A Private Note to New Chinese Immigrants

Asian Americans — specifically Chinese Americans — are changing. I wonder if we now are integrating ourselves into this diverse democracy. I write to be encouraging despite doubts. People have urged me to take on the subject of Chinese American ambition and opportunism even as they have warned about the difficulty of doing so.

Before sharing thoughts meant to be constructive rather than critical, I should say I am mindful of the example of other immigrant groups who have come in distinct phases. The earliest significant cohort of Jewish immigrants, for example, came from Germany; they were assimilated, educated, and affluent. After they were settled, they were not necessarily enthusiastic about the next set of co-religionists, who seemed to them more ethnic, less educated, and not as well-to-do. Among Japanese Americans, the nisei second-generation born in the new world and citizens by birthright, distinguished themselves from the issei who were barred by the color line from naturalizing. The aggressiveness of younger leaders toward their own parents was not conducive to building community.

Yet it is important to change course while it is still possible. The stereotypes will be set soon if they have not been already. I have talked with many Chinese American civic leaders, both those who came forth in America or have been here for many years and those who are new arrivals. I also have chatted with civil rights activists of all backgrounds. They have more or less agreed with the description I offer, but some of those who are the subject of it suggest there are good reasons for these behavior patterns. I don’t doubt that.

Here is the issue. We are at risk of alienating other Americans. We are making an impression. We present ourselves as arrogant tourists passing through, taking more than we give back. 

To be sure, I share the anger of Asian Americans. I have been frustrated, too, by exclusion and discrimination, legal and political, historical and current. When we have stood up and spoken out, as we are supposed to, we have been mocked and disrespected yet again, told we have no standing and always could go back to where we came from (for me, that’s Detroit), erased in a paradigm that conceives of race as literally black and white.

By my book, however, Asian Americans — in particular Chinese immigrants — are making two major mistakes. We can do better. Allow me, among friends, to explain my unease. I welcome dialogue with fellow Chinese Americans. Maybe I am hypersensitive, not as an Asian but as an American. I would not mind at all, to be assured that I am imagining these attitudes held by only some among many.

The first mistake of new Chinese immigrants is proclaiming their superiority implicitly if not explicitly. Civil rights are about principles and not self-interest. The claim Asian Americans, like African Americans and others, are advancing is that they deserve to be treated how others, specifically those who are comfortable within the dominant majority, are treated. They should be able to apply for a job and then be considered without regard to their name, or where they or their parents came from. When they are hired, they should be paid the same amount for doing the same job. They should not be harassed or fired, on the basis of skin color or inappropriate considerations.

But some Asian Americans are insisting not that they are equals. They prefer to be received as superiors. If you listen to what they announce, it is that they are better than African Americans — for that matter, better than whites. 

They appear to be telling others that the fear of Yellow Peril is well placed. Asians are more intelligent. We work harder. We will take over the world. And so on.

Setting aside right and wrong, this approach is not practical. It verges on the absurd. Only people who genuinely believe in their own supremacy make such declarations, or even think the thoughts to themselves. It subjects everyone else who looks like them to the inevitable backlash.

The second mistake of new Chinese immigrants is pushing to the forefront their ethnic pride. The notion that anyone can come here, turn herself into a member of the society, and aspire to and then attain a leadership role constitutes the American Dream. It reflects American exceptionalism. Most other countries, even democracies, have not held out such a proposition throughout human history; they do not do so even now. Asian Asians do not imagine that Europeans or Africans or Latinos or Arabs can become one of them. Even the stranger who learns the language, adopts the customs, and converts to the religion remains on the outside peering through the window. She becomes a trusted guest, respected and honored at the highest level, possibly even an in-law, but she does not acquire citizenship, whether formally or in the eyes of the passerby on the street.

The offer to Asian immigrants is not without terms. The bargain is that Asian immigrants become Asian Americans. They can, some would say should, celebrate their ancestral heritage. They could serve as bridge builders. They must be, nonetheless, Americans in a meaningful sense. In the best conception of American openness, there are an infinite number of means to do that.

Some Chinese newcomers are arguing from the position of China rather than America. They are invoking a different source of protection for themselves, not American ideals but Chinese nationalism. Instead of framing their concern about racial profiling as an American cause, which has much in common with what African Americans, Latinos, and Arab immigrants are protesting as well, they are asserting it as a Chinese complaint, on behalf of an ancient culture and a newly ascendant power. It is not, “You must treat me, an American citizen, as an equal.” It is, “Do not dare mistreat me, a Chinese person.”

To win them over, other people have to be able to relate to you. Telling folks you are better because you are Chinese is an offensive message. You need to be like them — beyond that, you need to like them. Telling your neighbors and co-workers you are the same and you are American is the effective message. (By the way, it has to be sincere.)

All of these trends alert me to another emerging division. I have been wrong about who we are. I have assumed that Chinese who come here in fact wish to become Chinese Americans. Asian American advocacy — even the term “Asian American” with its emphasis on pan-ethnic unity and putting down roots here — has been dedicated to the claim that we actually are “real” members of this society, not sojourners or traitors. We have fought the suspicion that we are “perpetual foreigners,” either spokespeople for another nation or spies for its interests.

Nowadays, there are different categories of Chinese resident on these shores: Chinese of America versus Chinese in America. “ Of” and “in” are not merely semantic. The former encompasses, among others, people who are adopted, of mixed heritage, or whose families are as Californian as could be. The latter comprises persons who are expatriates pursuing their career ambitions or those who are meaningfully transnational — they have homes in New York City and Shanghai. 

The lines are dynamic, not definite. Chinese Americans who identify as such are descended from Chinese Chinese who are surprised, perhaps shocked, by the assimilation of their offspring. Many people are naturally ambi-cultural. They are as comfortable in DTLA (downtown Los Angeles) as they are in the virtual reality of WeChat (the Chinese mashup of Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram).

We can cooperate. People who are successful in the world increasingly are people who move back and forth easily within the world. It is impossible to achieve much without the willingness and ability to adapt. Yet even those of us who accept that reality may be reluctant to acknowledge its practice: it is, in the American vernacular, “a two-way street.”

Diversity is much more diverse than we take it to be. If we care about its potential, we must participate in democracy. Diversity supports democracy; democracy supports diversity. To appeal to others requires giving them a compelling justification for sympathy. Support is by definition mutual.

We can belong. But we have to want to.

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