Editor’s note: Samuel Yee is a senior at UCLA majoring in Asian American studies and economics. Originally from Oakland, California, he is committed to uplifting both his local community and the greater AANHPI diaspora. During his time at UCLA, he has engaged in both scholarship and community organizing in the Los Angeles area. Last summer, he was awarded the 21st Century Internship at UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, where he worked as an author-researcher for their ongoing Multimedia Textbook Project. In the future, Samuel hopes to attend graduate school and research ways to expand the reach of ethnic studies outside the university and beyond. We want to extend special thanks to Samuel Yee for working on this issue of Gum Saan Journal with Dr. William Gow.
As an Asian American studies major, I have come to realize how our schools’ curricula condition the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community to view American history from the outside looking in.When we read textbooks, they are never written from our perspective, and when we listen to oral histories, they are never shared through our voices. Thus, publications like Linking Our Lives are important to the Asian American community because they rewrite the dominant narratives with us at the center, providing context to our lives that we didn’t even know existed.
After reading Linking Our Lives not too long ago, I have already found ways to connect it to my own family. For example, I related the greater history to the rift between my relatives from my grandfather’s generation, who came of age in the same time period covered in the book. According to my father, it supposedly started with the death of my great-grandmother, Ngin-Ngin, the matriarch. In many ways, she subverted expectations for women at the time: instead of staying in the house, she was the head of her own business, a sewing shop in Oakland Chinatown, and the president of the family association’s ladies’ club. Despite breaking the typical gender roles, Ngin-Ngin was also a woman steeped in tradition, which was evident in her will: following Chinese custom, she left everything to her sons, my grandfather and two great-uncles. Her daughters, my great-aunts, received nothing. They still resent their brothers for it today, which is a large reason why my extended family has since drifted apart. Even though both my great-aunts live in California, I have not seen them since I was a toddler.
Learning about these events only left me with more questions: Why didn’t my grandfather redistribute the inheritance? Why didn’t Ngin-Ngin, someone who was able to disrupt societal norms, break the cycle of gender inequality that likely impacted her in the past? While I continue to prod my family for the truth, Linking Our Lives has provided me the context necessary to understand the complexities that surround my family. As the book highlights, Ngin-Ngin and her children grew up in a time defined by change and uncertainty. In many cases, Chinese American women were forced to break expected gender roles to financially support their families. At the same time, these immigrants also struggled with maintaining their native customs as subsequent generations assimilated into the dominant culture. These circumstances help explain why my Chinese-born great-grandmother was so tradition-bound and why my Americanized great-aunts felt so betrayed. Ultimately, books like Linking Our Lives and Asian American studies are critical to our communities because they get us invested in our own history. Had I not centered my academic career around studying this material, I would not have been as curious about my family’s past and therefore less informed about myself. As Asian Americans continue to grapple with their place in society, we need to read our own stories and listen to our own voices to remind ourselves that we belong.