Borderless: A Review of ‘We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet: Letters to my Filipino-Athabascan Family’

By Guest Contributor: Jason Fong (@jasonfongwrites)

Ask the world’s largest search engine for the definition of “Asian American,” and Google will incorrectly tell its billion-plus users that “Asian Americans” are “chiefly” East Asian.    It’s no surprise, then, that when most people think of Asian Americans, they think of East Asian Americans who  live somewhere like California while practicing piano and drinking  a lot of boba . Others may think of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese students who come to the U.S. each year to attend American schools while driving high-end sports cars. Still others might think of “hordes” and “waves” of people “flooding” the shores of America – all yellow and all the same.

In reality,    the majority of Asian Americans are from South and Southeast Asia, and in particular, Filipinos are the fourth-largest immigrant group after Mexicans, Asian Indians, and Chinese. Even Asian American activists and organizations forget these basic facts, as they sometimes select causes and organize events with only East Asian Americans in mind.

Professor E. J. R. David, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage, frequently challenges people when they “forget” about the majority of Asian Americans who are in fact “Brown” and who trace their roots to South and Southeast Asia. Professor David frequently uses social media platforms such as Twitter to advocate against such exclusionary practices within the Asian American community.

With the publication of his unique collection of non-fiction letters to his family in We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet: Letters to My Filipino-Athabascan Family, Professor David ensures that readers will never forget that there are BROWN ALASKAN Asian Americans. In this latest work, Professor David writes letters to various audiences within his extended family as well as to his ancestors. In each letter, he weaves history, current events, personal histories, and even statistics. He teaches without being pedantic, and he leaves indelible impressions of his life in Alaska as he speaks to readers as if they were his flesh and blood.   A Filipino immigrant married to a Native Alaskan woman, Professor David is the Asian American Studies professor that I wish I had; he shows that academic scholarship can move beyond the confines of traditional academia and can be inextricably linked to one’s everyday reality as a parent, partner, and an Asian American in Trump’s America.

Professor David begins with a letter to his “American Family,” revealing that he recently lost a close friend — lovingly nicknamed “Pum” — who was killed by a police officer. Professor David traces Pum’s life from childhood to marriage and tries to explain Pum’s death by imagining his own. Eventually, he realizes that in order to understand Pum’s death, he must first understand “the generations before, and what happened to them.” Like all readers who want to understand why some American tragedies seem to be on repeat, I was riveted by Professor David’s explanations, which weaved together psychology, history, current events — and yes, even data.

Professor David’s letters to his children are gifts to those who may have a hard time understanding their own parents fully, as he shares his personal history and frailties with a searing honesty. He tells them why sometimes he might be “so strict,” as well as “tough and serious” with them. His education and life experience tell him that they have much to worry about, and his honesty about his parental anxieties provides us with a glimpse of the terror that parents live with as they send their children out into a world they may understand too well.

The work’s Postscript, which chronicles the immediate aftermath of the 2016 presidential election was my favorite part, as it helped me with some perspective on what happened. Professor David provides extensive and detailed historical context and analysis for the shocking changes in American policy such as the Muslim travel ban, and he explains that much of it is nothing new but rather an “ugly symptom of a long-held, widespread, and very deadly disease.” While not good news, this extensive context was comforting for someone like me whose formative years saw Barack Obama as President of the United States and for whom the 2016 election was a violent awakening.

The Postscript also reminded me of the stirring roots of Asian American Studies. In it, Professor David notes that although he’s “terrified” by our current cultural and political climate, he is also “glad” to be “bothered by oppression,” as that means that we Asian Americans still care and therefore must act. He urges us to “be fed up with oppression. Stand up. Speak up. Do something.” And with this exhortation, he time travels back to the activist roots of Asian American Studies and to a time when students changed the power dynamics of academic institutions by welcoming new paradigms of thinking about their often-ignored histories. Professor David reminds academics that they can’t be contained by traditional classrooms or musty syllabi. Modern activist-based scholarship is engaged and accessible scholarship. It must have social impact. It must reach audiences beyond those with fancy degrees. (And esteemed Asian American professors might, like it or not, have to go on Twitter because their expertise is critical to dispelling myths and inaccuracies that are rampant online.)

Professor David’s unorthodox and highly personal We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet smashes ivory tower shibboleths and enlivens Asian American Studies with his highly revelatory explanations that are grounded in multi-disciplinary scholarship and delivered with heart. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jose Antonio Vargas has noted We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet to be “groundbreaking” in part because it is so hard to categorize. It blurs the lines between the personal and political. It blithely crosses disciplines. It travels generations, languages, and cultures. And it may frustrate those who are looking for clear boundaries and obedient iterations.

But, for those seeking the necessarily complex answers on how to navigate Trump’s America, Professor David’s refusal to be bound by man-made borders is precisely what we need.

Jason attends Wesleyan University and can be found on Twitter @jasonfongwrites.

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