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Around two months ago, Jane Yue-Chi Hwang told me the story of her and her family’s immigration from Taipei, Taiwan to the Birmingham, Alabama. Her story was extremely interesting and included Jane’s recollections of her unique experiences in addition to those experiences that are shared by many other Asian immigrants. In this paper, I will analyze the major push and the major pull factor that prompted Jane and her family, as well as many other Asian immigrants, to immigrate into the United States.
Because Jane and her family immigrated from Taiwan, I will focus on factors specific to Taiwanese emigration and both the historical and modern experiences of Asian American immigrants. In addition to analyzing these factors, I will also investigate the ways in which these factors have both challenged and upheld racial structures in the United States.
In our interview, Jane stated that the major push factor that prompted her family, as well as thousands of other Taiwanese people, to leave Taiwan in the 1970s was the political instability of Taiwan.
Taiwan’s political instability had multiple frightening consequences, with one of the most terrifying being the fear of an invasion. After what was called the 228 Incident, the Taiwanese people’s perception of Taiwan as a politically unstable country grew significantly. Because of their common languages and similar ancestral ethnic backgrounds, Taiwan and the Taiwanese people had always considered China to be a “mother country” and an ally that Taiwan could rely on. Because China was such a large and established country, being able to rely on China gave Taiwan, which was small country with little power at the time, a sense of political stability and protection against threat.
However, this “mother country” relationship between Taiwan and China was completely challenged after the 228 Incident (Shiao-Feng, 2004).
This incident began on the morning of February 27th, 1947, when Chinese agents beat a woman to death for selling smuggled cigarettes on the street. The Taiwanese people responded to the excessive and extreme cruelty of this incident with a series of protests and riots. In an attempt to control the situation, leaders of the Chinese Nationalist Party, or the KMT, sent Chinese troops to exert military control over Taiwan. During this period of military control, individuals who had participated in the riots and rebellions were arrested and killed. In addition, many laborers, social elite, intellectuals, and thousands other people were arrested and killed without reason. In total, over 10,000 people were killed during the 228 Incident (Shiao-Feng, 2004).
After this incident, China aggressively attempted to take absolute control over Taiwan with the “One China” policy, which stated that both Taiwan and mainland China were parts of China, discouraging and falsifying a separate Taiwanese national identity. After China’s claiming of Taiwan with this policy, many Taiwanese residents began to perceive the Chinese Nationalist Party as a major occupying force to be feared, and the feeling of terror began to grow in Taiwan. As Taiwan slowly began to lose its independence to China, its space in the United Nations was also threatened. Soon the question of whether Beijing was a better representative of China than Taiwan arose, and if this motion was passed by a two thirds vote, Beijing would take Taiwan’s place in the United Nations. Taiwan, instead of facing the humility of expulsion from the United Nations, chose to withdraw from the United Nations in 1971. After the withdrawal, China insisted that Taiwan had no legal right to establish diplomatic relations with other countries. This caused many countries to end their relations and allyship with Taiwan, and the number of Taiwan’s allies dropped significantly in the 1970s and 1980s (Chang and Wang, 2005). Taiwan’s withdrawal from the United Nations not only put greater power in the hands of China to control Taiwan, but also incited the idea in the Taiwanese people that their country was weak and incapable of surviving on its own. The growing perception of Taiwan as a weak country provoked fear in the Taiwanese people of the vulnerability of their own country. Not wanting to risk the consequences of an attack or other tragedy, this fear pushed Jane and many other Taiwanese people to immigrate out of Taiwan in search of a more politically stable country.
After leaving Taiwan, the major pull factor for Jane’s family and many other Taiwanese and Asian immigrants into the United States was the promise of opportunity, the “American dream,” and a better quality of living in the United States. Historically, the promise of opportunity and the availability of work has always been a pull factor for multiple generations of Asian immigrants, including Chinese immigrants to the United States during the California gold rush. The promise of gold and employment opportunities lured Chinese immigrants to the United States, where laborers could make ten times the amount that they did in China. Many Chinese immigrants, intrigued by this opportunity, migrated to the United States voluntarily as free labor (Takaki, 1993). In the 1970s, these same promises of wealth and opportunity attracted Taiwanese immigrants to the United States. Although the economic state of the United States was not at its peak during the 1970s, the glamorization of the American Dream and the promise of the “freedom to succeed” was heavily marketed to immigrants. A 1970s advertisement featured the smiling faces of people of many different ethnicities and multiple words of opportunity, such as “The will to succeed is part of the American spirit.” (Hochschild, 1995). The image of the United States that was created displayed a utopia that was nonexistent anywhere else in the world, and this perfect image was massively appealing to both Chinese immigrants during the California gold rush, as well as to Taiwanese immigrants to the United States during the 1970s.
