The steady drizzle and chilling wind of the day had mostly died down by seven o’clock on Wednesday evening, but the cold temperatures persisted, compelling attendants of “Claiming America: Questions of Belonging” to shuffle quickly inside Zeeland’s Howard Miller library. We grabbed our complimentary coffee and settled into our seats, eager to learn more about the history surrounding When the Emperor Was Divine. Dr. Kimberly McKee was at the podium, prepared with extensive research on the Asian immigrant’s experience in the United States.
Her research dated back to the 19th century, when the first Asians traveled to America as temporary workers. “They never intended to stay”, said McKee, referring to the waves of sojourners attracted by the Gold Rush and the building of the Trans-Atlantic Railroad. However, they found that they could do quite well for themselves here in the United States. Experiencing a prosperity they hadn’t known in their native countries, they decided to settle here. But their success gained them some adversaries; many Americans sought to take back via legislation the jobs that their new neighbors were getting. The Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907 was one such ordinance, intended to discourage Asian immigrants from claiming the U.S. as their home. McKee cited more examples of the discrimination faced by Asian-Americans, including political cartoons from the 20th century that portrayed Japanese-Americans in an unfair and hysterical manner. Much of what she presented to us was information I had never heard before, which served to prove another of McKee’s points: why hasn’t the racism faced by Asian-Americans been more talked about?
One of the biggest takeaways from Wednesday’s lecture came afterwards, during the Q & A portion. An audience member asked: Were the internment camps really that bad? Was the public’s idea about the Japanese during World War II completely unfounded? Wasn’t there reason to be afraid of kamikaze and Japanese spies? Her questions were hard ones, causing everyone in the room to examine their conscience and consider their own subjectivity on the matter. Were we trying to prove the lesser of two evils? McKee didn’t have answers for the woman and I’m not sure anyone in the audience did either. She went on to challenge us all to continue questioning ourselves and our society, citing evidence of the Asian-American stereotypes that still persist: in Snapchat filters, in movies, in children’s books. The audience was encouraged to reflect: how do these representations shape our ideas about Asian-Americans?
The Big Read is valuable to our community for so many reasons, but what makes it most relevant are the conversations it starts up all over the Holland area: in classrooms, in bookstores, in coffee shops, in homes. When we read and talk with others, we can learn important lessons and discover areas of personal growth, but we can also make connections to present day situations. McKee pointed out the parallel between the anti-Japanese sentiment of WWII and the current anti-Muslim feelings in our country. As reflective and responsible citizens, we can use When the Emperor Was Divine as a jumping-off point for conversations about how to move forward as a nation in the face of terrorism and racism.
Contributed by Lindsay Kooy
Lindsay is a junior at Hope College, studying Business with minors in English and Communication. When she’s not at her desk or on the soccer field, you can find her at a coffee shop, most likely talking about personality tests.