Supporting Sanctuary Communities

This guest post is published around the 2018 Association for Asian American Studies Conference, occurring in San Francisco from March 29-31. #AAAS2018

 #ACJS2018 #ACJS18

By Willow Lung-Amam, author of Trespassers?: Asian Americans and the Battle for Suburbia

Sanctuaries are places we go to recover a sense of safety and security amidst environments of extreme precarity. They lie in the quiet corners of churches, among the stacks of local libraries, and around kitchen tables filled with scents that call to home. For an increasing number of economic, political and climate refugees whose communities have been crippled by violence, poverty, and environmental devastation, such places of banal sanctuary are in high demand, yet increasingly hard to find on American soil.

Since the ascent of Donald J. Trump to the most powerful political position on the globe, U.S. immigration policies have pivoted. From policies that guaranteed sanctuary to nearly 800,000 undocumented young adults and children, to those poised to defer the dreams of an entire generation. From over a half century of policies that diversified immigrant populations, especially among those from non-European countries, to those that have all but banned émigrés and refugees from several majority-Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East. From decades in which increasing immigration and economic prosperity went hand-in-hand, to proposals to dramatically cut the number of green card holders to historic lows. From policies that limited prioritized deportations to immigrants with serious criminal convictions, to those that have increased detentions on the southern U.S. border and prioritized deportations for those with offences as minor as a traffic ticket. Even immigrants arriving with professional degrees to take jobs in high-tech firms face an uncertain future under an administration that has shown little commitment to extending H-1B visas to those with skills in short supply in the U.S.

But while the federal government has failed to secure sanctuary for many new Americans, states, counties, and cities—urban, suburban, and rural—have stepped in to fill the void. From New Orleans to New York, cities have refused to allow local law enforcement to act as federal immigration officers. Instead of building walls, many have invested in plans and policies to attract, welcome, and support immigrants. As communities across the U.S. consider their role in helping immigrants secure a piece of the American Dream, they must not overlook the banal spaces of everyday sanctuary upon which immigrants rely. In shopping centers, schools, parking lots, and neighborhoods, immigrants’ sense of safety and belonging is secured not only by a right to occupancy spaces of everyday life, but to do so in ways that express their deeply held values, beliefs, and aspirations. And yet, this most basic of rights is often denied to immigrants and other marginalized groups, even those that have seemingly “made it” to settle in the most exclusive, and often suburban, communities. If communities are to push back on revanchist, protectionist policies of the Trump era, they can start by making space for difference in their own back yards. #sanctuarycommunity #sanctuarycities


Willow S. Lung-Amam is Assistant Professor in the Urban Studies and Planning Program at the University of Maryland, College Park. Her scholarship focuses on the link between social inequality and the built environment.


The Violent Legacies of the U.S. War in Vietnam

By Simeon Man, author of Soldiering through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific

This guest post is part of our AAAS blog series published in conjunction with the upcoming meeting of the Association for Asian American Studies in San Francisco, CA, March 29-31, 2018. Browse related titles and share using #AAAS2018.


March 16 marks the 50th anniversary of an event that few Americans want to remember. In 1968, Charlie Company, a unit of the 11th Brigade, 20th Infantry, entered the village of My Lai in South Vietnam and systematically murdered the villagers. An estimated 500 Vietnamese, mostly women, children, and the elderly, died in the massacre. The brutality has been well documented: American soldiers raped, mutilated, and tortured the villagers before killing them; families were dragged from their homes, thrown into ditches and executed. Gruesome photos of the killings began to circulate in the public one and a half years later when journalists broke the story. In 1969, it sparked international outrage and fueled the antiwar movement. Fifty years later, “My Lai” has become synonymous with this dark chapter of the American war in Vietnam, and it continues to haunt and interrupt the nation’s attempt to remember the war in the service of reconciliation and closure.

If there is one thing that remains unspeakable about the My Lai massacre in the United States, it is that the violence was not an aberration, but routine and systemic. The soldiers were told by Capt. Ernest Medina the day before, “There are no innocent civilians in this area,” and that the enemy was “anybody that was running away from us, hiding from us, or appeared to be the enemy.” In the late 1960s, mock Vietnamese villages were fixtures of army bases throughout the United States, and it was in these mock villages where American soldiers learned “search and destroy” tactics that taught them to approach the entire village as an enemy target and to see all Vietnamese as potential “Viet Cong.” The mock village at Schofield Barracks in Hawai‘i included villagers played by Native Hawaiians. There, soldiers preparing for deployment to Vietnam honed the tactics of violence by reenacting the colonial violence in Hawai‘i that, at that moment, was being elided and renewed by Hawai‘i’s transition to statehood. Soldiers who participated in the My Lai massacre trained there in 1967.

