Fujianese Migrants Long Road To Integration

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credit: BBC

In the 90s, before Taylor Swift brought all-day brunches to Williamsburg-Brooklyn, our family ran a tiny takeout shop on Marcy Avenue.  We were sandwiched between a KFC and a discount sneaker outlet.  It had all the familiar features of a dicey urban neighborhood that realtors stayed away from. Sirens were a norm.  Shootings were a norm.  Robberies were a norm.  And it wasn’t an accident that we ended up there.

Like every new group of migrants seeking opportunities in America, many Fujianese found themselves in the middle of a country torn by racism and inequality.  What was unique about our experience was that discrimination often stemmed from groups of earlier Chinese migrants.  Some went as far as petitioning for recently arrived Fujianese to undergo extra scrutiny from the immigration officials.  Most were driven by fear of new migrants who undercut wages and vehemently marked their territory across old Chinatown.  This is an unfortunate and cyclical issue with America’s relationship with newcomers.  For my dad (and thousands of other Fujianese), it means having to look into the deep corners of America’s forgotten streets, often in neighborhoods stigmatized by crime and poverty.

The same year I arrived here, my dad found what would be his jumpstart into entrepreneurship.  At the corner of Marcy and Broadway, he worked seven days a week manning the shop.  Over the course of eight years, he carved out a niche for himself.  We also integrated with the community.  My mom would often take us shopping in the adjacent discount outlet where she befriended the Ecuadorian landlady and her husband.  For the first five years of my stay here, that’s where I got all my Jordans.

This city of dreams can also be a city of disillusion.  Several times I’d follow my uncle while he picked up supplies for the restaurant.  We’d drive through hundred million dollar condos catering to the billionaires of the world.  Not two miles north, we’d also drive through homeless shelters catering to the hungry.  A tell tale sign is the prevalence of bulletproof shields in every establishment.  My parents had elected to remove the inch-thick glass off our counter.  That empty groove where the shield sat symbolizes the true investment that migrants make when they move here.  To my dad, building trust with the community was key to building a living and a shield would just get in the way.  The stories of struggling immigrants coexisting together in these rough edges of urban America is all too common and rarely shared, but complicated nonetheless.

I returned one Friday evening from school and my grandparents rushed me out of our 13-story apartment.  They’d told me that something terrible had happened.  Yes – my parents are equally esoteric in a panic but you know it’s serious when they hailed a cab instead of waiting for the train.  As we arrived, I see the flashing light from the ambulance and paramedics sauntering about.  Now I’m panicking.  I’m panicking at the stupidity of removing the shield while everyone else had it up.  As we walked closer, I saw a lady panting heavily by the paramedic and my parents eagerly asking me to translate, pointing to the styrofoam box of rice:

“There is nothing inedible in here!” They shouted at me.  “Explain this to them.”

Confused but relieved, I tried to figure out what had happened from the paramedics.  I learned that a customer (the lady on the ambulance) had gotten sick.  She found a piece of star anise in her rice and was adamant that we’ve tried to poison her, threatening to get the health inspectors involved.  In what might have been the greatest cultural misunderstanding of my upbringing, I chuckled at the claim and soon the commotion died off.  My dad was on edge for the entire following week.

There’s a popular rumor that during Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, he received 200 grams of an incredibly rare tea (Da Hong Pao) from the Chinese Premier.  Nixon snubbed at the gift, insulted at the small quantity of tea.  The premier proceeded to explain that this type of tea was so rare and difficult to harvest that it took a group of farmers six months to accumulate the mere 200 grams sitting in front of him. I can’t vouch for the veracity of the story, but similar stories are told across all Fujianese American families.  The reality is that if it wasn’t for migrants, forgotten American communities would remain forgotten, the economy wouldn’t thrive through cultural diversity and ingenuity, no one would be willing to clean up after your sick grandparents, or cook for you at a minimum wage.  The drive for a slice of the American dream is what tolerates millions of migrants living on the fringes.  What’s even more important is that one day the fringes will eventually become the center. At which point, you in your full American glory will have to decide if you should give your fellow migrants a shot at the American dream too.  

