Editors' Introduction


Viet Thanh Nguyen and Tina Chen

University of Southern California and Vanderbilt University

Copyright © 2000 by Viet Thanh Nguyen and Tina Chen, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the authors.

  1. Why is it necessary to think of Asian America in postcolonial terms, and what exactly does a postcolonial Asian America mean? These were the questions that compelled us to develop this special issue of Jouvert. We realize that Asian America both lends itself to an inquiry using postcolonial theory, and also may reshape that theory as well. In addition, Asian America is a place that offers particular challenges for the application of postcolonial theory, given the uneven and sometimes contradictory histories of Asian Americans and their nations of origin. Some Asian American populations, such as Filipinos, Indians and Vietnamese, clearly come from histories defined by colonial and imperial warfare and exploitation conducted by the west. Others, such as Koreans and some Chinese, come from nations dominated by a neighbor -- Japan. In contrast to these populations, many Asian Americans have no direct experience with imperialism and colonialism, except to the extent that their immigration or their ancestors' was a product of the global movement of culture and capital that is related to imperialism and colonialism. The contemporary outcome of this global development of capitalism is the contradictory fashion by which different Asian American populations are situated -- some find their experiences profitable and liberatory, others find their experiences exploitative and compulsory. These experiences are also an integral part of any definition of a postcolonial condition.

  2. This issue of Jouvert does not attempt to provide a simple answer to the questions with which we began, nor does it attempt to resolve the contradictions posed by the postcolonial situation. What we have seen in editing this special issue is that there are multiple moments of theorization and insight that can be offered, and our critical project here is to begin a conversation on the implications of postcolonialism, and the usefulness of postcolonial theory, for Asian American studies, particularly given the issues of diaspora and transnationalism with which the field is wrestling. While it is impossible, therefore, to fix or define any singular meaning for a postcolonial Asian America, we think it important to identify a number of critical features and practices engendered by a postcolonial perspective on Asian America.[1]

  3. This perspective effectively de-centers a number of assumptions about Asian America that have become dominant in the past thirty years. The first of these is the assumption that Asian American interests are defined primarily through the experiences of Chinese and Japanese Americans, the Asian populations that have been in the United States the longest.[2] The experiences of Chinese and Japanese Americans, proceeding from exclusion, discrimination and persecution to relative inclusion and assimilation, are oriented around the primary importance of the nation and national identity. Thus, the need to "claim America" has been integral to the self-representation of Chinese and Japanese American identity (although more recent immigration from Hong Kong and Taiwan may be exceptions to this).[3] A postcolonial perspective does not find primary importance in the American nation and national identity, and hence does not necessarily find claiming America to be an utmost need. Instead, postcolonial perspectives may be centered on the experiences of other nations whose histories have helped to generate the flows of culture and capital -- or whose histories have been generated from them. These movements of culture and capital have led to the existence of postcolonial Asian populations in the United States, including Filipinos, Koreans, Pacific Islanders, South Asians, and Southeast Asians, whose nations and cultures have been colonized by Europeans, Americans, and other Asians. These Asian American populations now form the majority of Asian America, but their histories and concerns are not usually presented by self-proclaimed Asian Americans as the normative face of Asian America. Japanese internment and Chinese exclusion, for example, are synonymous with Asian American experiences, but Filipino exile during martial law is not. Recognizing Asian America as a postcolonial construction foregrounds "other" Asian American experiences as central to Asian America, and not just marginal to it.

  4. Obviously, then, another assumption displaced by a postcolonial perspective is the primary importance of an American national identity, which takes shape in a number of ways. The first is the fact that homelands and diasporas become new and potentially contradictory foci for Asian American cultures.[4] On the one hand, many Asian immigrants remain homeland-centered in their political and cultural identities, which are thus resolutely national (if simply not American); on the other hand, they exist in a global diaspora which contests the dominance of the nation as the key unit of political, economic and cultural organization. The contradiction between homeland and diaspora means that the global dispersal of populations is not necessarily a step towards a utopian dissolution of borders, nor does it mean that the nation has lost its importance. In addition, the importance of both homeland and diaspora to immigrant populations means that racial identity in the sense conventionally accepted by Asian Americans is not necessarily a prime site of political and cultural mobilization. Postcolonial identities therefore offer challenges to Asian America in terms of questioning the ability of racial identity to be an effective tool of mobilization and change. American identity is challenged in another, perhaps more surprising way through the histories of colonization themselves. Many Asian immigrant populations come from countries colonized by nations other than America. India was colonized by the British, Viet Nam by the French, the Philippines by Spain, and Korea by Japan. Postcolonial identities are then often influenced as much by these other cultures as they are by their contact with American culture, adding another dimension of "hybridity" to their experiences and perceptions and displacing or supplementing the importance of Americanization.

