Immigrant communities in the U.S., whether first or fifth generation, with homelands from Africa to Asia, face the challenge and promise of defining what it is to be “American” – a dynamic term understood on mythic levels and on intimately personal ones as well. Indeed, this negotiation is, in fact, at the heart of what it is to be American. Contemporary Asian American filmmakers and writers are on the frontlines of chronicling this experience. The multitude of stories told by the children of immigrants, or by immigrants themselves – international students, refugees, adoptees, or simply those looking for a better life – are a microcosm of how American society generates itself, and these stories define what it is to be Asian American today.
New York City is today home to the largest and most dynamic Asian American population of any city in the U.S., representing more than 20 countries and speaking at least 45 languages and dialects. Although the state of California continues to be home to the nation’s largest population of Asian Americans, New York City has in the past two decades seen a 110% growth in its Asian American population. With approximately 1.2 million Asian American New Yorkers, constituting more than 13% of the city’s population, the rapid and ongoing transformation of New York City’s Asian American population provides a unique illustration of contemporary Asian America. The hallmarks of New York City’s cultural identity – its multiculturalism, racial diversity, and interdisciplinarity – combined with perhaps the highest density of working artists of any American city, present an engaging and useful setting to understand the contemporary identity of Asian America and the transformation of the faces of America.
The Asian American canon in both film and literature has historically been built around Asian American experience on the west coast. Although that area continues to warrant scholarly and artistic attention, an emerging area for Asian American scholars across disciplines is the terrain termed simply “East of California.” As a result of nineteenth and early twentieth century migration patterns, formative Asian American communities settled in Hawai’i and the west coast of the U.S. mainland; consequently, cultural production extending out of those communities was, and to a degree continues to be, at the center of the field of Asian American Studies. Seminal works of Asian American literature and film emerged from these communities, including the first anthology of Chinese American and Japanese American literature, The Big Aiiieeeee!, and Wayne Wang’s San Francisco film noir Chan Is Missing.
However, since the early twenty-first century, and in particular after 9/11, an area of examination around so-called “new demographics” has emerged from New York; it has opened up new ways of addressing Asian America from the frameworks of Muslim and South Asian communities, urban studies, and economic rights. With this scholarship has come dynamic new literary and moving-image based work, exemplified by Bushra Rehman’s novel Corona as well as the Oscar-nominated documentary Nerakhoun: The Betrayal, made by Ellen Kuras and Thavisouk Phravasath.
Drawing on contemporary film, video, and literature produced by Asian American New Yorkers, this seminar is intended to provide a twenty-first century counterpoint to an increasingly inaccurate mainstream narrative around Asian American experiences – upwardly mobile, California-centric, of East Asian ancestry. The stories of contemporary Asian America represent a broad cross-section of countries of origin – Bangladesh, Nepal, Trinidad, the Philippines – and intersect with pressing cultural and socioeconomic concerns. New York’s Asian American cultural producers contest normative conceptions of “Asian America” in new and critical ways, and the seminar provides participants with an important opportunity to examine this emergent work and return to the classroom equipped with new tools and understandings of U.S. multicultural literature and film.
Seminar and institute participants are required to attend all meetings and to engage fully as professionals in the work of the project. During the project’s tenure, they may not undertake teaching assignments or any other professional activities unrelated to their participation in the project. Participants who, for any reason, do not complete the full tenure of the project must refund a pro-rata portion of the stipend.
Given the brief time span and intensity of this NEH summer seminar, our expectation is that participants make a 100% commitment to the seminar during the duration of their stay in New York City. We expect all participants to attend all sessions of the seminar, and to engage with the materials and their peers in a curious and respectful manner. This seminar is not an invitation to vacation in New York City.
Seminar participants will be asked to produce individual final projects that extend out of seminar readings and discussions; projects will be due at the conclusion of the two-week seminar. This project can take a variety of forms depending on the participant’s specific background and interests, but should be interdisciplinary and have the potential to be incorporated into their teaching in a concrete, meaningful, and sustainable way. Examples of potential projects include brief videos addressing a particular reading or screening from the seminar; an oral history; a personal essay concerning themes such as migration, dislocation, and/or acculturation; or a grade-appropriate lesson plan organized around a specific reading or screening from the seminar. These projects are intended to allow participants to approach seminar material from their respective vantage points as scholars, educators, and/or private individuals, and we hope for participants to challenge themselves creatively as well as intellectually in the preparation and execution of each project.
Both Chi-hui Yang and Jennifer Hayashida will be available during evenings and weekends to meet individually and in groups with seminar participants. During these meetings, seminar participants can discuss seminar materials or themes, or meetings can be more squarely focused on participants seminar projects. During the course of the two-week seminar, we recommend that participants meet at least once with each co-director.
As an NEH Summer Scholar, you will have access to numerous resources at Hunter College, located on the Upper East Side (“UES”) of Manhattan, with three buildings at the intersection of East 68th Street and Lexington Avenue.
The Hunter campus is open 24 hours/day, and the seminar will have a dedicated classroom on the Hunter campus (location TBD) for the duration of the two weeks, including evenings and weekends. NEH Summer Scholars will be able to log on to the Hunter College WiFi network, and will also be provided with temporary ID cards to have access to campus facilities including the Cooperman Library.
The Cooperman Library at Hunter College is an excellent resource for NEH Summer Scholars: it is undergoing renovation and significant technological updating in the 2014-2015 academic year and will as a result provide enhanced online and in-person services for participants researching topics related to the seminar: http://library.hunter.cuny.edu. The library provides excellent computer labs, which will be available to seminar participants, although we do recommend that you bring a laptop/tablet for use during individual seminar meetings.
NEH Summer Scholars can work closely with librarian Mee-Len Hom, available as a point person and resource for those seeking to do research in areas relevant to the seminar. The library also provides an Asian American Studies guide to Asian American Studies research: http://libguides.library.hunter.cuny.edu/content.php?pid=145426
A tentative itinerary of workshops, discussions, screenings, and trips, as well as a list of proposed speakers and discussants, is available on the schedule page. The schedule includes reading selections for each day of the seminar; a full reading list is available on the reading list page. Copies of the readings will be provided for all of the accepted participants.