Adoption

In Asian American studies, the word “adoption” is increasingly significant for elucidating the breadth and depth of Asian American demographics, cultural expression, contemporary issues, and history. In the late twentieth and early twenty-­first centuries, the sight of an Asian child with white American parents has become a new social norm. Between 1971 and 2001, U.S. citizens adopted 265,677 children from other countries, and over half of those were from Asian countries. In 2000 and 2001, China was the leading sending country of adoptive children to the United States. South Korea, Vietnam, India, Cambodia, and the Philippines were among the top twenty sending countries (Evan B. Donaldson Adoption Institute 2013). Thus, the terms “international adoption,” “intercountry adoption,” and “transnational adoption” are used to describe the global dimensions of Asian adoption in the United States (Volkman 2005; Eleana Kim2010).

A related keyword is “diaspora,” which acknowledges the broader histories of Asian international …

Art

Whereas all human societies have developed visual idioms, the idea of Art (with a capital “A”) is elusive, much debated, and often closely entwined with social and class hierarchies, and subjective matters of value, taste, and sensibility. Its historic application as a cultural category and definitions of what constitutes visual art have varied significantly from culture to culture, across different historic periods, and according to the background, position, and perception of the viewer. Especially in the modern West, distinctions have typically been drawn between “high” or “fine” art, and crafts or applied arts. “Fine” art has been conceived as a specialized, elevated focus of aesthetic activity with its own intellectual history, professional principles, standards of judgment, and notions of individual “genius.” By contrast, crafts, design, and vernacular practices deemed as “tribal,” “primitive,” “folk,” or “outsider” art were often treated as lesser. While the Western tradition of visual art once referred …

Assimilation

The definition of “assimilation” and its subsequent usage has long been a contentious issue in American scholarship. Fundamentally, assimilation raises difficult questions about the social composition of a society or culture. More specifically, the debates around the term address the adaptation of those populations or individuals understood as outside or different from mainstream society. The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “assimilate” as a verb meaning to “take in (information, ideas, or culture) and understand fully” and “absorb and integrate.”

The dispute over the meaning of assimilation follows the intertwined history of racial formation, immigration politics, and national identity in the United States. In 1897, W.E.B. Du Bois published “The Conservation of Races,” in which he argued against assimilation. Du Bois pushed for the substantive retention of racial difference, beyond that of physical difference, in acknowledgment of distinct, racial experiences and their particular contributions to society. In this way, to assimilate …

Brown

“Brown” is a term from 11th-century Old English (brun) and Middle English (broun) referring to a color, meaning “duskiness, gloom.” With regard to people, the Oxford English Dictionary describes a brown person as “having the skin of a brown or dusky colour: as a racial characteristic.” “Brown”’s work as an adjective (“brown bird”), verb (“to brown”), and noun parallels its references to multiple groups of people, including those from Africa, Asia, Europe, the Pacific, and Latin America. Given that many people have “brown” skin, “Brown” of course refers to much more than skin color and phenotype: like the terms “Black” (used to refer to people of African descent), “Yellow” (often referring to East Asians), and “Red” (indigenous peoples of the Americas), it refers not to a thing or person as much as to the processes through which these are given meaning.

The unsettled and untethered uses …

Citizenship

“Citizenship” has been a key foundational term within modern liberal definitions of rights since the 18th century. In the most basic sense, citizenship is a legal status accorded to subjects of a nation that confers to its members a host of rights, protections, and obligations. Citizenship is the institution through which states may grant or deny such rights and duties to the inhabitants of a national territory, and thereby positions the state as the ultimate arbiter and guarantor of equality and justice. With the rise of the nation-state form, citizenship became a necessity for realizing what had been imagined as inalienable human rights, insofar as these rights could be practically claimed and administered only if recognized by a nation-state entity (Arendt 1968).