  5. Introducing these colonizing histories of homeland nations and the diasporic emphasis on dispersed populations also potentially leads us to a focus on the role of global capitalism. Colonization and imperialism were certainly the early signs of the development of a global capitalism, and the postcolonial condition is partially based upon the economic and other consequences of colonial exploitation and the construction of a global capitalist order in which many postcolonial societies are part of the "third world." The notion of a third world is complicated by the uneven nature of such societies in which poverty co-exists with wealth, and exploited classes exist alongside elite classes; the same can be said, of course, for first world nations as well. In addition, not all postcolonial societies are exploited in the same fashion -- South Korea, for example, one of the "four tigers" of Asia, is economically and militarily powerful, and a key ally of the United States. The existence of postcolonial societies with different geopolitical interests, and postcolonial classes from the same societies with conflicting interests, means that the postcolonial condition is neither uniform nor predictable in its choices and political locations. The postcolonial condition is, in short, "flexible" -- a part of flexible capitalism and also a producer of flexible citizens.[5] Global capitalism creates the conditions of migrancy and re-settlement for many postcolonial Asian populations, who range from laborers who possess little but their own labor power, to capitalists with enormous amounts of resources.

  6. The flexibility of postcolonial conditions means that their economic dimension is a contradictory one. On the one hand, postcolonial theory has been strongly influenced by Marxism, since colonialism and postcolonialism have both involved class warfare and economic exploitation. On the other hand, postcolonial theory itself, as one product of a postcolonial condition, has become a commodity in the academic market, and its practitioners have sometimes been co-opted. Postcolonial theory has become, to some extent, simply another theory in the academic marketplace whose currency is partially determined by the oppositional practices that academics perceive it to be engaged in. In that sense, more critical approaches to postcolonial theory have argued that it benefits elite practitioners from the "third world" rather than the exploited classes for whom it speaks. [6] There is the danger that postcolonial theory will become yet another modification of Asian American studies as it attempts to be self-critical about its methodologies -- a modification that can be about enhancing the viability of Asian American studies in the academy. This reality poses challenges for Asian American studies' adaptation of postcolonial theory. It is clearly the case that postcolonial theory offers valuable insights into the study of Asian Americans and complicates older assumptions about Asian America. In many ways, postcolonial theory's Marxist influences and concerns with the global and the international have resonance with early constructions of Asian America in the late 1960s, although those constructions were more dependent upon a Maoist interpretation of Marxist theory.[7] Nevertheless, the political commitment to foregrounding the global dimension of capitalism and the importance of racial difference in postcolonial theory makes it a good partner for Asian American studies.

  7. One exciting possibility that postcolonial theory offers for Asian American studies is the reconception of the United States as part of the Americas in general, making it a postcolonial space built on the successful colonization of Mexico, Hawaii, and the Philippines, and the absorption of those territories into the United States. Acknowledging such a history means creating the potential for new alliances around the history of American imperialism and colonialism. The concept of "borders" or "borderlands," for example, which is so central to Chicano and Latino studies, both in terms of discussing the geopolitical creation of border cultures and, in Gloria Anzaldúa's formulation, the sexual border-crossing through miscegenation that has produced mestizo peoples and societies, can be used to reconsider Asian America. Some Filipino scholars, for example, have implicitly been developing a theory of the border in terms of studying American colonialism in the Philippines and the creation of a hybrid indigenous-Spanish-American culture dependent upon both cultural and sexual mixing.[8] The potential alliances or parallels between Filipino and Chicano/Latino scholars are some of the possibilities for re-defining Asian America and Asian American studies. We also see these new alliances in the work of writers like Karen Tei Yamashita, whose new world vision is not so much about Asian Americans, but about the hybrid populations of the Americas -- of which Asians are a part -- that developed as a result of American and European colonization.

