The Sad Truth About Chinese Americans

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    The Sad Truth About Chinese Americans

    By Ling-Chi Wang

    Adapted from a posting to

    c. September 2002

    The sad truth about Chinese Americans is our inability and unwillingness to assert our rights and to scream and protest when our constitutional rights as American citizens are trampled upon and taken away. We can’t even express our anger openly when an injustice is inflicted us. Let me venture into an explanation from a historical perspective.

    Since the California gold rush in mid-19th century, Chinese in the U.S. have been brow-beaten by the media, white racist public, and all three branches of the U.S. government. Chinese labor was indispensable for the economic development of the American West, especially in California. They were recruited to mine mines, build railroads, reclaim and work on the rich delta land, and man the sweatshop manufacturing industries, like garment, shoes, boots, wool, and cigar. Yet, when their labor was deemed no longer useful or worse, a threat, especially in times of economic slow-downs, they were told to pack up and go back to where they came from. Cries of “Yellow Peril” and Chinese heathenism inspired punitive laws designed to exclude them from further immigration on the one hand and to deny them the fundamental rights guaranteed by the U.S. constitution.

    The denial of our constitutional and political rights was so pervasive that by 1860s, the colloquial expression, "Not a Chinaman’s Chance,’ became an integral part of American language. That’s right: to be a Chinese in the U.S. was to have no chance at all. Being Chinese, therefore, is to know your subservient place in the society, to stay out of the way, to remain invisible and unobtrusive, to be useful, but never competitive.

    That, in essence, is the place and plight of Chinese in the U.S. in the 19th and first half of the 20th centuries. Even though African American struggles for civil and political rights after World War II have significantly benefited Chinese American advancement in the U.S., the old attitude and stereotype of Chinese remain alive and well in the white society. .

    What is most alarming is how the stereotypes, like Chinaman and Yellow Peril, persist to this date. For example, the post-World War era brought new types of Chinese immigrants to the U.S., many of whom were the cream of China (including those from Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Chinese throughout Southeast Asia).Chinese Americans were celebrated because they are quiet and docile, they studied and worked hard, they never complained and talked back to their colleagues and supervisors, they respect authorities, they rarely express their feelings and thoughts, and they raised solid families with well-behaved and hardworking children. Best of all, as reliable and productive employees, they were more than willing to work overtime when asked to do so, they never asked for raises, and they never complained even if they were bypassed for promotions.

    The best recent examples of Chinese American plight are Vincent Chin and Wen Ho Lee. Vincent Chin was a Chinese American engineer working in early 1980s in Detroit, Michigan, the automobile manufacturing center of the U.S. He was brutally killed by two unemployed white auto workers because he was presumed to be not just “a foreigner” but a "Japanese. The two first-degree murderers, through plea-bargaining, were eventually allowed to plead guilty to “involuntary manslaughter,” fined about $3000 each, placed on a three-year probation, and freed without serving one day in jail. This is exactly what “Not a Chinaman’s Chance” is all about! Disgusted, Chin’s mother returned to China at a time when many Chinese were fantically trying to find ways to go to the Gold Mountain.

    As for Wen Ho Lee, he is the personification of the “model minority” stereotype. For 20 years, he worked diligently in this most secretive weapon lab where he received the highest level of security clearance. Amidst national hysteria over an alleged theft of W-88 miniature multi-warhead design by China, Wen Ho Lee was fingered by the New York Times on March 6, 1999 as the prime suspect responsible for the loss of America’s most advanced nuclear bombs, characterized by his prosecutors and lab bosses as “the crown jewel” of America’s nuclear arsenal. He was instantly treated as a foreigner and pronounced guilty in the court of public opinion. No wonder federal Judge James Parker, in releasing him, apologized to Wen Ho Lee and launched an unprecedented attack on the federal prosecutors for misleading him and the top leaders in Washington, DC. for acting shamefully and irresponsibly!

    Did Wen Ho Lee come out of the jail attacking the U.S. government for unjustly prosecuting and persecuting him? Not at all! He smiled and thanked the people who defended him. This is the outrageous story of Chinese America! What was the response from Chinese America? When I initiated a national boycott against the labs for the mistreatment of Wen Ho Lee and all Chinese American scientists and engineers, I was soundly criticized by many a Chinese American civil rights leader. In fact, when the Wen Ho Lee case surfaced, most Asian American leaders ran for cover and effectively either remained silent or distanced themselves from the case. Some even advised me to stay out of the case for fear my reputation would be tainted. They bought the government propaganda. According to them, the boycott movement would bring about a backlash against Chinese Americans. They obviously did not even understand what had already happened to Wen Ho Lee and all the Chinese American scientists and engineers who, overnight, had become thieves and spies in the eyes of their colleagues in the labs and in the public at large.

    It seems like the only remedy suggested by some of our national leaders is to hoist and wave the American flag on July 4 as if that act alone will deliver us from racism, racial profiling, selective prosecution, and unjust treatment and punishment. I don’t think our leaders understand what it means to be an American and what it means to assert our constitutional rights, including the right of dissent on behalf of truth, justice, and constitutional rights, to be a pain in the ass, to stick out like a sore thumb, or to be thorn in the flesh.

    When you look at the elected Chinese American politicians across the the U.S., most of them depend heavily on Chinese American political contributions to get elected, sometimes as much as 90% of their total in-takes. Chinese American politicians are expected to go out of their way not to represent and articulate Chinese or Asian American issues. They are afraid to antagonize the white voters among their constituencies. In other words, they want Chinese Americans to contribute money to their campaigns in order for them to be celebrities! Have we no shame? Have we no self-respect?

    Is there hope for Chinese Americans? Or, are we relegated forever to live by the status of the new icon of the 21st century? It is a strange, if not abnormal thing!

    Wang is a professor in and former chair of the Department of Ethnic Studies at the University of California at Berkeley.


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