Chinese in AmericaJust spent the last day and a half in the heart of Iowa.

Though I was there to be on a bunch of panels at Grinnell College, parents weekend there necessitated I spend my nights in the neighboring town of Newton, Iowa. Newton has a population of about 15,000 and it is known for being the former home of Maytag Appliances, the present home of the Maytag Dairy (and its Maytag blue cheese) and for being where Rocky Marciano’s plane went down. Perhaps more importantly for some, it also has a gorgeous Maid-Rite.

I arrived fairly late to Newton and this being the heart of the Midwest and me not eating meat, my dining choices were looking pretty limited. Out of an overabundance of a lack of caution, I decided to eat at the Chinese restaurant in town. Though American-Chinese cuisine, it was shockingly decent.

I got to the restaurant about twenty minutes before its 9:00 p.m. closing, which meant I got to watch that Chinese restaurant staple of the restaurant workers eating their own dinner together at a large table. What surprised me (maybe it should not have) was that every single employee was Chinese (or at least appeared to be). As I paid my bill, I asked the cashier/apparent owner, from where she came. She seemed to hesitate just a bit and then said “China.” Where in China, I asked, just about certain she would say Fujian. She did.

I am fascinated by America’s small towns. I am in awe of how so many of them seem both to stay the same and to change. At one time, just about every U.S. town between 15,000 and 25,000 had a general store/department store/clothing store/furniture store owned by Jewish immigrants, whose sons and daughters have mostly moved on to bigger cities. I know at least two lawyers in Seattle who fit that bill. Now it seems those U.S. towns all have one or two Chinese restaurants run by immigrants from Fujian. Who are these Chinese immigrants? Do they go straight to these small towns or start in New York or Los Angeles and then move later? Do they plan to stay in these towns, move elsewhere in the United States or return to China? What is it like being one of damn few Chinese or even Asians in these places?

Many many years ago, I represented an Asian (I am being intentionally vague here) family whose son had been expelled from a small town’s school system for having damaged a teacher’s property. The parents had hired my firm to get their kid exonerated and back into school. They had hired my law firm because we had lawyers who spoke their language. The parents had a very successful business, consisting of two stores, and near as I could tell they were the only Asians in the town. They were short in stature and everything about their physical appearance spoke to the country from which they had come and not the town in which they were living. Their high school age son was nearly six feet tall, wore baggy jeans and a Raiders jersey and he looked like any “cool” kid from a big city American high school.

The son told me the story of his innocence in front of his parents.  But I wasn’t buying a bit of it.

I arranged to meet with the son separately and I essentially told him that if he was truly innocent, I would be happy to have his parents bleed out his college fund for his defense. I then looked him straight in the eye and made very clear that he would be wasting his parents’ hard-earned money if the school system really did have so many witnesses of him committing the act. I told him that if he did it, he needed to come clean with me so I could work with the school system to get his expulsion revoked in favor of a less harsh sentence. I knew from my conversations with key people with the school that we had a very good chance of this because they too wanted to avoid costly litigation. During our various conversations, the son told me that he loved his parents (I really liked them too), of how his parents had come to the United States for him and that he did not want to let them down nor did he want them to spend so much money on his defense because he had in fact done the deed for which he had been expelled.

He also poured forth with how difficult it was being the only Asian at his school. His school had “Americans” and “Hispanics” (his language, not mine) and nobody, including him, was sure in which group he fit. He said he had done this bad act to fit in (my language, not his).

I explained all this to the school people, got the expulsion reduced to time already served by way of a suspension. I ended up really liking the kid and I “felt his pain” as a kid without any natural peer group.

For a long time, Maytag Appliance was one of the leading (the leading) employers in Newton. It and its thousands of jobs are gone now and its quite large, quite nice office building has a “For Sale or Lease” sign out front. Maytag was purchased by Whirlpool and its Newton operations (both manufacturing and corporate) moved elsewhere. How much of that was due to China? How much of that do Newtonians pin on China? Does anyone blame the local Chinese (I sure hope not!)? On the flip side, I kept hearing of how the price of farmland in Iowa is at record highs and how the price of pork is doing just fine as well. I am sure China plays some role in this and I wonder if or how this is considered.

Are there studies or surveys or articles on any of this?

What do you know?

  • Tom

    I come from a suburb of Indianapolis, and my wife is from a small town in Iowa, and in both places we have a Fujian owned Chinese restaurant. The one in Indiana had a girl who was 15 when she moved to the states, and had decent English, but a dim future, since her parents only hope for her was running the restaurant. She had an incredibly hard time fitting in in high school. Her younger brother though had assimilated quite quickly to mid-west life, and even played football in high school. It would be interesting to see how age on arrival effects assimilation, and ability to “fit in”.

  • Anjali Srivavatava

    You’re vegetarian and you eat Chinese food? I’m sorry to disappoint you, but even their veggie dishes are not exactly what they seem.

