Dr. June Mei

Editor’s note: Dr. June Y. Mei has a Ph.D. in Chinese history from Harvard and taught Asian American studies and Chinese history at UCLA in the 1970s. She was a member of the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations and consulted with major corporations and institutions on language and cultural interpretation. She lives in New York City. This is as told to William Gow on January 10, 2022 via Zoom.

The Outlier

My parents immigrated from Singapore and Malaysia. I was born in New York, but I had asthma in the winter, and my folks thought I would never graduate beyond second or third grade at the rate I was going. They packed me off to my uncle and aunt’s place in warmer Hong Kong. Sure enough, the asthma didn’t hit me there. I stayed in Hong Kong and finished high school. Fortunately, I had outgrown my asthma, so I came back to the States for college. Because of the different school systems. I wound up graduating early from everything. I finished college when I was 18 in 1966.

My dad was a doctor. He actually came to the States for a residency. World War II broke out, so he joined the Army as an army doctor. And then he stayed. He became one of the very, very few Chinese practitioners of Western medicine in New York Chinatown; he practiced for like fifty years there. I would spend time in my dad’s office, and I felt – and I still feel – a strong sense of attachment to the community, even though the community has changed a lot over the years.

I’ve always been an outlier. Actually, my kindergarten to second grade experiences in Brooklyn were probably the only times in my life when I didn’t feel I was an outlier, because Brooklyn is such a diverse place. My neighbors and my classmates were everything under the sun. When I went to Hong Kong, I was an outlier because my native language was English. Even though I picked up the local language quickly, I was different from everybody else, because my family was in the States. When I went to Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania, there were five ethnic Chinese in my class of 180 people. In that sense, I was also an outlier, I was not quite an international student, but I wasn’t quite an American student. My identity is very mixed up.

With all the traveling and bouncing around, I just always thought life is an adventure, everything is very new. I felt everything was constantly changing and developing; I didn’t have a fixed position. When I was in graduate school, I became more distinctively aware of an Asian American identity, partly because of the overall ethnic movements in the U.S. at that time.

I was at Harvard, and my main focus was Chinese history. But I felt that Chinese American history and Asian American history were somehow not to be found in academia, even in a place as large as Harvard. Bryn Mawr is a small school; I don’t expect them to have everything. But how can a school as large as Harvard still have this great vacuum? Before the Kennedy School became the Kennedy School, it was called the Kennedy Institute of Politics. While I was a grad student, I got a grant to do an official non-credit course there called “Exploding the Asian American Myth.” It was about the stereotypes of Asians in the mass media. The way the media portrayed Asians in general, not Chinese specifically, was not right. I’ve been to Asia; I’ve lived there. This would be near 1972 or 1973.

Just recently, Harvard started an Asian American studies program – funded by Asian American alums. Harvard is in the bullseye of those lawsuits about discrimination against Whites in favor of Asians. I think they’re becoming more aware of Asian Americans as a subgroup.

I didn’t arrive at UCLA until 1975. UCLA gave me the greatest latitude because I could do both history and Asian American studies. Asian American studies at UCLA existed before I got there. The university was actually thinking of defunding and abolishing it for the most bizarre reason that I can think of. The reason was that it seemed to appeal almost exclusively to Asian students. And I thought, if you had a course on Judaism, I would imagine it would appeal primarily to Jewish students. There’s just something wrong with that logic.

And the Asian American studies courses did not fulfill distribution [now, GE] requirements.[1] Why not? Other courses that are almost identical in the nature and content do fulfill the requirements. I felt that if it met the distribution requirements, more non-Asians would take it and realize that this is part of American history.

While I was there, we built up the enrollment. The first Introduction to Asian American Studies course I taught had something like less than ten people. When I left, it had 120. I’m very gratified by that. I’ll tell you an anecdote. When the quarter starts, people shop around for classes. One time, the room is full of predominantly Asian faces. In the middle of the class, a White student comes in from the back, looks around the room, and says in a voice that’s loud enough for me to hear, “Oh shit, the curve in this course is going to be impossible.” And he turned around and walked out.

I was a lecturer in the history department, but my primary role was to be a research person at the Asian American Studies Center with Lucie Cheng. Our physical location was very interesting because we were on the top floor of Campbell Hall. The other people on the top floor of Campbell Hall were the other [three] ethnic studies centers. Every month or thereabouts, we had a potluck and everybody would bring dishes from their own ethnic background. This became so famous that people were trying to find excuses to come – even though they had absolutely nothing to do with any of the four centers. But it was a good way to think about what it means to be a minority in America, how we’re perceived, and how we perceive each other. That was very good.

At the Asian American Studies Center, I was one of the few people at that time who had a full-blown Ph.D. because not many people who had Ph.D.s got into Asian American studies. I was the only one from the east coast, again an outlier. And, I didn’t drive!

The Oral History Project in Taishan

Lucie Cheng was a sociologist, so she had to teach her sociology courses in that department as well as run the Center. Lucie was very dedicated to her work, and she was always trying to find ways to have the Center do serious, worthwhile research that could both be academic but also would be of use to the community-at-large.

Unless you study contemporary history, historians cannot do oral history. The other thing that you have to remember is that this was before technology is where it is now. The amount of labor it takes to do an oral history project is insane – from the recording to the transcribing.

