Challenges, Growth Prospects, and New Opportunities in the Heartland

By Sharon S. Lee, U. Illinois-Urbana Champaign AAS


Editor’s Note: This article originally ran on Asian-American  Village in late 2003. Since that time, UIUC has reportedly made excellent strides in building a vital Asian American scene on campus, and it’s well worth visiting their site at the link in the sidebar “Asian American Studies Programs and Resources in the Midwest” below.  We’ve reposted it on our new site in slightly different form here, thinking it was a good opportunity to announce a new job opportunity at Asian American Studies Program, with an application deadline in June 2005.  Come out and say hi!


The Midwest as a site to build and expand Asian American Studies? This may seem confusing and counterintuitive, as it is so far removed from the coasts which have birthed the field and molded its growth. In fact, in the late 1960’s when students were fighting to establish Asian American Studies (AAS) courses and services, Midwestern Asian Americans bemoaned their “invisibility [so] total that Asian Americans are not thought to exist in this ‘vast banana wasteland.'” (Madison Asian Union, 1974). Today, over thirty years later, the notion of building AAS in the Midwest still seems somewhat novel. Asian American issues and research continue to be centered on the coasts, primarily in California.

Still, as the field has developed, its California-centric core has been challenged. In the fall of 1991, on the campus of Cornell University, representatives from twenty-three colleges and universities resolved to establish a caucus, “East of California,” within the Association for Asian American Studies. Part of its mission was to support and develop region-specific research and publications, and to give voice to regional issues facing Asian Americanists and those fighting to build AAS programs in areas so separate from California’s models, histories, and legacies.

Tellingly, today even the term “East of California” has become problematic, as AAS programs and supporters have grown so diverse as to in effect make the term “Not California” a more accurate title for the caucus. The caucus includes members from schools as varied as the Pacific Northwest (north of California), the Midwest (east of California), and the East coast (east, east of California). While these “not California” programs still share the institutional limitations and realities of building programs in less diverse areas (where political awareness and consciousness are considerably reduced) there are still regional diversities that distinguish these programs from one another.

The Midwest has seen considerable growth in the field of AAS in the past decade (perhaps even more rapid growth than in California), raising compelling questions and issues that challenge the West Coast paradigms of the field, but also as well as some exciting new possibilities.



The obvious limitation and challenge facing supporters of AAS in this region has been our numbers. With the exception of a few urban areas (Chicago, most notably), the sheer lack of numbers, of a “critical mass” of Asian Americans in the Midwest is at issue. And in universities that embrace numbers, unsubstantial Asian-American enrollments are oftentimes used to disprove the need for AAS faculty, courses, and student services. A “numbers case” can be more easily made at schools in California where Asian Americans make up double digit percentiles of the student population.

Asian American Studies Programs and Resources in the Midwest

AA Coalition Committee, U. Illinois Chicago
AAS, U. Illinois Urbana-Champaign
AAS, U. Michigan Ann Arbor
AAS Initiative, U. Minnesota
AAS, Northwestern
AAS, Ohio State University
AAS, U. Wisconsin Madison
Asian Culture Center, Indiana University
Midwest Asian American Student Union
East of California

Narrowly focusing on numbers of Asian American students, however, is a poor measure for justifying the need for AAS. Relying on numbers alone feeds into unproductive arguments that AAS is onlyfor Asian-American students in a “feel-good,” non-academic way, which belittles the real fact that AAS is ultimately about educating all Americans about the Asian-American experience and dispelling stereotypes. Furthermore, one could argue that a school with less than 1% Asian Americans would have an even greater need for AAS courses than a campus with 40%, since the knowledge of Asian-American experiences, issues, and concerns is literally non-existent on such a campus. With a 40% Asian-American student body, venues for Asian-American awareness are more plentiful even in the absence of AAS courses—through student events and community organizations. (These issues aside, the realities exist in our lack of critical mass.)

This lack of a critical mass and isolation marks the experience of building AAS in the Midwest. Administrators, faculty, and the like are less familiar with Ethnic Studies, diversity and multicultural issues, and tend to talk about race in terms of Black and White, or see Asian Americans as solely “Asian” and perpetually foreign, not fully American. Students, staff, and faculty have to educate (and often re-educate) university administrators and traditional departments (on whom they rely for hiring faculty) on these issues.



Asian American Studies began in the Midwest in 1991 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has since grown to include formal programs at the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Northwestern University, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Additionally, students and faculty have been active at the University of Illinois Chicago, the University of Chicago, Northern Illinois University, Indiana University, Michigan State, Ohio State, and the University of Minnesota in offering courses in AAS and advocating for expansion in this field. Although this growth has faced stops and starts in times of tight budgets, activism in AAS has remained consistent in the Midwest. So much for being the “vast banana wasteland”!

A Personal Story: Isolated, Not Provincial

As a Midwesterner, my experience has been marked by the Heartland. Growing up, I was always one of only a handful of minorities in my class. After college, I went to work in L.A., idealistically believing I would finally find a “home” among a mass of Asian Americans. Surprisingly, that year was miserable. I quickly learned that my own identity as an Asian American (and my ease in pan-ethnic coalition) was not shared by Koreans and Korean Americans in Koreatown, who kept to themselves and could live their lives hardly ever interacting with any non-Koreans. I saw then how great numbers of Asians could work against a political consciousness of race and coalition-building. I was reminded of this again in graduate school in Wisconsin when a Chinese- American friend from SoCal told me she had never thought of herself as anything more than Chinese before coming to the Miwest, and that her identity as an Asian American was completely new to her. Ironically, I have found many Midwest- erners’ conceptions of race to be more “advanced” and earlier-forming (spurred of course by necessity, based on racism and feelings of isolation) than those of some APAs living in relative ease among a sea of Asian faces out west.

The growth of AAS in this region also poses rich possibilities for the field. The Midwest is home to specific populations that make for very different Asian-American experiences, histories, and cultural environments. St. Paul Minnesota is home to one of the largest urban Hmong populations in the world. There are tens of thousands of Korean adoptees in the region, with a growing number of Chinese adoptees as well. The Midwest is a site to uncover Japanese Americans’ resettlement after the internment. Identity issues vary based on a Midwestern experience. And the murder of Vincent Chin, one of the key politicizing events in recent Asian-American history, occurred in Detroit.

Furthermore, distance from the “California model” of building AAS can also provide the impetus for evolution. In newer programs in the Midwest, such as the University of Illinois, we are faced with the benefit of not being tied down to the California legacy, which, while instructive, can also become an impediment to innovative program structures and research in the field. As the field expands to center such axes as gender and sexuality, transnational and diasporic concerns, and historically marginalized Asian ethnic groups (such as Filipinos and South Asians), a Midwestern program is more at liberty to explore new options and embark on more interdisciplinary work.

Building Asian American Studies in the Midwest, while challenging, need not be defeatist.  There are great possibilities for the field here, structurally and intellectually. While we may struggle with isolation and resistance, we can collaborate and network with each other to help build programs and departments that continue to advance the field in new and exciting ways.



Sharon Lee is Assistant Director of Asian American Studies at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign.

Born and raised in the Midwest, she has been a long-time supporter of Asian American Studies in the region (at Oberlin College as an undergraduate; at the University of Wisconsin Madison as a graduate student and staff member; and now at UIUC.) She currently serves as the East of California (EOC) caucus co-coordinator and has helped facilitate networks in AAS in the Midwest through EOC, in Illinois through the Office of the Governor, and through the Committee on Institutional Cooperation. is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.