Chinese ethnicity and assimilation?
July 5, 2007 12:45 PM   Subscribe

I know that there was quite a bit of immigration from China in the late 1800s. My question is, have the descendants of those immigrants ethnically assimilated into the rest of 'white' America, or have they retained their ethnic identity throughout the 20th century to today? Most Chinese-Americans that I have met are more recent immigrants, so I have no idea.
posted by geekhorde to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
No, they haven't, obviously with exceptions, and except for the last couple of generations. North America was a very racist place up until the last 40 years or so. And as much as the Chinese were "the other" for the white folks, the feeling was mutual and the Chinese community largely kept to itself. This is why Vancouver, San Fransisco, etc., all have "Chinatowns" in them.
posted by Meatbomb at 1:20 PM on July 5, 2007

This is a complicated question.

First of all, a lot of Chinese immigrants didn't have descendants. Before Chinese exclusion, there were special provisions in U.S. immigration policy designed to keep Chinese women out of the U.S., which meant that many Chinese immigrant men never married or had kids. Others had wives and kids in China. There was definitely some intermarriage, but not a ton. For one thing, in a lot of places Chinese men were subject to anti-miscegenation laws.

However, there are some descendants of pre-1965 Chinese immigrants. They tend to live on the West Coast, I think, whereas post-1965 Chinese-Americans are much more dispersed. I could be really wrong about this, but my sense is that they have a fairly strong sense of Chineseness, which may be largely because they've been subject to racism and not allowed to forget that they're Chinese. The paths to assimilation that were open to other immigrants were not quite as open to them.
posted by craichead at 1:25 PM on July 5, 2007

I can only speak for myself.

My grandfather was born to a Chinese immigrant in Chinatown, NYC. This was in the '20s. He married a woman of English descent and Americanized pretty well.

So, I guess I'm at least partly the subject of your question. My entire family lives on the East Coast and we're all pretty much American. We have a few traditions and customs that have been passed down through the Chinese part of the family line.

You might be interested in Tea that Burns, a book my uncle wrote about Chinese immigration to America from the late 1800s and their assimilation to American culture.
posted by backseatpilot at 1:39 PM on July 5, 2007

This is all very interesting. Thanks.
posted by geekhorde at 1:49 PM on July 5, 2007

My husband, who grew up in southern Arizona, has mentioned some Chinese-Mexican American families in his small hometown, whose Chinese ancestry supposedly dates back to the railroad construction in the 1880s. This is a fairly long article about the Chinese experience in Arizona.
posted by Squeak Attack at 2:00 PM on July 5, 2007

The gendered immigration that craichead mentions is true. The majority of Irish immigrants to the US were female. Because of their liminal, non-whitish status, Irish females marrying Chinese males was so common during the 19th century as to become a staple of music hall sketches. Because neither tended to have anything except the most rudimentary English as a common language, the comic possibilities were endless! As a result, however, many nth-generation "Chinese-Americans" could in fact also qualify themselves as Irish-Americans.

Along a similar vein, the most famous Irish-American heavyweight boxing champion in the US is, of course, Muhammad Ali, whose maternal great-great grandfather came from Ennis, in County Clare, Ireland. As lower status citizens, intermarriage between Irish and freed slaves was common - Barack Obama's maternal greatX3 grandfather also came from Ireland.

I guess the takeaway message is that over the long-term, simple racial features tend to win out over nuanced ethnic differences. The intersection of the set of people who tend to identify as ""Irish-American" and "Chinese-American" is very, very small. I personally have yet to meet an "Irish-Chinese-American" more than one generation removed from immigration.
posted by meehawl at 2:15 PM on July 5, 2007

I know you asked about North America, but you might find the history of the Chinese community in Liverpool interesting too. There was no ban on women as in the US, but the community was originally predominantly men who were sailors, IIRC. Lots took local wives. Can't seem to find much detail online, but there's a couple of good books about. Similar story with the Peranakan Chinese in Holland too I think.
posted by Abiezer at 2:17 PM on July 5, 2007

Irish females marrying Chinese males was so common during the 19th century as to become a staple of music hall sketches.
Woah. Back up. Music hall sketches didn't necessarily reflect reality. There's an interesting article about how Irish woman/ Jewish man couples were a staple of music hall (and later radio and early television), despite such unions historically being quite rare. I can hunt down the reference if you want.

(I could swear that I read an article somewhere about a Chinese man who married an Irish woman in early 19th century New York, so I'm not saying that it didn't happen. I would be very surprised if such marriages were "common," though.)
As lower status citizens, intermarriage between Irish and freed slaves was common - Barack Obama's maternal greatX3 grandfather also came from Ireland.
Barack Obama's mother was white, so I'm not sure that's entirely relevant!
posted by craichead at 2:31 PM on July 5, 2007

My area had a thriving Chinese community through the 1800s up until the first decades of the 1900s. Almost all of the Chinese I meet are recent arrivals and the few descendants of locally old Chinese families I have met will have Chumash, Mexican and more mixed in.
posted by Iron Rat at 3:07 PM on July 5, 2007

This website gives some basic information (geared toward school children) about Chinese immigrants in the post-Civil War Mississippi delta, with some interesting looking sources listed at the bottom.
posted by twoporedomain at 3:29 PM on July 5, 2007

I think it's hard to assimilate into american culture if one looks obviously "other", not matter how long one's family has been here. Not because of a lack of interest in assimilating, but a lack of interest on the part of the dominant culture. Also, much depends on what you mean by "assimilation".

There's some information in Becoming American: The Chinese Experience, a PBS web site. It includes portraits from people talking about when they or their families arrived, and their experiences with assimilation and feeling american. Here's one guy descended from a railroad worker. A woman descended from someone who arrived in the 1880s.
posted by gingerbeer at 8:57 PM on July 5, 2007

There is a long history of Chinese and First Nations integration here in British Columbia. I personally know several people who have mixed ancestry dating back to the 19th century.

In one interesting story, a friend of mine, Mary Everson who is a hereditary chief from Comox told of some strange traditional songs that were passed on to her from her mother. When her mom died, her songs were given away in a potlatch. One song had strange words which were later found to be Chinese. Apparently it commemorated an event at a mid-coast cannery in the early 20th century. At that time, First Nations and Chinese women worked together on the canning line and had a shared pidgin that they used to communicate. The Chinese men generally worked in the cannery offices and the First Nations men fished. One day, the Chinese men got wind of the fact that the cannery bosses were calling the authorities to have the First Nations children removed to residential school. One of the men told his wife and she, using the Kwakwaka'wakw - Chinese pidgin, informed the First Nations women who sent the kids out on the boats with the men. As a result these kids escaped the scourge of residential school. To commemorate the event, a song was made and passed into Mary's family.

The history is deep and fascinating.
posted by salishsea at 11:15 PM on July 5, 2007

You might want to read Lisa See's On Gold Mountain: it's her biracial (white/Chinese) family history.
posted by brujita at 12:44 AM on July 6, 2007 [1 favorite]

Music hall sketches didn't necessarily reflect reality

This is, of course, sheer heresy.
posted by meehawl at 9:46 AM on July 6, 2007

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