At the very heart of the modern idea of citizenship is a universality that is both its emancipatory promise and limit. For example, all subjects who have secured …

Class

The meaning of “class” in Asian American studies formed in conversation with Marxism, with the former building on the latter’s insights while seeking to find ways to exceed its perceived limitations. For instance, Lisa Lowe starts her groundbreaking book Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics by insisting, “Understanding Asian immigration to the United States is fundamental to understanding the racialized foundations of both the emergence of the United States as a nation and the development of American capitalism” (1996, ix). In the equally groundbreaking Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Racial Purity, Vijay Prashad observes, “White supremacy emerged in the throes of capitalism’s planetary birth to justify the expropriation of people off their lands and the exploitation of people for their labor” (2001, x–xi). In both these examples, race plays a larger role in the development of capitalism than Marx himself ever considered. …

Commodification

In Capital, Volume One, Marx was highly critical of commodification, a process that occurs under capitalism whereby things are assigned an exchange value in the marketplace. He observed that when the use-value of commodities are given economic or exchange values, these commodities subsequently modify social relationships. Building upon these ideas, Marxist scholars such as Arjun Appadurai (1986), Stuart Hall (1992), and Donald Lowe (1995) have complicated the studies of commodification to argue that the social values of commodities are highly contested and firmly immersed in their cultural, social, and political contexts. In her thought-provoking article “Eating the Other,” bell hooks (1992) contends that racial and ethnic expressions of difference by minoritized groups can be co-opted, sold, and consumed in the dominant marketplace. In this essay, I explore the various ways in which capitalism makes commodification practices manifest through culture, ethnicity, and the racialized body. I suggest that histories of …

Community

“Community,” or “communities,” is an amorphous keyword in Asian American studies that has evolved along with societal transformations, and its meaning is highly contested. The Oxford English Dictionary defines “community” as a “body of people organized into a political, municipal, or social unity”; it can be characterized as those “who have certain circumstances of nativity, religion, or pursuit, common to them, but not shared by those among whom they live.” In Asian American studies, the term is most often associated with bounded, geographic localities that incorporate people, places, and institutions that have an affinity to one another or intricate connections. Additionally, communities are interpreted as non-territorial spaces, formed by individuals residing in various locations who share similar interests or objectives. They can be created as a result of people being excluded or treated interchangeably, thereby compelling them to come together, or they can be forged by internal notions of sameness, …

Coolie

The etymology of the word “coolie” was for a long time thought to have Tamil—kuli (wages)—Urdu—quli (hireling)—or Chinese—kuli (bitter strength)—origins (Tinker 1974; Tsai 1976; Irick 1982; M. Jung 2006). More recently, Mae Ngai (2015) has traced the word’s origins to a European neologism that was first employed by sixteenth-century Portuguese to describe common native workers on the Indian subcontinent. By the mid-nineteenth century, “coolie” came to be applied specifically to indentured laborers from China and India who were being contracted out to colonial plantations in Southeast Asia and the Americas (Hu-DeHart 1992; W. Lai 1993; Yun 2008). This shift in meaning was inextricably bound up with the abolition of slavery and deepening Euro-American imperial incursions into the Asia-Pacific world. Intensifying Euro-American encroachments in the region generated widening imperial networks through which people from China and South Asia were forcibly transported across the Atlantic to constitute a new …

Cosmopolitanism

From its inception, Asian American studies has struggled with its ability to attend to, describe, and theorize experiences and ideas that exceed single-nation identification, fixed territorial boundaries, and conditions produced by globalization. Various terms such as “internationalism,” “transnationalism,” “diaspora,” “exile,” “flexible citizens,” and “extra-nationals” have been mobilized in the field to indicate an Asian American imaginary, identification, and everyday practice that signal more than just Asia and America, more than just Asia, more than just America. This list of terms suggests an embodied and discursive mobility that refuses to settle along distinct and firm borders, particularly national ones. “Cosmopolitanism” belongs to this list of terms.

Cosmopolitanism as an idea, a political philosophy, an identity, and a practice is often attributed in Western political and philosophical discourse to the Greek Stoics and later Immanuel Kant. Its meaning has been equated with world citizenship and world belonging, and with universalism. In this …

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