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Karen Chow's literature courses
expand Asian-American offerings
October 26, 1998
Karen Har-Yen Chow's appointment to the UConn faculty last year is an example of the increased attention that universities in the east are paying to the growing academic discipline of Asian-American studies.
Chow joined the faculty in fall 1997 as assistant professor of English and Asian-American Studies. At the same time, Wei Li, whose research focuses on Chinese-American "ethnoburbs" - a phrase she coined, joined the Department of Geography and Institute of Asian-American Studies.
Chow says she and Li are part of an eastward movement of the discipline from California and the west coast, where historically there have been larger numbers of Asian-Americans. Brown University, Boston University, Boston College, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, Smith College, Wellesley College, Columbia University, Bates College, George Washington University and Swarthmore College, are other schools on the east coast that have recently hired tenure-track faculty to teach Asian-American Studies courses.
She says academic presses also are publishing more scholarly books related to Asian-American studies.
Chow's teaching load at UConn includes an introductory course in Asian-American literature. In the spring she will teach an Asian-American drama course and next fall she will teach a graduate survey in ethnic American literature. Her other English course this fall is a survey of English and American literature.
"We're trying to build a major in Asian American Studies," says Roger Buckley, director of the Asian American Studies Institute and professor of history. "Our first two appointments were Karen Chow and Wei Li."
He says a third faculty member, Bandana Purkayastha, who will hold a joint appointment with the Sociology Department and the Institute, will join UConn in January.
"We are very excited about the work of all three people," Buckley says. "They represent cutting-edge work in the field of Asian-American studies and ethnic studies, particularly by looking at the Asian-Americ an community in the United States."
Chow's Asian-American literature course looks at the history of immigration, starting with Chinese immigrants who came to the United States in the 19th century as laborers, agricultural workers and workers on the transcontinental railroads.
In a recent class, Chow and her students examined the Angel Island poems, poems that were carved into the walls of Angel Island in San Francisco Bay from 1910 to 1940. During those years, the island was used as an immigration center where Chinese people were detained for questioning for anywhere from a few days to two years. The ideographs, which had been painted over as graffiti by administrators, were rediscovered by the National Park Service in 1970 and were then transcribed and translated.
"The poems expressed their thoughts, the ambivalence in their lives - because it wasn't clear whether they'd be allowed into the country, anxieties about losing honor and losing face without being able to work and raise money which they intended to do," Chow says. "They express fear and anger and loneliness."
As a basic text for the course, Chow uses The Big Aiiieeeee! an anthology of Asian-American literature.
The fiction she explores includes:
Chow notes that although most of the Asian immigrants in the first half of the century were from China or Japan, immigrants since the mid-1960s have included large numbers of Filipinos, South Asians, Southeast Asians and Koreans.
"The Asian-American presence grew, and we're sorting out the impact of that on American culture," she says. "That's been addressed more on the west coast, but my presence here and people like me at other eastern universities indicate that is changing. It's an exciting moment nationally for Asian-American studies, but especially in the east and the midwest."
Chow's move to Connecticut is part of her own bi-coastal experience. She was born in Weymouth, Mass., but her family moved to Southern California when she was a child.
Chow holds a bachelor's degree from the University of Southern California and a Ph.D. from University of California, Santa Barbara. Her dissertation explored how the Asian-American community has been defined in literature.
She says that since the late 1980s, another element has been added to the Asian-American community - that of the transnational.
"Being Asian-American has a dimension to it that doesn't take place just in the U.S. With cultural exchanges and travel, a lot of people go back and forth between Asia and America," she says. "The fact there is interest here in things like Hong Kong movies and Asian culture is largely a result of this transnational Asian-American community."