Lon Kurashige is a historian at USC and author of several books, including Two Faces of Exclusion: The Untold History of Anti-Asian Racism. Before taking part in a Zócalo/Daniel K. Inouye Institute event, “Does a New Wave of Anti-Asian American Racism Require New Ways of Fighting Back?,” Kurashige called into the virtual green room to talk about where to get the best conveyer belt sushi, his reading club that spans continents, and growing up in Culver City.
What’s your hidden talent?
I meditate. I’ve been doing it for about four years now. It’s part of my zen practice. I got really into zen—the thinking about theory and the concept and the ideas of it—but the practice of it is very different.
How did you first get interested in studying history?
I was interested in U.S. history, especially because of my background as a Japanese American. My mother and her whole family were interned in a number of concentration camps during World War II. That definitely got me personally interested in researching their history because my mom never really talked about it. So I had to learn about it in school, in college, through textbooks and through classes, and Asian American studies, and then I started researching on my own.
You completed your undergrad at University of California, Santa Barbara, and then got your doctorate at University of Wisconsin, Madison. What was the biggest culture shock as a Californian moving to Wisconsin?
When I got there it was summertime, late August, so it was very hot. And I met somebody who was from Wisconsin. And once they found out I was from Southern California, the first thing they said to me was, “Buy the warmest, most expensive jacket or parka you can find.” And that was really good advice. And it lasted for my five years there, and I wore it every day in the wintertime. So: the climate.
But, also, orientation. I grew up in the L.A., by the ocean. And so you know the ocean is to the west. In the Midwest, you don’t know: Am I east? Am I west? So the geography, too. And also culture and society. I was in a graduate dorm when I first moved in, and my roommate was this white guy from Milwaukee. And when we first met, he looks at me, and the first question he asked was, “So, do you like rice?” I think I was the first Asian American person he’d ever met. He was kind of dumbfounded. So the racial demographics, and the histories in terms of race and ethnicity were very different.
In addition to writing insightfully about Asian American history in this country, you’ve written a little about your own family history here, for instance how your grandfather immigrated to the U.S. as a Buddhist missionary in 1928. What do you think the opportunities are for considering the U.S. through the lens of being part of the third generation of Americans in your family?
In immigration history, there’s a lot of studies of the significance of generation. And there’s a saying, kind of a pseudo-scientific theory, that the third generation wants to remember what the second generation wants to forget. The third generation wants to know all about the immigrant generation and the homeland and the language and the culture. And the second generation, because they grew up with it, and they want to prove their Americanism, they want to reject that. I’m really interested in Japan and my ancestors there to an extent I think my mom never was.
What’s the last thing that inspired you?
Students in my class on U.S. history, especially my students of color.
We were talking about post-Civil War Reconstruction this week, and the return of Black subjugation and lynching as a part of that. And so I showed a video about lynching, and I didn’t introduce it because I did it at the start of class. I wasn’t thinking, especially in the Zoom format, how powerfully offensive it was going to be, especially for my students of color. And they called me on it. They emailed me afterward, and they were very honest about how they felt. It inspired me to be more reflexive and more sensitive around race and around diverse populations and my own teaching pedagogy.
What are you reading at this moment?
I have a reading group of scholarly friends of mine. It only started because of COVID: one friend’s in Hawaii, three friends are in Tokyo, one friend is in Taipei, and me. The best time that we figured out is about 7 PM Pacific Time on Saturday.
I just finished reading Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere for that.
What’s the next book for your club?
Caste by Isabel Wilkerson, the journalist who wrote The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration. I know the African American story and race story in the U.S., but I’m interested in the comparison with India and castes around the world.
As a kid, what was your favorite place to go to in L.A.?
I grew up in Culver City, so we lived three miles away from the beach. We went to the beach in the summer like every other day.
If you didn’t live in L.A., where would you want to live?
Tokyo. I just came back a year ago. I had a year-long fellowship there. I love Japan, but Tokyo, especially. It’s a big city. You can take public transportation. It’s cutting edge and it’s also traditional—and it has the best conveyer belt sushi.
Last question: What super power would you most like to have?
This is going to go with my zen thing. So it’s not a super power that Marvel characters are going to have, but the ability to turn off my mind. To completely stop thinking. That’s what meditation does. That’s not the goal, but that’s what happens. Your thinking slows down and eventually will stop. Your brain is still there, but the thoughts that are raging through your heard are just not controlling it.