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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

June 8, 2011

Written by C.N.

Posts for Years Past: June

If you’re the nostalgic type, you might be interested to read the following posts from June of years past:


May 11, 2011

Written by C.N.

Recent Books, Articles & Infographic on China & Chinese Americans

A number of recently-published books, media articles, and an infographic provide some interesting and useful information about China and Chinese Americans, summarized below:

China’s One Child Policy

Throughout the last couple of decades, there has been much discussion about China’s One Child Policy that was implemented back in the 1970s to “encourage” Chinese families from having, as the name suggests, just a single child as a way to slow China’s population growth. However, most Americans know little about the details, especially as there are increasing calls for China to change the policy. Fortunately, Good Transparencies has created an infographic that visually illustrates the main highlights of the One Child Policy (click on the thumbnail below for a larger version):

Click for full-size graphic

West Get Ready, Here Comes China 2.0

Over the past 30 years, China’s red-hot economic growth has lifted hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, reshaped the global economy and given rise to a new power on the global stage. But that breakneck growth has also created an expanding wealth gap, major environmental problems, widespread corruption, a growing imperative to innovate and popular pressure for political reforms. . . .

But as this phase of China’s economic development draws to an end, a new phase has begun. Call it China 2.0. . . . China’s leaders worry about growing too fast. Premier Wen Jiabao said in March the expansion is “unbalanced, uncoordinated and unsustainable.” To address that, the next five-year plan incorporates reforms already under way and charts a roadmap designed to keep the economy from veering off the track. . . .

The goal is to keep the economy growing, spread wealth from the industrial coastal cities to inland provinces and rural areas, encourage more domestic spending, spur innovation and deliver expanded social services to sparsely populated areas that lack them.

China to Ban Eating Cats and Dogs

Eating dogs and cats–which is an age-old delicacy in China–could soon be against the law. Currently, dog and cat meat is viewed as promoting bodily warmth. But if the law passes, people who eat either animal could face fines of up to $730 or 15 days in jail. Organizations involved the practice would face fines up to 100-times as much.

“I support this proposal. Whether you judge this as a question of food security or emotions, there is absolutely no necessity in China for people to eat dogs and cats,” said Zeng Li, the founder of the Lucky Cats shelter in Beijing. . . . The law has been in the draft stage for over a year and will be submitted to higher authorities come April. But draft legislation can take years to approve. . . .

The economic impact of this law would be small as China’s affluent don’t partake in the delicacy. In fact, such traditions have received much scrutiny from affluent, pet-loving, urban middle class. And online petitions against dog and cat consumption have attracted tens of thousands of signatures.

China is Not Taking Over the World

Every week a new book title announces an “irresistible” tilt east, the emergence of “Chimerica” and a not-too-distant future when China “rules” the planet. The mainstream media, and especially the business press, are gripped by the narrative of China taking over the world. . . .

But the coverage of China’s global inroads has been profoundly short on context, particularly when it comes to how China is—and is not—surpassing the U.S. as a global power. There are plenty of stories of a Chinese-sponsored infrastructure project or a Chinese company cutting a deal to feed its “insatiable thirst” for raw materials, while Western involvement of similar or greater magnitude is lucky to make a headline at all.

Meanwhile, a close look at the key economic metrics and the subtler shades of power, such as cultural influence and humanitarian aid, reveals that while China is indeed one of the great powers in the world now (late last month it officially overtook Japan as the world’s second-largest economy), its influence is mixed, and often undercut by America’s.

Not Much Progress in America’s Chinese Problem

Cutting-edge programs like those at the immersion charter school Yu Ying in Washington, D.C., and reports of Chinese-language courses popping up in heartland America would all seem to suggest that Americans are on the fast track to learning Chinese—and ultimately understanding China. . . . You’ll be hard-pressed, the reasoning goes, to find anyone who doesn’t think grasping the language of the world’s fastest-growing economy is a good idea.

But the sad fact is that Americans are not learning Mandarin, the main tongue spoken in mainland China, in droves. Just take a look at the numbers. According to the Center for Applied Linguistics, in 2008 only 4 percent of middle and high schools that offer foreign-language instruction included Mandarin. That’s up from 1 percent in 1997.

While that initially seems like respectable growth, the same survey reveals that 13 percent of schools still offer Latin and a full 10-fold more schools offer French than Mandarin. How is it that one a dead language and the other a language primarily used to impress your dinner companion can trounce one spoken by 1.3 billion natives and many millions more expats and immigrants abroad?

