Reflections on Education
In fourth grade, my class read Yoshiko Uchida’s book Journey to Topaz, which details a family’s incarceration experiences as they were first sent to the Tanforan camp in California, and then later to the Topaz, Utah. The book is based heavily off of her own experiences as a Japanese American who served as a teacher while incarcerated.
Many people regard the fact that this book was part of our curriculum with a degree of surprise, given the way minority experience is often downplayed in the education system. Indeed, looking back, I consider it a significant concession that the experience of the Japanese was touched upon.
However, there was one glaring issue. Our reading of the book downplayed what was happening — Incarceration. We did not discuss how wrong it was for the Government to incarcerate Japanese Americans, and we did not discuss how racist attitudes lead to to the oppression of Japanese in the so-called “land of the free.” The book was bastardized into yet another example of achieving the American Dream by overcoming hardship.
Talking to my TA in class today, he pointed out how Uchida’s book was transformed into an example of the myth of the “model immigrant,” an immigrant who works hard and accepts whatever hardship is thrust upon him and her. This concept is often applied to Asian immigrants (particularly Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans) and can widely be seen reflected in our attitudes towards the past. Asian Americans have become largely apathetic to both past and current issues.
It is dangerous to simply accept this attitude. Regardless of what your experience is, the fact remains that America is still dominated by an upper class that is Caucasian (“WASP,” or White Anglo-Saxon Protestant). If you leave the comforts of home (the Bay Area for me, and likely many of you who read this), it becomes clear that Asians are not a majority. Asians are a minority whose experiences are marginalized. Even if it works out for you, the concept of the “model immigrant” is damaging to many, used as a tool of rhetoric against under-performing minorities such as Mexicans, African-Americans, and Southeast Asian Islanders.
Consider this fact, that a book about the experiences of incarcerated Japanese Americans is used to reinforce this concept. Intentional or not, it still has been done. And doing so is greatly disrespectful to what has happened in the past.
By the way, I highly recommend that you take at least one Asian American History class when you get to college. The history of immigrants to the United States is much richer and much darker than most history textbooks let you realize.