Asian Americans Who Helped Shape the U.S.
The U.S. has often been called a melting pot or a stew where each new wave of immigrants contributes something to the medley. While Asian Americans predate the country itself (in 1763, a group of Filipinos jumped from a Spanish ship and established the settlement of Saint-Malo near New Orleans), their exceptional contributions to American society are often overlooked. With this latest wave of violence against our fellow citizens and in light of Asian-Pacific American month, BCT Partners wants to salute just a few of those pioneers contributing to this hearty soup that we call America.
Well before the STEM fields started to recruit women, Professor Chien-Shiung Wu was making history. Chinese-born physicist Chien-Shiung Wu, Ph.D., was instrumental in the developing field of atomic science. One of her most important contributions was her work on the Manhattan Project: the code name for research into nuclear weapons during World War II. After the war, she focused her research on beta decay and asked two other physicists to devise an experiment that would prove their theory. While she successfully proved the theory, she was overlooked for the Nobel Prize in 1957, although her two colleagues (both Chinese-American men, Tsung Dao Lee, Ph.D., and Chen Ning Yang, Ph.D.) did receive it. Later, Wu famously spoke at a symposium at MIT where she posed the question, "I wonder whether the tiny atoms and nuclei, or the mathematical symbols, or the DNA molecules have any preference for either masculine or feminine treatment.”
Asian Americans have never been immune from racial prejudice in American society. However, Japanese Americans experienced especially harsh treatment during WWII when their loyalties were questioned and they were forced into internment camps. Many families had children who had never even been to Japan and did not speak the language, so you can imagine their confusion when they were considered possible traitors. Japanese American Yuri Kochiyama’s activism was profoundly shaped by the two years she spent in a camp. Her experience inspired both she and her husband to speak out for not only Asian Americans but for other oppressed minorities, including Black, Latinx, and Indigenous people. During the Civil Rights movement, her contributions led her to meet and befriend Malcolm X, and she continued to work with other civil rights leaders after his death. Later, in the 1980s, she and her husband began campaigning for reparations and a formal governmental apology for Japanese American internments. When the Civil Liberties Act was signed into law by Ronald Reagan, her fight for justice finally paid off. "She was not your typical Japanese-American person, especially a nisei [second-generation Japanese-American]," Tim Toyama, Kochiyama's second cousin, told NPR. "She was definitely ahead of her time, and we caught up with her."
Design and Sculpture
If you have ever visited the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., it is hard to forget. It consists of two monolithic black walls that begin inside the earth and grow in height until they meet with the names of the 58,000 Americans who died inscribed in chronological order. While it was highly controversial at the time, it’s stood the test of time to become one of the most recognizable monuments in the world. It’s even more extraordinary when you realize that it was created by a 21-year-old Chinese-American who was still attending architecture school at Yale when she won the competition. Maya Lin was born in Ohio to Chinese parents who were both professors and immigrated to the U.S. to escape Mao's revolution. Lin beat out 1400 competitors, including one of her Yale professors, who only gave her a B on the assignment. As Lin said about the design, “I just wanted to be honest with people, I didn’t want to make something that said, 'They've gone away for a while.' I wanted something that would just simply say, 'They can never come back. They should be remembered.'" Lin has created many other recognizable works, including Wave Field at The University of Michigan and the Civil Rights Memorial in Alabama. Nature has been one of the biggest influences in her art, and she has focused much of her work on environmental causes. Since 2010, Lin has been working on a series of pieces called What Is Missing? for The Honoring the Future Foundation, specifically to raise awareness about the loss of biodiversity and natural habitats. She uses sound, media, science, and art for temporary installations and a web-based project simultaneously in many forms and places. In 2016, Lin was recognized for her work by being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
There are so many Asian-American success stories that it becomes difficult to just focus on one person when it comes to modern technological contributions. Of course, that’s equally true about all of the other fields we have highlighted because we barely skimmed the surface. However, within the last 50 years, technology has moved at an unprecedented pace and affected all of our lives. Much of that is undoubtedly attributable to the tech gurus such as Intel Chief I/O architect Ajay Bhatt. Bhatt is an Indian American who was the co-inventor of the USB. It’s almost impossible to imagine a time when we could not transfer data from one device to another through a USB. And what about all those cute animal videos on YouTube? How did we live without them to cheer up our day? Well, you can attribute the invention of YouTube to Steve Chen, a Taiwanese American, and Jawed Karim, a Bangladeshi-German American who, along with Chad Hurley, came up with the idea for YouTube, which was later sold to Google. And what about search? We probably all think of Google as developing it, but the functionality was created by Yahoo, founded by Taiwanese-American, Jerry Yang and David Filo. What would we do if we couldn’t share those cute animal videos via email? We wouldn’t be able to without Indian American Sabeer Bhatia, who co-founded Windows Live Hotmail, which developed into Microsoft Outlook. Finally, thanks to being indoors so much during the pandemic, most of us are sick of Zoom calls, but it would have been tough to forge a connection with fellow employees over the last year without it. And we have Eric S. Yuan, a Chinese American who is the Founder of Zoom Video Communications.
In summary, while we can only highlight a few of the outstanding contributors to American culture, there are so many others who deserve our honor. For example, Chinese American I.M. Pei, the renowned architect of the East Building of the National Gallery of Art in Washington, and the glass pyramid at the entrance to the Louvre in Paris or Vietnamese American Tuan Vo-Dinh, a biomedical engineering professor who developed new gene probes to detect cancer earlier. Or Filipino American physician and pediatric immunologist Katherine Luzuriaga, M.D., has made significant contributions to viral infections in children and developed one of the early diagnostic tests for HIV infection in children. The list goes on. So, next time you hear someone talk or write negatively about immigrants, please remind them that each American is unique and the vast diversity of thought that each culture has brought to our nation adds value and growth to us all.