Stop Blaming China For America’s Woes

The US administration seems to be trying to convince its public of another untruth: that China is the true cause of America’s economic woes — and that China possesses “weapons of mass economic destruction.” What is that weapon of mass economic destruction? The humble yuan, which the US says has been manipulated to hurt the American economy. . . .

Economist Paul Krugman recently said China’s trade surplus with the US had grown in the past decade even without the yuan rising sufficiently against the dollar. Before America’s economic 9/11, however, its consumers seemed happy to get affordable Chinese goods year after year and its businesspeople were busy making profits from lucrative partnerships with Chinese companies. . . .

China’s stimulus for its economy has created opportunities for Western countries’ exports, too. . . . China would readily buy more advanced technologies from America, but Washington is reluctant to sell them. . . . . Hopefully, [Americans] will see through their politicians’ desperate attempt to shift the blame for the country’s problems to China in order to cover their own failures.

Bogus Chinese American Militia Marched in Parades

U.S. Army veteran Joaquin Lim sensed something was amiss with the troop that had popped up at civic events in Southern California’s Chinese-American communities. At a flag raising ceremony honoring a Chinese holiday, the Walnut city councilman stopped one of the recruits and asked to see his military ID. “There were actually typos on the ID card,” Lim said. “Right away, I knew something was wrong.”

Those suspicions came into the spotlight Tuesday when authorities arrested the so-called “supreme commander” of the U.S. Army/Military Special Forces Reserve unit and charged him with duping Chinese immigrants into thinking they had truly enlisted in the American armed forces.

Prosecutors say Yupeng Deng, 51, recruited 100 other Chinese immigrants . . . at the cost of several hundred dollars, to help improve their chances of obtaining green cards and U.S. citizenship. . . . The case — which was investigated by the FBI and Department of Defense — highlights the vulnerability of immigrants desperately seeking to belong in a new country and naive to the norms of a society in which, for example, military recruits don’t pay to enlist.

Why Indian and Chinese Entrepreneurs are Leaving America

skilled immigrants are leaving the U.S. in droves. This is because of economic opportunities in countries like India and China, a desire to be closer to family and friends, and a deeply flawed U.S immigration system. It doesn’t matter whether we call this “brain drain” or “brain circulation”– it is a loss for America. Innovation that would otherwise be happening here is going abroad. . . .

Surprisingly, 72% of Indian and 81% of Chinese returnees said that the opportunities to start their own businesses were better or much better in their home countries. Speed of professional growth was also better back home for the majority of Indian (54%) and Chinese (68 percent) entrepreneurs. And the quality of life was better or at least equal to what they’d enjoyed in the United States for 56% of Indian and 59% of Chinese returnees.

The Snakehead: An Epic Tale of the Chinatown Underworld and the American Dream, by Patrick Radden Keefe (Anchor Publishing)

'The Snakehead' by Keefe

In the 1980s, a wave of Chinese from Fujian province began arriving in America. Like other immigrant groups before them, they showed up with little money but with an intense work ethic and an unshakeable belief in the promise of the United States. Many of them lived in a world outside the law, working in a shadow economy overseen by the ruthless gangs that ruled the narrow streets of New York’s Chinatown.

The figure who came to dominate this Chinese underworld was a middle-aged grandmother known as Sister Ping. Her path to the American dream began with an unusual business run out of a tiny noodle store on Hester Street. From her perch above the shop, Sister Ping ran a full-service underground bank for illegal Chinese immigrants. But her real business—a business that earned an estimated $40 million—was smuggling people.

As a “snakehead,” she built a complex—and often vicious—global conglomerate, relying heavily on familial ties, and employing one of Chinatown’s most violent gangs to protect her power and profits. Based on hundreds of interviews, Patrick Radden Keefe’s sweeping narrative tells the story not only of Sister Ping, but of the gangland gunslingers who worked for her, the immigration and law enforcement officials who pursued her, and the generation of penniless immigrants who risked death and braved a 17,000 mile odyssey so that they could realize their own version of the American dream.

Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States, by Lan Dong (Temple University Press)

'Mulan's Legacy' by Lan Dong

Mulan, the warrior maiden who performed heroic deeds in battle while dressed as a male soldier, has had many incarnations from her first appearance as a heroine in an ancient Chinese folk ballad. Mulan’s story was retold for centuries, extolling the filial virtue of the young woman who placed her father’s honor and well-being above her own. With the publication of Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior in the late 1970s, Mulan first became familiar to American audiences who were fascinated with the extraordinary Asian American character. Mulan’s story was recast yet again in the popular 1998 animated Disney film and its sequel.

