Sarkar on Matsumoto, 'Beyond the City and the Bridge: East Asian Immigration in a New Jersey Suburb'

Noriko Matsumoto
Mahua Sarkar

Noriko Matsumoto. Beyond the City and the Bridge: East Asian Immigration in a New Jersey Suburb. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2018. 190 pp. $25.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8135-8888-9; $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8135-8886-5.

Reviewed by Mahua Sarkar (Binghamton University) Published on H-Asia (February, 2020) Commissioned by Sumit Guha (The University of Texas at Austin)

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Immigrant Enclaves in the United States

In recent decades, assimilation theory—the long dominant paradigm in the study of immigration, race, and ethnic relations in the United States—seems to have received something of a fillip. There are two main strands of assimilation theory at present, which I term “neoclassical” and “segmented.” The former emphasizes the assimilation of recent migrants and successive generations into the “American mainstream” more or less following in the footsteps of European migrants from an earlier period. The latter foregrounds more complex pathways of integration, including not only upward mobility through a mix of selective acculturation and ethnic retention but also downward mobility through integration into an “underclass” marked by persistent poverty and mainstream-averse subcultures.[1]

Noriko Matsumoto’s Beyond the City and the Bridge exemplifies the first of these two approaches. It is a story of relatively successful assimilation in the era following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, involving well-educated, affluent East Asian immigrants in a suburb of New York City in Bergen County, New Jersey. The book positions itself against two social myths: the apparently persistent image of American suburbia as “a white middle class haven” and the notion of immigrants “as predominantly settlers of urban enclaves” (p. 2). Given that the field of migration studies is replete with works that record significant residential segregation of immigrants in American cities, Matsumoto’s work makes an important contribution by spotlighting the increased salience of suburbs as the locus of immigrant settlement.[2]

The book comprises seven chapters. The introduction lays out both the substantive problem area of the project—namely, the metamorphosis of Fort Lee, New Jersey, from a predominantly white suburban community to a bustling multiethnic borough through successive waves of East Asian immigration since the 1970s—and the broader theoretical debates that frame the research. Chapter 1 offers a historical account of Fort Lee as a settlement, with particular focus on the suburban boom that began in the 1950s and intensified in the last third of the twentieth century. In the four substantive chapters that follow, Matsumoto explores the key themes of her study: suburbanization and patterns of social assimilation of East Asian immigrants in Bergen County in general, and Fort Lee in particular; the tension between the opposing tendencies of assimilation (into a white middle-class suburban normativity) and immigrant ethnic cultural retention; the quotidian interactions and enactments that define interethnic sociality in Fort Lee; and the changes over time in both the perceptions of (East) Asians by “native white residents” and the immigrants’ own understandings of “Asian-ness.” The concluding chapter returns to discussions around immigrant assimilation, suburbanization, group relations, and “the meaning of ethnicity and race” for (East) Asian immigrants—both first and second generation—in Fort Lee (p. 130).

The dense ethnographic research that the book builds on, along with its focus on “everyday life,” captures something of the experiential dimensions of spatial assimilation, as immigrants and “natives” in Fort Lee navigate a dynamic social context (p. 10). Some of the strongest contributions of the book lie in its discussion of the history of Fort Lee’s evolution in the course of the twentieth century from a “sleepy hinterland” to a predominantly white but ethnically diverse “cosmopolitan suburb” of New York City in the 1950s, and more recently, its emergence as a significant destination for East Asian immigrants; its careful presentation of the discernably different settlement trajectory and strategies of assimilation of the Japanese, Chinese, and Korean populations; the insights on the boundary work that is “enacted ... not only in relation to the mainstream, but also in relation to coethnics” and other immigrants; and its detailed descriptions of the struggle between older white residents and Asian newcomers over the control of material and symbolic space in Fort Lee (p. 79). 

