Walking on the path which no one had ever traveled, the first generation of Chinese international students had no idea about their journeys in America: things in the future were not in control. Ms. Huang Xiaoyuan, a middle-aged lady from Beijing who invited me for a home-cooked dinner this fall, was among the first group of Chinese students in Yale University.
It was in the late 1970s, when American college education opened its admission to mainland China, where the P.R.C. had barely started sweeping up the havoc caused by the Great Cultural Evolution. During the time, a few young students with good background had the chance to study abroad in North America.
Life in America was tough, but none of those students wanted to go back to their country, and the reason was obvious. Huang’s parents were professors in Beijing University, considered the Harvard of China. “Our whole family lived in a ten square-meter faculty dorm, but my parents were the elites of the professionals!” she said while indignation filled her eyes.
In August 1966, Communist leader Mao Zedong and his four radical followers, who known as the Gang of Four, launched the Great Cultural Revolution, a violent and destructive campaign that severely shook the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and Chinese Society (Kristof 70). The revolution asserted that intelligence was superstition and forbade any ideologies other than the Cmmunist (Kristof 70). Factory workers, farmers, and soldiers shared the highest social status, whereas merchants and professionals were crucified by the Communist Party. Under such circumstances, many schools were closed and only selected students who were deeply Communist went to colleges, but even in classrooms, young people attacked their teachers, forced them kneel on glass to confess their errors (Kristof 70). Ludicrously, for a time, drivers were instructed to drive through at red lights and stop at green simply because red was the revolutionary color (Kristof 70). The chaos reached the highest levels when the government, which was then called the Red Guards, arrested and tortured the Vice President Liu Shaoqi who died of pneumonia, unkempt and denied medical care, in a prison cell in 1969 (Kristof 71).
The man who really controlled China was Mao, and when he passed away, Deng Xiaoping was the next man. Deng was not associated with the Gang of Four or any horrors of the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, he sent the Gang of Four to prison, ending the Cultural Revolution in 1976 (Kristof 73). In 1977 and 1978, when Deng was struggling back to power after the Cultural Revolution, many Chinese citizens showed their support for him by setting up glass bottles in public for “Xiaoping”, pronounced the same way as the “little bottle” in Chinese (Kristof 73). One of the greatest exploits Deng accomplished was to open the door of the mainland to the world, including encouraging elites to study abroad and hoping they would bring back advanced technology.
Since the turmoil and the evolution usurped the property of countless middle and upper class families, completely inversing the wealth structure, when the first group of students were applying for American colleges, the vast majority requested full scholarship. Therefore, only the best students were able to receive college offers (Huang, Xiaoyuan). Students could not afford daily expenses in America since the prices in U.S. were twenty times higher there. However, the future life would be a hundred times better. Those perseverant students would not go back no matter how harsh their lives were in America.
Mr. Li and Ms. Huang became U.S. citizens in 1992, several years after they started their careers in Oregon. Now they and their two boys, a ten-year-old and a fourteen-year-old, live in a newly-built neighborhood in North Beaverton. No Chinese flag under the eaves or gold fish pond in the front yard gave clues there were Chinese in the residence. It was a two-floor wooden house, decorated by granite slabs, looked just as classy and neat as other middle-class American families. Even inside the house was quite American: an open kitchen area, white carpet covering the floor, and a piano standing against the living room wall. Matthew, the ten-year-old boy who had answered my phone call the other day was playing the piano while I came in. The parents called him to the kitchen to say “Hi”. He was quite shy and was almost irresolute to shake my hands. The older boy, Aaron, heard the talking, came downstairs and he was somehow shier than his brother and only said “Hi” and left to do his work.
Some Chinese Americans turn out to be excellent students and achieve better performances in school because of the conventional Chinese education they receive at home. This couple taught their kids to be diligent in studies and be responsible for their own choices and without giving them pressure. The boys were taking regular courses like their peers in school and were also playing music and sports. Their parents expected them to develop their potential talent wisely and certainly did not let them skip years. Huang convinced me that even though American elementary and middle school education was identified as extremely easy works in Asia, quite a few American students did work hard, which suggested that diligence was not formed by nationalities. But just like ordinary Chinese families, Li and Huang taught their kids Chinese cherished values, for example, “一分耕耘，一分收获 Yifen Gengyun, Yifen Shouhuo” saying one’s gain will be tantamount to how much one pays at the current moment.