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3 Reasons Why Fujianese Are Literally Everywhere

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credit: Taiwanese Secrets

There is an annual tradition in ChangLe where thousands of devout spiritualists would parade through the town to celebrate the birthday of Guan Gong, ushering the Gods and Goddesses from one temple to another.  The ceremony was followed by towering guard costumes, protecting the lords and subsequently, the fortune of our village.

In hindsight, this parade totally flies against our perception of a Maoist vision for China.  A vision where the great “leap” requires letting go of the past we’ve relied on to carve out our identities.  A deeper dive into Fujianese history would suggest that this freedom of cultural/religious expression is driven largely by the deep rooted migratory culture.

The Stomping Ground for International Trades

As early as the 15th century, Xiamen (major port city in Fujian) became a dominant hub for exchanges between China and Southeast Asian countries.  For 400 years right through the Qing Dynasty, Fujianese merchants explored far into the Pacific Islands.  This helped to establish Fujianese (Hokkienese) communities in neighboring countries such as Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines.The network was so extensive that I have even run across Mexicans who can trace their lineage back to Fujian.

A Lesson In Maoist Poverty

No other countries have stronger Fujianese ties than Taiwan.  The rise of Maoism drove the Nationalist movement out of China and into the neighboring strait of Taiwan.  This raised the political tension between the two states and left Fujian in the middle of the dispute. For the next few decades, fear of a Nationalist resurgence led the Communist government to minimize economic development in Fujian, forcing the once thriving exchange economy into agricultural labor.  The irony is that this policy further strengthened the relationship among the Fujianese and Taiwanese. Over the course of 30 years, the Taiwanese government developed migration brokerage programs to aid Fujianese with immigration around the world, including South America, Eastern Europe, and the U.S.

A Generation Aspired

Communism ushered in a whole new period of economic uncertainty.  Annual household income in the ‘70s for Fujianese were less than $300/year.  Migrants in Europe and North America were making around $1,000/month! Stories of successful migrants quickly permeated and inspired a positive feedback loop that led to millions of Fujianese migrating abroad.  

Remittance or the money sent back to their family compelled a whole new set of cultural values for migration and entrepreneurship.  In 1995, officials had estimated that hundreds of millions of dollars were transferred back to Fujian from countries all over.  On top of this sudden and ostentatious wealth, migrant funds were used to develop public projects such as schools, entertainment and cultural centers.  Parades, such as the Guan Gong Ceremony, were suddenly tolerated by the once secular government. In fact, governments openly praised the migrants and went as far as sponsoring foreign employment.  To the communities in these villages, migrants were considered heroes who collectively (through their sacrifice) brought them out of poverty.

Brazilian boys wanted to play like Pele.  Kids from the south-side of Chicago want to be like Jordan. American millennials want to be the next Zuckerberg.  In the ‘70s, Fujianese boys fresh from high school aspired to travel the world in search of a windfall.  The stories fueled a whole new generation of young men looking to move abroad (by legal and illegal means).  Some found successes while others discovered tragedy through these perilous journeys.  What’s remarkable is that these young men would go on to create transnational communities with cross cultural identities that even the Gods and Goddesses themselves could not have foreseen.

REF: Transnational Chinese

How To Say Yes To Fear

In 2016, I started a morning journaling process which involves setting aside a few minutes every morning to reflect on a set of questions.  One of the questions I ask myself is, “what is stressing me out and what can I do to stop this?”  This is a technique borrowed from Tim Ferriss (Tools Of Titans).

Initially I was just doing it for the sake of the exercise.  Over time, this accounting routine shed some new perspectives on my actions and decisions.  Examples run across the whole gamut of my life.  I was stressed about work and the ever increasing burden of chasing productivity and innovation.  I was stressed about our investors and tenants.  And as most Asian Americans can commiserate, I was stressed about being the perfect son, brother, cousin, filial piety, etc.  The realization was that these thoughts consumed my consciousness and played a massive role in driving a majority of the decisions I was making.  And that sent me on an existential journey to explore why.  Why do we make so many of our decisions based on fear/avoidance instead of love/want? More importantly, how can we manage our fear so that we can rationally make big decisions?

