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PBS’s ‘Asian Americans’ is a deep dive into a history rarely acknowledged

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PBS’s five-part docuseries Asian Americans.

During Asian Pacific American Heritage month this year, PBS premiered a five-part docu-series recounting the history of Asian Americans in the US titled Asian Americans. With a mostly Asian American production team helmed by series producer and documentary filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña (UCLA Professor of Asian American studies and Director of the Center for Ethnocommunications), the series takes a deep dive into a seldom-discussed history of the diverse array of Asian Americans in the United States — from Filipino Americans to Indian Americans to Chinese Americans. As a student in the American school system, I had only vaguely heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act and knew a little bit about the incarceration of Japanese people in internment camps. I knew that I knew only a little, but I did not realize just HOW little I knew. 

The first episode “Breaking Ground,” narrated by actor/producer Daniel Dae Kim, explores the multitude of ways that people from all over Asia immigrated to the United States. By focusing on a few select stories and anecdotes from their descendants, we learn about the challenges and triumphs many immigrants and their families faced on their paths to becoming American. From Philippine-born Antero Cabrera, we learn about the degradation of many of these Asians and their families — Cabrera was part of the St. Louis world fair, part of a living anthropological exhibit. Joseph Tape from China shows us how Asians became a large part of the working class and how he and his wife created one of the first true Asian American families — after working on the trans-contintental railroad he started his own transportation business in Chinatown. From people like Indian-born Moksad Ali, we learn about Asians migrating to the East Coast and becoming integrated into many black communities. A common thread through these stories traces these immigrants’ quests for citizenship and acceptance. They often take their battles directly to the Supreme Court. In one example, Wong Kim Ark, a restaurant worker born in San Francisco, wins the fight to guarantee citizenship for anyone born on U.S. soil. Kim says succinctly: “Although the Exclusion Act says to the Chinese “You have no place in this country,” it’s the Chinese who help define American citizenship.”

Asian Americans Moksad Ali Ella Blackman
Moksad Ali and Ella Blackman.

The strength of the first episode of Asian Americans lies in the sharing of the untold stories and history of Asian immigrants while weaving historical context throughout. It’s a history that is likely unknown unless you studied Asian American studies or something similar; it is certainly not taught in American public schools. While most would learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act in high school, it isn’t given the attention it deserves despite how many lynchings and massacres of Chinese people there were. “Breaking Ground” fills in the details that a standard U.S. history book might gloss over: we learn about school segregation (a separate school just for Chinese people!), violence inflicted by white people as Asian Americans grow within the workforce, Sikh and Muslim immigration into the U.S., and so much more. There is even a brief discussion on “honorary whiteness” and the definition of “Caucasian” for Asian Americans within the context of an Indian Sikh man seeking to be legally recognized as “Caucasian” in order to be afforded the privileges of white people (spoiler alert: he is not white enough, big surprise there). 

Asian Americans Antero Cabrera
Antero Cabrera.

I found this documentary to be immensely educational, and would probably have enjoyed watching something like this in high school. By personalizing these stories and hearing from the actual descendants of many of these immigrants, it gave a name and a face to what is often some vague throwaway line in a history book. While the documentary style doesn’t seem to be entirely different from a regular documentary, the first episode of this series already fills in gaps in my knowledge that I didn’t know existed. It inspires me to do more research, while also making me realize the immense sacrifice and challenges Asian Americans faced in becoming Asian American. It validates my existence as an Asian American in America, and helps me understand my own identity and my place in American history.

Plus, Daniel Dae Kim is an excellent narrator, and it gives me great joy to watch anything created by Asian Americans. 

This review focuses on ‘Asian Americans,’ episode 1.

Documentary links: Website

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