Seeing Beyond Orientalism & Discrimination
Chinese Americans are an important part of the American history as well as growth of American culture often overlooked and considered a model minority. Chinese Americans go unnoticed despite their growing presence. Often the victim of contemporary orientalism, Chinese Americans are generally thought of and labeled as Asian Americans which is extremely inexact due to the distinct culture and history of the group. Referring to Chinese Americans as Asian Americans grossly misconstrues that many different cultures of Asian Americans, which consists of many different groups including Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and others. What is interesting about this classification is that it is based upon a few physical characteristics such as the epicanthic eye folds and brighter skin tone (Chan, 2007).
Racially characterizing this group in this way is inaccurate, overlooking large portions of the world’s populations. For instance there are groups of people that are from parts of Asia that do not have these traits. For instance the Turks are from west Asia but they do not have these characteristics (Chan 126). Besides not being accurate classification of Asians in this manner lumps them all together without regard to tradition or culture. The classification of Asians in this way undermines the integrity of their respective cultures. This is especially true from a historical perspective. Placing all Chinese Americans into the same category as other Asian groups undermines the importance of their cultures and the independent impacts they had on American history.
Chinese Americans have significantly affected the history and culture of the United States and continue to do so. Chinese Americans began immigration to the US in 1848 as part of the Gold Rush (Chinn, 1969). Chinese Americans would also enter the US seeking better work opportunities and would significantly assist in the building of the first transcontinental railroad. At first, these immigrants were seen in a favorable light, but as the gold rush began to slow and the work neared completion on the railroad, hostility began to grow towards the Chinese immigrants (Chinn, 1969).
From the beginning of Chinese immigration, racism, discrimination, and violence were inflicted on this group. Chinese Americans were subjected to special taxes, laws which forbid them from working in certain industries, as well as being excluded from marrying anyone of European decent. One of most glaring examples of the mistreatment of the Chinese is evidenced by the Chinese massacre of 1871 in which 500 white men attacked China Town, Los Angeles.
By Unknown author — Original publication: Los Angeles Public Library, Security Pacific National Bank Collection Immediate source, Public Domain
Approximately 18 Chinese people were confirmed dead but the death toll is believed to be much higher. Businesses were destroyed along with personal property (Zesch, 2008).
As the Chinese immigrant population grew, US citizens continued to perceive the Chinese as a threat to the workforce. This hostility was driven by the fact that Chinese were paid considerably lower wages than other Americans and many whites viewed this as a threat. Wage disputes, racism and violence would lead to decades of policies that outlawed Chinese immigration. Chinese Americans were denied citizenship in the early part of the 19th century under the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Chinese Exclusion Act effectively froze the Chinese community in 1882 by both limiting immigration from China and limiting individuals from leaving the US. Under the Scotts Act of 1888, any Chinese person who left the country to even visit China would be refused reentrance to the US. This was an expansion of the Chinese Exclusion Act (Chinese Exclusion Act).
The Chinese Exclusion Act would not be repealed until the 1940’s and would severely limit Chinese growth in the US. Most people saw the act as necessary in order to protect jobs from cheap labor. However, many people opposed the act seeing it as legalized discrimination and racism (Chin, 1998).
Chinese Americans would endure discriminatory laws which made it illegal for them to purchase or own land in many areas. As well, Chinese were forced to attend segregated schools. The discriminatory laws and policies forced Chinese Americans to find ways to circumvent the legalized discrimination (Chin). For example, in the aftermath of the 1906 earthquake, many Chinese Americans declared themselves to be citizens because there was no way to prove the legitimacy of their claim since the records were destroyed (Chinn).
Legal discrimination of the Chinese would continue until the passage of the Magnuson Act which repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Since the 1940’s the Chinese have continued to immigrate to the United States. Even with the legalization of immigration, Chinese immigrants continue to congregate in ethnic enclaves or China Towns.
The Chinese Americans represent a complex group of people distinguished by culture, religion, nationality, and language. In contrast to the orientalist views that have biased history and education, not all Chinese immigrants congregate in the same groups. Subgroups of Chinese immigrants are formed often by geographic migration. For instance, individuals from Taiwan tend to group together while individuals from Hong Kong or mainland China live in their respective groups. Religion is also a factor as Buddhist Chinese tend to live in enclaves while Muslim Chinese live in their respective groups (Chan 127).
The Chinese have enriched and added to the American culture through many different contributions. Chinese literature, art, architecture, and cuisine have greatly impacted American society. There is almost no major city that does not have some form of China Town where Chinese people work and live. Within these enclaves the Chinese culture and traditions are maintained.
There are many accomplishments in the history of the United States which would not have been possible without the influx of Chinese immigrants. The completion of the Transcontinental Railroad and growth of the manufacturing industry in the United States would not have been possible in the time which it was done except for the use of Chinese labor. Today, Chinese Americans continue to immigrate to the United States seeking opportunities and forming schools and trade associations. Despite having overcome a great deal of prejudice and barriers to immigration, Chinese Americans face new challenges. One of the largest impediments to this group’s success is the form of discrimination known as glass ceiling and model minority. Chinese Americans are often viewed as being exceptional in their educational abilities and in career. While this group has done well in these areas they are often revered as being a model minority. This idea however is erroneous in many ways and it promotes prejudice and racism.
…we need to remember that not all Asian Americans are the same. For every Chinese American or South Asian who has a college degree, the same number of Southeast Asians are still struggling to adapt to their lives in the U.S. For example, as shown in the tables in the Socioeconomic Statistics & Demographics article, Vietnamese Americans only have a college degree attainment rate of 20%, less than half the rate for other Asian American ethnic groups. The rates for Laotians, Cambodians, and Hmong are even lower at less than 10%. (Le)
People who see Chinese Americans as a model minority often make assumptions such as all Asians are proficient in math or that discrimination is no longer a problem for this group because their success has proven that these issues are not a factor. The model minority belief is wrought from orientalist views that all Asians can be placed in the same thinking. This biased thinking promotes assumptions and prejudices about these groups.
This thinking proves to be an ongoing barrier to success for Chinese Americans due to the glass ceiling that it creates. If it were true that Asians have overcome prejudice or that discrimination does not exist then one would expect that Asians would earn the same amount of money as white Americans.
Whites with 4 more years of education (equivalent to a college degree) can expect to earn [return on education investment] $2088 per year in salary. In contrast, returns on each additional year of education for a Japanese American is only $438. For a Chinese American, it’s $320 (Le, 2013).
While Chinese Americans continue to make strides in the United States, they still face large obstacles rooted in prejudice and discrimination. But despite these obstacles, Chinese American population continues to grow in the US as this group continues to immigrate and expand internally. As Chinese Americans continue to grow, they add to the diversity and multiculturalism of the country.
Chan, Sucheng. “The changing contours of Asian-American historiography,” Rethinking History, March 2007, Vol. 11 Issue 1, pp 125–147
Chin, Gabriel J., (1998) UCLA Law Review vol. 46, at 1 “Segregation’s Last Stronghold: Race Discrimination and the Constitutional Law of Immigration”
Chinese Exclusion Act (1882) http://www.ourdocuments.gov/doc.php?flash=true&doc=47
Le, C.N.. “The Model Minority Image.” Asian Nation. Asian Nation, 21 May 2013. Web. 21 May 2013.
Scott Zesch, “Chinese Los Angeles in 1870–1871: The Makings of a Massacre”, Southern California Quarterly, 90 (2008)
Thomas W. Chinn. A History of the Chinese in California: A Syllabus (San Francisco: Chinese Historical Society of America, 1969), p.72.
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