HONG KONG ― Etiquette is at all times and places important, yet perhaps particularly so in the rarefied society peopled by the Committee of 100, a group of Chinese Americans “dedicated to the spirit of excellence and achievement in America.”
Professor Frank Wu, the chairman, recently wrote an article titled “Private Note To Asian-American Activists About New Arrivals,” which ran in The Huffington Post. In light of the reserve and temperance conferred on committee members by their sterling educations and social standing, I shall eschew anything like the emotive rebuttal that Wu’s very un-private note provokes.
The note’s profound misunderstanding of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. since 1980 demonstrates a condescension that establishes a neon distinction between “us” and “them” — the incumbent Chinese-American elite and hordes of politically unenlightened diaspora upstarts. The Chinese-American elite were appalled by the watershed of support for Donald Trump among new Chinese arrivals. The failure to foresee and understand this support arises from their weak connection to the newcomers.
“The Chinese-American elite were appalled by the watershed of support for Donald Trump among new Chinese arrivals.”
Recent immigrants are drawn to Republican Party rhetoric of individual responsibility and commitment to hard work. Like many minorities in the U.S., they have experienced racial discrimination but have not permitted it to cripple their determination to succeed and excel in a new society. Coming from a socialist country, they are ironically unaccustomed to social welfare and have little sympathy for those who depend on government “handouts.” This stance may be uncharitable, but it is nonetheless what they feel and, in fact, not so far removed from the sentiment of a majority of American citizens as recently as 30 years ago. The new arrivals voted for Trump and will continue to vote for Trump equivalents, as long as such candidates espouse fiscally conservative platforms.
New Chinese arrivals do not feel solidarity with disadvantaged groups not because they are bigoted but because they do not consider themselves disadvantaged. Most are pleased to have a chance to pursue the economic and educational paths the U.S. offers.
Undeniably, they have sometimes found that their interests are misaligned with those of other ethnic minorities. For example, many Chinese have found repugnant the unacknowledged but ubiquitous glass ceiling confronting Chinese applicants to top universities. Qualified applicants of Chinese ethnicity are denied entry, while underperforming applicants of other ethnic groups gain admission on the grounds of “diversity.”
It is small wonder that this mystical euphemism ― “diversity” ― has become a dirty word among many aggrieved Chinese parents, who feel it denies their children a rightful place at American universities. It is odd and more than a touch hypocritical that such squarely discriminatory issues have never been the remit of the Committee of 100. Were the committee genuinely interested in gaining a seat at the table for all Chinese in America, here would be a good place to start. The Chinese-American elite should galvanize our community rather than erecting a cordon sanitaire around a group of new Americans.
“New Chinese arrivals do not feel solidarity with disadvantaged groups not because they are bigoted but because they do not consider themselves disadvantaged.”
To any “Asian-American activists,” fretting over how to transform their newly arrived brethren into “real” Americans, a brief review of history may be handy. Broadly speaking, war, famine, dismal economic prospects and political upheavals over the course of a century and a half marked China as a place of only grief and sorrow and drove early Chinese immigration to the U.S. Full assimilation in the new country was the only option; many severed ties with the old country unwittingly, due to decades of enmity between the U.S. and Communist China.
The political and cultural experience of new arrivals since the early 1980s, however, differs tremendously from that of earlier immigrants. The China with which new immigrants identify is quite a difference place ― literally, not your grandfather’s China. In spite of its numerous flaws, China has been on an upswing and many new arrivals find themselves to be robust apologists for China ― yes, the same place from which they upped and left ― and its sometimes wayward behavior. They continue to be connected to the old country for a variety of reasons, and provincial, regional and city ties remain strong.
These recent immigrants do not seek membership in the highly assimilated pan-Asian fraternity as defined by American political parlance. Their parochialism and sometimes less-than-refined personal habits affront the carefully constructed model minority image that the Chinese-American elite have shown to American elite. Despite the Chinese-American elite’s most assiduous efforts to bring them round ― to assist them in becoming more “American” ― they are different from these elites and they do not aspire to become more like them.
“Sooner or later, the voices of the newcomers will become the de facto Chinese voices at the expense of the incumbent Chinese-American organizations.”
Chinese Americans have been perceived by many white Americans as a docile, law-abiding and non-contentious group. The boisterous new diaspora from the People’s Republic of China are a different breed and will outnumber Anglophone Chinese Americans. Their voices will become louder and their behavior more prominent, as their home country becomes politically and militarily more powerful.
Moreover, hailing from diverse Chinese communities worldwide, their nationalism and regionalism, fierce competitive habits and rejection of a culture of political correctness will generate plenty of friction and rivalry. The overarching reality is that they will sooner or later become the de facto Chinese voices in the U.S., at the expense of the incumbent Chinese-American organizations.
They will do more than compete for a seat at the proverbial table. They want their own table. Whether or not I welcome this eventuality, I do not doubt its inevitability.