Asian StudiesReading Asian American Literature 唐人寫書

Currently reading Christine Yano’s Airborne Dreams

I really wanted to finish Christine Yano’s Airborne Dreams, reflect and assimilate new knowledge with plenty of time to spare before the September 25 premiere of Pan Am but… life got in the way and my Kindle Reader says I am only 38% or 1,122/2,927 of the way through. Mind you, the book is not affiliated with the television show and was merely very coincidentally timed in its publication–February this year. I wanted to get this post up to get in on the Internet searches (wink).

It was just serendipitous seeing the book at the library on a bookshelf labeled “Business” when it doesn’t look like a business book and I wouldn’t normally read a business book. But it combines two of my favourite topics: Asian American history and flying!

In 1955 Pan Am made the bold and unprecedented move to create a special program and hire ‘Nisei’ stewardesses. Technically, Nisei is second-generation Japanese American but you’ll find that sometimes the image was more important than actual heritage and language ability. No other airline at the time was so pointed in their racialized hiring, no other airline had the special single-language base in Hawaii. No other airline used Asian faces to market not just the flights to Asia but prestigious and glamourous around-the-world flights. Just one generation and a half before, Japanese Americans suffered alienation and persecution and at a time when America and her economy was expanding again and women started working for real outside the home, stewardesses left the house and nest far behind.

The book is as much about Pan Am’s fight for market domination in the 1950s through 1980s as the Nisei stewardesses’ journey. The Pan Am CEO Trippe is painted as hyperambitious and while he could not secure monopoly of international routes for his airline, the groundwork to make that appeal, building up the company created a strong American brand that is not soon forgotten. You don’t see a network cable show entitled Canadian Pacific Air Lines, do you?

I haven’t reached what I suppose will be the “meat”–the Nisei experience–but I have been through the sections covering the program’s history. Marketing of the Nisei program internally and externally needs to be taken with a grain of salt given the era–the well-intended promotional press, even with now-rejected racial tones, was good press.

I’m looking forward to finishing the book, which is surprisingly accessible. I’m looking forward to the television show to bring the era to life on the small screen but what do you wager that it will be far easier for the show to ignore the Nisei stewardesses/program although by the 1960s, there was a Japanese stewardess on every around-the-world flight?

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