Decades ago, when Nayan Shah reached for some old medical reports in a Chicago library, he could have hardly imagined that it would make him a popular scholar during a global pandemic. Now living in sunny Pasadena, Shah has not only been featured as a talking head expert in the PBS five-part documentary series, “Asian Americans,” but also in national publications, one of them Time magazine, which have quoted him.
Since last week’s airing of the PBS “Asians Americans,” Shah has been inundated with messages from schools, old friends and people who just wanted to share their reflections.
“Don’t ever think that PBS doesn’t matter,” Shah said during an interview Saturday. The series, which continues to be available for streaming, is how “America is in Asia and Asia is in America … a way of showing a mosaic of Asian American experiences,” which is too often “one of enduring discrimination and exploitation and being categorized as exotic,” he said.
Sheltering in place on a tree-lined neighborhood with his partner, Shah hasn’t had it bad. Before the COVID-19 shutdown, you might have seen him at the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center where he used to go to swim three days a week. Yet, as a Southeast Asian Indian American, he’s experienced xenophobia.
“I grew up in a neighborhood that was multiethnic, but predominately white,” he recalls. At the time of the Iranian Revolution, “I discovered things I never understood or knew about some of my fellow students in junior high.” Once he was joyously trampolining at the gym and the other students began chanting “Down with the Shah.” It was a joke, but one that came from “anger they were feeling about the hostage crisis” of 1979 and 1980.
Born in Washington, DC and raised in Maryland, Shah found US history boring, but a trip to the United Kingdom and South Africa before entering grad school in Illinois made him question what he knew about history and himself. In South Africa in the 1980s, he learned “when and how and by what means I was able to deflect it to subvert it and where those racial lines were non-negotiable,” he said.
His experience was very different from someone who was African American or white American. For Chinese or Japanese ethnic groups from the US or the UK, in South Africa, “you were literally an honorary white.” He learned that “those lines were very durable and it shaped where I could travel and where I could live.” In Chicago, he learned just how interesting but overlooked Asian-American history was.
Back in the US, Shah was searching for a dissertation topic at the University of Chicago when he first reached for the reports on health and hygiene in San Francisco’s Chinatown. He thought they would be dry scientific commentary, but recalls, “I couldn’t believe the level of nonscientific information that was being given,” information that Shah characterizes as “vitriolic.”
After he earned his PhD in 1995, Shah was an associate professor at UC, San Diego when that dissertation was published through the UC Press in 2001: “Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown.” He also published “Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the North American West” (UC Press) in 2011. Shah moved to Pasadena in 2013 when he became a professor at the USC Department of American Studies and Ethnicity.
Now, with a vibrant Chinese-American population in the San Gabriel Valley, he has a front-row seat to the troubling xenophobia linked to COVID-19. Shah finds it troubling that we see Asian and Pacific American doctors and nurses being attacked. What he discovered in his research that “there’s an argument about Asians being foreign or invisible,” but that’s part of “a sustained political and cultural project to ignore all the US involvement in Asia — trade and influence, and gathering stuff from Asia, culturally.” You can clearly see that locally with such things as the camellia forest at Descanso Gardens.
Shah hopes that the PBS “Asian Americans” will become a platform to launch more documentaries that cover so many other stories. Already, one of those stories has been COVID-19 and anti-Asian hate incidents. According to Shah, the portrayal of the Chinese people as a threat to US as a nation and a society is nothing new. In pandemics, people want to look for a source, but also an end. “The end is always a fictional end, an idea of social closure. That doesn’t really mean that no one else is getting this infection.”
What we really need to be looking at, he said, is “What kind of society are we building?” He doesn’t think we’ll be going back to things as they were pre-COVID-19. To combat racism and hate crimes, “We need to be honest about the history of where things come from and why they’re there. We need to have a lot of honesty about the true contributions and how interwoven they are in our culture and society,” he said. Otherwise, he continued, “We are in peril of being convinced and coerced by various dissolutionist ideologies that are based on fear or fantasies rather than reality.”