Transpacific Crossroads: Identity, Geopolitics, and the Mobility Turn

Endorsed by the OAH-Japanese Association for American Studies Japan Historians' Collaborative Committee, SHGAPE, and WHA

Thursday, March 30, 2023, 12:45 PM - 2:15 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Asian American; Nationalism and Transnationalism; Transportation, Travel, and Exploration


This panel examines the political, cultural, and ideological transformations brought about by the movement of ideas and peoples between the United States and Asia in the twentieth century. These mobilities were crucial for fomenting parallel constructions of individual and national identities, axes of power, and racial and gender discourses. While the twenty-first century has been dubbed the “Pacific Century,” the foundations for it were set down in the century before when revolutions in technology, transportation, communications, and business practices, abetted transpacific exchanges. More specifically, the four panelists consider the critical role that diverse mobilities played in generating processes of global integration and multiple definitions of Asianness and Asian Americanness across national, political, and socioeconomic boundaries. Having solidified their continental ascendancy, Americans increasingly looked towards Asia and other parts of the world in the 1900s. While many continued to consume the imported Asian goods that served as a marker for worldliness, others traveled to the places from whence the products came in order to experience the cultures in situ. Constance Chen delves into how bourgeois white American women travelers acquired cultural cachet and reinvented U.S. gender ideals and discourses of advancement through their journeys to seemingly exotic locales like China and Japan in the early twentieth century. JoAnn LoSavio’s paper also interrogates the impact of movement and, in particular, the effects of circular migration. She explores the dynamic Thai, British, and American socioeconomic mechanisms that produced post-colonial transnational identities and modalities of modernity for Thai individuals during the Cold War era. Prompted by the fear of potential communist threat, the 1970s would see the United States recalibrating its role within Asia. Lisa Tran’s analysis of oral histories focuses on the consequences of U.S. interventions in Vietnam by studying the fluidity and plurality of identities that refugees like the “boat people” constructed as they immigrated to the United States. At the conclusion of the twentieth century, U.S. influences continued to be undergirded by the transplantation of American culture and ideas abroad. Eriko Oga assesses the creation of the regional identity of Fukushima, Japan in the late nineteenth century through her research on the appeal of hula culture and the ways in which Hawaiianness was employed by certain Japanese peoples to reinscribe the Asian country’s economic practices and ideologies of femininity. Ultimately, interchanges between Asia and the United States through the physical movement of peoples and the consumption of culture effectuated and reflected abiding changes in identity formation and international politics on both sides of the Pacific throughout the twentieth century.

Papers Presented

“A Very Colorful Dream”: Gender, Nationalism, and Transpacific Travel in the Early Twentieth Century

In the early twentieth century, bourgeois Americans traveled to Asia during a pivotal moment of transpacific exchanges when global political and cultural currents were being recalibrated. In the process, they reinvented the U.S. worldview by simultaneously reimagining ideologies of gender, forging a lexicon of modernity, and manufacturing a global consciousness. This paper examines how white American women travelers acquired cultural cachet, in addition to transgressing the boundaries of existing gender norms, by leaving the United States and heading for seemingly exotic countries such as China and Japan. While visiting Asia, Americans attempted to hold onto and maintain their sense of Americanness. It is not a surprise, then, that many travelers praised the British colony of Hong Kong and industrializing Japan for their Western amenities and ways of life while disparaging what they deemed to be “savage” and “backward” “Old China.” Although modernity had been considered to be the sole possession of “the West,” certain Asians were reconceptualized as having attained “civility” and “progress.” Narratives of deserving and undeserving Asians were fabricated and disseminated; whereas some transformed themselves for the better, others did not. As literary scholar Mary Louise Pratt, historian Ronald Inden, and others have averred, these travelers’ imperialist stance enabled them to reproduce their cultural dominance in foreign lands. In the end, white American women travelers who found a degree of liberation and independence through their encounters with the exotic replicated tropes of civility and advancement to domesticate the unfamiliar and to gain socioeconomic power within the United States.

Presented By
Constance Chen, Loyola Marymount University

Transnational Thais: Post-colonial connections to Modernity, the Cold War in Southeast Asia, and Circular Thai-US Migration in the 1960s

This paper challenges the popular narrative of trauma around Southeast Asian US migration history, wherein the United States is positioned as a final destination of hope and settlement. Thai-US migration in the 1960s does not fit into this narrative. I build on my earlier research, a case study of Thai students in American universities and Thai employees of the Peace Corps. This study showed how many Thais came to the United States voluntarily, as university students, as professionals, and as tourists, and how their journeys to the United States were circular by design. Thai and US Cold War concerns created legal pathways for Thai student migration to the United States to achieve these objectives. These same mechanisms created economic and social incentives for Thais to return home: high-paying jobs in a burgeoning economy and the social prestige of international travel. In this paper I explore the world which called these migrants home. By examining Thai state modernization programs, British and American foreign aid programs, and Thai state-sponsored publications, the significance of Thai individuals’ transnational experiences abroad is visible. Temporary migrations and international tourism became integral in the development of a modern, post-colonial Thai identity. The sojourn abroad required a return to the homeland. Examining Thai-US migration history through a transnational, post-colonial lens disrupts the notion of American exceptionalism and adds another dimension in understanding the historical context and patterns of Southeast Asian-American migration.

