Paragons Or Pariahs?

Arguing with Asian-American success


Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States, edited by Herbert Barringer, Robert W. Gardner, and Michael J. Levin, New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 384 pages, $42.50

The Asian American Movement: A Social History, by William Wei, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 355 pages, $34.95

Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850–1990, by Bill Ong Hing, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 340 pages, $45.00

Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society, by Gwen Kinkead, New York: HarperCollins, 215 pages, $12.00 paper

Asian Americans: Oral Histories of First to Fourth Generation Americans, by Joann Lee, New York: The New Press, 235 pages, $11.95 paper

A recent Los Angeles Times poll asked Asian Americans in Southern California about their job opportunities and living conditions. Eighty-three percent described them as good or very good, compared with 77 percent of whites, 55 percent of Hispanics, and 33 percent of blacks. Little wonder. Their satisfaction springs from many sources. Asian Americans have the highest median household income, the highest percentage of managerial and technical jobs, the lowest unemployment rate, and the lowest crime rate of any racial or ethnic group in the country, including whites.

As entrepreneurs, they have reinvigorated dozens of urban areas. Their achievements on the education front are epic. In college student lingo, MIT is now "Made in Taiwan" and UCLA is the "University of Caucasians Lost Among Asians." New immigrant waves make these gains increasingly visible—Asian Americans are the country's fastest growing racial or ethnic group. They currently make up 3 percent of the general population, including 10 percent of California's. Who can really doubt that Asian Americans have "made it" in America?

These purported accomplishments threaten to throw the country's black-and-white race debate out of kilter. In reaction, Asian-American civil-rights leaders try to debunk the Asian-American success story. Anti-Asian sentiment is on the rise, say the critics, from auto assembly lines in Detroit to the Broadway hit Miss Saigon, in which characters refer to Asians as "slits" and "greasy Chinks." Economic indicators touting Asian-American success are misleading: Per-capita income has always lagged behind that of whites, professionals hopelessly bang their heads against a glass ceiling, and many inner-city merchants, especially Koreans, now face an increasingly hostile clientele resentful of their prosperity. The "model minority" myth, which promotes Asian-American achievement, covers up genuine problems in the community and serves merely to pit racial and ethnic groups against each other. As an oppressed minority, Asian-Americans both need and deserve the same special governmental protections accorded to other disadvantaged groups.

There are elements of truth to both of these views, but neither is completely accurate. Asian Americans are neither paragons nor pariahs, to use Smith College sociologist Peter Rose's apt terminology. For the real scoop on the state of Asian America, turn to the Russell Sage Foundation's excellent Asians and Pacific Islanders in the United States. The best recent demographic overview, it makes a strong case for Asian-American success without overlooking genuine problems.

With all the talk about the model minority, it's easy to forget that there's really no such thing as an "Asian American." Chinese, Filipinos, Japanese, Koreans, Asian Indians, Vietnamese, and others share no common tongue, faith, or history. Enormous differences in education, employment, and income separate these groups. To assume Asian Americans have a pan-ethnic identity—as politicos and professors do when it's to their advantage—is often futile and misleading.

Some Asian ethnic groups certainly do make the United States look like a land of unlimited opportunity. The mostly native Japanese-American population, for instance, seems "to have reached essential parity with whites." The largely refugee Vietnamese-American population, on the other hand, displays "characteristics more typical of 'castelike' minorities—blacks, American Indians, and Hispanics." Many differences exist even within ethnic groups. East Coast Filipinos look like a socioeconomic elite; on the West Coast, they more closely mirror Hispanics The reverse is true for Chinese.

Nonetheless, it's hard to argue with success, no matter how generalized it may be. Asian Americans can boast of extraordinarily stable families, very little divorce, and high levels of education. Most (but not all) of their per-capita income disadvantage can be explained by immigrant status. Whatever troubles remain—even for the problematic Southeast Asian cohorts—might simply require patience: "The longer immigrants had resided in the United States, the more they resembled white Americans socially. Or outdid white Americans." The editors stick close to their numbers and refrain from making even modest predictions, but this book makes it easy to believe that almost complete economic and social assimilation will ultimately embrace the vast majority of Asian Americans.

