Winston Ho 何嶸.
Rutgers University, New Brunswick,
Departments of History and Asian Languages and Cultures
2016 Nov. 21, Monday.
My studies have made me something of an authority on immigration, and there are moments when a political discussion compels me to write a lengthy evaluation of the sad state of immigration policy today, when I really should be working. The following was written during such a moment, and it is a response to a recent Washington Post article by Jeff Guo, which itself is based on a recent study by Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/19/the-real-secret-to-asian-american-success-was-not-education
Hilger used census data to compare changes in wages over many decades between White, Black, and Asian workers in California at different levels of education. I apologize for any inconvenience the following editorial may cause.
[Hilger, Nathaniel. “Upward Mobility and Discrimination: The Case of Asian-Americans.” 2016. Page 71.]
Fascinating study. Migration and assimilation are two of the most complex social phenomena in existence – far more complex than most Americans realize [which is why the following response is over 800-words long]. There are in fact several conflicting forces at play, and there are vastly divergent experiences within different groups of Chinese Americans over time, as correctly noted in both Jeff Guo’s article and Nathaniel Hilger’s original study.
Neither Hilger nor Guo tell us WHY anti-Chinese prejudice dissipated. The 2015 book <Fateful Ties> by Gordon H. Chang (from Stanford University) correctly states that changing American attitudes towards Chinese Americans are linked to American opinions of China, which doesn’t make any sense, since Chinese Americans neither represent nor have influence over the entire Chinese nation. I’m not even sure the Chinese government represents the entire Chinese nation. Madeline Hsu’s 2015 book <The Good Immigrants> adds that the “model minority” stereotype is self-fulfilling, as the visa application process since 1965 preferences applicants with a high-level of education. The number of poorly-educated legal immigrants will always be limited under the current system.
However, my own historical research suggests that Chinese Exclusion and anti-Chinese laws contributed to the long-term advancement of Chinese Americans as an entire group. Before Exclusion was repealed in 1943, most of the people who came here REALLY wanted to be here. There were plenty of slackers in China, but opium-addicts and freeloaders were not going to travel across the ocean, be detained by immigration officials for weeks, and then work low-paying jobs in America, when they could just as easily be addicts and freeloaders at home. The Chinese who migrated to America were highly motivated, often driven by the desire to escape dire poverty and support children, spouses, and aging parents left behind in China. My mentor at Rutgers University, Xun Liu, would say they were “the most desperate,” people who were willing to risk death for a chance to earn a living.
However, the cost was high. By the 1900s, immigration law had drastically reduced the number of Chinese immigrating to the U.S., and the population of many Chinese communities, including the Chinese here in New Orleans, had collapsed, exactly as the supporters of Chinese Exclusion had hoped. With the high cost of travel across the ocean, compounded by lengthy detainment at places like Angel Island, families were separated, and many sojourners could never afford to marry or return home. Aging bachelors languishing alone was a common sight in Chinatowns long after Exclusion was repealed. Before the Second World War, many college-educated Chinese American citizens found better-paying jobs in China than they could in the country where they grew up. The transition from the “yellow peril” to the “model minority” took place over several decades, and it was not a gradual or easy process.
The Chinese immigrant experience is not unique. Many immigrant groups – the Irish, the Italians, the Jews – have had a similar experience. All of these groups faced intense hostility and even violence when they first settled in this country, overcame discrimination, excelled, and after one or two generations were “accepted” (more or less) into mainstream American society. However, new immigration from China continues to this day, and Guo is correct to highlight the disturbing and growing phenomenon of the Asian American underclass.
In New Orleans, we are seeing a growing number of transnational children from Mainland China, who were born in China but migrated with their parents to the U.S. Their parents are often poorly-educated restaurant workers who speak no English at all. The younger children are able to learn English and adapt fairly easily, but the adolescents are not. These junior-high to high-school aged children are struggling to develop both emotionally and intellectually, and they often complete high school without the language skills they need to apply for college, nor the job skills they need to earn a livable wage. Many transnational children return to China, but they are disadvantaged there as well because their Chinese-language skills are less developed than their peers.
As a point of comparison, the vast majority of Vietnamese in New Orleans follow the “model-minority” stereotype, but Vietnamese gangs have also appeared in our city, especially since Hurricane Katrina, with young Vietnamese Americans involved in fraud, theft, drug-dealing, and even violent crime. There seems to be several reasons for this trend. Vietnamese parents with little education and poor language skills are working two full-time jobs just to feed their families, so their children are not getting the emotional support they need to develop properly. I don’t know if this will ever happen to working-class Chinese immigrant families.
Americans are making judgments on immigration and race based on limited personal experience. But again, immigration is a very complex phenomenon, and we should not quickly dismiss the concerns of communities we have limited knowledge of. The past and future of this country is linked to immigration, and we should all better understand what is actually happening, before we try to explain why it happens, let alone propose solutions to the many problems with our current immigration policy.
Guo, Jeff. “The real secret to Asian American success was not education.” Washington Post (2016 Nov. 19). https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/19/the-real-secret-to-asian-american-success-was-not-education
Hilger, Nathaniel. “Upward Mobility and Discrimination: The Case of Asian-Americans.” 2016 Oct.. https://sites.google.com/site/natehilgeronline/research and https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8J_qdFYwNJ6TXdRVkM5S3lMNUU/view
Wei, William. “The Chinese-American Experience: An Introduction.” http://immigrants.harpweek.com/ChineseAmericans/1Introduction/BillWeiIntro.htm
Ho, Winston. “Chinese Americans: Exclusion and Angel Island 北美華僑：排除華人與天使島” Youtube playlist. https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PL-du-0FMXLgPUAPqK0iNUMscXiVtGBMYV