The PBS “Asian Americans” Documentary: A Critical Look by a Superfan

Anna May Wong, legendary Asian American actress, is featured in the PBS documentary (courtesy PBS)

Beautiful. Brave. Heroic. Poetic. Monumental. These are some of the words that came to mind as I previewed the groundbreaking series ASIAN AMERICANS. (Streaming online through early June.) While the documentary is not perfect, the imperfections stem from the near impossibility of the task itself. There have been multi-episode documentary series on individual ethnicities (Italian and Irish Americans got 4 hours each, Chinese Americans got 3 hours, the Chinese Exclusion Act got two hours and is still streaming). Asian Americans comprise scores of ethnicities and countries of origin, a wide range of socio-economic situations, and a mind-blowing array of stories. I’ve been attending film festivals dedicated to the Asian American experience for most of my adult life and I’m still learning. It can be challenging to even conceive of Asian American identity given our diversity. How then to squeeze our narratives into 5 hours? The task may feel impossible, but it is absolutely necessary and timely given the specters of racism and nationalism that have risen to ugly prominence in the United States in the last 5 years, and during the COVID-19 crisis.

A snapshot of Asian American diversity from the 2010 Census. (From lectures appended below.)

The task is also necessary because Asian Americans are at a tipping point. Our diverse community of 18 million is reckoning with the foundations of our solidarity and history, and our relationship with other people of color and the culture at large. We are making important strides in representation and recognition in literature, film and the arts, and are integral to the technological revolution that has swept the world. Yet we still feel locked by a limited cultural imagination, feel the walls of hatred and discrimination, and the centrifugal force of those scores of communities each vying for their own sense of particular self-determination. How will Asian America strive for inclusion even as it expands? Will Asian American identity splinter or become superficial for many, or can we actively promote cohesion and vision? To me, these are important questions for all Americans; perhaps Asian Americans can demonstrate how IDIC (infinite diversity in infinite combinations, to use a nerdy Star Trek reference) can live long and prosper.

The documentary’s main focus is about resistance, survival and thriving against the gradient of America’s foundational racial hierarchy placing Whites at the top and Blacks at the bottom. The heroic and necessary political premise of the series is in linking the struggles of Asian Americans with those of Blacks and Latinos. The series showcases examples of this solidarity and community back to the earliest days of Asian migration, with Punjabi Sikhs marrying Mexican Americans in California, and Muslim Indians marrying African Americans in Louisiana. Immigration and Civil Rights struggles were tied together by the first Indian American congressman, Dalip Singh Saund. And in the 50s and 60s, deep connections were forged across communities by leaders such as Patsy Mink and Yuri Kochiyama, and students at San Francisco State College (later University), who went on strike to demand a department of Ethnic Studies. Filipino American farmworkers united with Mexican Americans, and Asian Americans united with African Americans during the 1960s farm labor and civil rights movements.

Certainly, this solidarity has been part of my own DNA. My mother’s immigration was sponsored by African American doctors and hospital administrators in Alabama, she served poor African Americans in inner city hospitals and rural clinics for years. My own sense of identity is deeply connected to Black America and the many Black friends I had in youth, and the alienation I felt when I lost those connections as we moved North, paralleling the Great Migration of African Americans, and my resonance with the Civil Rights movement. Of course, there is conflict — episode 4 of the series highlights the riots in Los Angeles following the beating of Rodney King and the killing of Latasha Harlins. Asian American relationship and solidarity with African Americans is critical, but the failings traumatic and painful.

Episodes 1, 3 and 4 of the series directly and successfully tackle this theme of arriving, surviving and striving against racism, from the late 1800s to the present day. Episode 1 opens with the story of Antero Cabrera, who in 1904 at 12 years of age, during the U.S. occupation of the Philippines, was brought to the U.S. to be exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair as a “savage” in a “human zoo.” In Episode 3, we see Chinese Americans questioned for their loyalty and even validity as citizens during the Cold War. Episode 4 focuses on a broad sweep of political awakenings from the 60s to the present day — from the struggles of Asian Americans enlisted in the Vietnam War, as well as refugees from that war who made it their life missions to challenge the American war narrative and bring to front and center the experience of their community of Vietnamese American refugees, immigrants, and children of immigrants and refugees. A minor qualm is that the series focuses primarily on Asian American identity and history as documented in photo and video from the late 1800s to the present. But Asian American history can be traced over 200 years earlier, to Filipinos and Indians arriving with the Galleon trade and as indentured servants. This omission is balanced by the inclusion of 16mm home movies that make for an intimate peek at Asian American family life in the mid to late 20th century, courtesy of CAAM’s visionary “Memories to Light” project, spearheaded by CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong. Also a big plus: the series has an incredible musical score, which breaks into vibrant, danceable rhythm in Episode 4, as if Asian Americans are finally getting our legs and spirit for the road ahead.