Lucie and I were talking about how on this end of the Pacific, we knew something about the people who came here, but we didn’t know what made them come. We thought we should do interviews of people who were still alive in China. China and the U.S. were cut off for so many years. And then, that gradually evolved into: well, since we’re doing it in China, we should also do it over here in Los Angeles.

I did conduct some interviews in Taishan, China. I lived there for three months. We wanted to study the impact of emigration on the villages that people left. So, we did two villages, one where a lot of people came to the States and one where very few people came to the States, to see if there was any significant difference in the impact. This would be October to December of 1978. The work in China made us think: we sort of have half of this story, now we need the other half. There were lots and lots of oral recordings, some of which were transcribed. Transcribing Taishan dialect is no joke. But somewhere in UCLA, the tapes should be there.

I will add one anecdote. I did a lot of community work while I was in grad school, I tutored in Chinatown every weekend with some friends. While I was in Taishan, we went to people’s homes, and they had photographs of all their friends and family on the wall. In one of these homes, I saw a photograph from Boston of people that I had tutored. But the really funny thing is that these people in Boston did not own the Cadillac that they posed in front of.

To the best of my knowledge, the SoCal project didn’t receive any special university or government funding, at least not while I was at UCLA. The interviews in China were done in partnership with Sun Yat-sen University [also known as Zhongshan University 中山大学], and two of their grad students came to Taishan to work with me and Lucie. This was the first collaborative academic field work between a Chinese and an American university.

Lucie wrote the questions for the oral history project in L.A. You’d get a lot more material by asking sociological questions than historical questions. The other thing is that historical questions to people who are already in the U.S. can be sensitive if they did not have their papers. You might not want to ask questions like “how did you get the financing to come to the States?” or “Is this your real name, or is this your paper name?”

In the 1970s, Asian American studies was embryonic. My dream is for all ethnic studies to disappear and become part of American studies. It shouldn’t be set aside in a separate niche because that gives people the option of not knowing about it. It is an uphill struggle. In universities, there’s always a fight for funding, there’s always a question of do you form a department out of this or do you leave it as a separate institute; there are all these bureaucratic issues. And, of course, enrollment is always a question. If nobody enrolls in the course, it’s sooner or later going to disappear or be folded into another course.

Being Chinese American

My personal view is that there was a sharp uptick in Asian American awareness in the 1980s because of anti-Asian incidents like Vincent Chin getting killed. A lot of people who sat around thinking, “Gosh, maybe we think we’re assimilated, but they don’t think we’re part of this picture.”

Have you ever heard of a movie called Tora! Tora! Tora! about Pearl Harbor? One day after class, one of my Sansei students came up to me, and she was really rattled. She said, “I went to see Tora! Tora! Tora! over the weekend with some non-Asian friends.” One of them jokingly said to her, “Well if that happens again, I guess we’d have to throw you in a concentration camp.” That was when she realized that even though she’s grown up in the States, that these were her friends, and, of course, it was a joke, she realized that they still perceived her as different. And that really shook her up because she had always just thought, “I’m just like them.” She never thought that she’d be seen as having a different identity.

What caused me to leave UCLA was an offer to work at a nonprofit in New York that specializes in U.S.-China exchanges. China was opening up, so then it was possible. While I was at UCLA in the 1970s, we started seeing some of the first visiting scholars from China. And I started realizing that their perceptions of America were quite divorced from reality, because all they had access to was whatever their government told them was going on in America. Americans had also totally misperceived what was going on in China.

There are a lot of overseas Chinese in Southeast Asia who never gave up their Chinese citizenship and never became citizens of the countries that they’re in. In the 1950s, Zhou Enlai made very clear what China’s position was. He said, “If you have acquired foreign nationality, be a good citizen of that country. We will consider you a relative. You’re always welcome to come home, but you’re not a Chinese Chinese. Now if you’re from China, you are Chinese. But for the people in between, you should contribute to the place where you’re living. You still have the right to return to China, but don’t disrupt anything by taking sides.” I think that is what is very dangerous right now in that Xi Jinping is trying to get overseas Chinese to rally to China, and he’s disregarding this differentiation of what their nationality is, and that leads to the possibility of anti-Chinese American movements. This is very unfair to Chinese Americans who’ve been naturalized for several generations. Xi Jinping is saying to invest in China. But that’s going to affect the state of overseas Chinese.

There’s another aspect of the way Asians, and particularly Chinese, are treated in America that worries me considerably. People in China have always had a bias against Blacks. Now, they’re picking out all the cases where the anti-Asian violence are perpetrated by Blacks. If you read the Chinatown newspapers, they always single out Blacks or Hispanics if they perpetrated anti-Asian violence, but they never say anything if the perpetrator is White.

I have another anecdote of how Chinese perceived Asian Americans or Chinese Americans. This was while I was still at UCLA near 1978. I was bringing a group from China around the UCLA campus, and we walked past Campbell Hall where the Asian American Studies Center is located. And it so happens that there were several people standing around that happened to be Asian Americans. The Chinese group looked very curiously at them, and then one of them said to me with great surprise, “Goodness, they still look Asian!”

[1] GE are General Education – or breadth – requirements. These are a series of courses in various disciplines prescribed by an educational institution for a well-rounded foundation, usually for the first two years of undergraduate education. For example, it continues to be a struggle to get colleges and universities to recognize Asian American history as an equivalent to American history.