It has been thirty years since Huang and Li came to the U.S., and they set up models of being good immigrant citizens to newcomers. But “we don’t define ourselves as Chinese American,” said Huang. “We are Chinese and will always be Chinese.” Although they had been immersed in American society for a long time, they did not change their regimen just to become more American.
“In China, we over-emphasized the idea of nationalism,” said Mr. Li. “It is different than loving your country.”
America is a diverse mixture of nationalities, so that people have different national groups. Chinese don’t come here in order to defeat Americans. In fact, being a citizen is the best way to promote China, to show Americans Chinese philosophy and traditions, they said. One advice given by the couple was, changing nationality meant nothing more than changing a passport, and loving one’s country did not contradict with living in a different place; or just as the interviewer from Yale had told Huang, “Don’t let the future trouble you.”
Though Huang had an open perspective on nationalism, not all others were as understanding as she. In college, Huang and many Chinese international students felt isolated from English speaking students. Sometimes Americans and European students had prejudice in assuming Chinese people were dirty, and they refused to hang out with Chinese. Time past, as the Chinese population has increased rapidly in the past twenty years, such discrimination almost disappeared. However, the prejudice and bias never actually faded away. Even now, several neighbors of the family still sometimes looked at Huang angrily when she dumped trash outside the house. Occasionally, they murmur, “Rude Chinese,” although Huang is just as normal as everyone else. There was no way to avoid prejudice, she said, but she tried her best to respond it.
Speaking of prejudice, Huang pointed out that the second generation of Chinese Americans, who usually could not speak Mandarin or Cantonese, were really the ones stuck in between Chinese and Americans. Huang confessed that she and many of her Chinese friends did not get along with Chinese Americans, largely due to their American lifestyles that suggested they were more American than Chinese. On the other hand, their appearances also convinced many Americans that they were essentially Chinese. In fact such prejudice existed every place where Chinese and Americans could be found, so Huang taught the boys to realize they would always be Chinese: no matter what language they spoke or what type of regime they lived with, they must endure the biases from outside.
Since prejudice is everywhere in America, why do Chinese still stay in U.S. after so many years? Some people, in fact, a lot of people, moved back to mainland China to seek bigger success, but Li and Huang were satisfied with their lives here and did not desire to make huge amount of money. They were having good professional careers. Therefore moving back would not mean much to them. Another reason was that after thirty years in America, the current Chinese society was strange to many immigrants. They recognized they did not share common views with their peers in China, and moving back would mean to start building a brand new life from zero again.
“Of course if I go back I can accommodate the environment there, but I guess life is simpler here,” said Huang. “I go back every year and do volunteering, but it seems to me that China doesn’t need people like me very much. They don’t really care [about my help].”
Before the new China was established in 1949, Chinese students had already come to U.S. and sent the information about American society back.
Between the late 19th century and the early 20th century, U.S. applied a part of the reparations from Boxer Indemnity on building the scholarship program which supported prominent Chinese young scholars to study abroad and those became early Chinese immigrants in America (Li 107-09). Because of the several economic crises evoked in U.S. between 1870 and 1930, the unemployment rate increased dramatically and the American society blamed Asian immigrants for supplanting native-born citizens’ occupations, and eventually laid out White Supremacy. Racism became a part of government campaign slogan during the time. In California, the highest Chinese populated state in the U.S., immigrants were levied $12 to $20 per month (Zhuang 76-78). Chinese citizens were treated unfairly until 1965, the turning point of the ethnic ratio of American immigrants (Zhuang 78).
In 1965, an Immigration Law established by the U.S. government which marked a radical break in U.S. history, enabled 20,000 Chinese to receive U.S. citizenship (Li 107-09; Ludden). When the thirty-sixth U.S. president, Lyndon Johnson, signed the Immigration Act of 1965 under the Statue of Liberty on October 3rd, he stressed the law’s symbolic importance calling the bill “one of the most important acts of this Congress and of this administration [as it] corrects a cruel and enduring wrong in the conduct of the American nation” (The Immigration). The act placed the immigration law on an egalitarian footing and resulted in new immigration from non-European nations which changed the ethnic make-up of the United States (Canellos).
