The history of Asian Americans in the United States is often told as a story of exclusion to belonging. Asian Americans were at first outsiders who were barred from entering the country, before being accepted and incorporated into American life.
“That’s a pretty standard narrative,” says Josephine Park, an associate professor of English in the School of Arts & Sciences. “But looking at the literature, that really wasn’t true.”
Indeed, Asian Americans scored legislative victories, such as the ability to become citizens, but they were also subject to cruel and shameful treatment to drive them from the country, such as Japanese internment, which aimed to de-nationalize Asian Americans, both foreign- and native-born.
“That showed how much foreign relations and political relationships between states determine the standing of Asians in this country,” Park says. “I think that’s often true of immigrants, but it’s been really obvious for Asian Americans.”
In her new book, “Cold War Friendships: Korea, Vietnam, and Asian American Literature,” Park researches the extent to which the Cold War and wartime relationships determined the sense of the belonging among Asian Americans, particularly Korean Americans and Vietnamese Americans, and what kind of Americans they could be.
Park says the focus of the book was originally on enemies, but she noticed Asian American authors during the Cold War were not writing about America as an adversary; they were writing about how they could be an ally of the United States and were constantly trying to prove their friendship.
“For me, looking at how to be a friend kind of showed you didn’t belong,” Park says. “You constantly had to prove yourself.”
One of the innovations of Park’s book is to look at the Korean War and Vietnam War together.
The United States used charity as a reason for waging the Korean War. South Korean and American soldiers fought side by side during the war, and the United States justified the conflict as a fight against communism, support for an ally, and care for Korean orphans. Popular conceptions of the war by Korean-American writers during the Cold War showed it through scenes of charity.
“The Korean American novels are just really like hyper-literary excessive writing to try to explain how it is that these figures of charity can claim their space,” Park says.
Whereas during the Korean War, it was important to make a distinction between friendly natives and the Chinese communist enemies, during the Vietnam War, few popular accounts of the war portrayed friendly Vietnamese. Yet Park says Vietnamese American authors still tried in some ways to salvage the idea of charity in order to recuperate themselves as allies. Their writing, she says, is “almost perverse in wanting to be so friendly and nice.”
“It became such a challenge for Vietnamese Americans to try to recuperate themselves as friendly, as allies, because Vietnam was modeled on Korea,” Park says. “Both had a southern friendly state as opposed to the northern communist one. I ended up kind of tracing those attempts to be friendly across those wars.”
Park’s book contains testimonies from Vietnamese American writers, including an autobiography of Le Ly Hayslip, a Vietnamese-American refugee from the Vietnam War.
Hayslip, controversially, offers forgiveness and healing to American soldiers.
“People have not loved her in Asian American literature because they see her as being kind of a sellout or accommodating, but I’m rereading her to say that she’s actually doing something really powerful,” Park says.
Park says one of her claims is there is actually a lot of work being done in trying to be a friend.
“It is politically compromised through and through, but [Vietnamese and Korean American writers] make a place for themselves, and they claim a place in this imperial order,” she says. “They claim a space through attachment, which doesn’t seem very attractive, but it’s important critical work.”