The Chinese in America: A Narrative History

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9780142004173: The Chinese in America: A Narrative History

In an epic story that spans 150 years and continues to the present day, Iris Chang tells of a people’s search for a better life—the determination of the Chinese to forge an identity and a destiny in a strange land and, often against great obstacles, to find success. She chronicles the many accomplishments in America of Chinese immigrants and their descendents: building the infrastructure of their adopted country, fighting racist and exclusionary laws, walking the racial tightrope between black and white, contributing to major scientific and technological advances, expanding the literary canon, and influencing the way we think about racial and ethnic groups. Interweaving political, social, economic, and cultural history, as well as the stories of individuals, Chang offers a bracing view not only of what it means to be Chinese American, but also of what it is to be American.

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About the Author:

Iris Chang’s numerous honors include the John T. and Catherine D. MacArthur Foundation’s Program on Peace and International Cooperation Award. Her work has appeared in many publications, including the New York Times, Newsweek, and the Los Angeles Times. She is also the author of the bestselling The Rape of Nanking, available from Penguin.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

The story of the Chinese in America is the story of a journey, from one of the world's oldest civilizations to one of its newest. The United States was still a very young country when the Chinese began arriving in significant numbers, and the wide-ranging contributions of these immigrants to the building of their adopted country have made it what it is today. An epic story that spans one and a half centuries, the Chinese American experience still comprises only a fraction of the Chinese diaspora. One hundred fifty years is a mere breath by the standards of Chinese civilization, which measures history by millennia. And three million Chinese Americans are only a small portion of a Chinese overseas community that is at least 36 million strong.

This book essentially tells two stories. The first explains why at certain times in China's history certain Chinese made the very hard and frightening decision to leave the country of their ancestors and the company of their own people to make a new life for themselves in the United States. For the story of the emigration of the Chinese to America is, like many other immigration stories, a push-pull story. People do not casually leave an inherited way of life. Events must be extreme enough at home to compel them to go and alluring enough elsewhere for them to override an almost tribal instinct to stay among their own.

The second story examines what happened to these Chinese émigrés once they got here. Did they struggle to find their place in the United States? Did they succeed? And if so, how much more difficult was their struggle because of the racism and xenophobia of other Americans? What were the dominant patterns of assimilation? It would be expected that the first-arriving generations of Chinese, like the first generations of other immigrant groups, would resist the assimilation of their children. But to what degree, and how successfully?

This book will also dispel the still pervasive myth that the Chinese all came to America in one wave, at one time. Ask most Americans and even quite a few Americans of Chinese descent when the Chinese came to the United States, and many will tell you of the mid-nineteenth-century Chinese laborers who came to California to chase their dreams on Gold Mountain and ended up laying track for the transcontinental railroad.

More than one hundred thousand Chinese laborers, most from a single province, indeed came to America to make their fortunes in the 1849-era California gold rush. But conditions in China were so bad politically, socially, and economically that these émigrés to California represented just a small part of the single biggest migration out of that country in history. Many who left China at this time went to Southeast Asia or elsewhere. Those who chose America were relying on stories that there was enough gold in California to make them all rich quickly, rich enough to allow them to return home as successes, and the decision to leave their ancestral homeland was made bearable only by the promise they made themselves: that no matter what, they would one day return. But most stayed, enduring prejudice and discrimination, and working hard to earn a living, and their heritage is the many crowded Chinatowns dotting America from San Francisco to New York. Of their descendants, however, very few are still laborers or living in Chinatowns; many are not even recognizably Chinese because, like other immigrant groups, their ancestors intermarried. If we restrict the definition of Chinese American to only full-blooded Asians with an ancestral heritage linking them to China, we would exclude the many, many mixed-race descendants of Chinese immigrants.

