Long before Asians came to the United States, they went to Latin America. The earliest came as part of Spain’s Pacific empire stretching from Manila in the Philippines to Acapulco in New Spain (present-day Mexico)—an empire that had been built on Christopher Columbus’ accidental “discovery” of America while searching for Asia.
Europeans, dating as far back as ancient Greece, had long been fascinated with Asia—including the Middle East and Far East—its people, its civilizations, and its fabled riches.1 In the European imagination, Asia was Europe’s polar opposite, its Other. Asia and Asians differed in “every respect” from Europe and Europeans, as the Greek physician and recognized father of medicine Hippocrates explained in the fourth or fifth century BCE.2 For centuries this difference between East and West was the subject of endless speculation, informing a Western-held understanding of a masculine, conquering Europe and a feminized Asia ripe for conquest.3 This worldview helped direct the West’s search for Asia and influenced its presence there. It was also a significant factor in propelling Asian peoples to the Americas.
During the Roman Empire, trading networks were established that eventually stretched from the British Isles to the Indian subcontinent. European pilgrims, merchants, and others shared their first impressions of Asia through sporadic travel writings. Crusaders rediscovered Asia when they set off for the Middle East on their quest to reclaim Jerusalem from the Muslims in 1095. Lasting almost 200 years, the Crusades gave generations of western Europeans firsthand knowledge of the Middle East and some idea of the vastness and richness of the rest of Asia. European travelers described the bizarre creatures, alien plants, and strange customs of the “East” and helped to define Asia as an “other world” that stood in opposition to Europe.4
Sustained long-distance travel and trade between Europe and Asia followed the establishment of the Mongol Empire that stretched across Asia to the eastern fringes of Europe in the early thirteenth century. The so-called Pax Mongolica of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries brought Asia and Europe closer together as both Asians and Europeans ventured far from their homelands. Asian goods and Asia itself came within reach of more and more Europeans. During this period travelers could journey eastward and back in relative safety and those who returned found ready audiences for their tales of exotic lands and abundant riches.5
Among the most well known in western Europe was the story of Marco Polo, a young Italian merchant who journeyed 15,000 miles throughout the Middle East and Asia over a twenty-four-year period at the end of the thirteenth century. The Travels of Marco Polo contained accounts of fantastical unicorns, exotic sexual customs, and mountain streams flowing with diamonds. Marco described the court of the Mongol leader Kublai Khan as having “so many vessels of gold and silver that none without seeing could possibly believe it.”6
Published in 1356, The Travels of Sir John Mandeville also told incredible tales of the East, becoming a highly popular and influential book among a large audience of Europeans interested in understanding the larger world and the place of both Asia and Europe in it. Written under a pseudonym and allegedly the autobiography of an English knight, it described the Holy Land, Egypt, Arabia, and China as a region filled with cannibals and headless beasts as well as tantalizing spices, gems, and abundant quantities of gold and silver.7
By the dawn of the European age of exploration and conquest in the fifteenth century, wealthy Europeans had developed a growing taste for Asian imports such as spices, silks, and sugar, and they demanded more. Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama relied upon an Indian navigator to become the first European to sail directly to Asia from Europe in 1497. His route took him around the Cape of Good Hope along the Atlantic coast of present-day South Africa to the legendary spice routes of India. When he returned to Portugal two years later, his spice-laden cargo yielded a 600 percent profit, paved the way for Portugal’s colonial empire in Asia, and spurred further European exploration of Asia that would last through the twentieth century. Profit was far from the only motivation. As England’s Sir Walter Raleigh predicted in 1615, “whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself.”8
Technological advances in shipbuilding and navigation as well as breakthroughs in astronomy and geography made Europe’s oceangoing exploration possible. Spanish seafarers used the latest oceanic sailing ships to explore the Pacific and followed the Polynesian voyagers who preceded them. By the late fifteenth century, the ocean sea was no longer a barrier and soon became a passageway to the other side of the world.9
Inspired by Marco Polo, Christopher Columbus dreamed of Asia. His well-worn copy of Marco’s Travels contained numerous comments in the margins; it was through these adventures that Columbus formed his impressions of the Christian converts and fabulous riches that Asia promised. When he and his crew first spotted land in the Caribbean on October 12, 1492, Columbus imagined that he would soon be viewing Asia’s rich spice markets and gold-roofed houses. When he and his landing party rowed to the beach the next morning in the Santa María’s launch, however, nothing matched the men’s expectations.
Nevertheless, Columbus explored the surrounding islands over the next few months and returned to Spain in February of 1493 believing that he had accomplished his dream of reaching Asia. His accounts echoed the fantastical descriptions of exotic peoples and fabulous riches that numerous travelers to Asia had told before him. The new lands, he claimed, were full of boundless wealth and populations ripe for conversion to Christianity. Columbus would make three more voyages across the Atlantic to the New World before his death in 1506, forever convinced it was Asia.10
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Columbus’s voyages and subsequent discoveries by other explorers such as Amerigo Vespucci helped Spain dispossess the indigenous peoples of Mesoamerica and establish its huge land-based American empire, Nueva España.11 Between 1520 and 1540, the Spanish added over three quarters of a million square miles to their empire in the Americas. In 1519, Spanish conquistador Hernán Cortés founded the town of Veracruz on the Mexican Atlantic Coast. The Aztec Empire was defeated by 1521, and Francisco Pizarro conquered the Incas of Peru a decade later. The wars of conquest and dispossession were violent affairs that cost many human lives among the indigenous peoples. But this death toll paled in comparison to the untold millions who perished as a result of the introduction of European diseases like smallpox.
The Making of Asian America
In the past fifty years, Asian Americans have helped change the face of America and are now the fastest growing group in the United States. But much of their long history has been forgotten. “In her sweeping, powerful new book, Erika Lee considers the rich, complicated, and sometimes invisible histories of Asians in the United States” (Huffington Post).
The Making of Asian America shows how generations of Asian immigrants and their American-born descendants have made and remade Asian American life, from sailors who came on the first trans-Pacific ships in the 1500 to the Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. Over the past fifty years, a new Asian America has emerged out of community activism and the arrival of new immigrants and refugees. No longer a “despised minority,” Asian Americans are now held up as America’s “model minorities” in ways that reveal the complicated role that race still plays in the United States.
Published fifty years after the passage of the United States’ Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, these “powerful Asian American stories…are inspiring, and Lee herself does them justice in a book that is long overdue” (Los Angeles Times). But more than that, The Making of Asian America is an “epic and eye-opening” (Minneapolis Star-Tribune) new way of understanding America itself, its complicated histories of race and immigration, and its place in the world today.
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