What It Means to Be American
A National Conversation


A Historian Who Wishes She Could Control Time

The University of Minnesota’s Erika Lee Hasn’t Yet Broken the News to Her Kids About Santa

March 25, 2016

Erika Lee teaches history at the University of Minnesota, where she holds the Rudolph J. Vecoli chair in immigration history and is director of the Immigration History Research Center. Her latest book is The Making of Asian America: A History. Before she discussed how the 1965 Immigration Act changed America, she talked about her go-to comfort food, her favorite Jane Austen novel, and how her family bounced back and forth between China and the U.S. for generations.

Q: What superpower would you most like to have?
My 10-year-old son asks me that all the time. In the 1980s, there was this lame, nerdy superhero—I’m not even sure he was a superhero. He had a thing where you could pause time so you could see something going on and fix it. To be able to control time!

Q: What’s your favorite holiday?
I think it has to be Christmas. Not necessarily for the religious aspect, but as a family we’ve instituted our own traditions—like going down to cinnamon rolls in morning. Our kids are 13 and 10 but we haven’t flat-out said, “Santa isn’t…” (She trails off.) It’s like a don’t-ask-don’t-tell kind of thing. We’re trying to keep that magic alive.

My husband is Italian-American, so that’s where the cinnamon rolls come from. My side—though this does not particularly have to do with being Chinese-American—gives presents from particular celebrities that the kids are interested in—sports stars or superheroes. So the little one gets presents from Thor and Iron Man. The older one gets presents from Jeremy Lin.

Q: Where do you take out-of-town guests when they come to Minneapolis?
I was just thinking about that because we’re hosting a conference in a few weeks.
A must is our neighborhood, which is in uptown Minneapolis. It’s near the lakes, so it’s really beautiful. But it’s also the most urban and walk-friendly area. Then there’s sightseeing stuff—I like the sculpture garden at the Walker Art Museum.

Q: What’s your comfort food?
I think it’s jook—rice porridge. But only when my mom makes it.

Q: How did your family immigrate to America?
I’m sixth-generation Chinese-American. My great-great-great grandfather on my mother’s side came with the Gold Rush. And then my grandparents on both sides were immigrants. For three generations, my mom’s family was separated by the [U.S. Chinese] exclusion laws. The women and the children were back in China. A man from one generation would go, then come back to China and retire, while the next generation went to the U.S. and came back. It’s a pattern common for Chinese immigrants.

Q: Do you consider yourself right-brained or left-brained?
One is more analytical and the other is more creative? I think there’s creativity in analysis. I love to write. It’s a very creative process and a very analytical process. I still draw stick figures—so if that’s a reflection of creativity, then I’m more analytical.

Q: I hear you like to read Jane Austen. What’s your favorite novel of hers and why?
Pride and Prejudice, of course. Like all of Jane Austen’s characters, Elizabeth is this fiercely independent, intelligent woman. But also it’s a great story of preconceptions, with a nice closure where misunderstandings get cleared up. It’s a great love story.

Q: What are you keeping in your garage that you should have thrown out already?
Clothes that are too small that we haven’t gotten around to giving to Goodwill. We’ll put a bag in car and never get around to donating it, and then we’ll have to take it out because we need the space in the car.

Q: What does it mean to be American?
To be American is something that you feel inside. It’s not just a legal status, although that matters a lot. It’s an embrace of what America stands for. That means something different for everybody. For immigrants, that’s about making new lives, about embracing opportunity, a belief in the equality and the rights that our country has been founded upon, if not always enacted in our history. It’s more something that comes from the heart. My grandparents could not become naturalized citizens but they felt fully American.

*Photo by Jaclyn Nash.