A key concern of Beyond the City and the Bridge is to bring the evidence from Fort Lee to bear on two competing theses in the immigration/race and ethnic studies literature: suburbanization as an index of spatial assimilation through which “newcomers [to the United States] become ‘American’” and “ethnic continuity” or “ethnic retention,” especially in the context of “ethnoburbs” or “suburban ethnic clusters” (p. 131).[3] These latter formations afford high-skilled, affluent immigrants the option of refusing total assimilation, even as they partake in mainstream “economic activities, political involvement, and community life” (p. 8). Indeed, as Maurice Crul has recently indicated in research on “superdiverse neighborhoods and cities” both in the United States and Europe, highly skilled immigrant groups, such as expats and knowledge workers, can and do upend “previous ethnic hierarchies” by choosing not to assimilate into the “less performing” native white mainstream. Instead, they prefer living in “parallel mainstreams” that boast different standards of education, cultural consumption, and practice. In such contexts, it is often people of native white descent who feel surpassed, estranged, and, perhaps, in need of integration themselves. In the face of this emergent reality, Crul argues for an urgent need to take seriously the notion of assimilation as a “two-way process”—a significant but largely sidelined assumption within the assimilation paradigm—that requires both immigrant and settled communities to acculturate and accommodate.[4] 

Parts of the evidence presented in Beyond the City and the Bridge—for example, the linguistic insularity and parallel universe of Japanese expats, the notion that Asians increasingly set the normative standard for academic and cultural performance in schools, the growing self-assurance and influence of the Korean community in the public life and institutions of Fort Lee, the desire to promote and share “ethnic culture” and festivals by Chinese and Korean immigrants, and the complex interplay of ambivalence and appreciation expressed by white Americans to the “newcomers”—resonate with the ongoing debates outlined above (pp. 68, 92). However, in her analysis Matsumoto does not fully explore some of the deeper, more contentious implications of these processes. Instead, she calls for a “syncretic” understanding of assimilation and ethnic retention as “relational” rather than “mutually exclusive” and as “processual” strategies—conscious and unconscious—in the everyday life conduct of immigrants, echoing deeply entrenched and familiar positions within the extant neoclassical assimilation literature (p. 81). And while Matsumoto acknowledges that “social integration is not unidirectional” and that established groups are “also deeply touched by the change,” the study’s overwhelming ethnographic focus on immigrants precludes a substantial analysis of the acculturation that white residents might be undergoing (p. 92). Thus, in the end, we are still left with an overall affirmation of the idea that no matter how much immigrants have to offer in terms of enriching and revitalizing the idea of Americanness, the onus of assimilation—that is, “becoming similar”—is still on them, and not on the “host” populations, even where the latter are clearly outperformed.[5]

Beyond the City and the Bridge replicates another common tendency within neoclassical assimilation scholarship: its “ubiquitous” exclusion of African Americans (or Native Americans, for that matter) as a reference population.[6] Indeed, barring a few scattered references in passing, the study seems largely oblivious of all racial minority groups, ostensibly reflecting the demographic reality that Fort Lee represents: a borough overwhelmingly dominated (in 2010 figures) by native whites (46.7 percent) and East Asian immigrants (34.7 percent), where Hispanics and Latinos represent a relatively small group (11 percent) and blacks constitute a miniscule proportion (2.3 percent) of the total population (table 1, p. 5). However, statistical insignificance need not translate into an analytical erasure of racial minorities in a study that is purportedly about “contemporary contestation and revision of the meanings of race, ethnicity, and Americanness” (p. 12). Is “black” here coterminous with African American, or does it refer to immigrants? How did Fort Lee come to have such a small black population? What might we gain in our analysis of suburbanization if discussions of the post-World War II era—“homeownership fell within the reach of most of the population” (p. 28, emphasis added)—were to take into account the accommodations to Jim Crow that marked even progressive legislation (the G.I. Bill, for instance) of the time? Are there linkages here—between the history of perpetuating racial inequality and domination through systematic exclusions of black Americans, and the recent story of spatial assimilation of East Asian immigrants in New Jersey suburbs—that bear reflection?[7]