A half a year of browsing and interviewing psychologists and world experts has led me to piece together 3 mental tools that have made a drastic difference in managing my fear:

Step 1. Acknowledgement – “I am scared and I want you all to know”

The first step to managing fear is to simply acknowledge that it exists to yourself and if necessary, to your audience, and your greatest critics.  This helps to produce two miraculous side-effects:

Once you admit to the world that you ARE scared, you strip the power away from your critics (which often includes yourself).  If the only ammunition that people have against you is your own fear, then proactively sharing that with the world eliminates their ability to harm you… leaving them with no option but to actually pay attention to the content of your work, the real you.

This display of vulnerability can also improve your likeability scores.  Studies have shown that strategic displays of weakness will actually increase your social standing.  The psychology behind this phenomenon stems from our desire to empathize with other’s imperfections.  This is illustrated in 1998, when Clinton admitted to his extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky and his approval rating actually skyrocketed.  This also explains why we fall in love with seemingly flawed characters like Don Draper (Mad Men), Homer Simpson, Michael Scott (The Office) and the list goes on.  In acknowledging your fear, you’ll quickly learn that everyone is struggling with the same anxiety and your vulnerability creates a window for real human connections.

Step 2. Rationalize Worst Case Scenario – “What’s the worst that can happen?”

Another tool you can use to manage fear is to simply ask yourself “what is the worst thing that can happen?”  This is a powerful question because it helps to address the misalignment between our reptilian brain and our modern existence.  

To illustrate this, let’s travel back in time 5,000 years and imagine that you’re standing in front of a saber tooth tiger.  Your reptilian brain, which is this primitive and instinctive portion of your Central Nervous System, will instantly process 3 questions:

  1. Can I eat it? No.  
  2. Can I have sex with it? Definitely not.  
  3. Should I run?  Yes.  

And you’ll immediately start feeling adrenaline pumping through your veins. This is incredibly important 5,000 years ago because your survival depends on it.

Now, let’s transport you back to today and you’re sitting in your boardroom teaming with lawyers, C-suites, and other powersuits.  You’ve selected a seat way in the back corner of a room.  Someone raised a question that you’re particularly interested/knowledgeable about but instead of confidently voicing your input, your reptilian brain kicks into gear. The same physiological response causes your heart to race, unable to tap into any intelligible thoughts because your body is worried about imminent danger.

Here is where you’d want to ask yourself what’s the worst that can happen. You’re certainly not going to get attacked by a saber tooth tiger but we seemingly react in the same fashion.  By examining the worst case scenarios, you’re short circuiting this response. The reality is that we’re living in a very safe and comfortable world.  Let’s follow the trail of plausible worst case scenarios:  You might get fired.  You might not be able to afford living alone.  You might have to move back in with your parents.  You might have to live on unemployment benefits.  If your parents are gone, you might need to stay at a shelter until you find a new job. It’s nowhere near as bad as getting your face chewed off by a tiger.  This is a great exercise because it forces you to think fast and slow about the potential consequences which often isn’t as dire as you think it is.

Step 3. Starving Your Fear – “I’ve rationalized my fear and I need to act”

This is a key mental tool purported by Grant Cardone (10X Rule) and Jeff Bezos (The Everything Store).  Fear feeds on time.  In other words, the more time you spend ruminating on fear, the greater control it’ll dictate over you and your decisions.  Once you’ve rationalized your worst case scenarios, you’ve got nothing left but to act.  Bezos calls it a bias for action, a bias to actively pursue your wants rather than living a life of aversion and fear.

