Asian American Studies in Action Profile of Professor Ray Lou

Professor Ray Lou

by Butch Wing

Ray Lou has been especially busy these past few days. Winter classes at San Jose State University have just begun, and he's teaching three courses ? Asian Americans in U.S. History, Chinese American History, and a new course on Careers and Professions for Asian Americans. Ray is the only full?time professor of San Jose State's Asian American Studies program. And on top of that, he is coordinator of the program, which is also offering courses on America's Concentration Camps and Asian Amencan Women this term.

But Ray takes it all in stride. After all, he's one of the seasoned veterans of the Asian Amencan Studies movement. Starting in 1969, Ray has taught and helped develop programs at the University of Hawaii, and University of California campuses at Irvine and Santa Cruz. He arrived at San Jose State as a professor and has been coordinator since 1979.

A slight Southern drawl reveals some interesting family roots, which contributed to shaping his current interest in Asian and Third World Studies. “I grew up in a small Mississippi delta town called Greenville during the 1940's and 1950's, one of about 1,500 Chinese in the region. Chinese occupied a 'marginal' position ? in the segregated South, whites were on top, and Blacks were on the bottom. Chinese were neither. During the early 1900's, Chinese were like the Blacks were. But over a period of time, we were given limited access to white public facilities. This served to booster the identity of Chinese as whites more than as people of color. The state of race relations in the town was tense. While I remember the Freedom Rides and the Voter Registration drives, I left the South and joined the military before the height of the Civil Rights Movement in the '60s.”

Here another form of racism sur­faced ? Ray and other Asian GI's were treated like "gooks," identified as "the enemy" by military authorities, while serving in the Marine Corp. during 1968, the year of the Tet Offensive. After leaving the military, he entered the University of Hawaii, and soon came into contact with the Ethnic Studies movement sweeping college campuses throughout the U.S. ? Third World Strikes at UC Berkeley, San Francisco State, City College New York; movements at Harvard, the University of Washington at Seattle, the University of Hawaii. It affected nearly every college where there were concentrations of Asians and Third World students  

"I was just an engineering student walking through campus, and I kept hearing the speeches demanding Ethnic Studies in the background. It was all very unfamiliar to me at first, being a country boy from Mississippi. But as time went on, it all began to make sense. Asian people do have a distinct history. We do have social, economic and cultural problems peculiar to peoples of color. We do have a right to learn about our history and experiences at the university. People of color should fight for our rights." Ray soon left Engineering and transferred to Liberal Studies to pursue his interests in Ethnic Studies After a decade of experience in Asian American Studies, I asked Ray about his approach to developing quality programs in the 1980's. "Why is Ethnic Studies important? It presents Asian Americans with scholarly information and knowledge that serves to legitimize our existence in the U.S. It explains why our culture and personality has taken on particular traits. It serves to preserve the continuum between our past and present. I think it is vital to maintain strong, direct student participation in the development of Asian American Studies, to build close ties and connections with the surrounding communities, and to achieve a level of academic quality, sound research and quality courses.

"When I say student participation, I mean input on all levels ? central decision making in the hiring of staff and faculty, formulating curriculum and assisting in the teaching of courses, and community activities. Students can do it all. After all, it was students who initiated, founded and maintained Asian American Studies all of these years.

"We exist to serve the needs of the students. Their involvement is vital to our own process of change and development. Without this, we would become isolated and divorced from the people we are supposed to serve, and lose our reason for existence."

This same commitment extends to his approach to the community. I glance around the small office and can't help but notice the cluster of posters, leaflets, and fliers covering the walls. Tule Lake Pilgrimage. Hito Hata ? Raise the Banner. Celebrate Nihonmachi Organizing Committee's Second Anniversary. Redress/Reparations. Join ASIAN.

 "Our program seeks to educate students and stimulate their interests in the community. If we don't get involved, who will? I try to encourage students to participate in the process of change taking place in the community. Give people the opportunity to get involved through field trips to Angel Island or going on Tule Lake Pilgrimages. Once students have the opportunity, it's their choice as to how far they want to go."

Another one of Ray's goals is achieving a high level of academic quality in the program ? rigorous research, publications, and solid courses. Ray is intent on "advancing the state of knowledge" through Ethnic Studies, and views research and publications as tools to challenge the racist history, social science and literature of the past and present.

In his study, "Chinese American Vendors of Los Angeles: A Case of Resistance, Political Organization, and Participation," Ray challenges the sociological "theory" that Chinese, by "refusing to acculturate and accept American values," had only themselves to blame for being singled out and attacked during the 1880's. By conducting extensive research about Chinese agricultural workers who were victimized at the time, he argues that Chinese farmers "were an integral part of 19th century Southern California ... Chinese exclusion in the 1880's was a result of "white racist opposition," not of Chinese refusal to assimilate." Moreover, he concludes that the Chinese vendors were discriminated against because of their high level of participation in the greater society, rather than their alleged isolation.

Elaborating on his approach to research, Ray commented, "Chinese historiography suffers from one glaring omission .... There is an absence of investigation into the daily community life of Chinese Americans. An overwhelming bulk of historical research has been concerned with what was done to Chinese Americans and who did it to them, rather than who the Chinese were and what they did, how we evolved, and the dynamics of the social forces active in the creation of these new people."

His goal is to tell the history of Chinese Americans from our own perspective – as we have lived and experienced it. Our own voices and our own story. "To do good research, to really understand our history, educators have to be in touch with the community, with the people. The people in the community are the primary source of knowledge and information."

At the same time, Ray is well aware of pressures from college administrations, the "publish or perish" syndrome, and the effort to tear Asian educators away from students and the community. Ray's view? "Academic quality, research and writing is in no way contradictory to student and community involvement. The problems arise when one aspect dominates and the others suffer. The key is maintaining the correct balance, keeping our priorities straight. Actually, I'm real pleased with the increase of good research and writing and we might see some breakthroughs soon."

"Keeping priorities straight" is no easy task. Not with college administrations constantly holding a gun at the heads of Ethnic Studies programs.

Take San Jose State for instance. "We have a relatively small program. With just one full?time prof, one part-time and one administrator (who teaches, too), we try to offer as many courses and activities as possible. But any budget cuts, elimination of personnel, would hurt us severely. There's no fat, no excess, in Asian American Studies.

"I worry about the program. Being the smallest and youngest program at the university, there's little security."

Despite this adversity, Ray remains optimistic about the future of Asian American Studies, and its ability to survive and grow in the 1980's. "There's a new generation of students. A lot of motion in the community. Asian American Studies, if it remains well?connected, can be viable and continue to contribute to our peoples' struggle for change. I think we hit a low point awhile back, but are bouncing back. I'm really encouraged by the continued support that we receive on campus and in the community."'

What is the key? Ray urges Asian American Studies to "go back to our original source of support ? the students and the community. They are the foundations for our survival, the people we serve. We have to rely on ourselves."

Butch Wing is the Managing Editor of EAST WIND and a member of the League of Revolutionary Struggle (M?L).