Patrick Wong was among the 700,000 chain immigrants; he is married a Caucasian American woman. Patrick is a typical “国字脸” looking Chinese man, which means the shape of his face looks like the Chinese character “国”, rectangular and flat. He is now a college professor and has a daughter, Sarah, who is an eighth grader. The family hosted me during the winter break of 2010, and we had kept in touch since then.
Outside the school lobby, Patrick waved at me. We then sat down in a quiet corner in the high school library.
Patrick—he insisted I call him by his first name—was sent here by his parents in 1979 due to the resumption. In the late 19th century, the British government forced China to endorse the Convention for the Extension of Hong Kong Territory. As a result, the British government was allowed to lease Hong Kong from mainland China for ninety-nine years. Eighty five years passed and the Chinese government started negotiating with Britain about the resumption of sovereignty over Hong Kong under the "One Country, Two Systems" policy in the early 1980’s. The rumors about the resumption propagated among the Hong Kong citizens. Rich people worried about losing their property and rights under the communist party. Thus, middle class people and upper class began immigrating abroad to seek refuge.
Although the seventeen-year-old Patrick was bewildered in coming to the U.S., he had no choice. “When your parents say so, you do,” he said. Patrick’s high school life was not enjoyable. He went to Madison High School in North East Portland, a giant public school where there were three hundred students in one grade. Because of the huge student body, moral education was ignorable in the school and the prejudice existed. Although Patrick hung out with his American friends, the Americans would not think of him equally as others, yet they didn’t express their thoughts out loud. Then, the same thing happened in college. “Chinese think I’m American, and, Americans think I’m Chinese,” Patrick looked sentimental when he recounted. “I was stuck in between.”
After graduating from college, Patrick began his first job in a private enterprise. Several years later, the company supported him with five thousand dollars per year to study for higher degrees. “Companies want their employees to have professional degrees so they can serve better,” Patrick told me. So he started working in the morning and taking college courses in the afternoon, but after receiving doctorate degree, he quit the job and started his own business.
Being a successful Chinese businessman, Patrick used to serve for the CCBA, Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association, which was a club founded in late 19th century to help Chinese individuals in their struggles with discrimination in employment, business, and citizenship, and support them in facing difficulties with U.S. immigration regulation (“About Us”). One project Patrick had participated in was to save the old Chinatown in downtown Portland.
The U.S. government showed less care for Chinese immigrants than I imagined. In fact, the government did not reduce the stagnant development of Chinatown. According to Patrick, when the first Chinese immigrants came to U.S. to build railways, they had no lands; then U.S. government transfered those laborers to a spare land, what is now called the Chinatown. Soon, Chinatown and the surrounded regions became the downtown of Portland. Therefore, a couple of those areas became the gathering places of vagrants and gangsters, and one of them was Chinatown. After generations, Chinese Americans began to move out of Chinatown for safer and nicer neighborhoods, and since then, it has sunk into sluggishness.
Nowadays, Chinatown is huddled in two blocks, whereas it used to extend ten streets, and among the few restaurants that are open, only two serve good Chinese food. The CCBA did not improve the problems at all. “You see, Americans have different ways of thinking than us,” Patrick said. “Do you know? When I was in college, my American friends always go play Golf. They say, ‘why are you studying? Let’s play golf!’ So they play golf every day after school. And what happened? Several years later, I received my master degree and they were still playing golf. Well, maybe they could play better Golf now.” It seemed that American government implemented barely any tactics to cure the blights of the old Chinese neighborhood, but hoped for a good result without giving solid effort. As the time he stayed in America increased, Patrick sensed an ascending cultural clash between countries, but he never wanted to move back to Hong Kong. “Prices in Hong Kong are TOO expensive,” said Patrick. “Here I can live in a big house! But in Hong Kong, I can only afford a small apartment.”
