Diana Jue-Rajasingh

The Two Americas, The New Yorker

Posted in Family, Personal by Diana on July 7, 2016

There are now, in a sense, two Asian Americas: one formed by five centuries of systemic racism, and another, more genteel version, constituted in the aftermath of the 1965 law. These two Asian Americas float over and under each other like tectonic plates, often clanging discordantly.

This article came out almost a year ago, but someone brought it up again to me. Both my mom and dad’s families immigrated to the US prior to the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. My great-grandfather and grandfather fought for the USA in World War I and II, respectively. My great-grandmother was blamed by her parents for the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. My grandfather remembers growing up in the Great Depression, during which he ate chicken everyday … and afterward would no longer eat chicken. My dad remembers the various phases and places of LA’s Chinatown and grew up on the poorer side of the spectrum. He and his brothers and sister participated in the early years of the Love Boat. My mom’s parents ran a grocery store in Texas, and in California, my grandfather worked as a butcher and my grandmother worked as a seamstress. My grandmother never learned English in San Francisco’s Richmond district. My aunt, who was a chemistry professor in China, took up a job as a hotel maid.

Because of the grit and hard work of the generations that preceded us, my cousins and I have been able to capture part of that American dream that our ancestors longed for years ago. We’ve seriously taken it for granted, as well. Not all immigrant families who arrived like my family were able to achieve wealth and material success, even in subsequent generations. This may be surprising to some people, who probably equate Asian Americans with higher education and wealth (and math). But in reality, overall Chinese American prosperity that stems from the newer wave of post-1965 immigration tends to obscure the higher-than-average poverty rate for Chinese Americans.

Growing up in Los Angeles, I had a lot of “new immigrant” friends. They generally lived in big houses in rich, very Asian neighborhoods (e.g. Chan Marino and Arcasia). Many of them had fathers who did some type of unspecified “business” between the US and China. We were all Chinese-blooded and living in America, but my Chinese American culture was completely different from theirs. Like, I was kind of ghetto — I lived in a neighborhood where my mom was scared of letting me walk outside because of, you know, the gangs and drive-by shootings. My family frequented Chinatown, and their families stayed in the San Gabriel Valley. I was used to Chinese restaurants with greasy tables and kitsch red and gold decor; they ate in places with tablecloths. I have a new wave immigrant friend whose boyfriend is old school immigrant. My friend’s mom disapproves of him, since his mom is a dim sum cart pusher. But when I visited his parents’ house with my friend, the sound of clacking mahjong tiles and loud Cantonese banter made me feel at home.

In reality, there are two Asian Americas. It’s too easy to believe that all Asian Americans work as doctors, lawyers, or engineers and have children to go to Ivy League colleges. Despite what the media says about Asian Americans being the “model minority,” it is unjust to assume that all Asian immigrants reach that level of achievement. Asian American poverty is invisibly growing, especially among seniors and Southeast Asian refugee communities, which tend to get clumped together in the data with other Asian ethnic groups. Recognizing their problems is the first step of making progress.

While that happens, though, please enjoy this 42 year old video of my dad doing a Chinese sword dance. This is what happens when a boy born in Bakersfield, California attempts to get in touch with his Chinese roots.

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