Our struggle with fear has profound effects on our lives and wellbeing but it’s ever so present. Society is structured around fear.  As a child, we are taught that if we don’t complete our assignments we’ll be punished with bad grades.  If we don’t do our chores, we’ll be punished by our parents.  If we don’t study for the SAT, you’ll be punished with rejection from top universities. If we don’t meet this deadline/quota, we’ll be fired and have to live in squalour.  Our whole upbringing and existence is designed around fear so it’s actually common for everyone to feel disillusioned about the true impetus behind our lives. Lastly, it’s important to recognize that the tools outlined above aren’t a panacea but rather a starting point to living a more fearless existence.

 

REMEMBRANCE: FROM MAOISM TO NYC

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credit: Zhang YiMou – To Live

“You can never come back again.” An opera singer once told me in a dream.  This was a dream I had the week before I boarded a flight to U.S. permanently.

To provide some context, my grandpa was a devout Daoist and he used to host Chinese opera events for our local theater.  So it wasn’t unusual that there are random opera performers in my subconscious mind.  However, I’ve always had an awkward relationship with religion.  At the time, my grandpa had arranged for an entire floor in our building to be set aside as an altar for Daoist practices.  It was like his personal man cave … except festooned with demonic buddhist figures and year-round burning incense.

The year before I arrived in New York, he planned this elaborate Daoist ceremony to bless me and my cousins for this upcoming trip.  We were on our knees, bowing over a busy table, awaiting instructions from everyone.  Over the course of the next few hours, we stayed there as the priests chanted and danced around us which punctuated with him projectile spitting on the backs of our necks.

“Don’t clean it off!” My grandma screamed at us.  “It’ll bring you good luck!”  I just remembered thinking maybe this whole religion business isn’t for me…

While religion dominated his life, my grandpa was also an incredibly loving man.  Being the eldest grandson I was easily spoiled.  He always had candy in his chest pocket, ready to reward us whenever he saw us.  We made regular trips to the local theater, which I’ve always seen as an opportunity to score free confections and to take a long nap.  At closing, he’d carry me back home on his shoulders with one hand directing the route with a flashlight.  Street lighting was not a priority in a country still struggling with its identity.

An Unusually Common Story

My grandpa became of age during the cultural revolution.  According to family stories, his father was a wealthy financier, a successful entrepreneur, who squandered his money on gambling and women.  This was an unusually common trait of wealthy Chinese men at the time.  When Mao’s Red Army swept through the south, his assets were seized by the government.  His fortunes were not only squandered but also confiscated and left with a tiny parcel of land to farm on.  Stigmatized by everyone and foreign to menial labour, my great-grandfather soon passed away, leaving my grandpa to carry the family forward.

Over the course of the next twenty years, a sequence of global events led to the mass migration of Chinese to the U.S. It’s difficult to pinpoint what sparked this cascade of events.  A few decades before, Deng XiaoPing (former Premier of China) had implemented sweeping economic reform which opened up the Chinese labor market to the world.  It could also be Bush Senior’s foreign policy to recognize the 1-child policy as a human right’s violation which sparked an influx of Chinese asylum seekers.  Whatever that may be, hundreds of thousands of Fujianese migrated to the U.S. during this period, including my parents.  This left my grandparents with an empty nest and a long yearning to reunite with the whole family, which wouldn’t happen for almost another 10 years.

Moving One Last Time

It was a difficult decision that he has put off for decades: to maintain his roots in HouYu or be closer to his family in the United States?  After a string of health issues, my grandpa finally moved to the U.S. at the tender age of 70.

Greeted by all his children and grandchildren, he was frail but still carried candy in his breast pocket.  This man, once full of energy, needed our help to walk up the steps to his apartment in Chinatown.  His entire Daoist temple had now been reduced to a tiny diorama on an overhead shelf.  Truth be hold – this tiny apartment in downtown NYC was probably worth more than his entire house in HouYu.

During his last few months with us, his memories faded quickly.  He hallucinated about being back by the countryside. He forgot our names.  And as everyone was there to console my grandma, I couldn’t help but marvel at the life that this man had lived through.  The truth is, we all have grandparents who have lived incredible lives filled with unimaginable stories. These are the stories that led to the becoming of us.  These are the same stories that will take us back to them again.

