[COMMUNITY] Helen Zia Interview
- AMERICAN DRAMS
INTERVIEW WITH HELEN ZIA BY ALICE YEE
"As Asian American, we tend to put our blinders on, thinking that if
we just study, work hard and become professionally successful, we
have made it. But if we can move away from that philosophy and
start to pay attention, we will recognize that our self-interest,
livihood and survival depend on our willingness to contribute to the
world around us" - Helen Zia
What was your source of inspiration for writing Asian American
It has always been my passion as an activist, journalist, and member
of society to give voice to those who have been voiceless, ordinary
people whose stories are full of drama and significance. Being Asian
American, my awareness of meaningful events that have failed to
attract the attention they deserve has been a consistent theme
throughout my life, and my desire is to make these stories visible.
I wanted to look at stories about our various Asian American
communities that haven't been told, that we know and talk about
amongst ourselves, but which have somehow been ignored. My mission
was twofold: To help readers understand our common humanity beyond
nationality, and to encourage people to share their hopes, dreams,
challenges, and pain.
Who is the audience for your book?
There aren't that many popular nonfiction books out there on this
subject that appeal to the general public, including Asian Americans
themselves. This book was written for the general public. I learned
a tremendous amount by immersing myself in all of these various
communities - I wanted to break through the ignorance that exists
even within the Asian American population. What is particularly
wonderful and unexpected is that I've gotten positive feedback from
non-Asian people who have read the book and related to the trials
and tribulations of being part of a marginalized group. They could
understand what it feels like to be an outsider, to be on the
What do you think about the increasing visibility of Asian images in
television and film? Does the popularity of such stars as Jackie
Chan, Chow Yun Fat, Jet Li, Lucy Liu, and Lisa Ling represent real
progress in the perpetual battle against the persistent "gangster,
gook, geisha, and geek" stereotypes of popular culture?
The more images of different Asian Americans we see in media and
entertainment, the better off we are. This is progress! Some of
these characters will inevitably fall under old stereotypes, but the
greater diversity of images there can be, the less it can be said
that we are one-dimensional. We are still enriched with a much more
realistic range of perceptions.
In your book, you address the racism, rifts, and rivalries existing
between the diverse groups that fit under the "Asian American"
umbrella. What would you say to those who don't embrace the pan-
Asian-American label as you do?
There are going to be many Asian Americans who see us as a unified
whole and others who don't. There are single ethnic communities that
are now demonstrating a great deal of leadership, and there are
flash points that affect a particular community more than they
affect the pan-Asian conglomerate. But this isn't in opposition to
the concept of unity. The sum is greater than the parts. As a larger
community in America, we have a great deal to contribute together -
we have more leverage. This coming together is a phenomenon taking
shape today, and all of this is an indication of an Asian coming-of-
What do you consider the landmark event that fundamentally changed
the nation's awareness of the Asian American population?
I believe it was the Vincent Chin killing in 1982. For the first
time, we were included in a civil rights case that necessitated
discussions of racism. I don't think that lesson lasted for a long
time, unfortunately, and we have had to reinforce that understanding
again. The L.A. riots were also monumental in the transformation of
perceptions. Most importantly, we took decisive action in these
situations. The time is past for us to wait and see how others are
going to define us. The challenge is for us to define ourselves,
free of others' clouded judgments and misconceptions.
What advice would you give to Asian American youth today?
Be aware of the world around you, beyond Asian American affairs.
Care about what's happening to people in general. Speak up and have
an opinion. Don't be afraid to exercise the rights we have in this
democracy. Work to make yourself an active part of society. Add a
stop sign to a street corner, offer to help out at a sibling's
school, defend a child from a racial slur.
I have faith in the goodness of people, that they are willing to do
what's right and take a stand. As Asian Americans, we tend to put
our blinders on, thinking that if we just study, work hard, and
become professionally successful, we have made it. But if we can
move away from that philosophy and start to pay attention, we will
recognize that our ultimate self-interest, livelihood and survival
depend on our willingness to contribute to the world around us. We
can really make this world a better place than it was when we first
came into it, and that's the highest purpose we could ever hope to