Disability

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first appearance of “disability” occurred in the mid-­sixteenth century. Its adjectival form, “disabled,” follows shortly thereafter in the linguistic record. It appears that from the beginning, the three definitions of disability that persist today—­“a lack of ability (to discharge any office or function),” “a physical or mental condition that limits a person’s movements, senses, or activities,” and “a restriction framed to prevent any person or class of persons from sharing in duties and privileges which would otherwise be open to them”—­coexisted with one another. A now-­obsolete meaning, disability as financial hardship, disappeared from use in the nineteenth century.

The field of Asian American studies has seen a recent surge of scholarship that addresses disability. A Modern Language Association convention panel, a special issue of Amerasia Journal, and several monographs—­all appearing in the past few years—­together mark this acceleration of interest. Although …

Education

In the founding era of Asian American studies, the College Edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language provided four explanations of the term “education”: (1) “the process of training and developing the knowledge, skill, mind, character, etc.”; (2) “knowledge, ability, etc. thus developed”; (3) “formal schooling” or “a kind of stage of this,” for example, higher education; and (4) “systemic study of the problems, methods, and theories of teaching and learning” (Guralnik and Friend 1968, 461). The first three features were given serious attention in the formation of Asian American studies, but only a few instructors took the fourth feature into account and experimented with teaching and learning methods. Does any of this matter in the ongoing development of Asian American studies?

What is the how, when, where, and why of “education” as a keyword in Asian American studies? Education is a foundational theme in …

Environment

Considering the term “environment” in relation to Asian American studies is like staring at one of those optical illusions full of dots that make up a face or figure that one at first cannot discern. In both instances, the modalities of viewing provide one a limited field of vision. In the case of the optical illusion, we rely on studying a static, one-dimensional image. When discussing the relation of Asian American studies to the term “environment,” our perception is similarly restricted by the narrow meaning this term conveys since the mid-twentieth century—the natural world.

Until the late twentieth century, historians paid little attention to the environment, treating it as no more than the stage for human events, and while the fields of environmental history and environmental studies are now well established, they have traditionally failed to consider the experiences of Asian Americans who have seemed outside these lines of inquiry. …

Family

In popular usage, the ideal family unit is a nuclear household consisting of a mother, father, and children residing together. However, the U.S. Census Bureau defines the family more broadly as “two or more people (one of whom is the householder) related by birth, marriage, or adoption residing in the same housing unit.” In other contexts, “family” may refer to (all) those related by blood or marriage, regardless of whether or not they live under the same roof. Societies differ in how they reckon blood relationships. They may recognize kinship through only the male line (patrilineal), only the female line (matrilineal), or both male and female lines (bilateral). Moreover, the question of “what is family?” can be considered via its functions, namely, producing and reproducing persons as biological and social beings. These functions are accomplished through a gender and generational division of labor. Alternatively, family relations can be imagined; sociologists …

Gender

The term “gender” has multiple meanings and intellectual usages. Gender generally refers to the socially constructed nature of sex roles. The concept of gender challenges biologically essentialist understandings of maleness and femaleness, asserting instead that normative understandings of masculinity and femininity are socially defined ideas projected onto biological differences. Because women’s studies scholars have had a vested interest in challenging naturalized and hierarchical differences between men and women, gender is sometimes used interchangeably with the category of woman. That is, studies of gender are at times primarily focused on women. However, scholars have also used gender to argue for the need to understand how masculinity and femininity are relationally defined as well as how gender hierarchies serve as a constitutive basis for power and underlie other forms of social inequalities (Scott 1986). Furthermore, the interpretation of gender as a form of performativity argues that there are no stable …

Identity

“Identity” is a term that simultaneously unites and divides Asian Americans. Those with Asian ancestry in the United States are united in this demographic label through the political reality of the history of racialization (exclusionary immigration and naturalization laws, restrictive marriage laws, mass xenophobic incarceration) that Asians in America have been subjected to (and continue to be subjected to) and by activist and academic beliefs in making visible the experiences and histories of Asian Americans within the larger U.S. society. Asian Americans are divided by the different types of identities that exceed this singular racial label—by differences of ethnicity, heritage, national origin, religion, race, class, immigration status, citizenship, able bodiness, sexuality, gender, region, education, language, age, and a host of other identitarian markers. Both the original (1976) and revised (1983) versions of Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society do not include the term “identity,” which is telling …

Labor

The word “labor” is a fraught one in Asian American history because it has distilled and encapsulated complicated and sometimes strident normative debates over the nature of Asian labor in the United States. How Asian labor has been used and treated by white employers and how that use has been denigrated, condemned, and opposed by white workers, their labor union leaders, politicians, and large segments of the public have been important issues not only in Asian American history but also in U.S. history more broadly. A central theme in the anti-Asian movements that persisted for almost a century was the allegation that “cheap” and “servile” Asian labor was a new form of slavery. Moreover, white workingmen, it was said, simply could not compete against people who could survive on so little sustenance and bodily comfort. Asian female labor was likewise castigated: immigrant Chinese prostitutes were accused of introducing venereal diseases …

Queer

“Queer” has become a ubiquitous term in quotidian, scholarly, mass media, and political discourses to characterize and name things, relationships, situations, practices, and bodies from TV shows such as Queer Eye for the Straight Guy to academic endeavors such as queer studies. Its pervasiveness has resulted in messy contexts and situations as it is deployed in multiple and oftentimes contradictory ways. In its various uses, “queer” is and can be a vernacular word, a political idiom, and an academic field of study. The crux of the contentious nature of “queer” is whether the right question is “what is queer?” or “what does ‘queer’ do?” Is “queer” about ontology, identity, and being, or is it about processes, mechanics, and/or frameworks of analysis? “Queer” is necessarily about both aspects or dimensions.

In everyday usage, “queer” was and is still used as an umbrella term that designates identities, behaviors, and bodies as nonconforming …

Race

Race is a key concept in the formation of Asian American studies as a political project and an intellectual field. Throughout U.S. history, Asians have been racially cast through the narratives of empire, war, and migration. The racial logic of yellow peril, enemy aliens, model minority, and now the enemy combatant are part of a genealogy that represents Asian Americans as potential threats to the American way of life—a euphemism for modernity, capitalism, and white supremacy (e.g., Okihiro 1994, 118–47). Similarly, race in relationship to representations of gender and sexuality has historically been used to demean Asian Americans, rendering them as inferior. While perpetuating racial inequality, these portrayals often situate norms of gender and sexuality that are potential sites of political critique and social transformation (Eng 2001; Marchetti 1993; Shimizu 2007). Race is a social construction in which biology and culture are often conflated as a rhetorical …

Sexuality

In contemporary usage, “sexuality” refers to sexual orientation or the direction of an individual’s desire. It is closely entwined with but also separable from biological sex (male, female, intersex) and gender expression (masculinity, femininity, transgender). The categories of heterosexuality, homosexuality, and bisexuality are based on a binary sex/gender system and are defined by an individual’s object choice. Prior to this modern sense of sexuality as denoting erotic preferences and tastes, however, engaging in certain sexual acts did not necessarily entail definite sexual identities. It is not until the nineteenth and twentieth centuries through the work of sexologists, psychoanalysts, and state administrators that sexuality was gradually differentiated from sex and took on the psychological and emotional valences that it currently possesses, drawing into its orbit connotations of desire and attraction, fantasy and pleasure (Canaday 2009; Davidson 2001; Oosterhuis 2000).

Challenging notions of sexuality as a transhistorical, transcultural, immutable category …

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