Coming to America

My history classes totally skipped the history of Asians America; to let them tell it, Asian people just came to the country recently, but they've been here before the United States was a country. So, let's talk about it.
My history classes totally skipped the history of Asians America; to let them tell it, Asian people just came to the country recently, but they've been here before the United States was a country. So, let's talk about it.


The Native Americans were here. Europeans started colonizing the land after they "discovered" it. Africans were subsequently forced over during the trans-Atlantic slave trade, but what about everyone else? I don't know about your history classes, but none of mine covered when in our history people from various countries in Asia started immigrating to America and what it was like for them. Given the history of the United States, it's not hard to guess that they experienced a lot of discrimination simply for being Asian, but you might be surprised by how soon in U.S. history they started making a difference (considering there's basically no mentioning of Asian Americans in pre-Civil rights era history).

The Manila Galleon

Today, you'd be hard pressed to go into a store and find something that doesn't say "Made in China." As it turns out, that's been the case since the late 1500's. After colonizing the Philippines, the Spanish created a trade route from the Philippines to Mexico; the ship was known as The Manila Galleon. This trade route allowed for indirect trading with China in the Americas. Once a year, it would bring porcelain, silk, ivory, spices, and other goods from China.[1][2] This also enabled immigration of Chinese people to Mexico.[3]

From their arrival, Chinese immigrants were accused of taking jobs. Those doing the complaining petitioned the Spanish rulers to banish Chinese immigrants to the outskirts of the city, making it harder for them to get business. This trend of accusing others for lack of jobs has been present throughout our history and unfortunately, hasn't changed. Current president, Donald Trump, constantly talked about getting more jobs for "American" workers during his campaign. We can argue that technically that includes all races and ethnicities, but historically non-white Americans are not seen as American by their white counterpart—just take a look back at the birther movement; Barack Obama is the only president to be questioned about his citizenship and not coincidentally, also the only non-white president we ever had. In recent years, Apple has been accused of treating their Chinese employees like slaves and Google stands accused of refusing to hire Asian men.[4][5] As a member of the tech world, I'm thankful the company I work for is fairly diverse, but I've definitely seen a situation where a company's employees were predominately Indian and Chinese, but the upper management was 100% white. There's definitely still a problem with racial discrimination in our country.

First Stop: Louisiana

I was shocked to learn that the first Asian immigrants to settle in what is now the United States actually settled in Louisiana as early as 1763. Most of these immigrants were Filipino. So, when the U.S. bought Louisiana from the French in 1803, there was already a Filipino population there. I don't really think of the South as the booming place for Asian people; I've generally seen higher populations of Asian people in large cities and on the West Coast. The reason these immigrants settled in Louisiana is because they travelled by boat from Mexico through the gulf and landed in Louisiana. Of course, in 1790 the government passed the Naturalization Act of 1790 which stated only white people could be granted citizenship in the U.S.[3] Thus, like Blacks and Native Americans, the Asians that were over here during the revolutionary war and the founding of America (which claimed "all men" were created equal) had basically no rights and were not accepted into society.

The Link Between Slavery and Asian Immigrants

When the the African slave trade was abolished, European settlers still wanted a source of cheap labor, so they used Chinese and Indian immigrants as indentured servants. This was most common in the West Indies and South America. Coming on the heels of the British defeating China in the Opium War and colonizing India, it was relatively easy for colonial powers to trick people into these contracts. Though above the status of African slaves, these immigrants were still treated poorly and subjected to inhumane conditions.[3][8]

Shift in Location

Photocredit: Gerken
During the gold rush, many people flooded the state of California, including people from Asia. Many of these immigrants ended up working on the transcontinental railroad, where they took the most dangerous jobs. A significant number of Asian men lost their lives building the railroad, but when the celebratory picture was taken upon completion of the project, the Asian workers were not allowed in the photograph. Discrimination against Asian workers intensified after the completion of the rail. It is due to this discrimination, which included housing discrimination, that Chinatowns began. The government went so far as to pass an act that denied Chinese immigrants entry into the country.[3] How messed up is that?

Japanese Internment

One of the saddest books I read as a child is The Moon Bridge by Marcia Savin. The story features two friends torn apart when one is forced into an internment camp during World War II. Despite being U.S. citizens, many Japanese people in the states were forced into internment camps after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Citizens were forced to relinquish property and assets, and relocate to one of these camps. It was finally ruled unconstitutional 5 years later, after over 100,000 people had been subjected to the atrocity. The case was brought to trial at the Supreme Court on behalf of Mitsuye Endo. She could have taken her own freedom and left it at that, but she chose to fight for everyone affected by the issue. Her case set the precedent that in future conflicts such an atrocity should not happen again.


This is something I've known all along, but I want to point it out since we just discussed some of the history of discrimination against Asians in this country. Each group in the country, be it Asians, Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos/Hispanics, poor people, etc., have had some type of struggle. For all minority groups this is the best era in the country; we have rights, protection under the law (mostly), and representation in fields and arenas we couldn't enter before. That's why Trump's "make America great again" slogan is both hogwash and offensive, but I digress. What I want to focus on is that these struggles and triumphs are fundamentally different and have had different effects on each community. While all of these groups faced types of discrimination, we should never compare them. I'm pointing this out because I hate to hear arguments that "such and such group also faced discrimination so why are Black people complaining." For example, there are major differences in having your entire heritage stripped away versus being isolated into one section of town; both are deplorable, but the effects of each will manifest differently. We should acknowledge that each group had to deal with some messed up stuff (the U.S. has a horrible track record) without tearing down any of the groups. That includes what I mentioned previously, as well as, trying to say one group had it better or worse. At the end of the day, I think learning about each culture is the best way to understand these nuances and develop respect.


  1. "Manila Galleon". Encyclopædia Britannica. May 29, 2018
  2. Johanna Hecht. "The Manila Galleon Trade". The Metropolitan Museum of Art. October 2003
  3. "Ancestors in the Americas: Timeline". PBS. 2001
  4. Jessica Guynn. "Google accused in lawsuit of excluding white and Asian men in hiring to boost diversity". USA Today. March 1, 2018
  5. Gethin Chamberlain. "Apple's Chinese workers treated 'inhumanely, like machines'". The Guardian. April 30, 2011
  6. "Japanese Internment Camps".; visited June 2018
  7. Scott S. Greenberger. "‘Cheap slaves’: Trump, immigration and the ugly history of the Chinese Exclusion Act". Washington Post. August 3, 2017
  8. Justina Hwang. "Chinese in Peru in the 19th century". Brown University Library; visited June 2018

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