by Linda Trinh Võ
“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, as a result of which aggregates cohere and differentiate themselves from those outside certain territorial or ideological boundaries. For Asian Americans, these collectivities are often projected as welcoming and unified; however, they also can be exclusionary and divided, so in certain contexts the term has a beneficial and affirming connotation, while in other cases it is perceived as oppressive and constrictive.
As we assert in the introduction to Keywords for Asian American Studies, this volume – like other volumes in the series – is not an encyclopedia. Rather, Keywords for Asian American Studies is inspired and shaped by Raymond Williams’s still-relevant contention that various terms represent a flexible yet identifiable vocabulary that “has been inherited within precise historical and social conditions” that nevertheless must “be made at once conscious and critical” (1985, 24). Keywords for Asian American Studies likewise reflects the contours of a multidisciplinary field that encompasses the social sciences, humanities, and cultural studies.
Born out of the civil rights and Third World liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s, Asian American studies has grown considerably over the past four decades, both as a distinct field of inquiry and as a potent site of critique. In the late nineteenth century, most of what was written about the Asian presence in America was by those who sought to impede the immigration of Asians or to curtail the social mobility of Asians already in the country. This tendency in the literature of the time, and subsequent scholarship on Asians and Asian Americans that appeared into the late 1960s, led Roger Daniels to observe, “Other immigrant groups were celebrated for what they had accomplished, Orientals were important for what had been done to them” (1966, 375). As the field developed starting in the late 1960s, more emphasis was placed upon the lived experiences of Asian Americans, in terms of what they have endured, accomplished, and transformed. In the early stages of the development of Asian American studies as an academic field of inquiry, more attention was paid to the history and experiences of Chinese, Japanese, and to some extent, Filipinos in the United States.
First and foremost, we want to publicly thank all the contributors to this Keywords for Asian American Studies volume, whose work renders visible the capaciousness, strength, and growth of the field. They patiently worked with us through our requests for revisions to make this a cohesive project and it is through their immense scholarly contributions to the field that we are able to produce this collection.