  • shaqi

    I am a Pakistani-American in a small town and the thing I most experience is isolation. I feel like nobody understands me and I feel like I cannot get too close to anyone because I am viewed as different. I think the Chinese in small towns must feel the same way.

  • Halisi Gao Pi

    Small town America is not good at Asian relations or the food. Its life, Dan, but not as we Chinese know it. Chop Suey? Chow Mein? Fortune Cookies? Thats Americas version of China. I can identify with Shaqi. Good luck with Iowa! Good luck with China! Good luck with being Veggie!

  • Haha, very true! My favorite place to eat out in my small hometown is a Japanese restaurant run by Fujianese staff. Why would a Chinese family open a Japanese restaurant? According to the owner, our town already has three Chinese places so the competition would be too intense. Keen economic intuition!

  • Twofish

    Harris: Now it seems those U.S. towns now all have one or two Chinese restaurants run by immigrants from Fujian. Who are these immigrants? Do they go straight to these small towns or start in New York or Los Angeles and then move later?
    In the case of Fujianese what usually happens is chain migration. One person gets a green card in some small town and then they move family over. As far as plans, it depends, and you have everything under the sun.
    Harris: What is it like being one of damn few Chinese or even Asians in these places?
    No generalizations possible.
    Where I grew up, the racial classifications were white and black, and so I ended up white because I obviously wasn’t black. Also, the fact that we were fundamentalist Christians (Southern Baptists) made it pretty easy to fit in. The other thing that helped was being on the side of “anti-Communism, freedom, and democracy” during the Cold War.
    Harris: I explained all this to the school people, got the expulsion reduced to time already served by way of a suspension. I ended up really liking the kid and I “felt his pain” as a kid without any natural peer group.
    Absolutely no sympathy from me or even less from my parents. If you did something bad, you should apologize. I would have gotten a thrashing from my parents if I did something like that. It’s bad enough to do something bad, but lying to your parents is one of the worst things that you could possibly do in my family, it’s almost as bad as lying to your teachers.
    Two of the stories that I grew up with was the George Washington chopping down the cherry tree story. The other was one in which the teachers whipped the student for doing something bad, and the parents joined in. One of the messages that I got from my parents was that “we are Chinese, we study hard, we work hard, and we suffer.” The weird thing was that by being “Chinese” we became more “American” since people could and would point to us as an example of the American dream.
    Also one thing that ended up curious was that I ended up being able to quickly fit into different groups.
    Harris: Are there studies or surveys or articles on any of this?
    There are a ton of them, and what you find out is that people are different and what’s true in one city may be very different in another one. The other problem with stories is that usually what ends up happening is that people tell stories as part of some prepackaged narrative. For example, I can tell my story in terms of the American dream, small town kids made good, patriotic overseas Chinese, or any one of a dozen other ways.

  • Twofish

    shaqi: I am a Pakistani-American in a small town and the thing I most experience is isolation. I feel like nobody understands me and I feel like I cannot get too close to anyone because I am viewed as different. I think the Chinese in small towns must feel the same way.
    Curiously enough no. One of the things that happened was that we were seen as “different” but different in a good way. Since my father was a community college teacher and pretty much everyone in my generation came as a result of education, being “Chinese” was associated with being educated and listening to your teachers and this was considered a good thing by both the locals and non-locals. Also anytime there was any sort of issue, you could point out that we are all good Christians and then pray over the issue.
    The other thing that made a difference was that I ended up in a part of the south whose population was rapidly growing. There were a ton of “snowbirds” so the fact that you came here from China really didn’t matter to the people that just got here from New York. Also this was right after the civil rights era of the 1960’s, so trying to get things so that white people and black people could work together was the big goal, and just adding a few Chinese didn’t make that much difference.
    One other thing is that there are subgroups among Chinese. When I was younger, the division was between “mainlander Taiwanese” and “local Taiwanese” (note that this was in the 1970’s when there was no immigration from Mainland China.) Once you had immigration from PRC, you added more groups. Curiously the fact that there were so few Chinese caused a lot of the things that people argue over in other places to not matter. If you have 50 people from group A and 50 people from group B, they can fight with each other, but if you and someone else are the only Chinese people (and even the only Asian people) then you tend not to worry about the subgroups.
    Also, one thing about my hometown is that the Fuijanese have been moving in, and the Chinese that arrived in the 1970’s see them as “different”. Something that happened was that you had the first wave of Chinese start up restaurants, but once the Fujianese moved in, they had the capital and social networks to totally out compete the older Chinese restaurants, and most of the older Chinese restaurant owners left the business and went into real estate.
    Zhou: I am Chinese in America and I live in biggest city of all New York and I went to college here from China and it is not easy even here. Thank you for highlighting this and I am so sure that it is more difficult for my fellow citizens in the smaller places.
    I’m curious why you are assuming that life for Chinese would be more difficult in small town USA than in NYC.

