The mak­ing of a Chinese-amer­i­can con­ser­va­tive

The Washington Times Weekly - - Commentary -

It’s im­pos­si­ble to read Ying Ma’s fas­ci­nat­ing mem­oir, “Chinese Girl in the Ghetto,” with­out winc­ing. She was born in Guangzhou, China’s third largest city. Through­out her mostly care­free early child­hood years, she kept her fam­ily’s se­cret: that her par­ents re­peat­edly sought per­mis­sion to em­i­grate to the United States.

Her fam­ily was not poor, at least not by Chinese stan­dards of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet her daily life would be con­sid­ered squalid by first world stan­dards. Her fam­ily lived in a two-bed­room apart­ment. She, her brother and her par­ents shared one bed­room (and two plank beds). Her pa­ter­nal grand­par­ents and an un­cle shared the other. At times, an­other un­cle slept in the liv­ing room. They shared the kitchen and bath­room (such as it was) with the fam­ily next door. There was no run­ning hot wa­ter, and the toi­let was a hole in the floor. The el­derly had a par­tic­u­larly hard time crouch­ing.

Ying Ma’s child­hood was nonethe­less rel­a­tively care­free. She longed for more posses- sions and ea­gerly con­sumed what­ever West­ern prod­ucts, like nail pol­ish and candy, her rel­a­tives brought from nearby Hong Kong. But she ex­celled in school, was sur­rounded by friends, was doted upon by her grand­fa­ther and looked for­ward (here’s the wince) to a fan­tas­tic new life in Amer­ica.

As a child, Ying could not com­pre­hend the more men­ac­ing as­pects of to­tal­i­tar­ian rule. Her third grade teacher, for ex­am­ple, an­nounced one day that in­stead of do­ing math, “You are all go­ing to spend the hour con­fess­ing.” When the pupils ex­pressed con­fu­sion, teacher Fu ex­plained, “The school knows that each of you, or some­one you know, has be­haved wrongly. . . . Now start writ­ing.”

Ying re­calls, “I al­ways be­lieved my teach­ers. Now I was gen­uinely wor­ried. Did the school al­ready know I had rel­a­tives from Hong Kong who brought me toys and cloth­ing from the world of the cap­i­tal­ist run­ning dogs? Did it know I re­ally, re­ally liked Amer­i­can movies. . .?”

Pan­icky, she wrote about her brother’s choice to hang out with some bad el­e­ments in the sev­enth grade. “For days af­ter my con­fes­sion, I lived in ab­ject hor­ror.” She thought the po­lice might come for her brother. She wanted to warn him, but didn’t dare, be­cause to do so would re­veal her be­trayal. Such are the tor­ments com­mu­nism im­poses on 8-year-olds.

In a bet­ter world, the Ying fam­ily would em­i­grate to the sunny up­lands of the United States and bask in pros­per­ity and free­dom.

Em­i­grate they did, but with­out money and speak­ing no English, they set­tled in a poor neigh­bor­hood of a poor city, Oak­land, Calif.

And there, Ying Ma was forced to con­front some of the shame­ful as­pects of life in this coun­try.

Though far less poor than her class­mates in China, the Oak­land kids felt en­ti­tled to steal. On one of her first days in an Amer­i­can class­room, Ying Ma was shocked by the brazen theft of a shiny me­chan­i­cal pen­cil one of her Chinese class­mates had given her as a farewell present. Her out­rage was pure:

“Ev­ery one of my for­mer (Chinese) class­mates un­der- stood steal­ing to be shame­ful. . . . Our par­ents and in­struc­tors re­peat­edly con­demned it. Those who dis­obeyed were se­verely pun­ished with pub­lic rep­ri­mands in class fol­lowed by po­ten­tial cor­po­ral pun­ish­ment at home. . . . In the ghetto, how­ever, I could not count on my class­mates to know right from wrong, nor could I count on the adults to fer­ret out fault and dis­pense pun­ish­ment.”

In a way that counted very much to a young teenager, safety and se­cu­rity, Oak­land was less civ­i­lized and less just than Guangzhou.

Ying Ma was also a vic­tim of racism, though not in the way Amer­i­cans are com­fort­able dis­sect­ing and con­demn­ing. Her mostly black and His­panic class­mates and neigh­bors en­gaged in daily racist taunts and some­times vi­o­lence.

They vic­tim­ized Asians of ev­ery stripe, call­ing Chinese, Kore­ans, Viet­namese and Filipinos “Chi­na­man,” “ching chong” or “chow mein.”

Black high school stu­dents screamed abuse at a mid­dleaged Can­tonese cafe­te­ria worker, call­ing her a “stupid Chi­na­man.”

Though Ying burned with fury, she could do lit­tle to re­spond.

“Phys­i­cally, we were usu­ally no match for those who dis­crim­i­nated against us. Cul­tur­ally, we were pre­dis­posed to be less con­fronta­tional than our non-Asian peers.”

A black teacher who took an in­ter­est in Ying Ma and helped to place her in the “gifted” pro­gram de­spite her lim­ited English is re­mem­bered grate­fully, along with the black friend who stood by her when she was phys­i­cally at­tacked by a racist (His­panic) bully.

As with many other im­mi­grants, the Ying fam­ily was able to es­cape poverty by fierce hard work, plan­ning and mu­tual sup­port. Ying Ma her­self was able to go to Cor­nell and then Stan­ford Law School. De­spite her dif­fi­cult path, she loves Amer­ica.

Her jour­ney has made her the very best kind of con­ser­va­tive, one whose love of lib­erty, or­der and self-re­liance has been forged through gritty ex­pe­ri­ence.

Mona Charen is a na­tion­ally syn­di­cated colum­nist.

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