Chinese Where Everyone Else is Black Or White
Southern Fried Riceis
the story of Chinese immigrants who came to Macon, Georgia, in the late 1920,
where they were the only Chinese people. They operated a laundry with the
help of their children until the early 1950s when we moved to San Francisco.
was our ethnic identity like growing up in Macon as the only Chinees during an
era when Jim Crow segregation was still unchallenged? Mother and father only
knew how children in China were reared, but they felt it was important for us
to feel and know what it meant to be Chinese. Even though we may not have heard
the actual term, filial piety, we always tried to honor and respect our
parents. They often stressed to us the overriding importance ofli(acting
with proper etiquette) in dealing with other people. But they soon recognized
that we children were strongly influenced by our exposure to American
influences outside the home and that we were definitely attracted to American
values. But even if we children wanted to be accepted as Whites, what was
the reaction of Whites toward us? Did they see or accept us children as their
equals or did they see us as foreign "heathens" or perhaps, as
something in between? And, to a lesser extent, how did the Negroes, as they
were called in that time, define us racially? Growing up in isolation from
other Chinese was one matter. In addition, the lack of Chinese role models in
books, magazines, or movies also limited our ability to fully understand what
being Chinese in America meant. Most, if not all, of the depictions of Chinese
were negative during that era.
I did suffer the negative sting of the single Chinese character
that I was exposed to as a child from reading the comic book,Blackhawk. This American hero was the leader of a squadron of 6 or 7
fighter pilots, whose war adventures in each issue involved fighting villains
such as the Axis powers. The squadron was multi-ethnic, with Blackhawk, the
American leading a group that included a Frenchman, Dutchman, Norwegian, and
even a Chinaman named Chop Chop. All the heroes wore blue uniforms, had
revolvers, and flew their own planes, but Chop Chop wore Chinese-looking garb,
had a pigtail, buck teeth, sat in the back seat of Blackhawk's plane, and ran
around with his meat cleaver as his weapon but usually he was cast as a
buffoon. He was about as good as it got as far as there being a positive
Chinese male model. Chinese female characters were even less frequent and never
portrayed in a positive way.
Consequently, it should be no surprise that I was conflicted about
being identified as Chinese when I was growing up learning of these
connotations. I must admit that I was often confused, or in conflict, about
what ethnic identity to adopt. I wanted to be Chinese, but at the same time I
wanted to be white. Wanting to be black, was not an attractive option because
white society oppressed blacks. I wanted to align with the group in power.
Still, I knew I could never pass or be completely accepted by whites, and that
probably may have led me to either feel sorry for myself or resent my parents.
Learning About Racial Issues in Macon
As a child, I really did not know much about
white supremacist organizations such as the Klu Klux Klan until one year there
was a proposal to allow Colored People to sit in the balcony of the Rialto
Theatre, a Whites only theater. The KKK had a rally and march one evening in
front of the theater, and the proposal was quickly abandoned. I was naïve or
unaware of any other threats of racial violence, but I was well aware that
Colored People were second-class citizens. For example, in any store the clerks
always waited on whites before they waited on Negroes, even if the latter had
been there first.
While mother and father harbored no racial antagonism
against Negroes, they were probably influenced by the social consequences of
white supremacist attitudes of Southern society. They saw that the power and
control was in White hands, and that Negroes always had the lowest status. They
recognized that this situation was so because White society treated Colored
People unfairly. Mother sometimes would cite the prejudicial way in which
Whites treated Colored People as a warning to use that white racist attitudes
can be used against us as well.
Because we were neither White nor Colored, and as we
constituted only one family, we were usually treated the same as if we were
White. As Chinese, we were sometimes targets of racial curiosity and ridicule,
although we certainly did not suffer the severity of discrimination, and
certainly not the level of violence, faced by Colored People. In fact, many
White People, especially those with some education, treated us kindly and with
concern. Nonetheless, they could not understand how we saw the world as they
knew little about Chinese values and upbringing. For the most part, the contact
was superficial or even patronizing.
Since our family was the only Chinese, or even Asian,
for that matter, family, we were treated as individuals rather than as a group.
While we were second-class citizens in some respects, and were sometimes
taunted or teased as slant eyed foreigners with strange customs, we were not
nearly as oppressed as were the Negroes. Thus, whereas Colored people had to
adhere to strict segregationist policies in which there were separate drinking
fountains, public restrooms, schools, theaters, and sections on public buses
for Whites and for Colored, we were allowed to use the facilities reserved for
Whites. Still, we felt the sting and fear of racial oppression, especially
because from an early age, mother continually cautioned us about how
discriminatory Whites were against Chinese. For example, during the Second
World War, children would come by the laundry and taunt them with cries of
Chinese eat rats.
We were taught to expect prejudice and how to react to
it. She probably was a bit more paranoid than was warranted, but it was
certainly understandable how she would have such a perception. She wanted to
protect her children by erring on the safe side.
Interestingly, some Negroes, or "Colored
People" as they were labeled in the Deep South in that era, were as guilty
as Whites when it came to showing racial hostility of Chinese. Some of the
Negro customers would harass, tease, or even make threats. We learned to ignore
taunts, some which were made more out of ignorance than hostile intent, because
we were powerless to object.
Unless we looked in the mirror, we would probably not
know we were different physically from whites and blacks. However, people
around us, white as well as black, frequently made it abundantly clear to us
that we were different. Some of this attention involved honest curiosity,
although some of it may have been insensitive. At other times, we were
belittled or ridiculed.