Walking up the stairs of the Grand Street station, I can already smell the fish, hear my parent’s native language, and see the haphazard sprawl of cardboard boxes and stalls maintained by bored vendors on the prowl for customers. Like every other tourist who visits New York’s Chinatown, I love feeling as if I just hopped off the plane in Hong Kong. But after reading Peter Kwong’s Forbidden Workers, I began to realize that my romantic notion of Chinatown was perhaps a bit naive; it made me think twice about my role as a Williams College student and a child of immigrants.
Professor Kwong of Hunter College notes several factors that often prevent poor immigrants from leaving Chinatown. Their inability to speak English makes them easy prey to labor, housing and education violations. These workers often work at wages of two to three dollars an hour, and employers are known to hold back wages for several months. Even if government officials are aware of flagrant violations, these problems are ignored.
In 1995, New York Governor George Pataki crossed a picket line to give the “Outstanding Asian-American Award” to a restaurant owner already charged by the State Attorney’s office of flagrant labor violations. The low income and lack of government intervention mean that many residents suffer abysmal living conditions, even sharing beds in shifts.
It is ironic that our society can be so adamant about China’s stance on human rights, yet could not care less about sweatshops in our own backyard. The lack of attention and awareness of these abuses and the general tendency to turn a blind eye to these problems also illustrates the general lack of interest in the poor parts of the Asian-American community. The “model minority” stereotype we see in the media and even on our campus prevents the less successful immigrants from getting the attention they deserve in debates centered on the poor.
Two summers ago, I coordinated the only scholarship competition based on academic achievement and financial need for Asian-American high school seniors. It was a heartbreaking process, as there were a limited number of awards available for so many hard-working students who deal with significant academic and financial obstacles. It is interesting to note that on elite campuses such as Williams, Asian-American students from poor families or traditionally poor ethnic groups such as Hmong and Cambodians are almost nonexistent.
Second generation Asian-Americans or those of any other ethnic group need to be aware that opportunities are still not equally accessible. Indeed, the lack of unity in the Asian-American community can be attributed to the fact that there is a huge divide between those who are economically well off and those who are not. If every single immigrant came to America with only ten dollars, they would identify very well with each other. (The cultural blend in Hawaii today has been attributed to a common immigration history.) Instead, the radically different background of each Asian-American has created a community divided between those who feel as if they do not need to fight for educational, economic and political opportunities, and those who do.
Perhaps it is inevitable for any society to have a sharp gap between the rich and poor. But consider that Asian-Americans, regardless of how many generations their families have been here, will always be commented on our superb handling of the English language. Consider that Senator John McCain never considered it a political liability to use the word “gook” in his presidential campaign. Consider that there are few, if any, famous Asian-American actors/actresses besides kung-fu artists. We have the weakest voice and representation in politics, the workplace and the media. Perhaps it would be to our benefit to nourish and strengthen a talented and dynamic community that would make the exceptional Asian-Americans we know “normal.”