Antero Cabrera, courtesy PBS

Episode 2 carries the weight of much of the Japanese American experience. During World War II, Japanese Americans were seen as potentially dangerous outsiders and 120,000 were thrown into concentration camps for the duration of the war. There was never any evidence to support the racist paranoia of the U.S. government embodied in FDR’s Executive Order 9066. In fact, many Japanese Americans volunteered out of the camps to serve in the War effort. The 442nd Infantry Regiment of the U.S. Army, the Japanese American regiment, was the most decorated and suffered the most casualties, because of their bravery and also the fact that they were assigned the most difficult missions, including rescuing “The Lost Battalion,” in which more Japanese American lives were lost than Texans saved. Would the same have happened if the situation was reversed? Out of the thousands of stories that stem from this heartbreaking and pivotal time in Asian American history, the series chooses to highlight two families, with mixed results.

Satsuki Ina, psychologist and activist, was born in Tule Lake Segregation, a concentration camp reserved for those erroneously presumed most disloyal. She says she was born ‘doing time.’ Her father was separated from the rest of her family in the Tule Lake jail and Ft. Lincoln prison camp. What the documentary unfortunately doesn’t mention is her seminal work as a psychologist, documenting and healing the traumatic wounds of incarceration (see her film Children of the Camps, streaming on Kanopy and Amazon Prime). The documentary also doesn’t detail the confusion and trauma around answering questions of forswearing loyalty to Japan. How can you forswear loyalty to the Emperor if you never had loyalty to him to begin with? Was this a trick question? The episode does end with Japanese American resistance to the current migrant detention situation which so parallels their own experience in the 1940s. Ina is a co-founder of the group Tsuru for Solidarity. This narrative arc is critical and emblematic of the series as a whole: Japanese American suffering has forged identity and solidarity with other people of color in fighting for justice.

Episode 2 also features the story of the Uno family. While fascinating, and absolutely deserving of its own documentary, I felt this story was too far afield of the main documentary and potentially misleading. Buddy Uno left America in the mid 1930s to pursue journalistic dreams in Japan, where he felt he would have more opportunity than in the discriminatory States. He ended up as a propagandist for the Japanese war effort, and even his own brothers, enlisted in the U.S. Army, swore in a newspaper article that they were prepared to kill him on sight. Astoundingly, one of the brothers did actually meet Buddy when he was a prisoner of war in the Philippines. Another brother and two sisters became activists for the redress and reparations movement of the 1970s and 80s. It’s a big and heartbreaking story of the tragic life of one man and a family alienated from their country and torn asunder by racism and discrimination, struggling to find a sense of identity and personal power. But I fear that some viewers might come away thinking that Buddy’s story is somehow “proof” of disloyalties in the Japanese American community. The episode suffers in other ways — in not mentioning the full extent of the 442’s sacrifices and triumphs, in not mentioning Fred Korematsu and Min Yasui, who resisted incarceration and whose cases became Supreme Court challenges to incarceration, and in bizarrely focusing on Japan’s war atrocities. I’m not sure what the latter have to do with Japanese or Asian American identity. Of course, they impacted other Asians and thus Asian Americans, particularly Koreans and Chinese, but without context, the images are jarring and off-putting. Given the preceding, potentially alienating story of Buddy Uno, the episode lost its focus for me, and the impact of Japanese Americans standing up for migrants becomes diluted. Taiko drummers play at one of the protests as the episode closes, and also without context, this rang more hollow than it should have. Japanese Americans have re-envisioned taiko and made it central to the Asian American experience — but here, it felt tacked on and almost foreign, given the ambivalence created by the preceding stories. (Japanese American taiko also deserves its own documentary, in my opinion. In fact, the women of Japanese and American Taiko are getting their own film soon!)

Perhaps the narratives I wished for in this documentary have been adequately covered elsewhere, and the directors felt they could trust the audience with this relatively untold story. Indeed, Buddy’s story could resonate with many people disaffected with American racism. But again, I wonder what those without even my level of knowledge of Japanese American history will think. I recognize my concerns are a perfect example of the Asian American psychology of the context-sensitive self, or wondering what others, particularly the potentially hostile critics, think of us, and perhaps my fears are overblown. Certainly these concerns should be addressed in the accompanying educational material.

A brief timeline of Asian American History, from the lectures appended below.