 

Thanksgiving: A Fujianese American New Year

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credit: Eater DC

I remember dashing through the busy streets of East Broadway, trying to avoid a head-on collision with the giant moving pallet of dragon fruits.  In the distance, skillfully dodging through the sea of people; my mother was picking out baskets of persimmons; haggling and calling my dad simultaneously.  This describes a typical week leading up to Thanksgiving for my family.

Thanksgiving is arguably the most celebrated holiday for Fujianese Americans–even more so than Chinese New Year.  The importance of Thanksgiving in Fujianese culture can be seen all over major Fujianese American hubs, particularly, East Broadway. During this holiday, the population balloons as restaurant workers and families migrate into the city and embrace each other over meals in overcrowded stalls.  You’ll see young men line up by barber shops waiting to get coiffed, while ladies with Gucci bags push large carts filled with seafood and greens.  If you’re Fujianese, you’ll likely run into old friends or distant relatives since entire villages of Fujianese have literally been transplanted onto these narrow blocks.  To many, this holiday is a luxury; a day free of worry from mortgages or finding a cook.

Dollars and Sense

To figure out why this whole group of people have identified Thanksgiving as their national day off, we have to turn to the dominant occupation of FJ Americans: Restaurateurs; many of whom are carrying massive financial burdens to support their families and pay off snakeheads.  Out of necessity, traditional American and Chinese holidays transformed into opportunities.  While most American restaurant owners may be away celebrating New Year or Christmas, Chinese restaurants and dumpling parlors remain open for business.  When Justice Elena Kagan was asked how she spent her previous Christmas, she famously replied: “You know, like all Jews, I was probably at a Chinese Restaurant.”  Senator Chuck Schumer then explained, “If I might, no other restaurants are open.”  These quotes provide further evidence of Thanksgiving as a natural middle ground for opportunistic Fujianese restaurateurs.

A Cultural Convention

On any given Thanksgiving day, you may notice columns of stretched limousines, battling traffic between banquets.  These drivers are servicing the myriad of Fujianese couples who eagerly squeezed their wedding celebration into this holiday in an attempt to attract families and friends.  There was that one year when our family was invited to three weddings on the same day and my dad RSVPed me to all three. Beyond weddings, congregations of Fujianese socialites and businessmen find opportunities to meet, network, and celebrate.  From old high school reunions to former co-workers, the streets of Chinatown bustle like the national Fujianese Convention.  To some families, this was the perfect venue to find a match for their sons and daughters.  Even yours truly has had that awkward surprised matchmaking encounter. It’s simply a rite of passage for your Fujianese upbringing :).

For a holiday with such a strong emphasis on gratitude, it’s fitting that hundreds of thousands of Fujianese have embraced Thanksgiving as their own.  The dinner table is often covered with elaborate meals that Grandma’s been prepping for days.  In the tiny NYC apartment, generations of aunts, uncles, cousins, and nieces huddle around each other as they joke and exchange stories.  In that single moment, we’re not only able to escape our everyday monotony, but also to express our appreciation for the opportunities (however harsh and unrelenting) that this country has afforded us.  And that’s worthy of our thanks.  

Embracing Mental Health in the Asian Community with Dr. Cindy Liu

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credit: pixabay

We’ve all had that quiet and antisocial friend in college; the friend whom you’ve adored but also  brushed off as merely introverted. Underneath that layer of good grades and silence, that friend could really be struggling emotionally with an immense amount of anxiety and depression.

I’ve experienced this personally with an old college friend who struggled for many years to get treatment.  He even went as far as dropping out of college in pursuit of a solution.  It wasn’t until almost a decade later that I learned about his bout with depression.  Luckily he is now receiving treatment and doing well.  However, I (along with the general Asian community) am guilty.  We’re guilty of often ignoring these indicators as mere “antisocial” behaviors that can be cured with praying or just advising those who are depressed to “snap” out of it.

