanese was something foreign, something that did not belong, an outsider. Yet Sone quickly realizes she is exactly what she thought she was not; Japanese American is no different from Japanese, as local politician Mr. Sakaguchi declares:

A future here! Bah! Words, words! How many sons of ours with a beautiful bachelor's degree are accepted into American life? Name me one young man who is now working in an American firm on equal terms with his white colleagues. Our Nisei engineers push lawn mowers. Men with degrees in chemistry and physics do research in the fruit stands of the public market. And they all rot away inside.

Both Houston and Sone show how racial discrimination robbed the Asian American community of their American, not to mention human, rights. For Houston and Sone, the American fairy tale was a tall tale.

American Pride

Yet for families like Houston's and Sone's, assimilation into the American culture was imagined to be the key to success. They wanted to become part of the mainstream, to be treated as equals in a land that had a Constitution guaranteeing that right. C. Y. Lee's Flower Drum Song (1957), as well as the film adaptation of the novel by Rodgers and Hammerstein, focuses on the Wang family. Wang Ta, a second-generation Chinese American living in San Francisco's Chinatown, longs for a successful career and romance, while his brother Wang San tries to become a typical American teenager. The difference between Wang Ta, Wang San, and their father, Wang Chi-yang, is obvious:

[Wang Chi-yang] lived comfortably in a two-story house three blocks away from Grant Avenue that he had bought four years ago, a house decorated with Chinese paintings and couplet scrolls, furnished with uncomfortable but expensive teakwood tables and chairs, and staffed with two servants and a cook whom he had brought from Hunan Province. The only "impure" elements in his household were his two sons, Wang Ta and Wang San, especially the latter, who had in four years learned to act like a cowboy and talk like the characters in a Spillane movie.

To achieve his father's level of success, Wang Ta "adopted many American ideas" in "four years of American education." As an immigrant himself, Lee wrote Flower Drum Song to portray his own experiences and observations as a young man growing up in the United States during the late 1940s. The novel illustrates the complex struggle of a younger generation to adapt to a new culture, much to the dismay and disapproval of an older generation that is desperately trying to keep the traditional ways alive.

American Identity

As shown in Flower Drum Song through Wang San's character, the younger generation struggled to claim a new identity, despite the disapproval of their elders. Maxine Hong Kingston's Tripmaster Monkey (1989) focuses on Wittman Ah Sing, a fifth-generation Chinese American artist whose spiritual journey in the 1960s forces him to evaluate who he really is and what he really wants from life. His name points ironically to the tenuous balance between his American culture and his Chinese roots, both playing to the American poet Walt Whitman and his famous line in Leaves of Grass, "I sing the body electric," and echoing the aural tones of a traditional Chinese moniker. Like Whitman, Sing explores his identity through his art; Sing's alter ego and the protagonist of his play, the Chinese Monkey King, is a rebellious trickster with the ability to adapt and change. In creating his art, Sing can live in a world of his own making, rather than a world of stereotypes. The use of the trickster monkey also operates on many cultural levels, not only inviting comparison to the Chinese folktale, but also acting as a reminder of the racial epithets of the time. During the Spanish-American War in the Philippines, Filipinos were dubbed monkeys by American soldiers, a name that unfortunately caught on when Filipinos immigrated to the United States.

Philip Kan Gotanda's 2004 play The Wind Cries Mary explores ambivalence about one's own cultural ideal. Inspired by Hedda Gabler, Heinrik Ibsen's 1890 study of middle-class dissatisfaction, Gotanda presents Eiko, a young Japanese American wife in San Francisco in the late 1960s stifled by societal expectations. Eiko's jealousy, self-loathing, and resentment spring from her own success at becoming what her culture told her she should be: a subservient wife. Her unhappiness leaves a wide swath of destruction in its wake. Eiko exists in a time of great societal change in the United States; if she had channeled the momentum of the era, she may have redefined herself and survived.

