Madeline Y. Hsu, 40
Associate Professor, Department of History and Director,
Center for Asian American Studies. University of Texas at Austin
Like many other historians, my intellectual projects emerge from the ebb and flow of my daily life. My childhood was spent shuttling between my maternal grandparents' home in the one-road town of Altheimer, Arkansas and the various Chinese cities where my father found employment-including Hsinchu and Tainan in Taiwan and two different stints in Hong Kong. I grew up intensely aware of American racial dynamics that located Chinese between white and black (and by the 1970s, literally at the outskirts of the white side of the tracks) but also of the protection and privilege attached to being American in developing nations and economies overseas. Living among fellow ethnic Chinese desperate for an opportunity to migrate to the fabled Gold Mountain of the United States, my family was anomalous in having returned from more prosperous shores. Unlike most other American-born Chinese-who spend their formative years primarily in the United States-my main points of reference are of the multi-directional movements and fluid processes of adaptation that are possible for mobile agents with the languages and skills to function successfully in different societies. In contrast to beleaguered immigrants who arrive and are expected to disappear into America's famous melting pot, such transnational migrants--a useful scholarly concept that I encountered in the 1990s and applied to my life in hindsight-do not blend in or remain in one place.
In graduate school, when I first decided to study back-and forth mobility like that of my family, I did not realize that I was entering an intellectually and institutionally liminal space. The field of history has been defined in great part by geographically bounded countries and regions and the peoples, cultures, and hierarchies attached to them. Many histories serve to articulate and legitimate the structures of power--and inequality-within certain societies and places. My intellectual interests intersect but do not overlap with these more conventional histories in significant ways, particularly because migrants are often perceived as dire threats or disappear altogether from narratives intended to define national borders and the people who belong within. As a historian studying Chinese migrants who are constantly on the move, rather than sinking roots and becoming loyal citizens, I felt like something of an academic platypus--not really a modern Chinese mammal nor a twentieth-century North American duck. As my dissertation neared completion, it also was not clear for what jobs I could convincingly apply.
Since the mid 1990s, the rise of Asian American Studies under the umbrella of Ethnic Studies has provided more of an institutional home within the academy for projects such as mine. Even so, Asian American Studies remains largely preoccupied with claiming America for Asians, who for much of their history in the United States have been legally restricted from entry and citizenship by naturalization. My colleagues in Asian American Studies have produced paradigmatic, award-winning scholarship that situates the relatively tiny population of Asians at the center of national frameworks because they played such key ideological roles in framing the racial boundaries of belonging in the United States.
My projects run counter to such agendas by exploring the daily realities of migrants whose messy lives regularly transgress borders in accruing ongoing relationships and ties to multiple locations. They do not fit tidily into national narratives which demand that people identify clearly with one place and with one state. Despite the unease that such nonassimilation arouses, migrants pursue chiefly economic--rather than political goals--in seeking better lives particularly for their children when not attainable for themselves. In impoverished regions, dissatisfaction with limited choices can nurture strikingly aspirational mindsets that separate families and impel bodies through space in pursuit of distant, and sometimes imaginary, opportunities. Migrants are often seen as problems-as a kind of invasion, threats to national security, or an indigestible biomass infecting American society-but are deeply human in their highly pragmatic and often quixotic quests for greater prosperity and stability. Their contrasting priorities and lack of settlement set migrants at odds with nation-states, as demonstrated so vividly in the heated and seemingly irreconcilable debates concerning illegal immigration here.
I regard migration as a profound manifestation of global inequalities through which American attempts to secure its borders project its considerable authority into the farthest and most impoverished corners of the globe. What began for me as a social history of my family's experiences of coming (but not staying) in America has become a broader project that attempts to provide an alternative narrative and human faces for some of the most marginalized of historical subjects. They too have stories that must be told, even when these undermine America's claims to greatness as a"nation of immigrants."
By Madeline Y. Hsu
About Madeline Y. Hsu
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