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The United States of Chinese America

By Andrew Jung
UCLA, U.S./China Media Brief


On December 12, 2009, the UCLA Asian American Studies Center and the Chinese American Studies Endowment along with prominent Chinese/American community organizations presented the first annual “The State of Chinese America: A Community Forum.” Very fittingly, the forum was held in Monterey Park, the city with the highest concentration of Chinese/Americans in the United States.

Video Excerpts and Transcripts: An edited version of the three-hour forum is available for viewing on the UCLA Asian American Studies Center’s website: http://www.aasc.ucla.edu/ and a short excerpt on the www.uschinamediabrief.com.

* UCLA and the Community
With prestigious scholars, community members, and politicians all in attendance at the City Hall Chambers, the forum sought to bridge the gap existing between academia and the Chinese/American community. How can Chinese Americans participate fully through politics and education in the 21st century? How do Chinese/Americans fit into the complex and intricate relationship between the U.S. and China? How can Chinese/Americans utilize their cultural, political, and economical resources to create an equitable American society? What are the most pressing issues facing Chinese/Americans today and what will be the next set of issues in the future? These critical questions require intensive self-reflection on the part of us, Chinese/Americans both in the academic realm, where often research becomes stigmatized as obtrusive, elitist or too theoretical, and within the “ground-level” community where practical applications and grass-roots cultivation produce completely separate experiences and responses for Chinese/Americans.

* L. Ling-chi Wang: On Pasts and Futures
Renowned scholar, Dr. L. Ling-chi Wang, began his keynote talk by providing a historical context to the present state of Chinese America. He spoke of two essays he wrote, each paper articulating the conditions that defined the Chinese/American community in their respective era: the late 1960s and the 1980s to early 1990s. So, what lies in the future of Chinese/American communities in the 21st century? One critical development is the growing concentration of Chinese/Americans from ethnoburbs or ethnic-suburbs as opposed to the traditionally urban ethnic enclaves, such as Chinatowns. Monterey Park, Alhambra, and the San Gabriel Valley all represent such ethnoburban neighborhoods with an ever-increasing Chinese/American presence. Dr. Wang states, “more than 50% of the Chinese American population now resides in the suburbs.” And thus, it is within these ethnoburbs that a new Chinese/American leadership will emerge in the years to come. The transition from urban ethnic enclaves to more economically-diverse ethnoburbs began as a result of transnational migrations, globalization, and shifting political-economical dynamics in China and Taiwan. As Dr. Wang puts it, “for most new immigrants Chinatown had become a transient place for cultural adjustment to attributing assets and as a stepping stone for better housing, better jobs, and better schooling for their children elsewhere.” Ethnoburbs become such a “better” place where the predominant Chinese/American population allows for immigrants the safety and protection of similar people as well as the amenities of a middle-class community.

Yet, the shift from ethnic enclaves to ethnoburbs only represents one critical change experienced by Chinese/America. Another is the development of community empowerment through unity when faced with a complex multifaceted Chinese/American community, each with differing agendas. “Chinese Americans have become…rather the community has become rather fragmented and separated by geographical location, by national origins, by linguistic differences and of course class and political conflicts, interests,” proclaimed Dr. Wang. He further argued, “[In 1991] Chinese America had become hopelessly fragmented and divided, utterly incapable of achieving political solidarity in the struggle for political and democratic rights of the Chinese in the United States and influencing U.S. policies toward mainland China and Taiwan.” Nearly twenty years later, has the Chinese/American community furthered the gap amongst ourselves? How does a diverse community find commonality in the face of a globalized and transnational world?

Dr. Tritia Toyota on the Need for Civic Engagement
Political empowerment remains the crucial and common denominator within both the Chinese/American and broader Asian/American community irrespective of differences. As scholar, Dr. Tricia Toyota stated during the forum, “[M]ainstream America cannot tell nativity. It makes no difference – not only nativity but ethnicity.” For Dr. Toyota, she emphasizes the crucial need to become involved both civically and politically in order for Asian/Americans to participate fully in the democratic process. Through such participation can issues facing Asian/Americans be addressed. Yet, the difficulty remains as Dr. Toyota points out, “…we all have to get our act together because once we become a political entity…we can better address how we are all seen…never ever forget that regardless of nativity, we are all racialized the same way as citizens of color in the United States.” Similar to Dr. Wang’s analysis of Chinese America, Dr. Toyota also understands that there exists tensions between native-born Chinese/Americans and naturalized Chinese/Americans; a disparity that often creates tensions and disunity during a time when solidarity and coalition-building are critical to achieving political, social, and civil rights.

Stewart Kwoh: Current Civil Rights Issues
In addition, president of the Asian Pacific American Legal Center (APALC), Stewart Kwoh addressed four major issues facing Asian and Chinese/Americans in terms of civil rights: healthcare, language rights, immigration reform, and political engagement/empowerment.

In terms of Healthcare: according to an APALC exit poll, 90% of Asian/Americans surveyed wanted some form of universal healthcare. A critical issue concerning universal healthcare for Asian/Americans is the Five Year Bar, an existing provision that bars legal immigrants from receiving government-funded or sponsored healthcare for the five years after their arrival to the U.S.