Assimilation has never lacked Asian-American opponents, however. During the heady days of the 1960s liberation movements, "Asian Americans became acutely aware that they had more in common with African Americans than with European Americans," writes activist-turned-author William Wei in The Asian American Movement. Of course, not all Asian Americans shared this sentiment. In fact, most didn't, a point Wei conveniently skips over. He does admit, however, that the movement sprang from a handful of Chinese- and Japanese-American student radicals who tried to mobilize under a pan-ethnic banner. Only by forging "a new sociopolitical entity"—the "Asian American"—could their otherwise small and divided sub-ethnic populations gain the numerical clout to hop on the civil rights bandwagon and grab some attention.

The Asian American Movement, disorganized and quarrelsome from day one, spent much of its energy protesting the Vietnam War, which Wei interprets as a racist effort to keep Southeast Asia colonized by Western powers. The war particularly concerned Asian-American radicals, Wei says, since it promoted something he calls "Gookism"—white America's inability to distinguish between "the Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians (among other Asians) encountered overseas and Asian Americans at home." Wei never considers whether his beloved movement's attempt to manufacture a pan-ethnic identity might have exacerbated the rest of America's alleged inability to see the diversity of Asian America.

Predictably, the movement floundered. It lacked "a nationally known leader" and even "a set of specific aims." Wei's chronicle, though it assumes a tone of high seriousness, actually reads like a parody of radical-left incompetence. Members of the movement participated in Maoist purges like sport, battled among themselves over poetry readings, and regularly hurled silly invectives against the United States, which Wei calls "one of the most oppressive systems of racial prejudice and class domination that has ever existed in any democratic country." Despite these problems, the movement limps along. Wei reports that younger soldiers have "emerged to participate in the multicultural education movement."

Wei's gloom and doom is exaggerated and simplistic, but a serious study of the Asian-American experience need not be all sweetness and light. In Making and Remaking Asian America Through Immigration Policy, 1850-1990, Bill Ong Hing offers a valuable chronicle of the many barriers that Asian immigrants have faced. Once in high demand to harvest Hawaiian sugarcane fields and lay the transcontinental railroad, Asian immigrants continually suffered from varying degrees of nativism and working-class resentment during the 19th century. The Chinese were subjected to the first legal restrictions in 1870, which began what Hing calls the "cycles of rejection and acceptance" that occasionally accepted but mostly rejected Asian immigrants until 1965. Other anti-Chinese laws came in 1875, when Congress essentially banned Chinese women, and in 1882, when it forbade the entry of "idiots," "lunatics," and "Chinese laborers."

The Japanese fared somewhat better, but laws in 1907 and 1924 effectively cut off their immigration pipeline. Restrictions affected Filipinos in 1934. Asian Indians and others who had not migrated in very large numbers were limited in 1917. In a useful appendix, Hing buttresses his thorough analysis by excerpting every significant law and court ruling on Asian immigration between 1850 and 1923, including the important but obscure Gentleman's Agreement, negotiated between the United States and Japan by telegram in 1907 and 1908.

Hing carefully describes each of these laws and explains how they helped shape major Asian-American communities. The 1875 anti-Chinese law, for example, combined with anti-miscegenation laws already in place in California and Oregon to deprive Chinese male laborers of the chance to marry and have children. Fifteen years later, Chinese-American men outnumbered women by nearly 27 to 1. Denied the opportunity to form families, men came to rely heavily upon the social networks of Chinatown enclaves. These communities protected them from the vicious mob attacks that frequently erupted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anti-Asian hostility motivated the formation of tightly knit associations that made Chinatowns and their inhabitants seem secretive and off-putting to mainstream America.

Despite much assimilation, such enclaves persist to this day, helping both legal and illegal immigrants adapt to life in America. Gwen Kinkead's Chinatown: A Portrait of a Closed Society offers a brief but tantalizing glimpse at New York City's bustling Chinese community. She spent two luckless years desperately trying to gain access to this city within a city. With translator in tow, however, she slowly won over enough of its inhabitants to peek into its crowded apartments and garment sweatshops. Her colorful anecdotes and character portraits reveal an industrious and inward-looking place.

