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. Similarly, although Asian Americans have dramatically shaped the American environment, scholars in Asian American studies have eschewed the term, even as they have recorded the significant impact of Asians upon the American environment—notably their contributions to agricultural development (S. Chan 1989; Iwata, 1992; Matsumoto 1993). The role of Asian labor and Asian land use practices in shaping the American landscape—as farmers, railroad workers, and miners—is an important corrective to the historical tendency in environmental studies to overlook not only race, but labor. In addition, sites of the Asian American experience—Chinatowns, relocation camps, immigration detention centers, temples, suburbs—have been richly detailed by scholars working in a range of disciplines. The related discovery and recovery of these places and of primary materials by scholars in Asian American studies have offered a heterogeneous chronicle of responses to and experiences of the American social and physical worlds. Yet, although scholars in Asian American studies routinely write about and teach such histories, their work remains mostly disconnected from the scholarship in environmental studies and related fields, and this has much to do with what the term “environment” has come to mean.
From the onset of European exploration of the Americas, the physical surroundings, the most expansive definition of environment, were replete with signs of indigenous habitation, and the environs—both natural and manmade—were repositories of cultural meaning. The physical removal and extirpation of indigenous peoples that accompanied European settlement erased much of this native presence in the environment, but does not fully explain the term’s evolution from an “action of circumnavigating, encompassing, or surrounding something” to its present equivalence with only the natural world (OED). By writ, sonnet, and landscape painting, Euro-Americans converted native places into vacant spaces, terra nullius. They established a historical perspective with the European discovery of a primitive land as the starting point, and the English language charts this process. Divergent and already culturally rich places, including native ones, became the raw stuff of a process in making civilization, one that would later feed a national obsession with that base material: wilderness.
Whereas early European responses to the Americas were a mix of wonder and dread, the increasing industrialization of the nineteenth century catalyzed Americans’ desire to protect natural resources. A growing middle class viewed the natural environment as a site of salubrious recreation and among urbanites there existed an ongoing concern for clean air and water. During the Progressive Era, a potent combination of wealthy industrialists and influential politicians helped establish laws to protect and conserve natural resources—men like Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, who instituted a tradition of government stewardship of nature as a protection of national heritage. As society shifted to give greater emphasis on preservation over conservation, a slew of landmark events—the founding of Earth Day, the passage of the Clean Water and Wilderness Acts—helped cement the equation of the environment with a new definition, that of “the natural world or physical surroundings” (OED).
At roughly the same time as these landmark moments in American environmental history, the term “Asian American” emerged from an intellectual revolution led by scholars exploring the social, political, and cultural worlds inhabited by Asian Americans—-their environment. Yet deploying the now narrowed term “environment” to the study of this racial group long defined by its exclusion from American identity seemed akin to seeking out a face hidden in one of those patches of dots. The perspectives, experiences, and narratives of those who entered the continental United States from Africa, Canada, or Mexico, let alone Hawai‘i or Asia, remained outside a metanarrative of exploration. Where did Asians, literally and figuratively excluded from American identity, fit within a national narrative of westward-moving pioneers settling a pristine land? What did they have to do with pristine nature and its protection?
The growing influence of place as a conceptual frame, first articulated in cultural geography, now offers a more expansive vehicle for analysis in several fields, including Asian American studies: one that circumvents the troubling limitations of environment. As a result, scholars of Asian America have been expanding both the lines of inquiry in their work and the geographic focus of the field, shifting attention to the American South, New England, Canada, South America, and beyond. The greater latitude provided by the term “place” complements the increasingly transnational character of research in Asian American studies, a field that has often used spatial metaphors to define its project: margins, displacements, and frontiers—as opposed to “the Frontier” (Okihiro 1994; Anderson and Lee 2005; Nomura, Sumida, Leong, and Endo, 1989). This emerging scholarship details the range of social, political, and material layers of meaning attached to American sites.
More recently, scholars in fields such as ecocriticism and environmental history have turned a critical lens on how the study of Asian Americans relates to dominant notions of the natural world (Hayashi 2007a; Hayashi 2007b; C. Chiang 2010; C. Chiang 2008). Scholars and activists working in environmental justice have articulated the interrelatedness of social and natural worlds as it relates to the experience of racial and ethnic minorities, including Asian Americans (Pellow and Park 2003; Shah 2011; Sze 2011; Sze 2007; UCLA Asian American Studies Center 2013). This work has helped deconstruct the received cultural legacy of the term “environment,” revealing how notions of the natural world have functioned to racialize and disenfranchise Asians via the law and social practice.
Asian American studies thus holds the potential to reformulate the definition of environment, to echo the word’s long obsolete definition of “encompassing, surrounding” (OED). Such work may provide a means both to encompass the slippery term “Asian American” and ground it in the material and cultural conditions of individual and collective experience, so that like those hidden faces, those whom it defines will readily emerge when we deploy the term “environment.”