AAS Annual Meeting

Interarea/Border-Crossing Session 45

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Session 45: What is the 'Asian' in Asian Diasporas?

Organizer: Sareeta B. Amrute, University of Washington, USA

Discussant: Sareeta B. Amrute, University of Washington, USA

The term diaspora has been much studied and refined over the past decade or more. Studies of diasporic communities in North America, the Caribbean, Europe, and elsewhere have unpacked the complicated histories of imperial labor formations, postcolonial state politics, and proto- or anti-nationalist movements. Such studies have shown how race and locality produce the particular histories of diasporic populations and complicate political and social constructs. Yet, there has been considerably less attention paid to the techniques by which the racial, regional, and ethnic qualities of diaporas come into being. This panel will unpack the idea of 'Asian' diasporas. Papers will explore the politics and history, uses and performative impacts of 'Asian' diasporas. They ask, is 'Asian' synonymous with Chinese? Is it a capacious enough category to cross the borders between East, Central, and South Asia? And, what are the political and social histories, and the political and social effects of describing diasporas as 'Asian'? The panel will examine the 'Asian' in Asian diasporas in order to begin to tease out some of the unspoken assumptions that create areas within and beyond 'Asia'. Through these papers, the panelists will formulate genealogies of race, travel and the formation of diaspora studies.

Living in “Cracks Between Borders”: Where is ‘Asia’ in Dharker’s Poetry?
Vaibhav Iype Parel, University of Delhi, India

In her collection I Speak for the Devil (2001), Imtiaz Dharker addresses questions of belonging by highlighting precisely that which is wrong with the excesses of belonging. She identifies these excesses in the cultural, social and religious paradigms that seek to appropriate and dominate women into ‘belonging’. Having lived in Pakistan, India and UK, Dharker – through her poetry – interrogates questions of ‘belonging’ and in particular, if there can be an ‘Asian’ diaspora. This paper will seek to uncover the “socioscapes” (Zsuzsa Gille and Sean O Riain, 2002) that Dharker’s women inhabit when she uses the metaphor of the ‘devil’ to problematize concepts of ‘place’ which seek to rigidly codify ways of belonging. This questioning is made possible by a polynucleated and decentred capitalism that enables technology like television and Internet to revise our understanding of ‘place’, without taking away from ‘place’ its heterogeneity and distinct character. There emerges, therefore, an intersecting relationality where (women in particular) share reticular social forms. This new social formation – enabled by transnational processes – allows for the development and expression of the desire for ‘freedom’ from cultural, religious and ethnic domination. This paper seeks to interrogate the particular forms of ‘freedom’ that are desired, and how transnational processes enable this new ‘freedom’ to be desired. What changes, further, are concepts and questions of ‘belonging’. Are we ‘free’ to ‘belong’? Can we belong only to a ‘region’? How do we ‘belong’ in our transnational worlds, if we can ‘belong’ at all?

The Inhuman Asian
Chris Lee, University of British Columbia, Canada

In 1885, Canadian Prime Minister John A. Macdonald declared in Parliament that the value of Chinese labor was "the same as a threshing machines or any other agricultural implement," a comparison that he used to argue against granting Chinese the right to vote in Canada. Faced with such examples of injustice, anti-racist movements have often asserted the human and civil rights of migrant subjects as the foundation for an emancipatory politics. This paper departs from this tendency by reframing the status of Asian diasporas in settlercolonial regimes in relation to a politics of the inhuman. Naoki Sakai has suggested that the term "Asian" should be used to describe those who bear the mark of "social adversity or a trait of barbarism from the alleged ideal of a Westerner in that person." If "Asian" functions as a metaphorical term for an idealized human subject, this desire for subjectivity is continually frustrated by an unequal global system that denies the humanity of the non-West. Instead of assuming a normative humanism, this paper traces an alignment between "Asian" and other inhuman subjects such as commodities, objects, and ecologies. I elaborate this figure of the inhuman Asian through an analysis of "Waterscapes" (2010), a multimedia installation and community-based art project by Vancouver-based artist Gu Xiong. Xiong's rendering of migrant experiences reveals the liminal relationship between the human and the inhuman in order to reimagine the role of Asians in contemporary Canadian politics and culture.