Mr. Lin, for instance, peddles firecrackers and toys without a license. Every day he hustles his wares on the street and each night returns to a one-bedroom apartment shared with seven other men. He has managed to save about $18,000 of his $22,000 income for each of the last four years. When he gathers enough money, he hopes to start a small business. Lin has lived in New York for six years, but he has not often left Chinatown, on the lower east side of Manhattan. So Kinkead makes him an offer: "I asked him if there was any place in the city he wanted to visit. He thought a minute. 'I hear about her, not too far from here,' he said, cupping his hands above his head like a Thai dancer.

"'The Statue of Liberty?'

"'Sometime I go there,' he affirmed. 'That's one thing I do.'

"I offered to take Lin there, or to any other place he wished to see. Lin decided that the Statue of Liberty was too far, and picked my second suggestion—Central Park, which he'd never heard of. We rode uptown in a taxi. Lin was very uneasy. 'No go far, right?' he asked several times. 'Not go far.'"

The bulk of Kinkead's book concerns Chinatown's criminal tongs, with a special emphasis on federal efforts to bust the Chinese-dominated Southeast-Asian heroin trade. According to Kinkead, the tongs and their lackeys maintain a tight grip on the community through a powerful extortion racket. "In Chinatown," she writes, "there is a social order so ruthless that its very existence seems to be against the law, but, because the area is so isolated from the rest of society, most of the people who live here accept it as normal." Locals fear to talk about the situation, especially to a reporter holding a pen and scribbling notes. Despite her best intentions to demystify the place, Kinkead's decision to focus so heavily on crime helps exoticize Chinatown even further.

Still, her final chapter is a splendid metaphor for Chinatown's isolation complex. Kinkead describes a typical Sunday in which thousands of New Yorkers descend upon Chinatown's corner of lower Manhattan to experience its restaurants and entertainment. Noisy day-trippers clog the main thoroughfare, so she escapes by stepping into a lonely, time-warped alleyway. She comes upon a dirty courtyard and discovers "a gritty, gray, forlorn place, a patch of old Chinatown more or less untouched since the 1880s." She climbs a stairway and sees a door with a sign that blesses those who pass. "I knock. A frail old man, like a withered moon, appears. He greets me quizzically. He has lived in Chinatown for sixty years, he says, and has never spoken with a white person."

Joann Lee's collection of oral histories, Asian Americans, also offers a penetrating look at ordinary lives. Its voices present no unified front: Many are grateful for the economic and social opportunities available in the United States, others disenchanted by their own failures or turned off by a confusing, almost anarchic society. Most, however seem to place some value on the freedom they have found here: "You decide what you want to be, then you work hard, and can achieve it," says Siu Wang Lai, a Chinese immigrant who spoke through an interpreter But she also realizes that American freedom has its price: "The bad thing is the relaxed laws and the lack of family values." Like many immigrant parents, she worries aboul her children and whether they will lose touch with not only their families but also the home-grown cultural traits of diligence, discipline, and respect that gave their parents an edge over the competition.

Lang Ngan, who helps process Southeast-Asian refugee resettlement claims, corroborates: "I get a lot of complaints from parents. They say they come to this country to give their children the chance for a better education, but now they lose their children. That is the culture shock. The children now think they are free to do anything they want."

By these accounts, the various Asian-American experiences appear much like other ethnic experiences: full of difficulty and even regret, but also opportunity and, ultimately, assimilation. Despite what the naysayers proclaim, Asian Americans will continue their undeniable success. Indeed, the fact that Asian Americans even have activists trying to represent them says something about their accomplishments. Immigrants, of course, don't have the time or the interest to carp about a life full of promise–only their bourgeois children and grandchildren can manage that feat.

But the activists do raise larger questions, albeit unintentionally: Will Asian Americans hang on to the cultural traits that have helped them open stores, attend college, and keep their families together, or will they cast off that part of their heritage in an attempt to fit in with mainstream America? In short, will they assimilate out of the very qualities that have made their assimilation possible?

John J. Miller is associate director of the Manhattan Institute's Center for the New American Community.