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What does it mean to be Asian American in Michigan?

Wayne State University Press

From 2000 to 2010, Michigan saw a 39% increase in its Asian population. That happened even while the state’s overall population was shrinking.

Asian-Americans are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in Detroit’s Tri-County area: Wayne, Oakland and Macomb counties.

So what does it mean to be an Asian-American in Michigan, and how did immigrants from so many different Asian countries come to Michigan? These are some of the questions explored in the new book Asian Americans in Michigan: Voices from the Midwest.

Editors and contributing essayists Sook Wilkinson and Victor Jew spoke with us today:

Victor Jew says this is the first book to collect a large number of contemporary Asian-American voices in the Midwest.

“The 2010 census showed that in the Midwest alone there are 19 different Asian-derived communities," said Victor Jew who teaches in the Asian-American studies program at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

These communities are quite diverse – Japanese, Chinese, Hmong, Vietnamese, Laos, Cambodian – the list goes on. Jew says before the 1960s, there was no Asian-American movement. The book points out that these Asian immigrants probably would not have seen themselves as “Asian-Americans” because there wasn’t any sense of unity among Asians of different nationalities. In many cases, their ancestors hated one another.

Jew said these Chop Suey restaurants became a sort of de facto "Asian commons" for these communities.

“But I’m finding these really interesting moments, especially in the Midwest, in Chicago and Detroit,” Jew said. “Where you have different folks – Japanese who are living in the Midwest, Chinese living in the Midwest, Koreans living in the Midwest -- and they would gather together. They would gather together before World War II in the 1930s at Chop Suey restaurants in Detroit.”

Jew said these Chop Suey restaurants became a sort of de facto “Asian commons” for these communities.

Sook Wilkinson says there’s a long history of Asian immigrants in Michigan. She says they arrived in the early in 1900s and some even before that – in the late 1800s.

Sook says there were no big, notable tensions as they arrived in the state.

“Because the numbers were so small, they did not attract a lot of attention,” said Sook. “However, the ‘rest of the Americans’ were not so used to seeing these people who looked so different, so there was some prejudice, curiosity, [and] questions.”

In the book’s forward Frank Wu, the former dean of the Wayne State University law school, writes how he felt different:

My brothers and I were both the same as and different from our classmates….We wanted to be just like them, wearing popular sneakers, eating meatloaf, hanging out after dark, and watching cartoons on Saturday morning. We could not help being always conscious that we were different from them, wearing home-sewn clothes…using chopsticks to eat meals that looked disgusting to our peers, doing extra homework instead of playing outside, and attending Chinese school on the weekends.

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