Read an Excerpt
Asian American Dreams
The Emergence of an American People
By Helen Zia
Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 2000 Helen Zia
All rights reserved.
From Nothing, a Consciousness
"Little China doll, what's your name?"
This question always made me feel awkward. I knew there was something unwholesome in being seen as a doll, and a fragile china one at that. But, taught to respect my elders at all times, I would answer dutifully, mumbling my name.
"Zia," they would cluck and nod. "It means 'aunt' in Italian, you know?"
To me, growing up in New Jersey, along the New York-Philadelphia axis, it seemed almost everyone was a little Italian, or at least had an Italian aunt.
One day in the early 1980s, the routine changed unexpectedly. I was introduced to a colleague, a newspaper editor. Making small talk, he said, "Your name is very interesting ..." I noted his Euro-Anglo heritage and braced myself for yet another Italian lesson.
"Zia, hmm," he said. "Are you Pakistani?"
I nearly choked. For many people, Pakistan is not familiar geography. In those days it was inconceivable that a stranger might connect this South Asian, Pakistani name with my East Asian, Chinese face.
Through the unscientific process of converting Asian names into an alphabetic form, my romanized Chinese last name became identical to a common romanized Pakistani name. In fact, it was homonymous with a much despised ruler of Pakistan. Newspaper headlines about him read: "President Zia Hated by Masses" and "Pakistanis Cry, Zia Must Go." I'd clip out the headlines and send them to my siblings in jest. When President Zia's plane mysteriously crashed, I grew wary. After years of being mistaken for Japanese and nearly every other East Asian ethnicity, I added Pakistani to my list.
I soon discovered this would be the first of many such incidents. Zia Maria began to give way to Mohammad Zia ul-Haq. A new awareness of Asian Americans was emerging.
The abrupt change in my name ritual signaled my personal awakening to a modern-day American revolution in progress. In 1965, an immigration policy that had given racial preferences to Europeans for nearly two hundred years officially came to an end. Millions of new immigrants to America were no longer the standard vanilla but Hispanic, African, Caribbean, and — most dramatically for me — Asian. Though I was intellectually aware of the explosive growth in my community, I hadn't yet adjusted my own sense of self, or the way I imagined other Americans viewed me.
Up until then, I was someone living in the shadows of American society, struggling to find some way into a portrait that was firmly etched in white and, occasionally, black. And there were plenty of reminders that I wasn't relevant. Like the voices of my 1960s high school friends Rose and Julie. Rose was black, and Julie was white. One day we stood in the school yard, talking about the civil rights movement swirling around us, about cities engulfed in flames and the dreams for justice and equality that burned in each of us.
As I offered my thoughts, Rose abruptly turned to me and said, "Helen, you've got to decide if you're black or white." Stunned, I was unable to say that I was neither, that I had an identity of my own. I didn't know the words "Asian American." It was a concept yet to be articulated.
Somewhere between my school yard conversation and the confrontation with my Pakistani namesake, Asian Americans began to break through the shadows. By then we had already named ourselves "Asian American" and we were having raging debates and fantastic visions of an America we fit into. But few outside of Asian America cared about our shadow dreams.
Gradually we began to be visible, although not necessarily seen the way we wished. Then we had to discover what it meant to be in the light.
When I was growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, there were barely a half-million Asian Americans in the nation. Of those, only 150,000 were Chinese Americans — not enough to populate a small midwestern city. We made up less than 0.1 percent of the population. Most of us lived on the islands of Hawaii or in a few scattered Chinatown ghettoes.
My parents met in New York City's Chinatown in 1950. They were among the new wave of Northern Chinese who fled China as a result of the Japanese occupation, the devastation of World War II, and the rise of the Chinese Communist Party. My father, Yee Chen Zia, was a poet and scholar from the canaled, garden city of Suzhou, known as the Venice of China. Like many Chinese of his generation, he had been a patriotic warrior against Japan, later becoming a newspaper editor and a member of the Chinese diplomatic corps in the United States. After the war, he decided to settle in New York, taking on various odd jobs — cabdriver, Fuller Brush salesperson, Good Humor ice cream truck driver.
My mother, Beilin Woo, was raised not far from Suzhou, in the metropolis of Shanghai. She fled its postwar chaos as a tubercular teenager aboard the General Gordon, the last American ship to leave Shanghai before the Communist government took power. Her first task upon arrival at the port of San Francisco was to find a husband who could not only ensure her continued stay in the United States but also help her repay her sister for the cost of the passage to America.