  8. Postcolonial theory's ability to be oppositional as well as affiliative, which is not inherent but rather potential, means that it can and should be a part of Asian American studies' arsenal, if a potentially explosive one. In addition to the concerns about the co-optation of postcolonial theory by the academic market, there is also the problem of meshing the seemingly domestic concerns of Asian American studies with the global or international emphasis of postcolonial theory. Some practitioners of postcolonial theory see Asian American studies or Asian American identity as a manifestation of theoretical provincialism or identity politics, and perhaps Asian American academics have difficulties seeing the relevance of postcolonial theory to their objects of study. [9] If we consider that our objects of study are not only immigration and assimilation, and Chinese and Japanese Americans, however, and instead acknowledge that increasingly Asian American studies must confront the central importance of "other" Asian American populations -- Filipinos, Koreans, Pacific Islanders, South Asians, Southeast Asians -- and their histories, cultures, and concerns, then a negotiation with postcolonial theory, with its accomplishments and limitations, is inevitable.

  9. The essays in this special issue of Jouvert do an admirable job of delineating some of the problems and possibilities of Asian American studies' inevitable negotiation with postcolonial theory. Stephen Knadler revisits an early Asian American text, Younghill Kang's novel East Goes West, and argues that Kang both "anticipates and obviates the familiar paradigm of contemporary literary criticism that focuses on the conflict between white and non white, Western and Non-Western, native and colonizer, Asian and American in such a way that other non-dominant groups are rendered invisible." By reading the ways in which Kang avoids assimilating the racialized logic of both colonial and anti-colonial groups in his text, Knadler asserts that Kang's delineation of a "post-national, post-ethnic cosmopolitanism" challenges the reified foundation of race that underlies both a race-based identity as well as a diasporic sensibility. John Charles Goshert also addresses the ways in which reified notions of racial identity are contested in his article on Frank Chin. Goshert contends that only by closely examining the "double priority" Chin establishes in both his critical and fictional work can Asian American studies address the biases that have caused Chin to be read as "the chauvinist, nativist, or nationalist Other marking the boundary of literature that deserves inclusion in the field and that which does not." Zhou Xiaojing takes up the task of showing how cultural nationalism and postcolonial discourse might be understood as two phases of a decolonizing process in Asian American cultural studies. Her essay on the work of independent video makers Richard Fung and Ming-Yuen S. Ma posits that the work of these two artists "refuse to be contained within either the camp of 'claiming America,' or the camp of 'writing diaspora.'"

  10. Victor Bascara interrogates the claims of an "empire-free imperialism" by examining how Asian American texts recuperate "the awkward historical transition that defined the early imperial period at the turn-of-the-century: the shift from the question of monetary reform to the question of empire." Focusing on the allegorical dimensions of The Wizard of Oz, Bascara considers the question of American imperialism by suggesting that the yellow Winkies-interpreted as an allegorical reference to Asian immigrants who worked as miners and railroad workers in the nineteenth century or, perhaps even more provocatively, to Filipinos as a population of "colonized immigrants"-are significant because the subject position they inaugurated in American ulture exposes the mass of contradictions that undergird American imperial culture's regulative narratives of assimilation. Finally, Sura Rath's essay returns us to the intersection of the local and the global, the personal and the political, in the shaping of a postcolonial identity. He examines the importance of space, both literal and metaphorical, in terms of defining one's identity, proceeding from that question many postcolonials and minorities have experienced: "Where are you from?", and its inevitable sequel, "No, where are you really from?" Similarly, Jaba M. Gupta's work deals with identity, space, and home from a poetic perspective.

  11. As these essays make clear, postcolonial theory is both about helping us look at "other" Asian American populations, such as Koreans, Filipinos, and South Asians, and assisting us in re-approaching the more established populations—particularly in these articles, Chinese Americans—that have proven so integral in defining Asian American identity and experience. Moving beyond paradigms of cultural nationalism, identity politics, or national assimilation, postcolonial theory encourages us to recognize how Asian American studies has perhaps itself been guilty of "colonizing" Asian American literature and culture. Thus, postcolonial theory might help us initiate a process of decolonization in Asian American studies, a way of reading that can undermine Asian American studies' own hegemonic interpretive practices and therefore develop the practices of resistance that have been so important to the history of the discipline.