My book, Soldiering through Empire: Race and the Making of the Decolonizing Pacific, examines this and other little known episodes of the Vietnam War to show that the war’s violence was intimately tied to the United States’ efforts to make good on its promise of securing freedom and democracy in the post-1945 world. The book tells the story of how the United States mobilized citizens of various nations and territories recently liberated from colonial rule for the war. Between 1964 and 1972, more than 340,000 South Koreans and 6,000 Filipinos fought in South Vietnam. They were drawn by the promises of working in a different country and earning higher wages. Their governments, determined to safeguard their nations’ newfound freedom, made pacts with the United States that allowed for the stationing of American troops in their countries and the use of their citizens for the American war. The United States’ rise to global dominance after 1945 depended on these countries and their citizen-soldiers in manifold and contradictory ways: to affirm the United States’ commitment to spreading freedom and democracy in Asia and to do the work of killing and dying in America’s war. The U.S. military also depended on these soldiers to commit the kinds of indiscriminate violence against the Vietnamese that seemingly no Americans—with the exception of lone individuals such as Lt. William Calley, the only soldier charged and convicted for the killings in My Lai—were deemed capable of committing.

As Americans continue to commemorate the Vietnam War, we would do well to remember that the war had profound and lasting consequences in other parts of the world. A half-century ago, the war thwarted the unfinished project of decolonization in South Korea, the Philippines, Hawai‘i, and other countries and island territories throughout Asia and the Pacific. Instead of achieving freedom from colonialism “in whatever form it appears,” their citizens were asked to fight in another U.S. imperial war, to kill and risk their lives in pursuit of an elusive freedom premised on their nation’s integration into the U.S.-led global capitalist economy. As we mourn the 58,000 American and 3.8 million Vietnamese lives lost, we should remember the unfinished decolonization is also a violent history that Americans bear.


Simeon Man is Assistant Professor of History at the University of California, San Diego.


The Afterlife of the American War in Vietnam

By Mark Padoongpatt, author of the forthcoming Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America

As we celebrate Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month this year, we do so right as the United States is commemorating the 50th year anniversary of the “American War” in Vietnam. The war has had a profoundly deep, wide-ranging, and lasting impact on Asian/Pacific Islander America. It resulted in the death of millions of Vietnamese, Hmong, Laos, and Khmer people, including civilians, at the hands of U.S. soldiers and bombs. It generated displacement, trauma, political destabilization, and the migration of roughly 1.2 million Southeast Asians, many of them refugees, to the United States between 1975-2000 — a migration that (coupled with the 1965 Immigration Act) transformed the composition and demographics of Asian/Pacific Islander America and America as a whole.

The war, of course, is not a vestige of the past. As such it demands critical, relentless reflection if we want to understand the diversity and tensions among Asian/Pacific Islander Americans today as well as the workings of the postwar American empire. For one, the war extended beyond Vietnam and was a flashpoint (a bloody and violent one, no doubt) of a much longer period of U.S. Cold War intervention throughout Southeast Asia. The affects of U.S. empire and war also ran much deeper than combat, bombings, militarization, and state-sponsored dictatorships. America insinuated itself into the textures of everyday life via embassies, businesses, private organizations, educational programs, modernization projects, popular culture, tourism, and various other forms of cultural diplomacy, such as the Peace Corps, to win “hearts and minds” in pursuit of foreign policy objectives in the region. All of which shaped personal and group identities, relationships, worldviews, and cultural practices as people in Southeast Asia came to terms with American global power.

One way to understand the everyday life — and “afterlife” — of U.S. empire in Southeast Asia is through foodways. My book, Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai America, traces how the informal postwar U.S. empire in Thailand turned Thai food into a central site of Thai American identity and community formation in Los Angeles. Though Thailand has the distinction of being the only Southeast Asian country to avoid formal Western colonization (a distinction Thais take immense pride in), after World War II, however, the United States, as a new global leader, maneuvered itself into the country more intrusively than ever before to combat the spread of communism, ushering in what Benedict Anderson has referred to as Thailand’s “American Era.” This neocolonial relationship established circuits of exchange between the two countries. It allowed thousands of U.S. citizens to go toThailand and “discover” the exciting new flavors and tastes of Thai food. Many, particularly white women, introduced Thai cuisine back in the United States by writing “Siamese” cookbooks and teaching cooking classes. When Thais arrived in Los Angeles, they reinvented and repackaged Thai food in various ways to meet America’s growing fascination with the cuisine. This led to Thais constructing their identities mainly through the perceived exoticness and sensuousness of Thai food.

