Migration — The Enigma That Is China

August 8, 2010

So after I wrote most of this post, the world turned my attention to things I needed to add. First looping back to the forger Lee Israel’s Can You Ever Forgive Me?” (Blog post July 25). In Sunday’s New York Times Book Review we’ve got Thomas Mallon admitting she duped him, along with expert curators and collectors. Why is the Times wasting ink on this woman?
The second issue actually connects to the topic of the day and has to do with Chinese immigration. Things we don’t understand about China:
Intense competitiveness. The Chinese want not only to show off a thriving Beijing to the world during the Olympics. They also want to take gold in every sport. Of course so does the U.S., but we seem to have a more realistic view of our chances. After all we’ve hired a bunch of non-natives to run the 1500, admitting that our homegrown folks haven’t measured up since forever. Orville Schell, writing in the New York Review of Books attributes Chinese competitiveness to “a century of humiliation.” Actually it lasted longer than that. According to Schell, it started with the Opium Wars, a conflict launched between Britain and China over the import of opium to Canton. The humiliation of the Asian giant continued into the 20th century, Schell says, as Japan, which had savaged its neighbor during World War II, became an economic powerhouse, while China continued to struggle under Mao and his successors.
The second early cause for humiliation was the United States’ ban on Chinese immigration at the end of the 1800s. Chinese immigrants had built the western portions of the railroad that connected the East Coast to the western frontier. (My mother always said the eastern portion of the line was built on whiskey, the western portion on tea.) But xenophobia created the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which forms the background for another book reviewed in the Times, Steer Toward Rock, by Fae Myenne Ng. According to the review no Chinese entered the country legally until 1943. Rumors in our family held that one of my great-uncles helped smuggle them in from China in between, and I’m sure he wasn’t alone. But it’s certainly easy to see how a nation would react if another said, “We don’t want you. Any of you. Any time.” And went on saying it for forty years. So here are some things we should try to understand:

  • 8/8/08. Getting married, giving birth on a beneficent date denotes reliance on numerology. And this belief isn’t limited to the individual. The government decided to start the Olympic Games at 8:08 p.m. on that date. And the same belief system brought us Chinese astrology – the Year of the Rat is supposed to be good luck, and Feng Shui, which says paint your bathroom green and your front door red. I don’t know about the bathrooms, but a bunch of my neighbors have followed the door part.
  • Support of tyrants. Schell says that China’s demand for huge quantities of raw materials has driven it to do business with the likes of Iran, Burma, and Sudan. Just as our embargo of Cuba drove that country into the Soviet camp in the 1960s, the West’s refusal to trade with the rogue nations has caused them to turn to a state that’s not so particular about human rights. Should we punish China for trading with Zimbabwe? After all, France still trades with Iran (though less than in previous years), according to the Financial Times . We don’t punish France in any significant way – at least not since Sarkozy came to power.
  • Peeing (little kids) (see  Slate) and spitting (adults) on the street. Of course, I’ve seen grown men peeing out in the open at rugby tournaments in this country and by the side of the highway in Canada, too, so I don’t know that the Chinese have a monopoly on that habit. And I saw men spit on the streets when I worked in an office located in Philadelphia’s Chinatown. In fact it was as common as smoking cigarettes on the street is for us, especially now that smoking is banned in most buildings outside the tobacco belt. Not sure of the source of these habits among the Chinese, but I’m sure the older folks there find our disrepect for our elderly relatives just as offensive as we find their personal hygiene.
  • Eating dog I remember asking a Chinese man in Philadelphia if he liked some odd food, maybe piccalili, and he replied, “We Chinese, we eat anything.” My slave ancestors were forced to subsist on food that the white folks scorned and eat the trimmings from the hog or the “mud bugs” from bayou; the broadly omnivore habits of the Chinese were also born of extreme poverty and privation. Both groups have produced some of the best cuisines in the world. I’m not ready to eat dog yet (or beef or pork or chicken, for that matter), but I am on my way to find scallion pancakes, or maybe some Buddhist delight.

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