To be fair, Matsumoto is aware of the workings of racial politics in Fort Lee. She acknowledges, even criticizes, the “tacit understanding” among first-generation Asians that “‘Americanness’ equates with ‘whiteness’” (p. 111). However, such criticality is restricted largely to discussions of Asian immigrants being “othered” based on “visual appearance,” proficiency in English, or a measure of “flexibility” that some Asian immigrants seem to have “in deciding when and to what degree one is ethnic” (pp. 112-13). Any consideration of the differential treatment of other racial minorities in Fort Lee remains firmly outside the scope of this study, reproducing what one scholar has aptly called the “racial unconscious” of assimilation theory.[8]

The fine-grained ethnographic evidence that Matsumoto marshals in the book is certainly impressive. But precisely because it is so rich in its breadth, one is left wishing for a closer reading of the texts. More important, while we learn from the single paragraph that Matsumoto provides about methodology that she conducted fifty-six semi-structured interviews, which form “the primary method,” we know nothing about the context of the interviews or the kind of access that the author had to her subjects (p. 12). A bit of reflection on the dialogic context of the interviews or the situated knowledge they produce would have greatly added to the readers’ appreciation of this engaging study.


[1]. Richard Alba and Victor Nee define the mainstream as “that part of the society within which ethnic and racial origins have at most minor impacts on life chances or opportunities” (Richard Alba and Victor Nee, Remaking the American Mainstream: Assimilation and Contemporary Immigration [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003], 12). See also Alejandro Portes and Min Zhou, “The New Second Generation: Segmented Assimilation and Its Variants,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 530 (1993): 74-96; and Herbert J. Gans, “Second Generation Decline: Scenarios for the Economic and Ethnic Futures of the Post-1965 Immigrants,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 15, no. 2 (1992): 173-92.

[2]. Cybelle Fox and Thomas A. Guglielmo, “Defining America’s Racial Boundaries: Blacks, Mexicans and European Immigrants, 1890-1945,” American Journal of Sociology 118, no. 2 (2012): 327-80; Douglas S. Massey, Jonathan Rothwell, and Thurston Domina, “The Changing Bases of Segregation in the United States,” The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Sciences 626 (2009): 74-91; and David M. Cutler, Edward L. Glaeser, Jacob L. Vigdor, “Is the Melting Pot Still Hot? Explaining the Resurgence of Immigrant Segregation,” The Review of Economics and Statistics 90, no. 3 (2008): 478-97.

[3]. Ethnoburbs are defined as “suburban ethnic clusters of residential areas and business districts in large American metropolitan areas,” where one ethnic minority group has a significant concentration but may not necessarily be a majority. Wei Li, Ethnoburb: The New Ethnic Community in Urban America (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2009), 8.

[4]. Maurice Crul, “A New Angle to the Assimilation Debate in the US,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 41, no. 13 (2018): 2260, 2259. For analogous arguments, see Tomás R. Jiménez, The Other Side Of Assimilation: How Immigrants Are Changing American Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017); and Herbert Gans, “Toward a Reconciliation of ‘Assimilation’ and ‘Pluralism’: The Interplay of Acculturation and Ethnic Retention,” International Migration Review 31, no. 4 (1997): 875-92.

[5]. Rogers Brubaker, “The Return of Assimilation? Changing Perspectives on Immigration and Its Sequels in France, Germany and the United States,” Ethnic and Racial Studies 24, no. 4 (2001): 531-48.

[6]. Native-born blacks are more likely to appear in segmented assimilation theories, but as exemplars of failure. See Moon Kie Jung, “The Racial Unconscious of Assimilation Theory,” DuBois Review 6, no. 2 (2009): 375-95. 

[7]. Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005).

[8]. Jung, “Racial Unconscious of Assimilation Theory,” 383.

Citation: Mahua Sarkar. Review of Matsumoto, Noriko, Beyond the City and the Bridge: East Asian Immigration in a New Jersey Suburb. H-Asia, H-Net Reviews. February, 2020. URL:

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