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July 12, 2011

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Still hurdles for overseas Chinese

OVERSEAS Chinese number 50 million and they have struggled for rights and recognition. But East-West cultural differences make true integration difficult, report Wang Lili and Hai Yang.

When Liu Jian first watched "Beijingers in New York City," a popular TV series about Chinese newcomers' struggle in the United States, it left him cold.

But in a second viewing one year after he arrived in the United States from Beijing, he was moved to tears.

"The new immigrants' hardship depicted in the drama, this time I really understood," says 24-year-old Liu, who at first even had difficulty in finding the toilets at his school and did not know how to open milk cartons. There are many such nuisances for newcomers.

According to statistics released by Chinese authorities, Liu is one of more than 50 million overseas Chinese, the largest number of immigrants worldwide.

Hard old times

For hundreds of years overseas Chinese in almost every corner of the world have embarked on a bumpy road of integration into foreign societies, especially those in Europe and North America. They have to overcome linguistic, cultural, political and other obstacles to adapt themselves to local societies.

Such obstacles were even more terrifying in the early days. As early as in the 19th century, Chinese were brought to the US and Canada as laborers in mines or on the transcontinental railroad, becoming the first large Asian communities in North America.

In the US, from their arrival during the Gold Rush, the Chinese then labeled as the "Sick Man of East Asia" experienced discrimination, often overt racism, and exclusion. Legislative action was often used against Chinese immigrants. US authorities passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, depriving the Chinese of basic human rights, and it remained in effect until 1943.

Among the Chinese immigrants was the grandfather of former US Commerce Secretary Gary Locke, who has been appointed US ambassador to China. The senior Locke could not speak one word of English upon his arrival, and lived a humble life.

In Canada, after completion of the Canada Pacific Railway, the Canadian government passed the Chinese Head Tax and Exclusion Act, imposing a tax of CAD$50 (now about US$52) upon every person of Chinese origin entering the country. No other immigrant groups were treated the same way. The sum was increased to CAD$500 in 1903, equivalent to two years' wages of an ordinary Chinese laborer at that time.

From 1885 to 1923, the Canadian government collected a CAD$23 million from more than 80,000 Chinese immigrants.

When Mao Fen first went to Vancouver, Canada, 44 years ago, his conversation in Chinese with other Chinese immigrants would reduce them to tears. Their emotions were not only a result of homesickness, says 65-year-old Mao.

At that time, new immigrants from China were not welcome among local residents, and if they were unable to speak English, they could barely make a living, he explains.

Better days

Today, with the growing political and economic influence of China, economic and cultural ties between China and the outside world have been strengthened dramatically, providing an ever improving backdrop for the overseas Chinese's integration into their new societies.

Being Chinese in origin now has become an advantage in job applications in some places because of equal opportunity and minority hiring laws. With an influx of Chinese tourists, renowned French department store Galeries Lafayette has employed Chinese speakers as shop assistants.

Chinese Canadian Yun Ning, 41, is a policeman in the York district of Toronto, Canada. Due to his Chinese origin, Yun got the post to serve the Chinese community.

Artists migrating from the Chinese mainland to the West also benefit from China's growing global influence.

Chinese French artist Li Fangfang is skilled in painting lotus; she is known as the "Princess of Lotus." At the opening of the Chinese Cultural Year in Paris in October 2003, her "Shadow of the Lotus" was chosen to decorate the state banquet hall.

Guan Yadong, who plays the pipa, a traditional Chinese string instrument, nearly stopped her musical career when she first came to Canada in 1997. Later she introduced the instrument to Canadian audiences.

"Only when your native country becomes powerful, will others' interest in Chinese music flourish," she says.

In the meantime, more and more overseas Chinese have learned to make full use of their traditional cultural background.

In Guan's case, she invited famous musicians to rewrite Western classics for the pipa.

In line with Canadian music market rules, she employs three agents to promote her pipa music to different audiences.

Unlike their ancestors who usually made a living by craftsmanship and helped each other in their hard struggle for a living, the new generation of overseas Chinese have been flexible in adapting to new societies and made achievements in diverse fields. Some have been successful in public life.

Gary Locke's grandfather could never have dreamed that around 100 years later, his grandson would be the first American governor of Chinese origin and the US state secretary of commerce.

The whole world has changed, in some ways for the better, for overseas Chinese.

The notorious anti-Chinese acts in North America were abolished. In Canada, Prime Minister Stephen Harper delivered in parliament a formal apology to the Chinese community in June 2006 for the racist head tax act, describing it as a historical wrong and one of "the racist actions of our past."

Several generations after Mao Fen's arrival in Vancouver, the Chinese language has been more often heard in the streets in Vancouver and other Canadian cities.

In the 1980s and 1990s, many people from Hong Kong and Taiwan migrated to Canada. But in the past 10 years, people from the Chinese mainland have constituted the bulk of Chinese immigrants.

More Chinese are accepted in Canada since the country badly needs manpower for its economy, says Jason Kenney, Canada's minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism.