As we’ll learn from this interview with Dr. Cindy Liu, Mental Health is a growing concern within the Asian American Community and the first step to managing it is to embrace it and be willing to talk about it.  In this conversation we discussed everything from Dr. Liu’s latest research on satellite babies to postpartum depression among Asian American women.  You can find out more about Cindy’s work at cliu@bidmc.harvard.edu.

These are issues we can’t ignore and I hope you share this with your friends and family.

The Leftover Man (剩男)

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Photo Credit: W-Two World

“Her dad’s got a great reputation in the community!”  My mom shouts across the dining table. “She’s the one,”  she says nonchalantly.

In fact, she wasn’t the one. She was one of the many Fujianese girls that my family (and friends) have tried to set me up with over the span of two years.

“Don’t have unusually high standards or you’ll become a leftover man!” She shouts again.

Leftover indeed.  To provide some context, by my mid twenties, just about all of my cousins and Fujianese friends were married; some with kids.  Almost overnight, my whole extended family unanimously agreed it was time for me take the plunge as well.

The psychology of Fujianese courtship has always fascinated me.  Men are taught to be overly generous and to shower their partner with affection (which typically comes in some form of a designer handbag).  Women are expected to produce five course michelin-star meals and to maintain a spotless home.  Above all, the parental input into the relationship was of excruciating importance.  

While the Fujianese diaspora has permeated throughout the world, the community remains tight-knit.  This means that stories of unscrupulous investments and failed marriages will travel far and wide, and those same stories can stigmatize a whole family and their social stance in the community.  This incredible community tie is a tremendous source of strength but is also foundational in analyzing why Asian men (and women) have such anxiety dating in America.

Hypergamy – [ The act of marrying “up” the socioeconomic ladder]

In an age where we think it is rather barbaric to let material wealth define our love, hypergamy is very much present in our conversation about marriage.  In fact, the first piece of information promoted by matchmakers will typically concern the family’s wealth:

“He is a great guy…his dad’s got three houses and a successful business!”  

As if a man with a successful father will automatically make a great life partner?  Perhaps, but no millennials like to think that they married you for your family wealth.  In fact, do you really want to be with someone that was attracted to you based solely upon your financial prowess?

To be fair, Fujianese parents who make family wealth a centerpiece of the marriage conversation are often those who have suffered through famines and extreme poverty, and they wish nothing more than to have their kids grow up in a financially stable home.  Therefore this eagerness generally stems from love rather than materialism.

Reverse Hypergamy

The problem with hypergamy is that unrealistic material expectations are set for Asian men.  I recall a famous Chinese dating show where a female contestant claimed that she would rather cry in a BMW than share a romantic ride on a bicycle.

In an age where the average American woman has made more financial gains over the past 15 years than her male counterpart, this unidirectional form of hypergamy has pushed educated women to seek out even more educated men, concentrating the match making to only a narrow pool of eligible bachelors.  This leaves an increasingly large void for our less well-to-do lads at the bottom, creating massive amount of social anxiety.  Check out this story about a man holding a woman hostage for two hours, trying to convince her to marry him right before Chinese New Year!

There is a solution to all this madness: make hypergamy bidirectional.  Instead of competing with other better educated women, women can open up the opportunities to men who may not be as educated or financially successful.  Conversely, if men can discard this social construct of always being the provider, they too can appreciate a hard working, more successful wife.  If Bill Clinton can learn to be the man behind an alpha female, you can too!

Sometimes Leftovers Tastes Better

Not all single Asian men are “leftovers” by measures of their material successes.  In fact, some of the most successful men I know are single into their late 30s.  Some aren’t ready to start a family while others have yet to discover how to reconcile their family values with a western upbringing.  These are all valid reasons to chill out no matter how annoying Thanksgiving dinners might be… again.  Finding the right partner hinges on too many factors to be forced upon you.  We discovered that folks who lead lives driven by intention will, in their unique ways attract the right people.  So let yourself marinate away in life because leftovers do taste better sometimes.