Finding marriageable suitors was not a problem for women from Asia. For more than half a century before World War II, several racially discriminatory laws prohibited Asian men from becoming U.S. citizens or marrying outside their race. The United States also barred women from China, India, and the Philippines from immigrating. The combined impact of these prohibitions created generations of lonely Asian bachelor societies in America. But World War II forced the United States to change such policies, so obviously offensive to its allies in Asia as well as to the thousands of Asian and Asian American GIs fighting for America. The shameful citizenship laws were eventually repealed and women like my mother gained entry into the country.
Among the many Chinese American men who courted my mother at her boardinghouse near San Francisco's Chinatown was a bank clerk who had come all the way from New York City in search of a wife. His jovial disposition and stable job appealed to her, even though he said he was forty years old. They were married in Reno, Nevada, on October 31, 1949. My twenty-year-old mother was on her way to New York as Mrs. John Yee.
Communicating with her new husband, however, was not easy. Like the vast majority of Chinese in America at that time, he was from Canton Province, a thousand miles away from Shanghai. The language, customs, and even facial features of the regions' peoples were different. Their local Chinese dialects of Shanghainese and Cantonese were unintelligible to each other. Cantonese people were considered more easygoing, lighthearted in spirit and darker in complexion, while Northern Chinese were taller and thought to be arrogant and hot-tempered. To get around in Chinatown, my mother had to learn some Cantonese. In the meantime she and her husband communicated in a mixture of pidgin English and pidgin Cantonese.
They settled into a dank tenement on Henry Street, where many new arrivals made their first home in New York. It stands today, with the shared bathroom down the hall and the bathtub in the kitchen, still home to new generations of Chinese immigrants. A year later, my older brother was born. They named him Henry, after the street. Had he been a girl, they planned to name him Catherine, after the nearby cross street. During the day, Henry's father worked a few blocks away in Chatham Square, at the Bank of China, while my mother found new friends. New York's Chinatown had only 15,000 residents in 1950, compared to more than 100,000 in 1990; a tiny but growing number came from Shanghai and its neighboring cities of Hangzhou, Ningbo, Suzhou, and Nanjing. Bound by their similar dialects and regional cuisine, which were so unlike those of the larger Cantonese community surrounding them, the Shanghainese speakers congregated at the curio shop of a Mrs. Fung, on the corner of Doyers and Pell. That's where my mother met my father.
When Henry was still an infant, his father suffered a massive stroke and died. From his death certificate my mother learned that her husband was ten years older than he had disclosed. The young widow was eligible for marriage again in the Chinatown society, with my father in pursuit. Months later they wed and moved to Newark, New Jersey, where my father was trying, unsuccessfully, to run a small furniture store. I soon came on the scene, another member of the post — World War II Asian American baby boom.
On a clear day the Manhattan skyline is visible from Newark, but the insular familiarity of Chinatown was worlds away. Outside of Chinatown it was rare to encounter another person of Chinese or other Asian descent. In Newark and the various New Jersey communities where we later moved, the only way to meet Asians was to stop complete strangers on the street, while shopping, or at the bus stop — anywhere that we happened to see the occasional person who looked like us. At an A&P supermarket checkout counter, my mother met her friend Sue, who came to the United States as a war bride, having married a GI during the postwar occupation of Japan. The animosity between China and Japan that brought both women to New Jersey was never an issue. Each was so thrilled to find someone like herself.
Auntie Sue and her son Kim, who was of mixed race, white and Japanese, were regular visitors to our home. Though our mothers bonded readily, it was harder for their Asian American kids to connect simply because we looked alike. Mom and Auntie Sue had the shared experience of leaving their war-ravaged Asian homes for a new culture, but Kim and I shared little except for our Asian features; we stuck out like yellow streaks on a white-and-black canvas. Outside of Chinatown, looking Asian meant looking foreign, alien, un-American. The pressure on us was to fit in with the "American" kids we looked so unlike, to conform and assimilate. Why would we want to be around other Asian kids who reminded us of our poor fit? At the tender age of six, I already felt different from the "real" Americans. I didn't feel comfortable with Kim and sensed his ambivalence to me. But the joke was on us, because no matter how hard we might try to blend in with the scenery, our faces gave us away.
Still, I was proud to be Chinese. Mom and Dad filled us with stories about their childhoods in China. Dad was born in 1912, one year after the founding of the Chinese Republic, and was imbued with a deep love for his native country. He was the second son of a widow who was spurned by her in-laws. His mother sold her own clothes to pay for his schooling. She beat my father every day so that he would study harder — this he told us proudly whenever we slacked off. Dad modeled his life after the ideal of the Confucian scholar- official: by studying assiduously he won academic honors and scholarships and achieved recognition as a poet and writer. China's system of open examinations was the foundation of the civil service — a Chinese creation, Dad pointedly reminded us as he turned the TV off. Studying hard, he said, was a time-honored route to advancement for even the poorest Chinese.