"As we recover from the recession, increasing economic immigration will help ensure employers have the workers they need to supplement our domestic labor supply," Kenney says.

In the US, Chinese Americans have become the third largest minority group with 4 million people. An apology for the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act is being demanded.

Just recently, the first congresswoman of Chinese origin in the US, Judy May Chu, submitted a motion to both houses of the Congress, asking them to address the act and express formal regret.

Still barriers

In spite of the favorable conditions, barriers still exist to overseas Chinese's integration into their new societies.

Even though the new generation of overseas Chinese are better educated, language remains a problem.

Born into a Chinese farmer's family, Cui Zhanfeng was selected over other candidates in a global recruitment to become an Oxford University's professor of chemical engineering.

He was the first ethnic Chinese professor in the university's 1,000-year history.

Cui walked a long way to his success, though. When he first came to Glasgow, Scotland, the local residents' heavy accent was hard for him to understand.

"I felt like I could understand nothing," he says. "I would ask people to write the words down when I went to banks or shops." As time went by, Cui understood more and more and finally one day, he says, "I suddenly understood every word."

Compared with language barriers, cultural differences are a greater problem.

Chen Deliang, executive director of the International Council for Science, understands this.

"The Chinese culture emphasizes introversion, but working at an international organization you have to be insistent on your points," he says.

Bernard P. Wong, an anthropology professor at San Francisco State University, had many stories about culture shock. In his book titled "The Chinese in Silicon Valley," Wong writes about the difficulties Chinese high-tech workers, particularly those from the Chinese mainland, have experienced in Silicon Valley.

Wong writes that Americans value open and direct exchange. Employers, for example, may not appreciate workers who are quiet in professional meetings and self-effacing about their achievements.

He notes that many Chinese do not know how to negotiate with their American employers for better pay or working conditions.

Some Chinese demonstrate their loyalty to a particular firm by staying for a long period of time. American employers may read their behavior in a different way, though. They might think that the Chinese stayed because they could not find better jobs, according to Wong.

Bars are favorite places for Westerners to socialize, but few overseas Chinese feel at ease in such places, writes Wong.

Moreover, the phenomenon known as the "glass ceiling" is a new barrier for overseas Chinese to overcome in their professional development.

"In America, the glass ceiling still exists for Asian Americans," says George Koo, a well-known Chinese American.

"Part of the cause is due to Asians' culturally instilled low-key demeanor and natural inclination to be modest rather than being aggressive in promoting oneself," he says, adding that American mainstream culture tends to favor those most assertive in proclaiming their ability and accomplishments.

The other cause is the continued persistence of racial prejudice among mainstream Americans, says Koo.

In Silicon Valley, Chinese and Indians constitute an important work force. The Chinese are better educated, yet receive lower pay and fewer promotions compared with their Indian and Caucasian colleagues. This happens despite the fact that ethnic Chinese high-tech professionals outnumber their Indians counterparts.

Shien-Biau Woo, a retired physics professor and former lieutenant governor of Delaware, concurs.

"The glass ceiling is pervasive," Woo says. "All American institutions, be they private industries, universities, federal, state and local governments, will choose to shortchange Chinese Americans when it comes to getting good jobs, because they can get away with it."

How can overseas Chinese break through the glass ceiling? A few success stories provide food for thought.

Tao Thomas Qu from the Chinese mainland, the founding executive of the Chinese Professionals Association of Canada, was celebrated as one of the top 12 most influential Chinese Canadians in the Greater Toronto Area in 2006.

Tao maintains that immigrants must establish a network of contacts and friends with native Canadians.

Once an immigrant enters the workforce, he must understand and adopt the values of the workplace while identifying and cultivating potential mentors within the organization, says Tao.

Leadership skill development is integral to career advancement, Tao says. It's important to develop leadership skills and experience through involvement in community services, which are highly regarded in Canada, he adds.

Gary Locke encourages Chinese Americans to take part in US politics, citing his own example. He used to joke that his family "moved one mile in 100 years," referring to the fact that his grandfather was a servant in a family one mile away from the governor's mansion 100 years before Locke himself became governor of the same state.

Since the 1980s, the Chinese have been the largest Asian minority in the US. But Locke notes that the ratio of Chinese representatives in the US political arena is rather low compared with other minorities.

"The truth is that if we Chinese Americans want to achieve something, we must join in the decision making process," Locke says.

Easier said than done.

"First, being mostly new immigrants, we shy away from politics, which is the very tool we need to win equal treatment," says Woo, former lieutenant governor in Delaware. "Second, effective politics depends on large numbers - large number of voters, money and volunteers. Most new immigrant leaders prefer to form their small cliques to pursue the ego satisfaction of being a 'big fish,' although in a very small pond."

Woo, who arrived in the US from Hong Kong at the age of 18, was former president of the 80-20 Initiative that works to organize Asia-Pacific Americans into a swing bloc-vote in presidential elections. Despite all sorts of difficulties, Woo and his fellow overseas Chinese are making continuous efforts to press for their political rights.


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