The Impact of The Changing Face of Chinese in America

Perhaps the most generally accepted 'label' for categorizing descendants of the immigrants from China to the United States starting around the mid 19th century is "Chinese American" (or "Chinese Canadian" above our northern border). Even though we are usually lumped into the politically pragmatic catch-all category, "Asian American," and we sometimes passively accept it, this designation fails to reflect the fact that Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, Korean Americans, Vietnamese Americans, and so forth, are as different from each other as are Americans with European ancestors such as French, German, Italian, Swedish, Danish, and English, etc.

Chinese in America were a relatively homogenous group before the 1950s, generally poor rural immigrants from Guangdong province who came to seek gold, but wound up building railroads, and working in laundries and restaurants. Their descendants, born here or in China, were the majority of the Chinese in America then. But today, Chinese have come here from many places other than Guangdong including Hong Kong, Taiwan, People's Republic of China, Southeast Asia, and other countries in the region.

Not only do these Chinese have some proficiency in English, they read and write Chinese, which most descendants of earlier Chinese immigrants can not. Moreover they speak Mandarin rather than Cantonese or Toishan-wa, the language of the earlier cohorts of Guangdong immigrants. Many newer Chinese do not seek to assimilate to the extent that earlier generations did. Indeed, many of these Chinese are transnational in outlook, with one foot here and the other foot in their country of origin. Moreover, many of them are highly educated and are often affluent. Yet, there are also newer Chinese from Fujian province next to Guangdong, who must work long hours for low wages trying to pay off the debts incurred for illegal entry.

To call all of these diverse groups "Chinese Americans"obscures such vast differences. For one matter, many of these groups do not relate well to each other, reflecting historical conflicts among them. The language differences as well as social class variations also serve to keep them separate. For example, in the 1950s, American Born Chinese (ABCs) who were making strides in being accepted in mainstream America dissociated themselves from new less educated immigrants that they disparaged as "fresh off the boat" (FOBs). Today, the tables are turned as some newer affluent Chinese look down on the ABCs as not being fully Chinese because they can't speak Chinese well or at all. The Changing Face of Chinese in America, is a significant development stemming from the different histories and backgrounds of the different subgroups that has transformed the social structure of Chinese communities.

Chinese in America have their problems among their subgroups but they also face concerns about their place in American society. For, unfortunately, to many non-Asian Americans, these subgroups of Chinese 'look the same'and accordingly they will be prone to treat all Chinese the same way, despite their differences. Until recently, America's inability to distinguish among Chinese subgroups favored them because attitudes toward Chinese improved substantially from after W. W. II until the rise of Red China. Today, however, there is a growing trend toward China-bashing due to the threat of China's economic growth as well as to China's faults that include corruption, human rights violations, censorship, contaminated food and product exports.

Chinese in America, irrespective of where they came from, how long they have been here, how educated they are, or assimilated they are, will suffer if non-Asians think all Chinese here "look the same." We will be viewed as more "Chinese" than as "American." (Ironically, if we visited China, we would be clearly seen as American, not as Chinese.) The old negative images and prejudices that have been dormant for decades will resurface as we become once again, the yellow peril. The challenge for Chinese in America is how to transcend our differences and unite to counter these dangerous trends.

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