Patrick is only one tiny case among the hundred thousands of chain immigrants. More chain immigrants came at the ages older than twenty-five, when their language and acculturation competencies were atrophying. Thus, they were disadvantaged in fitting into American society than teenagers like me and Patrick and the Lis couple. They often speak little or poor English, and live in old Chinese communities. Isolation from U.S. society causes them problems such as lack of medical care and limited social activities. As a result, those Chinese communities are dormant amongst mainstream society. In order to engage with those people, I visited Asian Health and Service Center, among the few places where senior Chinese immigrants usually gather.
Driving to the east of the Willamette River to 28th Street, there was the start of densely Asian populated area in Portland (Wong). Asian Health & Service Center is one of those nonprofit organizations in Portland area which support Asian immigrants to interact positively with American society. Between 32nd and 36th Street on Southeast Powell Boulevard, there were several Asian cafes along the road and a small pizza place in the corner of 33rd Street. The Center is located in a yellow painted two-story office building in a strip mall, and across the parking lot there were two outdated 90s-style strip clubs.
Walking into the front door, I saw a stairway leading upstairs, where there were several individual rooms. The area on the right was a five hundred square foot office where workers were busy answering phone calls and compiling documents. I walked left to the cafeteria, and a free lunch activity was taking place for senior Asian members. The elders were sitting one by one at long tables, chatting, and several saw me entering, expressing wonder through their eyes.
Such kind of free meal is held every Tuesday and Thursday at lunch. The furniture in the cafeteria was quite simple: few decorations except a huge presentation board with twenty or thirty photos of the center hanging on a wall, reminded me of the Chinese factory worker lounge in the last decade where there were only benches and long tables placed in the room and two TV sets hanging from the ceiling. The cafe could fit approximately one hundred chairs and now was crowded with sixty or seventy Asian elders. Usually there were more. Most of them spoke Cantonese and Mandarin, and there were several Vietnamese as well. A lot of them lived in Asian senior apartments several blocks away on the east side of the Willamette River.
The meal was simple but healthy, Congee and steamed chicken strips, which were distributed to the individual plates from several big foil food boxes, suggesting that the food was ordered from a restaurant nearby.
The person hosting me, named Chenya Chiu, was an international student from Taiwan who applied for a job at the center in 2011 in order to stay in the U.S. longer. She was a petite young lady of the age of about twenty three. We sat down in a tiny meeting room, about five square meters big, inside the office. At first, I asked her about the background of the elders. But to my surprise, Chenya looked perplexed; nevertheless, she tried to explain that there were many younger Asian immigrants sent their parents to Asian senior apartments in the Beaverton area and East Portland. She disagreed with the tale that there formed a New Chinatown in 82nd Avenue, yet she did tell me that a large number of Chinese American families live on the east side of the Willamette River, near David Douglas High School. Clearly, Chenya had not done much study on her customers and she was not able to give any explanation why the elders immigrated. Therefore, I had to lead the conversation toward the center itself, which turned out to be the catalyst of the interview. “Now this is what I am good at,” Chenya smiled.
She went out and brought back some manuals and leaflets, which were written in several languages, including English, traditional Chinese, Korean, and Vietnamese. “Our clients’ ages range from nineteen to eighty and above, but half of them are over fifty, they are our major clients,” she pointed at some diagrams in the booklet. “We have many Korean, and Cantonese speakers. We also have some Mandarin speakers and Vietnamese speakers.” “Our mission is to bridge the gap between Asian and American cultures in an effort to build a better community” (Asian Health), I read on the leaflet. I noticed the gender composition of clients was 32% male verses 68% female, which appeared to be a great gender differentiation (Annual Dinner). Remarkably, the total clients had increased rapidly at an annual growth rate of 45% in the past five years, especially the number of members from Portland city which had doubled nine times (Annual Dinner). In order to support activities for more than six thousand members, and to afford daily expense, the center raised funds from companies and individuals at an annual dinner.