Mom grew up in Shanghai under the Japanese occupation. From the time she was a small child she lived with a fear and dislike of Japanese soldiers. Because of the war, her education was disrupted and she never went beyond the fourth grade — a source of regret that made her value education for her children. Mom's childhood memories were of wartime hardships and days spent picking out grains of rice from the dirt that had been mixed in as a way to tip the scales. Her stories taught me to be proud of the strength and endurance of the Chinese people.
Dad told us about our heritage. When other children made fun of us, or if news reports demeaned China, he reminded us that our ancestors wore luxurious silks and invented gunpowder while Europeans still huddled naked in caves. Of course, I knew that Europeans had discovered clothing, too, but the image was a reassuring one for a kid who didn't fit. My father wanted us to speak flawless English to spare us from ridicule and the language discrimination he faced. He forbade my mother to speak to us in Chinese, which was hard, since Mom spoke little English then. We grew up monolingual, learning only simple Chinese expressions — che ve le, "Come and eat" — and various Shanghainese epithets, like the popular phrase for a naughty child — fei si le, or "devilish to death." Dad also expected us to excel in school, since, he said, our Asian cranial capacities were larger than those of any other race. Pulling out the Encyclopaedia Britannica to prove his point, he'd make us study the entry, then test us to make sure we got the message. He told us about the Bering Strait and the land bridge from Asia to America, saying that we had a right to be in this country because we were cousins to the Native Americans.
These tidbits were critical to my self-esteem. In New Jersey, it was so unusual to see a person of Asian descent that people would stop what they were doing to gawk rudely at my family wherever we went. When we walked into a store or a diner, we were like the freak show at Barnum & Bailey's circus, where Chinese were displayed as exotic creatures in the late 1800s, along with the two-headed dog. A sense of our own heritage and worth gave us the courage and cockiness to challenge their rudeness and stare down the gawkers.
What Mom and Dad couldn't tell us was what it meant to be Chinese in America. They didn't know — they were just learning about America themselves. We found little help in the world around us. Asians were referred to most often as Orientals, Mongols, Asiatics, heathens, the yellow hordes, and an assortment of even less endearing terms. Whatever the terminology, the message was clear: we were definitely not Americans.
There is a drill that nearly all Asians in America have experienced more times than they can count. Total strangers will interrupt with the absurdly existential question "What are you?" Or the equally common inquiry "Where are you from?" The queries are generally well intentioned, made in the same detached manner that you might use to inquire about a pooch's breed.
My standard reply to "What are you?" is "American," and to "Where are you from?" "New Jersey." These, in my experience, cause great displeasure. Eyebrows arch as the questioner tries again. "No, where are you really from?" I patiently explain that, really, I am from New Jersey. Inevitably this will lead to something like "Well then, what country are your people from?" Sooner or later I relent and tell them that my "people" are from China. But when I turn the tables and ask, "And what country are your people from?" the reply is invariably an indignant "I'm from America, of course."
The sad truth was that I didn't know much about my own history. I knew that Chinese had built the railroads, and then were persecuted. That was about it. I didn't know that in the 1700s a group of Filipinos settled in Louisiana, or that in 1825 the first Chinese was born in New York City. I didn't know that Asian laborers were brought to the Americas as a replacement for African slaves — by slave traders whose ships had been rerouted from Africa to Asia. I didn't even know that Japanese Americans had been imprisoned only a decade before my birth. Had I known more about my Asian American history I might have felt less foreign. Instead, I grew up thinking that perhaps China, a place I had never seen, was my true home, since so many people didn't think I belonged here.
I did figure out, however, that relations between America and any Asian nation had a direct impact on me. Whenever a movie about Japan and World War II played at the local theater, my brothers and I became the enemy. It didn't matter that we weren't Japanese — we looked Japanese. What's worse, by now my family had moved to a new housing development, one of the mass-produced Levittowns close to Fort Dix, the huge army base. Most of our neighbors had some connection to the military.
At the Saturday matinee, my brothers and I would sit with all the other kids in town watching the sinister Zero pilots prepare to ambush their unsuspecting prey, only to be thwarted by the all-American heroes — who were, of course, always white. These movies would have their defining moment, that crescendo of emotion when the entire theater would rise up, screaming, "Kill them, kill them, kill them!" — them being the Japanese. When the movie was over and the lights came on, I wanted to be invisible so that my neighbors wouldn't direct their patriotic fervor toward me.
Excerpted from Asian American Dreams by Helen Zia. Copyright © 2000 Helen Zia. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.