Thursday, September 9, 2010

Hello World

Sorry for not posting for so long! Even though I'm back at college and not in China anymore, I still want to keep writing about the effect of my experiences and about China in general. I hope you will still stick with me! If you read my last post about choosing classes, I finally decided to chose the seminar called the Chinese Diaspora in Fiction and Film. The material is so interesting; for example, here are some of the topics we are going to cover: Coolies and Slaves, Chinese Food, and the Chinese in Hollywood.

Still, the class is first and foremost about the dispersion and emigration of the Chinese people starting as early as the 15th century. I feel as if I've already learned so much about the history of Chinese Americans as well as the Chinese that immigrated to other parts of the world such as Southeast Asia and Africa. The homework for the first class was 800 pages of reading! Thankfully the subject matter was so engaging that it did not even feel like work.

If you are at all interested in Chinese American history, I strongly recommend Iris Chang's The Chinese in America. It takes you on a journey from the first Chinese immigrants working on the transcontinental railroad in California all the way up to the wave of Chinese intellectuals arriving in the 80s and 90s. I warn you: the narrative is extremely depressing and heart-wrenching as the author tries to sway the emotions of the reader. The book made me feel anger, disgust, and humiliation at the horrific way the Chinese were treated. It's definitely a part of American history that I never learned in school textbooks.

Did you know there was a period of time in which Chinese Americans were not allowed to testify against white Americans in court? When Chinese children could not attend the same schools as others? Did you know that opposite Ellis Island was an immigration station on the west coast called Angel Island, basically an interrogation and detention center for Chinese immigrants? Or that during the Cold War, prominent Chinese scientists were ousted after years of hard work for the U.S. government?

I feel lucky that my parents immigrated to the U.S. during the 1990s instead of the 1890s. Not to say there still isn't racism, but at least it is illegal! I personally do not recall ever encountering hatred or intentional discrimination. I grew up in fairly diverse college towns when my parents went to their respective graduate schools. I guess I never really felt that different from my friends, who were of all ethnicities (white, black, Asian, Hispanic).

I have encountered some ignorant but well-meaning remarks. For example, once I was in a Target store with my younger sister and a nice old white lady came up to us, smiled, bowed, and said "Konnichiwa!" (Means Hello in Japanese). When I worked at a grocery store, there were many elderly men and women who would smile at me benevolently and ask me, "Where are you from?" I never knew how to answer the question though I could guess at their intent. Technically I lived just in the next neighborhood, but before that I lived in Wisconsin, and before that, Indiana. Going even further back, I lived in Texas for two years. Before that, I lived in China.

Still, it seems like there is less ignorance and racism with each successive generation. The U.S. is turning ever more into a multicultural melting pot. Technically, we learned in school that our situation isn't really a melting pot, because immigrants keep parts of their own culture and traditions instead of everyone blending together. Therefore, it's more accurate to say that we are a chunky beef stew, with distinct chunks of different foods.

Well, I think that's enough rambling for now. I have much more to write about so I hope to "see" you soon. Question: what are your own experiences with race and culture?


  1. I am under the impression that people create similarity, whether through altering their own actions or influencing others, in order to simplify their lives and more easily go about living life. When someone buys clothing or chooses words, they are also creating an image/character of themselves in society, signaling to others what person they "are". (By the way, I've been using Emily's "Truth"; it's pretty fun :) ) And then there's influencing others, causing them to adhere to one's own lifestyle by encouraging them to adopt some of one's own practices, usually claiming that one's own practices are superior. While it seems high school-ish, I think clique forming reaches into daily living, especially when it comes to trust: the more one buys in to the culture, the more one is trusted by people of that culture. You earn trust by acting and thinking like others and take trust away from people who act and think differently from yourself, because they're less predictable. This is a blanket statement, but, aside from the beliefs that a person values as truth, other beliefs and actions seem to be on the market (and consequently impacting the earlier beliefs, making life more than just living but also whatever the sum of one's beliefs believes is the best way of living).

    My experience with culture has been growing up in a fairly homogenous culture and then purposefully leaving that culture when I felt that it was simply a system of control. Religion, to me, is particularly unfair because it's pushed onto vulnerable children who are reliant on others and provides a biased view of the world to children who are trying to learn impartially. Though I now think saying that I grew up in an Orthodox Jewish house is a partial truth, because my mother is clearly Conservative Jewish (less strictly adhering to Judaism), my father used to dominate the house and pushed the orthodox view onto his children trying to make them become more orthodox than even he was. The pivotal experiences for me were not using electricity on Sabbaths, going to services, believing in god, and dressing conservatively. If anyone followed those norms, they would be able to blend in with the jewish culture. I couldn't bring myself to play that game, so I stopped going to services and try my best to think for myself.

    But, clearly, cultures aren't in a bubble. The old people who asked where you're from did seem kindly, trying to show that they are accepting of your culture, or what they thought was your culture, though it sounds like part of that political-cultural game. It seems to me that society tends to form bubbles where we live; suburbia, an urban block, a rural region, where there is some trade requiring interaction with people outside of one's own culture, but there is little cultural mixing because one's base of support is the culture one identifies with, one's home. People of your own culture best understand where you are coming from, so, even if we are open to other cultures and we show some outside-cultural acceptance, we always return to our own culture.

    However, I must agree with you that shallow understandings go away in time. It's like water, when it runs over an obstacle, it wears away at it until it comes apart and makes everything smooth. At least if people were to try to look beyond cultural tags and thinking for oneself, I feel that people can better appreciate one another and I feel that they will.

  2. it's definitely upsetting how poorly asians have been treated in the u.s. perhaps the saddest part is that for the most one talks about it. asians are kind of marginalized in the overall black vs. white culture struggle. your stories are great because they illustrate how people are failing (but at least trying?) to connect.

    "what are your own experiences with race and culture?" is a difficult question to answer, just because race and culture are so intrinsically tied to who we are. i mean...have you ever wondered how your life would be different if you were not asian? would you even be able to compare it to your current life? our experience with race and culture is our experience with life itself. even when humanity transcends race relations problems, i suspect we'll always have unique cultures based on our geographies, resources, and histories.