AA101: A series presenting the quick bullet points of Asian American Studies

Asian American Studies is all about identifying and resisting Orientalization.


What is Orientalization?


  • Orientalization is a process by which people are categorized into orientalism, a system an intellectual thought about the Orient as an object of study.
  • In Asian American Studies, orientalism is a racist stereotype because an “Oriental” is determined by skin color.
  • Yellow Peril: the main blanket stereotype of “Orientals”
    According to newspapers, magazines and American popular culture:

      • Orientals are sneaky people with slanted eyes.
      • Orientals can be sneaky and slimy for good: like Charlie Chan or
        Orientals can be sneaky and slimy for evil like Fu Manchu or Dr. No.
      • Orientals are also very spiritual, but they are also very materialistic.
      • Non-Orientals should be scared because:
          • Orientals are going to take our jobs because they are smarter than us and/or work like machines.
          • Orientals are going to marry our women and have these children who are going to look like that and will be raised by those people. They’re also going to have sex with our pure daughters and contaminate them.
          • The worst thing is that after all of this happens, nobody will understand what happened because the Orientals were too sneaky.
  • Key example is of a consequence of Orientalization:
    Japanese American Internment during World War II.
    These Japanese people all worked for that empire. Because of the color of their skin, regardless of their citizenship, they are all enemy aliens, so we have to turn them all in.

Key readings:

Robert G Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (1999) Traces six “Oriental” stereotypes throughout the history American popular culture: Pollutant, Coolie, Deviant, Yellow Peril, Model Minority, and Gook.
Jane Iwamura, Virtual Orientalism: Asian Religions and American Popular Culture (2011) Addresses the one main stereotype Lee leaves out, the Spiritual Monk.  Think of Zen Monks, the Hare Krishna guys or David Carradine in Kung Fu---the white guy who becomes the Oriental Monk, or Kung Fu Panda.
John Kuo Wei Tchen, New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882 (2001) Looks at New York and America by extension and tries to understand the shift in perspective: Chinese people seen as celestials (people whose goods were a symbol of high elite culture, like “George Washington's Tea Set”)  to dirty people that require segregation in a Chinatown.
Henry Yu, Thinking Orientals: Migration, Contact, and Exoticism in Modern America (2002) The preoccupation of pre-World War II American sociologists to examine the possibilities for Asian Americans to assimilate into white American culture was itself a racist concept.


Edward Said’s Orientalism vs. Orientalism in Asian American Studies

Said’s OrientalismOrientalism in Asian American Studies
Born out of:

Literature professor Edward Said, Orientalism (1978).

A system of intellectual thought called “Orientalism” can be traced from antiquity to the present. Particularly with the advent of modernity, it became a growing intellectual interest and its object of study was a region of the world called “the Orient.”

“The Orient” is static, backward, and once had a golden age of civilization. It was the task of the West to restore its former glory through colonization. “The Orient” is anything East of Herodotus’ Troy, or the Caucasus Mountains.

Born out of:

Asian American Studies born out of San Francisco State and University of California, Berkeley student strikes in 1968-9.

Students demanded ethnic studies departments at these universities to learn about past systemic mistreatment and to empower them to right these wrongs.


Orientalism was a methodological problem.

The problem came from the people who studied the Orient. None of these scholars---from Oxford, Cambridge, Paris---actually went to the Orient. They read books about it, learned languages and looked at artifacts. They made assumptions about “Oriental” culture based on static documents, and insisted that this is how “the Orient” was, and it will always will be this way.

They were unaware of what was actually happening in “the Orient.”


Orientalism for Asian American Studies is a material problem.

Orientalizing racism is about the material oppression on part of colonizers, the white people.

“Material” means what jobs we can have, how much money we can make, what political and economic opportunities are open to us.

The roots of Asian American Studies has its roots in labor history and solidarities with the Third World.

Really about:

The Middle East

An intellectual culture

Really about:

The United States

American popular culture, perceptions on the ground

Solidarities with Asians in poverty around the world


Said does not have a monopoly on the term “orientalism.”


People who led the student strikes were called “Third World Liberation Front.” They found inspiration and solidarity with people in the Third World, because they too were mistreated by European and American colonizers.

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ASIANAMERICANCHRISTIAN.ORG primarily asks how we are to be, think and respond to being Asian, American and Christian in Christ. Towards this end, we are extremely interested to learn from others and hear viewpoints different from our own. Please note that the views represented here are not necessarily those of ASIANAMERICANCHRISTIAN.ORG.

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