Overseas Chinese’s bumpy road toward integration

When Liu Jian first watched “Beijingers in New York City,” a popular TV series about Chinese newcomers’ struggle in the United States, he was not fascinated by the story.

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

Overseas Chinese's bumpy road toward integration

“The new immigrants’ hardship depicted by the drama, this time I really understood,” said 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. Such nuisances were numerous 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.


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 United States and Canada as laborers in mines or on the transcontinental railroad, becoming the first large communities of Asian origin in North America.

In the United States, from their arrival during the Gold Rush, the Chinese then labelled as Sick Man of East Asia experienced discrimination, often overt racism, and even exclusion. Action in the form of legislation was often used against Chinese immigrants. The U.S. authorities passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, a law that deprived the Chinese of basic human rights and let it remain in effect until 1943.

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

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

From 1885 to 1923, the Canadian government had collected a total of 23 million Canadian dollars from more than 80,000 Chinese immigrants.

When Mao Fen first came to Vancouver, Canada, 44 years ago, his conversation in Chinese language with other Chinese immigrants would reduce them to tears. Their emotions were not merely as a result of homesickness, said 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 explained.


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

Just being Chinese in origin now has become advantageous in job applications in some cases. With an influx of Chinese tourists, renowned French department store Galeries Lafayette has employed Chinese speakers as shop assistants.

Chinese Canadian Yun Ning, 41, works as a policeman in the York district of Toronto, Canada. Thanks to his Chinese origin, Yun got the post to serve the local Chinese community.

Artists migrating from the Chinese mainland to the West also benefit from China’s growing global influence. Chinese French artist Li Fangfang has expertise in painting lotus. Her talents have won her the title of “Princess of Lotus.” At the opening of the Chinese Cultural Year in Paris in October 2003, her work “Shadow of the Lotus” was chosen by then French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin as the decoration painting of 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 successfully introduced the instrument to Canadian audiences.

“Only when your native country becomes powerful, will others’ interest in Chinese music flourish,” she told Xinhua.

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 music classics for the pipa. Moreover, in line with Canadian music market rules, she employs three agents to promote her pipa music for 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 the new society and made achievements in diversified 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 state secretary of commerce.

Even the whole world has changed, in some way, 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 or other cities in Canada.

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 as the country badly needs manpower for its economy, said Jason Kenney, minister of citizenship, immigration and multiculturalism of Canada.

“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 said.

In the United States, 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 United States, Judy May Chu, submitted a motion to both houses of the Congress, asking them to address the act and express formal regret.


In spite of the favorable conditions, barriers 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 in a Chinese farmer’s family, Cui Zhanfeng defeated other candidates in a global recruitment to become 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 a headache for him.

“I felt like I could understand nothing,” he said. “I would ask people to write the words down when I went to banks or shops.” As time went by, Cui could understand more and more and finally one day, “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 said.

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 wrote about the difficulties Chinese high-tech workers, particularly those from the Chinese mainland, have experienced in Silicon Valley.

Wong wrote 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 noted that many Chinese did not know how to negotiate with their American employers for better pay or working conditions.

Some Chinese would demonstrate their loyalty to a particular firm by staying with it for longer period of time. American employers may read their behavior in a different way, though. They would 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 would feel at ease in such places, wrote Wong.

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

“In America, glass ceiling still exists for Asian Americans,” George Koo, a well-known Chinese American, told Xinhua in an interview.

“Part of the cause is due to Asian’s culturally instilled low-key demeanor and natural inclination to be modest rather than being aggressive in promoting oneself,” he said, adding that the 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, said 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 to their Indian and Caucasian colleagues. That happens against the backdrop that ethnic Chinese high-tech professionals outnumber their Indians counterparts.

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

“The glass ceiling is pervasive,” Woo said. “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 glass ceiling? A few success stories may provide us with 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 maintained 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, said Tao.

Leadership skill development is integral to career advancement, Tao said. Developing leadership skills and experience through involvement in community services, which are highly regarded in Canada, are important, he added.

Gary Locke encouraged Chinese Americans to take part in U.S. 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, Chinese are the largest minority in all Asian minorities in the Unites States. But Locke noted that the ratio of Chinese representatives in the U.S. political arena was rather low compared with other minorities in the United States.

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

However, Woo acknowledged, challenges remain. “First, being mostly new immigrants, we shy away from politics, which is the very tool we need to win equal treatment. 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 came to the United States 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 for their political rights.


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