The Fortune Cookie Chronicles

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    Ronald Takaki, Pioneer in Ethnic Studies, Dies at 70

    By Jennifer 8. Lee | May 31, 2009

    As you might be aware, Ronald Takaki — a UCBerkeley professor, scholar and pioneer in ethnic studies — died last week. He committed suicide, his son said. Takaki has suffered from multiple sclerosis for 20 years.

    The Los Angeles Times has a detailed obituary by Elaine Woo. NPR has a remembrance by a colleague, Larry Hajime Shinagawa, a professor at the University of Maryland. The New York Times also has a piece this morning by Williams Grimes (former food critic!).

    His death is particularly important to me, because his history about Asian Americans, Strangers from a Different Shore, came out when I was in 7th grade (maybe 8th). And it was profoundly influential at my young age. I think I found it in the Jamaica library in Queens (best library for borrowing books when I was growing up), and read through it within two days. It showed me a parallel history of a group that was (largely) left out of our chunky American history textbooks in junior high. And it showed me there was even a world of ethnic studies.

    It really was the first time I ever noted a scholar’s name because his work was so distinctive. Before that, books were just books. I didn’t even really pay attention to authors. This was the first time I realized that people could push boundaries of scholarship by assembling information in a new way.

    So in a way, that work influenced The Fortune Cookie Chronicles.

    I also love the fact he was the first professor at Afro-Am studies at UCLA. As his students put it in a good humored way: only a white university would get a yellow man to teach black history.

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