Presented By
JoAnn LoSavio, Washington State University, Vancouver

Beyond Vietnamese and Chinese: Ethnic Identities Among the “Boat People” Who Resettled in the United States

When asked a question about ethnicity, what does it matter if people are given a set of options from which to choose or a blank space to fill in? The multiple-choice format gives the entity that created the question the power to categorize people, while the free response option gives people answering the question the freedom to define themselves however they wish. In the former, the choices represent official categories and are thus limited; in the latter, the possible answers reflect the myriad ways people identify themselves and are thus infinite. My paper explores the relationship between these methods of ethnic identification in a transnational and diasporic context. At the center of my study are the so-called “boat people,” refugees who fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and resettled in the United States. The U.S. government classified these refugees as Vietnamese, but acknowledged that a significant number were ethnic Chinese. My study hones in on this subset of the refugees from Vietnam and explores the multiple and shifting identities they assumed as they migrated from Vietnam to the United States. The oral histories at the heart of the study reveal a plurality of identities that cannot be neatly compartmentalized in the official categories of Vietnamese or Chinese. When given the opportunity to choose their own ways of defining their ethnicity, they turned to language and custom, employing terms and categories that reflected their lived experiences and family histories.

Presented By
Lisa Tran, California State University Fullerton

Hula Tourism and Local Identity in Fukushima, Japan

This paper explores the role of hula tourism in shaping a local identity in Fukushima, Japan. Until the 1960s, Iwaki, located in Northern Japan, was a coal-mining region and had nothing to do with Hawaiʻi or hula. A large-scale exhibition of Hawaiian cultures started in Iwaki when a Hawaiʻi-themed resort park Joban Hawaiian Center—currently named Spa Resort Hawaiians—opened in 1966 to address the decline of the coal economy. The theme park attracted more visitors after the film Hula Girls (2006) became a huge hit in Japan. However, the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011 severely affected Iwaki’s tourist industry, which led the city to use hula as a means to survive the post-disaster economy. While previous studies have examined the role of the theme park’s so-called hula girls in shaping Japan’s nationalist discourse, the meaning of hula to local communities like Iwaki has remained unexplored. This paper examines the transformation of Iwaki’s local identity from late twentieth to early twenty-first century by looking at the community’s uses of hula such as the promotion of the hula girls, the post-3.11 emergence of hula okami—a group of female managers of Japanese hot spring inns who perform hula in kimono—, and the rebranding of the city as “Hula City.” The glocalized hula in Iwaki reflects Japanese understandings of Hawaiʻi and hula, Japanese notions of femininity, and Japan’s changing local and national economy.

Presented By
Eriko Oga, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Annelise Heinz, University of Oregon
Annelise Heinz is an Assistant Professor of History at the University of Oregon. Her work focuses on the histories of gender, race, and sexuality; transpacific history; and cultural history. Her first book project, published May 2021 with Oxford University Press, is a history of the Chinese game mahjong and the making of modern American culture. She has published in the American Historical Review and Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies and served as Associate Producer for a digital version of the late historian Allan Bérubé's “talking picture show” about a forgotten multi-racial and gay-friendly militant labor union. She has presented her work to both scholarly and public audiences, including at the American Historical Association, the Association of Asian Studies, the Berkshire Conference of Women’s Historians, the Contemporary Jewish Museum of San Francisco and elsewhere.

Presenter: Constance Chen, Loyola Marymount University
Constance Chen is an associate professor of history at Loyola Marymount University. Specializing in Asian American history, her research interests include transpacific exchanges, empire and colonialism, comparative racial and gender discourses, and the politics of visual culture. Professor Chen’s work has appeared in the Journal of Asian American Studies, Amerasia Journal, the Journal of American Studies, the Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era as well as other journals and anthologies. She has received fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, among others, in support of her scholarship. Professor Chen is currently working on a book manuscript that examines the role of travel culture in shaping the development of ethnic-racial identities and nationalism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century China, Japan, and the United States.

Presenter: JoAnn LoSavio, Washington State University, Vancouver
JoAnn LoSavio is a Scholarly Assistant Professor of History at Washington State University, Vancouver. She explores cultural, transnational 20th century processes of decolonization in Southeast Asia, Britain, and the United States, primarily in sports, higher education, and migration. Dr LoSavio earned her PhD in History (2020) at Northern Illinois University and an MA in Anthropology at Emory University (2014). As a result of her interdisciplinary background, she has interests in diverse research methodologies: visual analyses, ethnographic film, oral histories, in addition to traditional archival research. Dr LoSavio’s topical interests derive from her personal history as a transnational immigrant from Southeast Asia. She is currently working on a manuscript.

Presenter: Eriko Oga, University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa
Eriko Oga is a Ph.D. candidate in American Studies Department at University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. Her research interests are U.S.-Hawaiʻi-Japan cultural relation and gender studies. As a Fulbright scholar at UH Mānoa, she is conducting research on cultures of Japanese tourism to Hawaiʻi. At UH Mānoa, she received a master’s degree in American Studies and completed Women’s Studies Graduate Certificate Program in 2018. She has published “Patsy Mink’s Feminism in the 1960s and 1970s” in Journal of the Graduate School of Humanities from Japan Women’s University in 2014. In addition to Fulbright scholarship, she is a recipient of multiple scholarships including Japanese Student Services Organization Study Abroad Support Scholarship and East-West Center Alumni Scholar Awards.

Presenter: Lisa Tran, California State University Fullerton
Lisa Tran is Professor of History at California State University Fullerton. She is the author of Concubines in Court: Marriage and Monogamy in Twentieth-Century China (Rowman & Littlefield, 2015) and is currently working on a book manuscript on Asia in world history (under contract with Cambridge University Press). Her current research focuses on refugees who fled Vietnam in the late 1970s and resettled in the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.