On October 18, 2022, Professor Arissa Oh was invited by the Boston College Asian Caucus club to speak about her personal immigration experience as well as her research on the history of immigration in the United States and globally.
Oh began her discussion by explaining her own experience as a Korean immigrant in Canada as a child as well as her immigration to the U.S. for her college education at Yale. She then met her husband at college, eventually had children, and found herself settled in Boston. She had continued to live in the U.S. with a green card until 2016.
“I didn’t naturalize though, until after Donald Trump got elected. If you have a green card you could be deported… and I just had these crazy, paranoid worries that I was gonna get stuck on one side of the border and my kids would be on the other side,” Oh explained.
Oh also spoke about living in a traditional Korean household in Canada; she would live by one set of rules at home and then find herself living a different life at school and with her friends. She described her efforts trying to figure out who she was in Canada and America while initially feeling ashamed of her Korean heritage and how she looked. In addition, even though she was a successful academic student, she found herself struggling with the social and cultural differences that came with being an immigrant.
“For me it was much more about the class differences, and the cultural and social capital that I didn’t know that I didn’t have,” Oh described. “I was just as smart as [the other college girls], but I just didn’t have this kind of ephemeral knowledge, I didn’t have their experiences, and I certainly didn’t have their way of talking.”
Oh then described her research and her first book on the subject of international adoption. She argues that international adoption began after the Korean War, as a method of race-based evacuation for mixed-race G.I. children. Korea had a very traditional belief in bloodlines and racial homogeneity, and this was one of the reasons that the country wanted these mixed-race babies to be sent overseas to the U.S., where they were adopted and looked at with a sort of novelty.
Throughout history, the racial hierarchy tended to determine which babies were most popular for adoption and where adoption agencies situated themselves. Oh explained that the ideal baby that white adopters wanted was a “whig”–a white, healthy, infant genius. But if the adopter couldn’t get that, the next best option would be an Asian child.
“International adoption is preferred to domestic adoption by a lot of adopters because there’s this idea of a clean break, that the mother will never show up and try to ask for the child back or anything. There’s no baggage,” Oh emphasized.
Oh then spoke to the two contradicting perceptions about Asian Americans throughout history: the model minority, and the yellow peril. The “model minority” is a good student, a hard worker, obedient, successful, and ultimately fits into white Americans’ standards. The underside of this belief is the “yellow peril'', the idea that the Chinese or the Japanese are going to come to America and take over. Over the past two centuries, these beliefs have flipped back and forth, creating very unstable conditions for Asians in the United States.
Currently, Oh is working on the history of marriage migration and marriage fraud, and her research looks at the history of migration to and from the U.S. based on being somebody’s husband or wife. Depending on race, gender, or nationality, the process of immigration can change either positively or negatively.
Oh explained the 1907 Gentlemen's Agreement between the U.S. and Japan, where America would not exclude the Japanese by name in exchange for Japanese limitations on the number of laborers sent to the U.S. As part of this agreement, wives and children of Asian men living in America would be allowed to immigrate. Japanese picture brides became a method of mass immigration by Japanese women. They would exchange pictures with an Asian man living in America and be married to him, and consequently be able to legally immigrate to the U.S.
“Not only were [Japanese women immigrants] working alongside their husbands and taking away a job from a white American, but they’re also producing more. And the babies they were having in the U.S. were Americans by birthright citizenship,”Oh explained.
The U.S. quickly realized that these women were using a loophole and ideas of conspiracy and internal Japanese invasion arose. This led to the Immigration Act of 1924, which barred all aliens ineligible for citizenship.
This is only one of many anti-immigration policies sprinkled throughout American history, and it is the result of the racism and anti-immigrant ideas so prominent in United States. Oh plans on continuing to research this history and teaching it at BC as well as understand the patterns that can predict more immigration policy in the future.