In Mulan’s Legend and Legacy in China and the United States, Lan Dong traces the development of this popular icon and asks, “Who is the real Mulan?” and “What does authenticity mean for the critic looking at this story?” Dong charts this character’s literary voyage across historical and geographical borders, discussing the narratives and images of Mulan over a long time span—from premodern China to the contemporary United States to Mulan’s counter-migration back to her homeland.

As Dong shows, Mulan has been reinvented repeatedly in both China and the United States so that her character represents different agendas in each retelling—especially after she reached the western hemisphere. The dutiful and loyal daughter, the fierce, pregnant warrior, and the feisty teenaged heroine—each is Mulan representing an idea about female virtue at a particular time and place.

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, by John Soennichsen (Greenwood Publishing)

'Chinese Exclusion Act' by Soennichsen

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was a historic act of legislation that demonstrated how the federal government of the United States once openly condoned racial discrimination. Once the Exclusion Act passed, the door was opened to further limitation of Asians in America during the late 19th century, such as the Scott Act of 1888 and the Geary Act of 1892, and increased hatred towards and violence against Chinese people based on the misguided belief they were to blame for depressed wage levels and unemployment among Caucasians.

This title traces the complete evolution of the Exclusion Act, including the history of Chinese immigration to the United States, the factors that served to increase their populations here, and the subsequent efforts to limit further immigration and encourage the departure of the Chinese already in America.


January 6, 2011

Written by C.N.

Posts from Years Past: January

In case you’re the nostalgic type, here are some posts in this blog from January of years past:


June 10, 2010

Written by C.N.

New Book: Interactions in New York City Korean Nail Salons

Today’s new book announcement is a little different from previous ones. The book I would like to profile is entitled The Managed Hand: Race, Gender and the Body in Beauty Service Work and it takes an individual- and institutional-level look at the recent proliferation of Korean American-owned nail salons in New York City and the interactions inside them between the owners, workers, and customers across racial, social class, and immigrant identities. The book’s description:

Two women, virtual strangers, sit hand-in-hand across a narrow table, both intent on the same thing-achieving the perfect manicure. Encounters like this occur thousands of times across the United States in nail salons increasingly owned and operated by Asian immigrants. This study looks closely for the first time at these intimate encounters, focusing on New York City, where such nail salons have become ubiquitous. Drawing from rich and compelling interviews, Miliann Kang takes us inside the nail industry, asking such questions as: Why have nail salons become so popular? Why do so many Asian women, and Korean women in particular, provide these services?

Kang discovers multiple motivations for the manicure-from the pampering of white middle class women to the artistic self-expression of working class African American women to the mass consumption of body-related services. Contrary to notions of beauty service establishments as spaces for building community among women, The Managed Hand finds that while tentative and fragile solidarities can emerge across the manicure table, they generally give way to even more powerful divisions of race, class, and immigration.

The Managed Hand by Miliann Kang

The book is written by Miliann Kang, recently-promoted to Associate Professor with tenure in the Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. As it turns out, Miliann also happens to be my wife. On a personal level, I am extremely thrilled and proud of my wife and the hard work that she’s put into her life and her career and this excellence is particularly evident in her book and so it deserves to be profiled here.

But this is more than her proud husband going on and on about his wife — Miliann’s book is published by the University of California Press (widely considered the most prestigious academic press in the social sciences). Secondly, The Managed Hand recently received the Sara Whaley Book Prize from the National Women’s Studies Association. Finally, her book has been acclaimed by nationally-recognized scholars around the country as “a must read for women’s studies and sociology classes on labor, migration and gender,” “a significant contribution to the existing literature on Asian-American women, gender relations, service workers, beauty and the body,” an “innovative and compelling ethnography,” and finally, “a wonderful example of what sociology does best.”

I was also fortunate to land an exclusive interview with Miliann and asked her the following questions about her work and her book:

  • What initially motivated you to start researching Korean-owned nail salons in New York City?

    I was a graduate student in Sociology at New York University and I was interested in doing research on Asian immigrant women and work, and nail salons happened to be one of the largest niches in which they were employed. I was also working with an Asian American community organization at the time and we started offering English language workplace literacy classes in one salon. I quickly realized what a rich and revealing research site these salons were for exploring the microinteractions of service exchanges between women of diverse backgrounds. In addition, by exploring both the processes inside and outside of these salons, I could contextualize them within large social shifts such as the emergence of new kinds of services, especially those involving commercialized work on the body, and the influx of new immigrants into filling these jobs.

