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Irene Dispatch

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Fortune Cookie Says Chinese Helped Build America


Cool and cheap loot! Chinese slippers, lanterns, shoes, toys
I said in my very first dispatch that growing up I never gave much thought to my background. Growing up around tons of Asian Americans in California, there was never a reason to think I was unusual or special by just because of my race. But late last year, I turned on the T.V. and saw a Chinese man in chains being arrested by the FBI. I later found out that his name was Wen Ho Lee, a scientist at the famous nuclear laboratory, Los Alamos. He was charged with spying against the United States and could possibly spend the rest of his life in jail. Out of all the scientists handling important information, they happened to say a Chinese one was doing something illegal? The whole thing smelled fishy to me.


Smog City / The drive down highway 5 from San Francisco ...

As I began to learn more about the history of Chinese immigrants in America, I noticed that it has always been difficult for them to live here because of discrimination.

War and famine in Southern China made people especially happy to get away. 2.4 million Chinese from 1840-1900 immigrated to every corner of the earth, from Indonesia and Australia to Peru and Cuba. Only a small population, 300,000, ended up in the United States, but those 300,000 immigrants would have a major impact in shaping the destiny of this country.
Kevin enjoys eating dim sum for the first time
European immigrants and Chinese immigrants had different ideas about coming to a new land. Europeans came to stay and so whole families came together. Chinese only came to make enough money in the gold rush to be able to return to China and maybe open a business or buy a home.

As the first large non-white group of immigrants, the Chinese would encounter obstacles not faced by its white European counterparts.

Before the gold rush in California, only 54 Chinese people were in California. By 1876 116,000 Chinese lived in California. Initially, the Chinese were welcomed with open arms and praised for their hard work, intelligence, and cleanliness. The governor of California called them "one of the most worthy of our newly adopted citizens." But it didn't take long before those feelings to change.

When most of the gold had been mined, Chinese turned to other means of making a living. Central Pacific Railroad heavily relied upon Chinese workers to build the historic transcontinental railroad. But, when the Chinese workers asked for an eight-hour workday and a raise, the management's response was to cut off their food supply.

I love Chinese bakeries! The desserts are much less fattening and have less sugar than American bakeries
California has one of the richest economies in the world, much of it due to agriculture. The Chinese brought their designs for aqueducts and irrigation systems that enabled California to go from wheat production to fruit production. The Bing cherry is named after the Chinese farmer who introduced it, Ah Bing.

Because the Chinese were successful, many whites that were not very successful became angry. The Chinese had a different religion, different food, and a different culture and language. White Americans didn't take the time to understand any of and instead turned against the prosperous Chinese.

I always remember the fishy smell of Chinatown markets from when my mom used to take me when I was young
Chinatowns were attacked and burned down. In Los Angeles, 15 Chinese people were hanged. Politicians joined in the anti-Chinese groups so white people would still vote for them. In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first laws ever passed that restricted who could come to America on the basis of race and nationality. It halted Chinese immigration and stated that no Chinese immigrant could become an American citizen. Chinese immigrants were not allowed to marry or attend schools with whites.

Some of stuff I grew up loving: oolong tea, rice crackers and miso soup (ok, the last two happen to be Japanese)
Learning about all the disgusting ways the Chinese were treated was a real eye-opener for me. I guess I took for granted my rights as an American, forgetting about the hardships of the people who came before my family did. Though Chinese Americans may still be thought of as "foreigners," as I stroll through Chinatown in New York City, I can see all the ways America has been changed by the presence of these immigrants. Imagine not being able to order sweet and sour chicken or egg rolls from your local Chinese restaurant or cracking open a fortune cookie (which, by the way, was invented in California in the early 1900s). Wen Ho Lee may have showed how far we have to go before Chinese Americans are viewed as "real Americans," but one look at any California grapevine or railroad car hauling coal is all I need to see to remind me that yes, I do belong here as much as anyone.


Please email me at: irene@ustrek.org


Links to Other Dispatches

Teddy - Did the government rob a train?
Daphne - Would you go to school or work in a dark, dangerous factory?