Fearful Symmetries

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30 March, 2010

The Chinese in America by Iris Chang

Having had a friend who is an ABC (American-born Chinese) for nearly 33 years, I have always had glimpses into what's it like to be a Chinese American. There's the stereotyping and racism, the tension between growing up American and having parents who retain traditional Chinese values and expectations, et al. And so when I found Iris Chang's The Chinese in America, I thought it would be interesting to learn about the broader scenario from which my friend's tales emerge.

Chang begins her narrative by giving some background on 19th century imperial China before discussing the earliest Chinese immigrants who came to America. She makes a habit of giving the reader brief bits of Chinese history which I really appreciate as they explain from where in China the various waves of migrants came from but also provides some sense of their motivations. The first immigrants were mostly men from the economically depressed Guangdong region and they came here because they'd heard about "Gold Mountain", i.e. – California. These men were hard workers but they often found themselves the target of racism. This state of affairs changed little when the Gold Rush ended and thousands of Chinese immigrants found work helping build the Transcontinental Railroad. They often did the most dangerous work and received less pay than their white counterparts. During the 1870s, the United States suffered an economic depression that brought on even more and more vicious discrimination. The early history of Chinese Americans climaxed with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which severely limited the immigration of Chinese citizens and made it impossible for many to return to the United States after visiting family in their homeland. It was not repealed until 1965.

Chang provides an endless stream of examples of discrimination and violence against Chinese Americans but, ever since the first Chinese stepped off the boat in the 19th century, Chinese Americans have contributed to America. In addition to laying track and prospecting, there are the countless stores and shops plus she points out notable people such as M.C. Chang, the co-inventor of the birth control pill, renowned architect I.M. Pei, and Yahoo co-founder Jerry Yang. But there's more to the book than simply being a catalogue of injustices and achievements. One of Chang's main arguments is that Chinese Americans are still outsiders in American society that have yet to be fully accepted. This notion can be traced all the way back to the first Chinese Americans in 19th century California where laws enshrined discrimination against blacks – but what about yellow people? I found sections discussing the lives of Chinese in the American South to be particularly interesting. There they straddled color lines. Chinese were acceptable to whites yet they saw their commonalities with the blacks as well and found themselves in the middle during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Chang argues that this middle position – where pale skin is accompanied by epicanthic folds – is where Chinese Americans are stuck. She further opines that the attitudes of the white majority in America towards Chinese Americans tend to mirror Sino-American relations. And so their skin color and small numbers make them acceptable under good circumstances but their eyes and the fact that China is not always on the best of terms with the United States can turn them into scapegoats very easily.

The book is written in an accessible style where Chang gives an overview and illustrates generalizations with quotes from individuals. On the one hand, this personalizes the history and keeps it from being a jumble of statistics and an overly broad picture. And having people talk about their experiences also allows her to cover territory that one couldn't if she didn't zero in on certain topics. One area served particularly well by this technique is when ABCs talk about their estrangement from older members of their community who still had ties to China. On the other hand, there are instances when Chang quotes a person or two and expects the reader to take it on faith that these views are representative of the larger group of Chinese Americans.

Other than this quibble, Chang has certainly constructed an engaging overview of the history of Chinese Americans and shed some new light on a decades old friendship.
|| Palmer, 3:03 PM


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