This is just the beginning of the story. In terms of sheer numbers, the majority of Chinese in America probably have no forty-niner ancestors; they are, as I am, either part of later waves or children of those who arrived here more than a century after the gold rush. Life in China had changed dramatically over those one hundred years and sent a second, very different wave of immigrants. After the 1949 Communist revolution, many bureaucrats, professionals, and successful businessmen realized that their futures were not in China. They packed their belongings, often in extreme haste, and left the land of their ancestors. My own parents and grandparents belonged to this group of refugees. For some the destination was America, for others it was Hong Kong, but for most people, such as my family, the next stop would be Taiwan. These émigrés were devoted anti-Communists who longed to return to their homeland. Indeed, many Nationalist legislators considered themselves the official ruling body of China, now forced by wartime expediency to occupy a temporary capital on an offshore island. However, their children were different. For many young Chinese in Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s, nothing was more prestigious or coveted than a scholarship to a top American university. The Nationalist government in Taiwan imposed a restriction on those who wanted to study in the United States-they had to be fluent in English.

Thus making up the second major wave of Chinese coming to America were not just the anti-Communist elites but their most intellectually capable and scientifically directed children. Like many of their peers, my parents came to the United States on scholarships, obtained their doctoral degrees, and later became professors. And across the country, their friends-doctors, scientists, engineers, and academics-shared the same memories and experiences: a forced exile from the mainland as children, first in Taiwan and then in the United States.

Most of these newest émigrés did not find their way to the old Chinatowns, other than as tourists, but instead settled in the cities and suburbs around universities and research centers. Because they saw themselves as intellectuals rather than refugees, they were concerned less about preserving their Chinese heritage than with casting their lot with modern America, and eventual American citizenship. It is in connection with these immigrants, not surprisingly, that the term "model minority" first appeared. The term refers to an image of the Chinese as working hard, asking for little, and never complaining. It is a term that many Chinese now have mixed feelings about.

Not all of those who arrived here during the mid-twentieth-century second wave were part of this success story, however. Many entered not as students but as political refugees, and often they did end up in American Chinatowns, only to be exploited as cheap labor in factories and restaurants. The arrival of these two disparate contingents in the 1950s and 1960s created a bipolar Chinese community in America, sharply divided by wealth, education, and class.

The story does not end here either. A third wave entered the United States during the last two decades of the twentieth century. Interestingly, this large wave encompassed Chinese of all socioeconomic groups and backgrounds, who arrived as Sino-American relations thawed and as the People's Republic of China (PRC) began its rocky transition from a pariah communist state to a tenuously connected capitalist one.

Although the three waves came at different times and for different reasons, as Chinese Americans they shared certain common experiences. In the course of writing this book, I discovered that the Chinese in general brought distinctive cultural traits to America-such as reverence for education, hard work, thriftiness, entrepreneurship, and family loyalty-which helped many achieve rapid success in their adopted country. Many Chinese Americans, for example, have served an important "middleman minority" role in the United States by working in occupations in which they act as intermediaries between producers and consumers. As economist Thomas Sowell has noted, middleman minorities typically arrive in their host countries with education, skills, or a set of propitious attitudes about work, such as business frugality and the willingness to take risks. Some slave away in lowly menial jobs to raise capital, then swiftly become merchants, retailers, labor contractors, and money-lenders. Their descendants usually thrive in the professions, such as medicine, law, engineering, or finance.

But as with other middleman minorities, the Chinese diaspora generally found it easier to achieve economic and professional success than to acquire actual political power in their adopted countries. Thus the Chinese became, in the words of historian Alexander Saxton, "the indispensable enemy": a people both needed and deeply feared. Throughout history, both the U.S. government and industry have sought to exploit Chinese labor-either as raw muscle or as brain power-but resisted accepting the Chinese as fellow Americans. The established white elite and the white working class in the United States have viewed the Chinese as perpetual foreigners, a people to be imported or expelled whenever convenient to do one or the other. During an economic depression in the nineteenth century, white laborers killed Chinese competitors and lobbied politicians to pass the Chinese Exclusion Act. Later, in the twentieth century, the United States recruited Chinese scientists and engineers to strengthen American defense during the Cold War, only to harbor suspicions later that some Chinese might be passing nuclear secrets to the PRC.

