Being Chinese Where Everyone Else is Black Or White

Southern Fried Rice is 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.


What 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 of li (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 na├»ve 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.