A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Program Three: "No Turning Back"

World War II ushered in the beginning of major changes for the Chinese in America. At war with Japan, China became an American ally. In an abrupt about face, Chinese Americans found themselves suddenly embraced by America's political establishment, and the exclusion laws were quickly repealed. To fuel the war effort, Chinese men and women moved into factory jobs, the military service and other arenas formerly closed to them. With this integration into mainstream American society, barriers of racism started to dissolve. But it was in the late sixties, as Civil Rights laws and the 1965 Immigration Reform Act took effect, that Chinese Americans began their rise to the pinnacle of U.S. life. Part Three of BECOMING AMERICAN: The Chinese Experience focuses on the personal dimensions of this contemporary experience. With legal obstacles removed, Chinese American families who have lived in this country for generations and a massive new wave of young, highly educated and upwardly mobile Chinese immigrants have struggled with the true meaning of becoming American. Today an author and college professor, Shawn Wong grew up idolizing Roy Rogers and Willie Mays like many American boys of his generation. "My mother used to tell me 'We're Chinese and you're Chinese American,'" he recalls, laughing. "I had no idea what that was, I didn't know what the difference was!"

For author and activist Helen Zia and many other Chinese Americans, the last three decades have been a time of political awakening inspired by the Civil Rights movement. They have forged a new Asian American identity, which was at first an alien notion to American descendents of Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino immigrants. One landmark in the development of a pan-Asian identity was the murder of Vincent Chin in Detroit. In the late 70s, pressure from Japanese automobile imports had forced massive layoffs in the American auto industry and gave rise to virulent anti-Japanese feelings. Celebrating his imminent marriage at a local bar, Chinese American Vincent Chin was mistaken for Japanese by two white Americans on the night of his bachelor party. They argued with him, followed him as he left the bar and beat Chin to death. The two attackers plea-bargained to manslaughter charges, and they were sentenced to probation and $3,720 in fines and court fees. This galvanizing event brought Asian Americans together in protest and supported the growing realization that they could be a more effective political force if they worked together.

With a traditional cultural emphasis on education and an understanding that it was the most promising path to success in America, some Chinese immigrant parents have pushed their children to excel in their studies. Jerry Yang, a founder of Yahoo, recalls that his mother required him to memorize words from the dictionary every day. And quizzed him. Jean Tang, a student at Stanford Medical School, remembers that getting a B in school caused her mother to break into tears. Her parents worked 365 days a year running a children's clothing store to establish a foothold in America. As a child, Tang constantly absorbed the message that she was personally responsible for ensuring that her family's circumstances improve. Such drive, deeply rooted in Chinese family tradition and Confucian belief, may offer one explanation for the enormous success on the part of Chinese Americans, and their growing impact on the U.S. culture and economy. It has also earned them and other Asians the label as a "Model Minority." Flattering and discomforting at the same time, this stereotype obscures the wide diversity of circumstances among Chinese Americans — from the educational elite which disproportionately populates America's top universities to the sweatshop laborers in America's Chinatowns, too busy to learn English much less help their children to prepare for school. The image of the Chinese in America has fluctuated through the nation's history, right up to the present. One constant, however, has been their identification as "foreign." Michelle Ling, born in St. Louis, constantly battles the perception that she is an outsider. She tells Moyers, "I am an American, but I have to become an American to everybody else all the time." He asks her why that is, and she responds candidly, "I don't know. You tell me, you're the white guy!"