The great irony of the Chinese American experience has been that success can be as dangerous as failure: whenever the ethnic Chinese visibly excelled-whether as menial laborers, scholars, or businessmen-efforts arose simultaneously to depict their contributions not as a boon to white America but as a threat. The mass media have projected contradictory images that either dehumanize or demonize the Chinese, with the implicit message that the Chinese represent either a servile class to be exploited, or an enemy force to be destroyed. This has created identity issues for generations of American-born Chinese: a sense of feeling different, or alien, in their own country; of being subjected to greater scrutiny and judged by higher standards than the general populace.

Another important theme has been the struggle of Chinese Americans for justice. A long history of political activism belies the myth that Chinese Americans have stood by and suffered abuse as silent, passive victims. Instead, from the very beginning, they fought racial discrimination in the courts, thereby creating a solid foundation of civil rights law in this country, often to the benefit of other minorities. But with the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act, large-scale Chinese immigration ceased entirely for eighty years, and at one point the ethnic Chinese population in the United States dwindled to only a few tens of thousands of people. Only new legislation in the middle of the twentieth century permitted the second and third waves of Chinese immigrants to arrive, forcing these newcomers to start almost from scratch as they built their own political coalitions. But build them they did.

The stories in this book reveal the ever precarious status of the Chinese community in America. It has historically been linked to the complex web of international politics, and more recently to the relationship between two of the world's great powers, the United States and China. When Sino-American relations are excellent, the Chinese Americans benefit as goodwill ambassadors and role models, serving as cultural and economic bridges between the two countries; but when Sino-American relations deteriorate, the Chinese Americans have been vilified as enemies, traitors, and spies-not just in the United States, but in mainland China. To describe the vulnerability of his people, one Chinese American aptly called them "an egg between two big plates."

Throughout history, some Chinese immigrants and even their American-born children adopted the naïve and misguided notion that if things turned sour for them in the United States, they could always "go back to China." But as some would learn the hard way, to do so could be dangerous: during the Korean War and the Cultural Revolution, a number of returning Chinese were persecuted in mainland China because of their former association with the United States. Ronald Takaki, an ethnic studies professor at the University of California at Berkeley, once called the Chinese and other Asian Americans "strangers from a different shore." I propose to take this a step further. At various times in history, the Chinese Americans have been treated like strangers on both shores-a people regarded by two nations as too Chinese to be American, and too American to be Chinese.

When I was in junior high school in the early 1980s, a white classmate once asked me, in a friendly, direct manner, "If America and China went to war, which side would you be on?" I had spent all of my twelve years in a university town in Illinois and had never visited either mainland China or Taiwan. Before I could even answer the first question, she continued, "Would you leave and fight for China? Or try to support China from the U.S.?" All I could think of at that moment was how disastrous such a scenario would be for the Chinese American population, who would no doubt find themselves hated by both sides. I don't remember my exact response, only that I mumbled something along the lines that, if possible, I would try to work for some kind of peace between the two countries.

Her question, innocently put, captures the crux of the problem facing the ethnic Chinese today in America. Even though many are U.S. citizens whose families have been here for generations, while others are more recent immigrants who have devoted the best years of their lives to this country with citizenship as their goal, none can truly get past the distinction of race or entirely shake the perception of being seen as foreigners in their own land. Not until many years later did I learn that this very question has been posed to numerous prominent ethnic Chinese throughout American history, ranging from a brilliant aeronautics professor to a political candidate for Congress. Indeed, the attitudes and assumptions behind this question would later drive much of the anti-Chinese antagonism I have had to describe to make this book an honest chronicle of the Chinese experience in the United States. My classmate unwittingly planted the seed in my psyche that grew into this book.

But it was not until the mid-1990s, when my husband and I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area, that I really became interested in the history and complexity of the Chinese American population. I learned about a nonprofit organization that would later be known as the Global Alliance for Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, whose mission was to educate the world about the unrecognized wartime horrors committed by Japan in the Pacific theater. For the first time in my life, I met Chinese Americans who were not simply academics or scientific professionals, but committed activists, driven by idealism I had seen only in organizations such as Amnesty International and the American Civil Liberties Union. These Chinese Americans, working with leaders of other ethnic groups, were outspoken on a wide range of human rights abuses around the globe. Learning from them led me to write The Rape of Nanking, ...

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