In terms of Language: Asian/Americans benefit from bilingual provisions, which are continually threatened in California. In 2008, 30% of Chinese/Americans utilized the bilingual ballot while approximately 60% of Korean/Americans utilized it. Asian/Americans rank relatively low in turns of voter turnout proportionate to population size. Language access and bilingual provisions are key factors in increasing political participation. In terms of Immigration Reform: the future of comprehensive immigration reform is dependent on the collective political action of parties greatly affected by prospective legislature from Congress. With 1.5 million undocumented Asian immigrants in the United States, such a demographic represents a significant portion of the Asian/American community in need of legalization.

In terms of political empowerment: Asian/Americans need to form progressive coalitions and participate in electoral politics. One key issues is redistricting, where large Asian/American concentrations are segregated into separate districts and thus limiting the Asian/American voice. Redistricting and aggregating certain areas such as Alhambra, San Gabriel, and Monterey Park led to the election of Asian/American politicians such as Rep. Mike Eng and Congressperson Judy Chu.

In addition, Kwoh emphasized the necessity for remembrance of Chinese/American struggles and histories reflectively asked, “Will we forget our history? Will we know our history?” Kwoh ended his remarks by poignantly arguing for the reduction in disparities between affluent and impoverished Asian/Americans and the increase in the commitment of all Asian/Americans in forming coalitions. Ultimately, a divided Chinese/American community results in collective disempowerment.

Mike Eng: On Monterey Park as an Activist City
Besides scholars and community workers, politicians also spoke about the state of Chinese/America. Notably, Mike Eng, former mayor of Monterey Park and current representative of the 49th District of California shared a few words. Rep. Eng addressed the history of Monterey Park, calling the city, “an activist city” founded by politically engaged citizens who protested the desire to make Monterey Park the dumping ground for neighboring cities. The rich history of Monterey Park undergirds its emphasis on diversity – reflected in its large immigrant and Chinese/American population. Reminiscing, Rep. Eng states, “it really was a contentious city. There were two ways to go: it could either continue the rancor or come together.” And in its demographics, we clearly see the latter won out. The city remains one of the first places to have a majority of Asian/American officials in its city council. Indeed, Monterey Park continues to be the “sacred” and “testing ground” for a multicultural and diverse city. The moniker of Monterey Park as “the all-American city” is not ironic in the least bit, even with its constituents being native-born and immigrant Chinese/Americans. Indeed, as we progress through the 21st century, the influx of immigrants from Africa, Europe, Central & South America into the United States will eventually transform all American cities into Monterey Park.

Immigrant, Worker, and Middle-Class Community Voices
The fragility and fragmentation of the Chinese/American community stems from a plethora of factors yet political/civic engagement and participation remains the key unifier in establishing a beneficial and progressive Chinese/American community for the future. The difficulty lies in the political issues and affiliations of Chinese/Americans themselves; each individual and group organization holding differing agendas and visions on how to achieve community empowerment and equity; some oftentimes competing and conflicting. While calls for community unity and adhesion in the face of discrimination may seem easy, actualizing such a reality remains completely opposite. The changing dynamics of Chinatowns and Chinese/American ethnoburbs require constant self-reflection as well as a willingness to accept critiques and criticisms. If the Chinese/American community is fragile then we must be careful in understanding the various dimensions and aspects that are unspoken, controversial, and ostensibly damaging to the community. In this respect, we should not shy away from progressive queer Asian/American rights, we must remain vocal against domestic violence, we need to protest against continued labor exploitation of Asian/American workers, and we are required to advocate for the rights of undocumented Asians. The socioeconomic disparity between working-class Chinese/Americans and the professional/business middle-class continues to widen, further creating divides in our community. If the Chinese/American community is fragmented, then we must develop ways to re-envision Chinese America in ways that encompass the multifaceted and changing nature of Chinese/American communities. As Dr. Wang puts it, “[i]n fact there are now two different worlds within Chinese America: the English speaking world and the Chinese speaking world …there is virtually no interaction and mutual understanding between these two worlds just like there is no social intercourse between Chinese Americans in Chinatown and Chinese Americans in the suburbs.” Furthermore, what are the implications of such a disconnection? “For a long time, one of the perennial complaints of Monterey Park are the immigrants are coming in large numbers: Why can’t they assimilate? But, when you become the majority in Monterey Park, what do you assimilate to?” quips Dr. Wang. Such commentary on Chinese/America reflects the contradictory nature of the community. In response to a comment made by Dr. Wang expressing the racist underpinnings of American assimilation, an audience member challenged Dr. Wang by supporting the need for Chinese/Americans to assimilate.

A divide remains between academia and the community; between professional middle-class Chinese/Americans and working-class immigrant Chinese/Americans; between liberal progressives and traditional conservatives; between the old guards of Chinese benevolence and “the new kids on the wok.” The State of Chinese America while ostensibly fragile and fragmented, only further accentuates the need to develop new frameworks of coalition-building, solidarity, and encompassing political goals.

After 150 years of Chinese peoples in the U.S., the state of Chinese America remains as it always has: struggling and thriving, endangered and enduring, honorary-white and forever-foreigner, fragile and resilient, fragmented and unified, consistent and contradictory. This community forum was a necessary look at the future of Chinese Americans.

The State of Chinese America was funded by the Chinese American Studies Endowment established by Gilbert Hom, organized by the UCLA Asian American Studies Center, co-sponsored by the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California; CAUSE-Center for Asian Americans United for Empowerment; Chinese American Museum; Chinese American Citizen’s Alliance, and the U.S.-China Media Brief.