Chinese American women writers weigh it on pressing immigration issues

February 9— Maxine Hong Kingston and Gish Jen, authors and daughters of Chinese immigrants, shed light on the meaning of immigration at Suffolk University.  The dialogue between Hong Kingston and Jen, moderated by the noted author and columnist James Carroll, kicked start “Immigrant in America,” a Civic Discourse series presented by Suffolk University and the Boston Athenæum.

“In this set of conversations, the subject has been lifted up as one of the most important subjects of our time, which is: the meaning of immigration,” Carroll said in his opening remark.

On that note, the award-winning author describes being an immigrant as a universal human experience.  “We are a nation of immigrants….we need to find our stories. Everyone has an immigration story, and this includes the Native Americans, who have embarked on so many journeys…all the way from the tip of the America’s south, all the way north, and back and forth, where they collected waters from both oceans,” Hong Kingston said.

Hong Kingston took the audience to a darker chapter in history when Chinese immigrants were unwelcomed.

In the late 1930’s, Hong Kingston’s mother, Ying Lan (Chew) Hong, traveled from China to the US to be with Kingston’s father. Upon arrival, she was detained on Angel Island, an immigration station in the San Francisco Bay, which had held many Chinese immigrants.  Beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, a series of restrictive laws had prohibited the immigration of certain nationalities and social classes of Asians. Although all Asians were affected, the greatest impact was on the Chinese; more than 70 percent of the immigrants detained on Angel Island. Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the immigration station at Angel Island.

Hong Kingston recited a scene from one of her memoirs of her visit to Angel Island on a foggy, autumn day.  She tried to draw a mental picture of what her mother might have seen and felt.
“As we came, I pictured my mother coming in.  And how it must have felt to her as she came in on the ship.  And she had no idea where she was.  And she didn’t know how long she would be kept here.” Hong Kingston said.

On a cold November Friday, we hired a fishing boat that took us plunging and pitching into the Bay.  The fog and waves poured onto the boat, which was moving too fast into the whiteness.  The captain showed me on the sonar radar computer.  Nothing on the screen, but more fog.  Suddenly, Alcatraz.  And suddenly, The Island….the open ocean between me and China. I am my mother, arriving at North America, seeing no landing place, no shelters, no cultivated farmland.  No civilization.  Boy, the wild.  The dangerous wild….

Gish Jen, whose father did not become a legal immigrant until she was in grade school, is also a second generation immigrant. She cited a research study which shows that second generation immigrants are one of the most creative groups in negotiating and crossing between two cultures.  When a member of the audience brought up a comment about illegal immigrants, Jen said that despite her background, she understands why some people have reservations about illegal immigrants.  A great fear was that the illegal immigrants were there to take over available jobs.
“Statistics [show that] unemployment [rate] is 10 percent overall, but between 18 and 30 year olds, the unemployment 25 percent.  That is a lot of unemployed people.  The middle class feels like they are under a lot of pressure…we are hard wired to be tribal…to love and to hate.  I can understand why people have this reaction that “we can’t have this going on in this country [referring to illegal immigration],” Jen said.

Hong Kingston attributed the main reason for anti-illegal immigrant sentiment to an economic one.

“When I look back at my own immigration history…they [Hong Kingston’s family] were all illegal.  When we think about illegal immigrants now, the idea is that they are breaking the law; they don’t deserve protection; they do not deserve the benefits,” she said.  “When we look at illegal immigrants, the United States has always had a policy where you could come here as a refugee, political persecution, but you cannot be here for economic reason [you are last in line].  Economic reasons sound like you are going to come here and make a lot of money, and take it back somewhere.  But the economic reason is that you want to be with your family, and you want to take care for your family and that’s the basic reason for illegal immigration,” she continued.

Hong Kingston, who is known for her anti-war stance, also weighed in on the Dream Act, a bill that failed to become law last December.  The bill intended to give young adults, who had arrived in the United States illegally, an opportunity to earn their legal residency through higher education or military service.

“It’s not only about young people.  But you could join the military, you could serve in Afghanistan, you could serve in Iraq, and you cannot be a citizen.  Can you imagine being in the American army…after you’ve come back, if you come back, you are not allowed to be a citizen?”  Hong Kingston said.  “I think of that through all the wars.  It’s unfortunate that there has to be wars.  But so many minority people join the army.  They think that they are going to earn their citizenship.  When the Japanese were in the relocation camps, they were fighting in Europe, and they thought this meant that when they came back, they would get their full rights to be American.  Somehow, their idea was that you had to earn your right to be an American by being a soldier.  So these foreigners are fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan to prove themselves as Americans, only to come back and be told by the [failure of passage] Dream Act that they are not granted an American citizenship.  How is that supporting our troops?”

Hong Kingston’s response begs the question:  What should be done to change the culture and to help lawmakers obtain different perspectives on immigration?

Jen proposed an interesting solution.

“[We have] to educate them.  I think that all members of Congress, before they run for congress, should be forced to go abroad once, [and] own a passport,” she said.  “And how to change the culture?  [We have] to get our neighbors to understand that we, too, are citizens of the world.”

The final two panel discussion events, titled “Immigrants in Boston” and “Children of Immigrants,” will be held at 6PM on March 3 and March 15, at the Boston Athenaeum.  For more information, please visit

(Left to right) Gish Jen, James Carroll and Maxine Hong Kingston at Suffolk University.

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