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Beyond the pagoda decorated with oriental lanterns and stone lions, is a center of Asian-American culture and identity. A common immigrant experience is to make the new home feel less foreign. For the Chinese and other Asian immigrants, that space is Chinatown.
Generations of Discrimination
My grandfather spent his early adulthood in San Francisco Chinatown. It was the 1930’s, and discrimination was rampant. My guess is he was assigned by the Chinese Chamber of Commerce his first job in San Francisco Chinatown. Or perhaps it was his father. Nevertheless, the chamber had their hand directly or indirectly because they helped find employment for most incoming immigrants. The Chamber acted as a gateway because new immigrants weren’t immersed in American culture or language, and during my grandfather’s time, there was rampant discrimination. 8 decades later, the Chamber remains to help. When founded, the Chamber was run by Chinese, for Chinese. Today, it’s expanded to more Asian communities.
While I’m hazy as to how my grandfather got his first job, I know his job was to help run a laundromat. He worked there until the war broke out. He did his duty and fought the Asian Pacific front. When he came back, he courted my grandmother and married her. With the help of the GI Bill, he was able to buy a house in Berkeley. They had four kids, all boys. One of them is my father. By all means, they made their American dream.
My dad and his siblings grew up in that Berkeley house. They grew up under the strict and regimented rule of my grandfather. My grandfather’s kids children weren’t quite keen on the rules. As children do, they rebelled, but not well. As much as my father wouldn’t want to be compared to his father’s flaws, I see this behavior passed on my dad. He gets anal about tiny details that I don’t think matter.
My dad still faced the discrimination in the 50’s and early 60’s. He recalled to me how the grocery store he stops at today didn’t allow him to enter when he was a kid. “No colors” a sign read marked at the front of the store. The tide changed in his early adulthood.
The dirty secret of immigrant communities is they discriminate. During my grandfather’s adulthood, the Chinese community discriminated against anyone who wasn’t Chinese. My grandfather rejected the idea he or any of his children would marry a Japanese woman. From the war, his discrimination grew larger. I’m sure he was livid when one of his sons married a Japanese woman. That was my parent’s generational divide with their parent’s generation. Today, my divide comes in other arenas, like sexual discrimination. I’m much more tolerant of the LGBT community than my parents. It’s not as harsh as my grandfather’s hatred towards the Japanese. Their discriminatory behavior comes from a lack of knowledge. And that becomes a learning opportunity when I speak to them about those things, if of course you can teach old people new tricks.
Chinese Yesterday, Muslims Today
Muslim communities are discriminated like the my grandfather’s Chinese community. Political tensions with China were high with the rise of Mao Zedong. Chinese restaurants were in the tank because the community marked them as a communist symbol. The community didn’t understand not all Chinese were communists. They failed to understand many of them were Nationals and pro-Capitalists. My grandfather was an anti-communist, and agreed with the economic beliefs of the community.Yet, like every other Chinese business, he was fighting to win the respect of his surrounding community.
Today, political tensions are high in the Middle East. In the Midwest, non-Muslim mothers are scared to have their kid play in a playground because they don’t trust the muslims in their community. It was a point of contention in a recent episode of This American Life. Trump caught wind of this and blew it out of proportion, calling for a temporary ban on all Muslim immigrants. Trump undermines the real point. The issue has more to do with the divide between communities.
My grandfather opened his own laundromats after the war. He was able to sustain customers by doing business with everyone, even the people who didn’t like Chinese people. Tensions came down when they saw my grandfather as the average Joe trying to make a living. They connected with him by talking to him on a regular basis. And he did a damn fine job with their laundry.
I have this itch that we, as a collective, no longer talk with one another. The communities with such rising tension do not connect on empathetic levels. The headlines flood us with asserting blame on the growing immigrant population when really, we never took the time to interact. My call of action is to interact with people you don’t agree with. Try to understand where they are coming from, and understand circumstances are different.
I’m writing to you from London/Gatwick airport returning from holiday. From the last few days I was here, I noticed good portion of service-oriented business is run by immigrants. After a few conversations with locals about Brexit, I noticed some alarming parallels. Some politicians have convinced the country immigration is the issue rather than pointing out the harder question of the economy. My guess is it’s easier to scapegoat immigrants and play off this sentiment with the citizens. Again, my belief is communication is key for dissuading this argument.
My grandfather passed away before my first birthday. I wish I knew him more. I really want to have a conversation with him. Maybe about being an immigrant. More importantly, how he was able to convince people around him he was an American, assimilated. How he could operate a business with customers judging his allegiance to capitalism. But that won’t happen, and I can merely speculate. So the best I could do was scrap this together through second hand accounts, photographs, and letters.
I know a conversation is a start, and let’s continue this from now on. Tell me your immigrant story. Change my view on how I look at other cultures. The advice is concrete because the issues span generations.