  • There’s been a lot of debate about the nature of Korean-Black relations in large cities such as NYC. What contributes to such tensions on both sides? Ultimately, are such tensions exaggerated by the media?

    I think the media has at times misrepresented these tensions, framing them in racial terms rather than focusing on issues such as poverty, lack of jobs and cuts in government programs that have led to tensions in inner-city neighborhoods. At the same time, there is a history of tensions– including the Red Apple boycott in Brooklyn and the Los Angeles uprising following the Rodney King verdict – that has produced animosities between black communities and Korean small businesses. What struck me in the nail salons was that many of the very positive interactions between these groups go under the radar, as people for the most part negotiate smooth if not cordial relations despite language and cultural differences.

  • Your book goes into a lot of detail about the intersections of gender, social class, race/ethnicity, and immigrant status among the workers and customers. In a nutshell, which of these forms of identity would you say is the most significant in the interactions inside these nail salons?

    Rather than trying to isolate forms of difference and their impacts, I was more interested in seeing how they operate simultaneously, and how they shift in different situations. So in upscale salons in mostly white, upper and middle class neighborhoods, I focused on how manicuring services mirrored racial and class privileges outside of the salons. In nail art salons servicing mostly black and Latino working class customers, the interactions revealed how minority groups negotiate hierarchies and differences among themselves. Discount nail salons serving a mixed racial and class clientele showed how women’s consumption of generic beauty services created a sense of equality, but also resulted in misunderstandings around rushed or botched exchanges.

  • It seems that in most other cities around the country, nail salons are most disproportionately owned and staffed by Vietnamese women. Is this true and if so, why is it that Koreans predominate in NYC?

    This is a complicated question. The short answer is that immigrants tend to cluster in particular niches, and new immigrants follow their ethnic networks and end up in the same jobs. So in New York, Koreans went into the nail business because it required little capital or English language skills and at the time was not highly regulated. In other places like California and Texas, Vietnamese were the first to make inroads and they continued to dominate. The longer answer has to do with shifting patterns of service provision and consumption in the global economy and how Asian immigrant women fit into these.

    This is how I sum it up in the book: “The lifestyle that many urban residents take for granted in cities such as New York is only possible because of the influx of new immigrants and their willingness to work long, arduous hours for minimal pay in jobs that many native-born Americans view as beneath them. Furthermore, the availability and skills of immigrant women to fill these feminized jobs is also a crucial component. While immigrant women from specific ethnic groups are not the sole creators of these jobs or the terms under which they perform them, they contribute to job creation in these specialized niches by capitalizing on the limited choices available to them within the opportunity structure of the global service economy.”

  • What’s your most significant or poignant memory when you were working, hanging out, and conducting research in these nail salons?

    What stands out for me are the many mundane, daily occurrences in these sites where people from all walks of life find themselves thrown together in intimate physical and emotional contact, and they somehow manage to figure things out. While in the book I focus on the inequalities and differences between customers and manicurists, I also hold onto a sense of awe and hope in people’s ability to connect as human beings through the simplest of acts, such as sharing stories about their kids or work, or just treating each other with dignity.

  • If the Korean women in your study could tell your readers one thing about their work or their lives, what do you think it would be?

    I think it would be very similar to what most of us would say – that we work hard to contribute something to society and to support ourselves and our families, and that we want to be treated with respect for the work we do. This quote from one manicurist I think says it well:

    We have to get very close to the customers, like this (holding her hands together) so we try best to get along with them. If you don’t like someone and you have to do this – hold their hand and talk to them face to face – it can be very difficult. This is service work – so you know you have to act a certain way. Of course I don’t like doing the pedicures, having to kneel down, and the foot smell. But I just think of it as part of giving the service… I try very hard to ask them about their families and how they feel. It would be nice if once in a while they asked me, too.

    In other words, manicurists may not be particularly enthralled with their work, but they adjust and find meaning and purpose in it, and the relations that they have with their customers can either enhance or undermine their sense of worth in performing this work.


October 26, 2009

Written by C.N.

Struggles and Opportunities for Immigrant Minority Businesses

I previously wrote about data showing that in many ways, racial minorities are hurt more than Whites by the current economic recession, largely because in many occupations and industries, people of color are overrepresented among those who are recently hired, have less overall years of job experience and therefore, are more likely to be laid off.

