2008 AAAS CONFERENCE: ASIAN AMERICA IN THE HEARTLAND
By: Amanda L. Andrei
CHICAGO, IL—Scholars, students, teachers, and community organizers gather in the largest city in the Midwest from April 16-20 for the 26th annual Association of Asian American Studies Conference. Typically, this conference has been held on the west or east coast, or major destination cities, but this is the first time that the conference has been held in the Midwest.
“We’re taking the idea of place and locality seriously,” explains Pawan Dhingra, one of the co-chairs of the Program Committee and a professor of Sociology and Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. “We want to help people understand how space matters.”
As of 2000, Chicago has an Asian Pacific American population of 4.3%, boasts a variety of ethnic neighborhoods from Chinatown to Little Polonia, and is home to over 80 institutions of higher education. It also serves as a microcosm for “homogenous, middle America”—that is, while the Asian Americans in Chicago may appear more assimilated and mainstream compared to those in California cities, they still play a marginalized role within their city. This conference seeks to explore how geography affects the APA community and how ideas of transnationalism are emerging within the field of study.
“I think the Midwest is still racialized in terms of black and white,” notes Nina Ha, former professor at Ohio State University and current English professor at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska. “I always try adding Asian American [writers] into my classes and bringing guest speakers to get students interested in different things.” While Creighton is a smaller, private, Jesuit institution, most of the schools in the Midwest with Asian American Studies programs are large, public universities, such as the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. UIUC’s program was founded in 1997 and offers a comparative approach to other studies that intersects with cultural, historical, educational, performance, and gender and sexuality studies. Although it offers only an undergraduate minor, the community is pushing for an undergraduate major, a graduate minor, and an interdisciplinary Ph.D.
Other schools in the Midwest have tailored their curricula to their demographics. At the University of Minnesota, there is a focus on groups such as the Hmong, Southeast Asian communities, and transnational/transracial adoptees. However, “the curriculum is largely driven by what faculty can teach,” explains Josephine Lee, English professor at the University of Minnesota. Since the program is part of the Department of American Studies, they do not have their own staff or space, and faculty are from other departments such as History or Sociology.
While geography may have its limitations, it also provides new perspective to non Asian Americans. Huping Ling, History Professor of Truman State University in Kirksville, Missouri, began advocating for a minor in 1991 and remains one of the sole Asian American faculty activists on her campus. “White students were curious about Asian American Studies, and many felt their eyes were opened because they didn’t realize there was such a struggle or such diversity among Asian American Studies,” Ling recalls.
Krystyn Moon, History and American Studies professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, Virginia, recalls something comparable among her students when she taught at Georgia State University. “Perhaps what I found to be most intriguing was the way in which my African American students made connections between the African and Asian American experience,” she says. While teaching in the South involves different demographics than the Midwest, these regions are still part of the “East of California” paradigm and differ in demographics and resources compared to the coasts and major cities. They do share common problems, whether in lack of faculty, money, or a critical mass of students for advocacy, but they also share similar advantages, such as reaching out to many non Asian Americans and exploring non-traditional issues of AAS.
Issues in AAS commonly focused on nationalist ideals, but this Chicago Conference steers the topics in a different direction, towards globalization and other nations. “The idea of California as ground zero of Asian American Studies has largely focused on nationalist ideals,” explains Martin F. Manalansan, Anthropology professor at UIUC and one of the Program Committee co-chairs. “We need to go beyond the shores or borders of this country to better understand what is happening within it.” With this as one of their guidelines, the Program Committee reviewed hundreds of proposals for papers, constructed the academic program, formed panels, defined the mega sessions, and ultimately provided the theme for the conference.
Meanwhile, the Site Committee was responsible for planning the non-academic parts of the conference and getting the Chicago community involved. “We have been meeting since last fall to plan events around the conference,” acknowledges Theresa Mah, one of the Site Committee co-chairs and professor at the University of Chicago. The Wednesday workshops and mega sessions are geared towards K-12 teachers, community organizers, and local activists and highlight emerging issues within AAS. This year’s workshops focus on Japanese American internment; disabilities and mental health; Muslim, South Asian, Middle Eastern, and Arab communities; adoptee children literature; and mixed Asians. The mega sessions focus on the impact of queer studies, religion, heartland America, and Guantanamo Bay on Asian American Studies.
“We have very active members who coordinated different tours of different Asian American neighborhoods,” notes Karen Su, the other Site Committee co-chairs and the director of Asian American Resource and Cultural Center at the University of Chicago Illinois. The Site Committee also planned author readings, film screenings, and community theater performances, as well as organizing the awards ceremony for the Saturday banquet.
Speaking of the AAS program at UIUC, Martin F. Manalansan states, “The life of a program depends on how it can calibrate its nature and remap its contours according to the shifts in history and culture.” The same can be said of this gathering in Chicago. Despite difficulties and obstacles within Asian American Studies nationwide, scholars, leaders, and activists strive to adjust to the changing landscape of Asian America, whether it be in the heartland of the United States or beyond its shores.