  • Kenan

    There are so many Chinese “enclaves” in the US now, it’s pretty amazing. My family is from Iowa and I’ve never noticed a large Chinese population during my infrequent visits, yet it doesn’t surprise me that Chinese (and those from other nations) manage to make their way midland.
    California, on the other hand, shocks me sometimes. In the Bay Area, you can find entire malls with signs in mainly Chinese. I’ve encountered situations where the staff of a large restaurant did not speak English. It was culture shock and I hadn’t even left the area!
    As to PaulR’s comment, I think that kids can be quite segregationist if it’s not discouraged, and not having a place to “belong” can be a blessing and a curse. I remember a Chinese friend being shocked at all the White people upon entering her college campus for the first time: it was a stark contrast with her 70-80% ethnic Chinese high school.

  • Twofish

    The wave of Fujianese immigration is one of the unintended consequences of Nancy Pelosi’s Chinese Student Protection Act which was passed in the early 1990’s as a result of Tiananmen. One of the provisions gave permanent residency to any PRC national in the US at the time of passage. This was intended for students, but it allowed a lot of undocumented aliens that would otherwise have zero chance of getting citizenship. Once you have people with citizenship they can open businesses and operate “on the grid”. This lets them pull over other people from Fujian with various degrees of legality.
    The other thing is Fujian itself. The 19th century wave of Chinese immigration was from Guangdong, but there are few immigrants today from there, because the Guangdong economy is booming. Fujian is not booming, but it’s not desperate. This means that you had people that were rich enough to afford to come to the United States (it costs about US$40K to get yourself shipped over), but poor enough so that they don’t want to stay home. Also the way that Fujianese restaurants work is that person X borrows money to start a restaurant. Once they pay off the debt they start making more money which they save and then lend to the next set of restauranteurs. Also there is a steady supply of cheap undocumented labor from Fujian to work in the restaurants. What happens is that your family pays $40K to a snakehead, they bring you over. You work for three years. The first two is to pay off the debt, and anything you make in the third you keep, and once you go home you spread the money over the people that paid your way to the US. Note that the restaurant will provide living quarters and food, so it’s a pretty good deal.
    Because the Fujian’s economy is improving and the US isn’t, this wave of immigration has actually ended. One other odd thing is that in Texas, the workers in cheap Chinese restaurants are invariably Mexican rather than Fujianese. The Japanese restaurants in Texas are run by Chinese, because there aren’t many Japanese immigrants. Also a good number of the Korean restaurants are run by ethnic Korean Chinese. The other thing is that Vietnamese in the US have a disproportionately high number of ethnic Chinese Vietnamese, and they seem to dominate the oriental supermarket business in Texas. A lot of them ended up in the US after the end of the Vietnamese War when they were officials for the South.
    One other observation is that if you have kids that are tall and parents that are short, that’s usually a sign of malnourishment in the parent’s generation, which is why they ended up in the US.
    Harris: How much of that do Newtonians pin on China? Does anyone blame the local Chinese (gosh, I sure hope not!)?
    One observation is that people care a lot when an industry is leaving, but once it’s gone, there’s no point in caring. There’s surprisingly little anti-Chinese sentiment compared to the anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1980’s, because the factories that moved to China are already there, and there is nothing to get upset about.

  • Fan Boy

    Where do you even come up with this stuff? I am not sure I know anyone else who would think of this and there are certainly no other sites who would run it. I say this all as a compliment as it is articles like this that make yours my favorite China site by far.

  • Bob

    This is a very thoughtful posting. You’ve been able to relate a variety of events, personal and other to present a striking panorama of contemporary issues. Thanks.

  • Anya

    I worked at a Japanese restaurant owned by the Fujian people, and I think I learned more about the Chinese people there that I did in 4 years of Asian Studies in the university. I felt very close to these people and I felt so touched by their stories I even considered studying to become an immigration lawyer.
    I met a Fujian woman who worked there as a waitress she was 30 years old. She was the oldest waitress there. She lived in the US for 6 years and spoke some English, but she was afraid to find a job anywhere other than Fujian owned restaurants. She was a full time waitress and though she entered into US illegally with a help of a good lawyer, she did legally get her permanent residency. In these 6 years she worked for more than 30 Japanese restaurants all over US all with Fujian owners. At first she was able to keep a job for a while but as she got older more and more Fujian restaurant owners just told her she was too old and send her back after one or two days of work. In New York there is an agency that all restaurant owners register at and all Fujian and Mexican people know of. For a small fee they direct you to the place where you can work and you take a long distance bus to a place where you will work 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. Most of the people only own 2 suitcases worth of things, because they never know when they might be fired and will have to go back to New York to find a new place to work.
    The sad part is she spent 5 years working of her debt to come to the US, and now her parents are so old she uses most of her salary to send back home to support her parents.
    A few months ago she came to China, she got fired for being too old again and she had enough money to come to see her family for the first time in 6 years. I asked her if she wanted to just stay in China? The face she had is hard to describe, it was full of sorrow, regret and confusion. She told me, life in US is hard and I do not fit in, but in modern China I am also a foreigner.

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