Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Unhappy Immigrants?

Lei Chen

In the coming days, I will engage in a debate with Lei Chen--a highly-educated Chinese citizen from Changchun who is living in Boston. His recent Facebook status said, "I guess me and JingJing Wang [a Northeastern University student from Beijing] should have come illegally and pretend [sic] we speak Spanish only. I heard these illegals are even allowed to apply for federal financial aids and loans, so the legally admitted students are all suckers for coming to the US legally!" 

When his job ends in December, he is talking about moving to Canada. (I had to teach him how to spell it-- C-eh?-D-eh?-N-eh?.) We will find out why he is leaning this way and tap into some of the resentment that he feels towards the children of Mexican immigrants, in particular. Last year, about 175,000 Mexicans were allowed to immigrate to the US compared to 59,000 Indians; 51,000 Chinese;  and 48,000 Filipinos.

In June, Pew Research Center released a report entitled The Rise of Asian Americans. The website where you can read the full report states:
Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success, according to a comprehensive new nationwide survey by the Pew Research Center.
There has been a history of discrimination against almost every major group of people to enter the United States, regardless of color or creed. The Irish, Jews, Italians, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Sikhs, and Arabs have all suffered tremendous insults over the last two centuries of American development. Nevertheless, Chinese Americans and Asians, in general, have it pretty good right now. It is starkly different than the two earlier waves of Chinese immigration where operating a laundry business or restaurant or helping build a railroad were the only jobs that most could find. Chinatowns or ethnic enclaves are not the primary residential destination for new Chinese immigrants.

Immigration The Other Way

We will also talk about the insular world power, where I reside: the People's Republic of China. I often chide my friends that I will become a citizen and be the first Caucasian (and open Catholic) to get "elected" to the Politburo.

In 2011, the only nations with less immigrants as a percentage of their population were Colombia, Burma, Egypt, N.Korea, Peru, Afghanistan, Guyana, Iraq, Indonesia, and Vietnam. That is to say, almost nobody wants to become Vietnamese. At the other end of the spectrum, everybody who lives in The Vatican immigrated there. Why are so few people asking for or being granted citizenship in China? Maybe this chart from the Pew report begins to explain:



It is worth mentioning two obvious things about the above chart. First, the very questions asked by Pew betray American values. Religious freedom and political speech are bedrock items in our Bill of Rights. China's reputation and, perhaps, its actual record on these things are less than stellar. Second, perceptions are not always reality. I raise this, particularly, in regard to "opportunity to get ahead." The idea that you can "pull yourself up by the bootstraps" in America is a part of our attractive mythology, but a lot of recent data shows that it ain't so easy anymore, especially for the bottom 20% of the population. In China, it is now quite possible to be born in the countryside as a peasant and move to the city and become a wealthy merchant, but social mobility is inextricably linked with geographic mobility here. That said, after a generation of migration, barriers to social mobility remain and the lack of data on social mobility even amongst urban populations is a problem for drawing conclusions like the one in bold that I just drew.

There are things that are startlingly unwelcoming about China. This is a nation that is rife with racism, to say nothing of the abject hatred of the Japanese. As a white man, I am told on a weekly basis that I am handsome...by total strangers. (Those who know me will agree that I'm awright, but nuthin' special.) People (whole families) regularly stop me to have their picture taken with me. I have one "friend" who seems to want my friendship primarily so she can parade me in front of her friends. It is good for her face. This is the advantage of being white and, if you don't let it bother you, an amusing facet of China's deep-seated, perverse racial attitudes.

The school where I work has hired three or four brown people, but only after much hemming and hawing by the Chinese managers. Parents complain and withdraw students from the school when their children are assigned to the brown teachers so I have been told. In turn, I have been told that I cannot hire a very highly-qualified Black woman from Montreal, C-eh?-N-eh?-D-eh? It is an outrage, especially at a school that prides itself on being American-run. These kind of hiring practices were made illegal in the 1960s in the United States. They are probably illegal here, as well, but few of these laws are equally enforced.

Aside from racism, the nearly impenetrable system of guanxi and the subtleties of face are huge barriers for anybody wishing to move here and open a laundry or a restaurant...or build a high-speed railroad.

To generalize, which is never a good idea, the school system here is effective, but ruthless and competitive; based on rote memorization and slanted towards the hard sciences and math; physically exhausting, stultifying and uncreative. I would love to raise a child here, but not educate him here...and I work at perhaps the best school in northeast China.

N.B. After I wrote this piece but prior to receiving permission from Lei Chen to publish this, The Economist published this article: Foreigners in China: To Flee or not  to Flee?