Redefining oneself is a theme running through Jean Okimoto's Molly by Any Other Name (1990) and Aimee Phan's We Should Never Meet (2004). In Okimoto's novel, seventeen-year-old Asian American Molly Fletcher, adopted as an infant by a white couple, longs to discover her birth parents and uncover her national heritage. Molly is a young woman in limbo, uncertain who she is and who she might be. In writing We Shall Never Meet, Aimee Phan followed this same type of quest, inspired by her mother, aunt, and uncle, who were all refugee children evacuated from Saigon in 1975 through Operation Babylift. In addition, Phan drew on her mother's social work experiences with Vietnamese foster children, as well as her own research trip to Vietnam. Phan's collection of short stories addresses the limbo of identity and displaced lives created by Operation Babylift, spanning time from 1975 to the present day. The painful loss of and subsequent search for origins, the uncertain future in America, and assimilation of a new culture make forging a new life in the States exceedingly difficult for Phan's characters. In an interview on, Phan comments on the way Kim, Huan, Mai, and Vinh handle their experiences:

While Kim and Huan were both on the Babylift, Huan's adoption worked out and Kim's didn't. Because of this, Kim's life followed a very different path that was difficult and painful for her. Mai and Vinh were also affected by their foster care upbringings: Mai thrived under her supportive parents, while Vinh dropped out of school because his foster parents didn't care…. They think America is to blame for their unhappiness and their only means of action is to return the injustice against people that represent America and assimilation.

Amy Tan also takes on the complicated questions of American assimilation in The Joy Luck Club (1989). Suyuan Woo, Lindo Jong, An-Mei Hsu, and Ying-ying St. Clair, four Chinese women who immigrated to the United States after World War II, blame the negative experiences in their lives on the restrictive social codes and traditions of their Chinese heritage, as illustrated by An-Mei's commentary, "I was raised the Chinese way: I was taught to desire nothing, to swallow other people's misery, to eat my own bitterness." But the women also believe their daughters should not completely eschew all traces of their heritage. "I wanted my children to have the best combination: American circumstances and Chinese character," Lindo says. "How could I know these two things do not mix?" This philosophy is also held by Katie Takeshima's mother in Cynthia Kadohata's young adult novel, Kira-Kira (2005). Early in the book, Katie reports, "[My mother] was dismayed over how un-Japanese [my sister and I] were and vowed to send us to Japan one day." Despite working in an American poultry processing plant alongside her husband, Mrs. Takeshima tries to instill Japanese values in Katie, shown in this incident prior to her daughter's first day at school: "Right then my mother came in with scissors to chop off my long straight hair. This was a ritual all the local Japanese mothers performed the day before they sent their daughters off to school for the first time." The challenge for the daughters in both The Joy Luck Club and Kira-Kira, as for many Asian Americans, was difficult: How could people retain the traditions of their homeland and still succeed as Americans?


Asian Americans are still often asked, "Where are you from?" proving the complex issues surrounding a truly American identity remain. Today, the stereotype of the Asian American has developed from the "yellow peril" into the model minority. Asian Americans work hard to dispel the cardboard image of the hard-working, overachieving, studious researcher/scholar/scientist/math whiz, fighting to achieve the American dream while portraying a real picture of what it means to have a rich cultural heritage that is both American and Asian.


Gaines, Luan, "An Interview with Aimee Phan,", (August 21, 2006).

Houston, Jeanne, Farewell to Manzanar, Dell Laurel-Leaf, 1983, p. 6.

Kadohata, Cynthia, Kira-Kira, Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 2004, p. 51.

Lee, C. Y., Flower Drum Song, Dell, 1966, p. 4.

Okimoto, Jean Davies, Molly by Any Other Name,, 2000.

Phan, Aimee, We Should Never Meet, St. Martin's Press, 2004.

Sone, Monica Itoi, Nisei Daughter, University of Washington Press, 1979, p. 121.

Tan, Amy, The Joy Luck Club, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1989, pp. 215, 254.

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The Asian American Dream

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