Two major aspects the center approached were health and social activities. “Our study shows health has three aspects: mental health, community health, and public health,” Chenya explained. “We have mental health researchers offer treatments every weekend, and we also collaborate with National College of Naturopathic Medicine in Oregon.” The mental health check offered by the center was free to the members. In fact, the center was more official than I expected since it was partly patronized by Portland Government, and because of that, it was granted to provide free children’s health insurance to low-income families.
“The seniors don’t speak English well,” said Chenya. “Even when they go to see the doctor, they don’t understand what the doctor is saying. And they don’t have friends, so they don’t leave their houses often. But when they come here, they know more people.”
The workers divided the seniors into individual activity groups. There was a Mandarin group, two Cantonese groups, two Korean groups, and a Vietnamese group that each had leaders who spoke that language. The groups have regular gathering on weekends, which was one of the few chances for elders to meet new friends and hang out in daily lives.
Another mission of the A.H.S.C was to translate state policies into Asian languages so Asians were able to understand and would not be deserted by the government. Every leaflet had at least two languages. “I feel that community health is a very important role,” Chenya told me at the end of our conversation. “Before the elders came here, they didn’t have friends and didn’t know where to find help when they had troubles. Now they feel safer.”
A disconcerting fact I found through Chenya’s brief introduction was that the support of the Center mostly came from inside of the Chinese community in Oregon. Even though its mission was to bridge the Asian community and American culture together, the center could not apply much effort besides constructing a safe bubble and building a better community among the Asians. Because of their poor English skills and the clash of cultures, those people became the minority: they failed to live outside their safe bubbles, and interacting with the native-born Americans was out of the question. Under such circumstance, the support from the Asian community was indispensable, but the elders deserved the attention from the government, or just like President Jimmy Carter once said to the former Chinese President, Deng Xiaoping, “the Chinese population in U.S. is so little that is disproportionate to its contribution to this country” (Li 107-09) (translated).
In the past, Chinese people had countless reasons to look for a new life outside their homeland. But in an era when their own country has overcome the Cultural Revolution, society has placed science and technology on the top of the social pyramid, and its GDP per capita has been growing at an annual rate of 8.73% since 1978 (China GDP)—now that the People’s Republic of China is no longer a place to escape from—what are the more recent Chinese students expecting in the U.S.?
To answer the question, I collected several comments from newcomers through renren.com, considered the Chinese Facebook. Among the twenty surveys, two results occupied the majority.
“I come here for better education and more opportunities” (Chen), responded by a high school freshman.
“I want to attend American colleges,” a high school junior explained. “In order to adapt to the American schooling system sooner, I go to high school in America” (Zheng).
Other answers were simpler. Some inclined “to perfect English skill” (Ni) and one student thought coming to America was a great chance to experience independent life (Weng).
Walking on the path that has been traveled millions of times in the past thirty years, the generation of Chinese international students in the 21st century is overly planning compared to their predecessors. The newcomers are raising specialized questions to themselves, including “which college should I apply to? Which majors should I specialize in?” (Zheng) and “Should I stay in U.S. or go back?” (Weng). They are entangled with worries like “what type of life should I live? What man should I marry?” (Wang). A college sophomore had already planned which high school his kids should enter (Tian). However, merely one or two mentioned the questions, “Will I be American? Will my kids be?”
“Looking back, four years ago I was applying for visa and expecting a fancy future in America,” I found written in the blog of an ordinary Chinese undergraduate student in the University of Illinois. “Now I see America as a prosperous country, but it’s not ours. Even though the boss of my internship is such a kind guy, he only sees me as a programing machine. He does not and will not offer me any chances, not even expectations. In the past years, I saw too many Chinese students becoming citizens and starting family in the Silicon Valley, living in ordinary lives. In the past years, I saw too many Chinese-smartest students talking about their old legendary days in China at the dinner table, and those legends halted in China forever” (Huang, Xiaohuang).
Silicon Valley is a wonderful place to live creditably, even with the lowest position at work, but how many talented people who have struggled year after year in a foreign country are gratified to accept ordinary lives? The sensation I receive mixed with sigh, and eagerness, and restlessness, and nostalgia, reminds me of an unwritten self-mockery floating around among Chinese oversea students for generations: “Capable ones change the nation; incapable ones change their passports.”
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