The history of Thai food reveals that the American war in Vietnam was more than Vietnam, and that it lives on in mundane ways and unexpected places. Its legacy affects everything from the cuisines featured in restaurants and the identities of restaurateurs, cooks, and grocery store clerks to the contours of entrepreneurship and the look and feel of urban and suburban spaces. The experiences and stories that stem from it — though not reducible to a singular time, place, group, or narrative — stand as a reminder that, as Asian/Pacific Islander Americans, our relationship with America is rooted in and defined by dominance.


Mark Padoongpatt is Assistant Professor of Asian and Asian American Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

His book Flavors of Empire: Food and the Making of Thai Americapublishing this September, explores the factors that made foodways central to the Thai American experience.


APA / Heritage / Month: A Problem in Three Parts

By Sharon Luk, author of the forthcoming The Life of Paper: Letters and a Poetics of Living Beyond Captivity

for Lawson Fusao Inada

1. APA (Asian Pacific American)

“Asian Americans” and “Pacific Islanders” are two different panethnic groups, each with their own history, development, and problems… for the most part, Pacific Islanders have fought to be excluded from the Asian American category.

J. Kehaulani Kauanui

Gala, Granny Smith, Fuji, Jazz — each its own variety, grouped into what we commonly call “apples” for a certain kind of efficacy.

Navel, Valencia, Blood (can Tangerines fit here?) — each its own variety, grouped into what we commonly call “oranges” for perhaps comparable purposes of reference.

If someone invited me to celebrate Apples Oranges Month, I imagine my first response might be, “Do you mean Apples and Oranges?”

In this crude analogy to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (do you mean Asian and Pacific Islander American Heritage Month?) I don’t assume that the “someone” who invited me to their celebration would hear my question. In many settings, they almost never feel a responsibility to answer or seek clarity.

What exactly is it, then, that we are being asked to celebrate?

2. APA Heritage

…the old poem
birthing itself
into the new
and murderous century.

Li-Young Lee

My heart goes out to the students in my Introduction to Asian American Studies class (and in this present discussion now, I’m excluding Pacific Islanders to honor their distinction). I told them this course could not in any way approach the depth and breadth of all the people who have, at one time or another, been included in the racial category “Asian/- American.” I told them it could not represent any, let alone all, particular ethnicities ortheir experiences. I told them it certainly could not reveal to anyone “who they are.” In this context, then: What is it that we are supposed to be learning?

I ask students to study the processes involved in creating an Asian/-American racial distinction. We examine specific instances in post-1865 U.S. history to question how this distinction has mediated developments in racial capitalism. The construction of nation-states. Empires. War. Survival. More war… I don’t know how to make any of this easy to digest (and now, a corollary issue — can this really be the goal?). The deeper we get into the twentieth century, the more confused students become. Their faces look at me as if to ask, so are Asian Americans good or bad?

Despite the profound constraints on their universe of reference, I think students’ confusions about the contradictions of “Asian American” distinction may still get at the crux of the dilemma the latter heritage presents. That is, what “truths” are to be found in such cycles of suffering?

3. APA Heritage Month

every word of every image is a step towards the end this
urgency dictates that the sentence as we know it no longer
an option grammar is obsolete stories once told in detailed
chapters have been reduced to a noun a verb the father dies the
lover leaves in search of his own ending perhaps now the
writing can finally begin

Truong Tran

What is a month supposed to measure? What story does this measurement tell? In whose words does that story come? What end do those words bring (or, try in vain to defer)?

Let’s assume that Asian American heritage cannot fit into those limits — nor Pacific Islander, nor any people’s heritage, for that matter. Then, the problem of heritage remains beyond what is celebrated in a month and its killing, the problem’s most urgent expressions coming in forms that at once accept their mortality and open out to the living.


Sharon Luk is Assistant Professor of Ethnic Studies at University of Oregon.

Her forthcoming book The Life of Paper explores the evolution of racism and confinement in California history. Publishing this November, the book offers a wholly original and inspiring analysis of how people facing systematic social dismantling have engaged in letter correspondence to remake themselves.