Questions of loyalty and fractured, traumatized sense of belonging and humanity abound throughout the first four episodes, questions which are of importance to all Americans. Will we be considered perpetual foreigners, always on the edge of exclusion? And to what should we be loyal? The military-industrial complex? The racial hierarchy? Economic empire? Or the ideals we see in our founding documents? The choice can dehumanize or enlighten us. We must be aware and awake to the possibilities of the Asian American and human soul.

Finally, Episode 5 (Breaking Through) overflows with an abundance of material, with mixed results. The first 30 minutes takes us from Asian American creative responses to racism, with Margaret Cho and Hari Kondabolu, and then straight into the heart of modern Asian American agony, with the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982 and the Los Angeles riots/uprising which traumatized the Korean and African American communities. Most of the next twenty minutes is a collage of politically-minded entertainers, creative entrepreneurs, brilliant engineers, exploited piece work tech laborers, inspiring undocumented dreamers, and South Asians impacted by racism and government overreach, all of which could have had their own hour-long presentations.

I was hoping for a Grand Unified Field theory and vision for an Asian American future (I’m all like, “please someone, solve this for me!”), but was left a bit disappointed. And as broad as the series’ reach was, it still will disappoint, by leaving out Asian American stars like Jeremy Lin, or doctors like David Ho and Jim Yong Kim, and many others who I’m hearing about on social media now. The series also leaves out the ongoing saga of Cambodian Americans and others, including forced deportation. This is one real missed opportunity to call for social justice and highlight difficult socio-economic conditions in our community. Our story is almost too big to tell, and I hope, too big to fail.

I was also left to wonder how much the series will matter to the 70% of us who are immigrants and children of immigrants. Will we find commonality, cohesion and purpose in this big story, or get lost on our lonely quests? Are we as Asian Americans a planet, or an asteroid belt? Are we even warmed by the rays of a common sun? One positive indication is the overwhelming popularity of Asian American Studies courses in colleges across the country.

Are we as Asian Americans a planet, or an asteroid belt? Are we even warmed by the rays of a common sun?

Four scholarly voices close out this last episode.

“History has a way of moving in cycles, and if we can learn from history, even a little bit, we can avoid repeating it. Even better than that, we can find the things that moved civilization forward, and have led to greater progress. And if we learn from that, we can really move ahead.”

– Helen Zia

“The idea of being Asian American originated, in part, as a will to power. As a way to say ‘we’ve been stepped on, we’ve been excluded, we’ve been erased — and you need to recognize us now, because we’re here and we’re not going away.’”

– Jeff Chang

“The very idea of the Asian American contains within itself an endless range of possibilities — is a part of who we are.”

– Viet Thanh Nguyen

“The Asian American story is such a quintessential American story, because we as Asian Americans have represented the polar extremes of the American experience. The most downtrodden and most discriminated against, to rising to positions of power and privilege, to being singled out for exclusion, to being explicitly welcomed and included and held up as the very best of America. That is the story of America and that is the story of Asian America.”

– Erika Lee

I had to listen to these capsule summaries multiple times, and still, they feel like broad — and confusing — generalities as much as idealistic, all-encompassing visions. What might I have said?

“We’ve been through a lot. We’ve found meaning in our struggle. We’re still trying to get it together as a diverse community and people. But we do not struggle alone. The vast majority of us feel an unbreakable bond with the struggles of other Americans to achieve the real American Dream of equity and justice for all. The future is unclear — but we belong, and we are an undeniable part of the American story.”

But — I’m still waiting on a five-part documentary on Asian American psychiatrists! So what do I know.

ASIAN AMERICANS is a profoundly important and meaningful documentary. Watch it. And then re-watch it. And let’s keep talking. We’ve got a lot on our plate. But we’re sitting at the table, thanks in part to the wonderful documentarians who created this series. Thanks to Renee Tajima-Peña, S. Leo Chiang, Grace Lee, Geeta Gandbhir and all their colleagues for this incredible work of art that will undoubtedly stand the test of time.

For more, read this great interview with the directors by film scholar and critic Frako Loden.

A 150-year movement: ‘Asian Americans’ tells America’s story. Documentary.org, May 8, 2020

And watch these lectures:

Ravi Chandra is a psychiatrist and writer in San Francisco. His nonfiction debut, Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Social Networks, won a 2017 Nautilus Silver Award. You can find out more about him at www.RaviChandraMD.com. Read more Memoirs of a Superfan blogposts for the Center for Asian American Media here, and find him on Psychology Today here.

Psychiatrist, author of Facebuddha: Transcendence in the Age of Facebook and the Other Social Networks, https://www.facebuddha.co, https://RaviChandraMD.com