  1. Any attempt to define postcolonialism for Asian America must also deal with the inherent multiplicity and limits of the term postcolonialism itself. See McClintock, Mishra, and Shohat. Back

  2. Elaine Kim and Michael Omi have also sought to bring attention to the limits found in defining Asian America solely through the experiences of Chinese and Japanese Americans. Back

  3. Oscar Campomanes (1992) presents this argument concerning the orientation towards assimilation found in the literature of Chinese and Japanese Americans, and the literary criticism directed towards them. In contrast, according to Campomanes, the literature of Filipinos in the United States does not share this same nationalist or assimilationist bent. Back

  4. Sau-ling C. Wong examines the trends towards "denationalization" in Asian American studies, leading towards emphases on diasporas and transnationalism, and issues a warning concerning the potential dangers of stressing the global without sufficient attention to the local-in this case, the necessity of a continuing focus on domestic American struggles over race and class. Back

  5. David Harvey develops the term "flexible capitalism" to describe the ability of global capitalism to be mobile, both in terms of its placement of capital and its ability to find and exploit laboring populations. Aihwa Ong coins the term "flexible citizenship" to analyze the new Asian immigrants to the United States who place more emphasis upon their ability to make capital than to identify with particular nations. Back

  6. Numerous works have been published dealing with the co-optation of postcolonial theory by the academic market. See Ahmad, Chow, and Dirlik for some examples. Back

  7. See William Wei for an account of Asian American formation in the late 1960s and the role of Marxist theory and parties. Back

  8. The writings of Oscar Campomanes and E. San Juan, Jr., look primarily to the influence of American colonization on Filipino literature, particularly that published in the United States. The essays in Rafael examine both Filipino and Filipino American cultures. Back

  9. Chow and Ong are notable amongst postcolonial scholars who are less than sympathetic to Asian American studies or the concept of an Asian American racial or political identity. Back

Works Cited

Ahmad, Aijaz. In Theory: Classes, Nations, Literatures. London and New York: Verso, 1992.

Anzaldúa, Gloria. Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza. San Francisco: Aunt Lute Books, 1987.

Campomanes, Oscar. "Filipinos in the United States and Their Literature of Exile." Reading the Literatures of Asian America. Eds. Shirley Geok-lin Lim and Amy Ling. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1992. 49-78.

Campomanes, Oscar. "New Formations of Asian American Studies and the Question of U.S. Imperialism." positions: east asia cultures critique 5.2 (1997): 523-550.

Campomanes, Oscar V. "Afterword: The New Empire's Forgetful and Forgotten Citizens: Unrepresentability and Unassimilability in Filipino-American Postcolonialities." Critical Mass 2.2 (1995): 145-200.

Chow, Rey. Ethics After Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-Reading. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Dirlik, Arif. "The Postcolonial Aura: Third World Criticism in the Age of Global Capitalism." Critical Inquiry 20 (1994): 328-356.

Harvey, David. The Condition of Postmodernity. Cambridge and Oxford: Blackwell, 1989.

Kim, Elaine. "Beyond Railroads and Internment: Comments on the Past, Present, and Future of Asian American Studies." Privileging Positions: The Sites of Asian American Studies. Eds. Gary Y. Okihiro, et al. Pullman, WA: Washington State University, 1995. 1-9.

McClintock, Anne. "The Angel of Progress: Pitfalls of the Term "Postcolonialism"." Social Text 10.2-3 (1992): 84-98.

Mishra, Vijay, and Bob Hodge. "What is Post(-)colonialism?" Colonial Discourse and Post-Colonial Theory. Eds. Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994. 276-290.

Omi, Michael. "It Just Ain't the Sixties No More: The Contemporary Dilemmas of Asian American Studies." Reflections on Shattered Windows: Promises and Prospects for Asian American Studies. Eds. Gary Y. Okihiro, et al. Pullman, WA: Washington State University Press, 1988. 31-36.

Ong, Aihwa. Flexible Citizenship: The Cultural Logics of Transnationality. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 1999.

Rafael, Vicente L., ed. Discrepant Histories: Translocal Essays on Filipino Cultures. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995.

San Juan, E., Jr. "In Search of Filipino Writing: Reclaiming Whose "America"?" The Ethnic Canon: Histories, Institutions, and Interventions. Ed. David Palumbo-Liu. Minneapolis and London: University of Minneapolis Press, 1995b.

---. "Introduction." Trans. The Cry and the Dedication. Ed. Carlos Bulosan. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995a.

---. Racial Formations/Critical Transformations: Articulations of Power in Ethnic and Racial Studies in the United States. New Jersey and London: Humanities Press, 1992.

Shohat, Ella. "Notes on the "Post-Colonial"." Social Text 10.2-3 (1992): 99-113.

Wei, William. The Asian American Movement. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1993.

Wong, Sau-ling C. "Denationalization Reconsidered: Asian American Cultural Criticism at a Theoretical Crossroads." Amerasia Journal 12.1 & 2 (1995): 1-28.

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