For many years, Asian immigrants rushed to the United States in the hopes of attaining the prosperity associated with the American Dream. However, Asian immigration has not always been welcome in the United States, and the treatment of Asian immigrants has both reproduced and challenged racial structures in the United States. After the large influx of Chinese immigrants during the time of the California gold rush, many white workers feared that their “entitled” employment opportunities were being taken by Chinese laborers. This led to violent riots in which unemployed white workers shot and beat Chinese workers. After being faced with backlash from white workers for hiring large numbers of Chinese workers, corporations and businessmen such as Charles Crocker attempted to justify their use of Chinese labor by claiming that Chinese labor was “cheap labor,” and that this cheap labor should not be performed by white Americans. They claimed that the use of Chinese laborers to do excruciating work, especially on the Central Pacific Railroad, is “elevating instead of degrading” and would ultimately“upgrade” the status white labor and white workers. The status of Chinese people was thus assigned to a racially inferior, “subservient laboring class” that also included other nonwhite people in the United States (Takaki, 1993).
The immediate grouping of Chinese people, into this class of the nonwhite other can be explained through the framework of Haney-Lopez (2006) in “White by Law.” Haney-Lopez notes what is called the transparency phenomenon, in which, when assigning racial classification, white people do not think of what is considered white, but instead what is considered non white or “other.” Especially in legal settings, whiteness was only defined to go as far as what the “average informed American knew to be White” (Haney-Lopez, 2006). The ambiguity of this classification led to the grouping of all people of color into one large “non-white” category. The failure to distinguish the groups within this non-white category upheld the existing black-white binary structure within the United States. The assignment of the non-white Asian immigrant group to a lower status continued the racial structure of the inferiority and discrimination against people of color in the United States.
Although there was a time when the immigration of Asians into the United States reproduced and continued the existing racial structure of the United States, there has been evidence in recent years that Asian immigration is actually challenging and restructuring the existing bilateral racial structure of the United States. This structure is being challenged with the assignment of a “model minority” status to Asian Americans. This model minority status assigns higher educational and employment standards to Asian Americans, and in the process of doing so also blames other communities of color for failing to “match the achievement levels” of Asian Americans. The creation of the model minority was supported by the passing of the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965, which changed the priorities of United States immigration to value employment and education over national origin and race. The Hart-Cellar Act drew on the potential for Asian students, skilled workers, and technical trainees to obtain legal citizenship and ultimately enhance the national economy (Hsu, 2015). The cultural and legal supporting of placing a model minority status on Asian Americans due to their perceived abundance of valuable skills, especially within the science, technology, engineering, and mathematical skills gave Asian immigrants an elevated status in the eyes of white Americans.
The creation of Asian Americans as the model minority demonstrates how in recent years, Asian immigration has challenged and transformed the existing structures of race in the United States. In “The Unbearable Whiteness of Being,” Omi (1998) draws upon social and economic indicators to argue that Asian Americans have reached a “white status” and have thus distanced themselves from other groups of color. Omi compares the assimilation status of Asian Americans to that of European immigrants, claiming that Asian Americans are moving towards an expanding definition of whiteness. However, the minority model stereotype that is assigned to all Asian Americans also employs many aspects of Haney-Lopez’s (2006) framework of the transparency phenomenon. Similar to how all non white groups of color were put into the category of the “other” during the rapid Chinese immigration period discussed above, the grouping of all Asian Americans into the category of the model minority ignores the socioeconomic discrepancies between different Asian ethnic groups. These socioeconomic discrepancies are crucial, as the assignment of a model minority status, which implies many stereotypes that indicate high economic and academic achievement, is inaccurate and harmful to the many Asian ethnic groups in the United States that are marred by poverty (Omi, 1998).
Through the process of looking back at Jane Hwang’s immigration narrative and investigating the major push and major pull factor that incited Jane and her family’s immigration to the United States, I have connected Jane’s specific experiences with immigration and experiences that are shared within the Asian immigrant community, both historically and in the modern day. This process has also revealed the many cultural, and specifically racial structures that have existed in the United States that have been influenced by Asian immigration. These structures have changed significantly over time with Asian immigration, and have shown evidence of transformation in modern times.
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