Translating Identities: On Being Japanese, Brazilian, Peruvian, American, Loyal Citizens and Traitors
Zelideth M. Rivas, Marshall University, USA

The largest Japanese population outside of Japan resides not in the United States but in Latin America, with the majority of the population living in Brazil and Peru. Japanese immigration to Latin America began in the late 19th Century with the recruitment of Japanese contract laborers who were sought to maintain the agricultural production. In this paper, I explore how memoirs of Japanese immigrants to Brazil and Peru narrate their immigration experiences, particularly focusing on World War II. In their memoirs the writers relate how they were urged to express their loyalty to Brazil, Peru, Japan, and ultimately the United States. The hardships that the immigrants endured, inflicted upon them by the various national and international measures, such as the Vargas regime, the US War Relocation Authority, as well as Japan’s role in World War II, formed wounds in the community that became crippling. In particular, I will examine Handa Tomo’s O imigrante japones and Higashide Seiichi’s Adios to Tears in order to articulate how World War II forced members of the Japanese diaspora in Latin America to choose between their Japanese nationality and their residency in Latin America. Faced with the impossibility of return to Japan, the Japanese immigrants became translators of cultures, allowing themselves to accept and reject aspects of all the cultures in which they resided and further defined their identity and dual-cultural upbringing.

From Indenture to Iraq: Asian Migrant Labor and Shifting Imperial Formations
Sujani Reddy, Amherst College, USA

This paper tracks the relationship between U.S. racial formation, shifting imperial formations, and “Asian” migrant labor through three key moments spanning the late nineteenth, mid-twentieth, and early twenty first centuries. It does so not to provide a comprehensive account of such a broad sweep but instead, to provide a schematic outline that will prompt further discussion about the “Asia” in Asian diaspora. It begins by analyzing “Asia” as a product of U.S. racial formation as it encountered and then excluded Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian and Filipino/a labor during the consolidation of the nation-state. What was the relationship between settler colonialism and Asian exclusion? How did processes of U.S. racial formation relate to the migration of primarily Chinese and Indian indentured labor to European territorial colonies in the Caribbean and South America? I then move to the role that representations of Asian immigrants played at mid-twentieth century. How can we conceptualize the relationship between the lifting of formal exclusion, the reintroduction of “Asians” as proper subjects of U.S. racial formation and the emergence “Asia” as a strategic geopolitical battleground during an era of shifting imperial formations? Finally, I examine the positions of Asian migrant labor in relation to the U.S.-led “war on terror” at the dawn on the twenty first century. How does the category of “Asian” cohere and disintegrate in the face of mass racial profiling, immigrant detention and deportation? How does it relate to the use of “Asian” migrant labor in the staffing of the U.S. occupation in Iraq? What does our current moment tell us about the relationship between Asians, U.S. settler colonialism, and the escalation of U.S. imperialism in the Persian Gulf and Afghanistan?

Intimate Publics: Asian Canadian Studies and Changing Cultural Grammars
Christine Kim, Simon Fraser University, Canada

Much Asian Canadian scholarship employs a particular grammar of social justice, liberation, and oppression which, while important for understanding egregious instances of injustice, may sometimes obscure from view the nuanced ways in which race operates in a contemporary Asian Canadian contexts. Many of the critical conversations about Asian Canadian literature and history have focused on past injustices (i.e. JC internment and immigration restrictions) and canonical texts are often used to illustrate the abuse of racial minorities by the nation and state. What happens when these texts dominate conversations and prevent us from exploring other responses, especially ones that do not speak of this kind of racial injury and operate outside this particular register? In this paper, I consider how an ongoing emphasis on historical trauma has shaped discussions and how we might understand the sorts of conversations about race that cannot easily be had within a dominant public or even within various counterpublics. How does race operate in the current moment and how are we to understand the limitations of dialogues about race and the publics it makes possible? Thinking in affective rather than social justice terms produces a different emotional structure for Asian Canadian publics and moreover, allows a dominant public familiar with the vocabulary of racial injustice, but not necessarily part of an intimate public (to borrow a term from Lauren Berlant) to grapple with the emotions attached to racialization.