However, a large part of daily life for many communities of color, particularly immigrants, centers on local small businesses. How are they doing in the recession? As New America Media points out, while they struggle just like almost all area of American society these days, they still remain focal points for cultural and social life within many communities of color. In addition, many entrepreneurs say the recession actually offers some interesting opportunities:

Recession or not, Mexican businesses that serve up traditional foods like conches, paletas, tacos and sopes to locals in San Francisco’s Mission District remain popular social gathering places in the neighborhood. But sales are another story.

“There used to be lines of people out the door. It’s not like it was,” said Estela Valle, 56, describing the drop in customers at her panadería, La Mexicana Bakery . . . Since the economy collapsed, Valle says she has seen a 40 percent drop in business. But the bakery continues to be popular among the usual crowd of housewives and construction workers, says Valle; they are just buying less. . . .

Nail salon owners, many of them Vietnamese immigrant women, say their businesses are slumping along with the economy.
Susan (Xuan) Le, owner of Susan’s Nail and Spa in Oakland, has been a manicurist for 20 years, and she says this is the hardest time. . . .

“People can’t afford it. They can’t afford to pay rent and eat, how can they have money to pay for manicures and pedicures?” she said. “They are coming back, but it’s taking longer than before. If they used to come every two weeks, now they’re coming in once a month. My income is cut in half.” . . .

While [others] cut back, Quyen Ton is venturing out on her own. After 14 years as a manicurist in other peoples’ shops, she decided to start her own business: White Daisy Nail Spa in San Francisco. “I have the skills and am good with customers. I had the ability and confidence to run my own business. I wanted to see if I could make a go of it, and make a better living,” Ton said.

Ton said a bad economy didn’t deter her. Instead it gave her an opportunity. “The good thing is that it’s easy to get a lease, they don’t require a lot, and it’s easier to negotiate a lower rent,” said Ton.

Certainly immigrant minority small businesses and their owners are just like other American businesses and workers — the recession has led to tough times and many businesses struggle to stay afloat. As the article describes, many immigrant minority owners have had to change and adapt to the economic downturn just like anybody else.

Nonetheless, the article illustrates some interesting points about immigrant business owners — even though sales are down, they are still prominent fixtures in their communities as places where people can congregate, socialize, maintain relations with friends and neighbors, and in doing so, perhaps share information about jobs, social services, or other ways to better survive the recession.

In other words, many immigrant minority businesses are more than just a place to buy goods or services — they can also serve as spaces for ethnic groups to maintain ethnic solidarity. This collective process also serves as an informal kind of networking and social support that can have many direct and indirect benefits for community members in times of economic difficulty.

In providing a space and social structure within which members collaboratively provide and access informal resources to/with each other, churches frequently perform similar functions as well. Taken together, such immigrant minority institutions can provide a form of social “safety net” for ethnic groups and may help to lessen some of the more negative consequences of the recession.


October 19, 2009

Written by C.N.

China-India Rivalry Heating Up

About a year and a half ago, I wrote about how China and India were trying to irn out some geographic, political, and economic differences as they both continue their emergence as 21st century superpowers. While relations between the two countries seem to have been stable for a while, as Time magazine reports, it looks like their rivalry is beginning to heat up again:

India and China fought a war in 1962 whose acrimonious legacy lingers even while economic ties flourish (China is now India’s biggest trade partner). Beijing refuses to acknowledge the de facto border — demarcated by the British empire — and claims almost the entirety of the northeastern Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh as part of its territory.

Indian strategic analysts believe Beijing’s stance has hardened in recent years, perhaps as a consequence of its increasing economic and military edge over India as well as growing Chinese influence in smaller South Asian countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. . . . “There’s a nervousness among some policymakers that the Chinese see India as weak and vulnerable to coercion,” says Harsh Pant, professor of defense studies at King’s College, London. . . . “Indians feel they can’t manage China’s rise and that they are far, far behind.” . . .

But the real arena for future confrontation, say most Indian strategists, lies not in standoffs on remote, rugged peaks but in the waters all around the Indian subcontinent. . . . Traditionally, India has imagined the ocean as part of its backyard without investing serious resources in its navy — much more goes to an army and air force that are perched by the land boundaries with the old enemy of Pakistan. . . .

To safeguard its vast appetite for oil and other natural resources, particularly those drawn from Africa, China has . . . [built] ports and listening posts around the Indian Ocean rim. . . . China will eventually possess key naval choke points around the subcontinent that could disrupt Indian lines of communication and shipping.

Reports of a tense standoff earlier this year between Indian and Chinese warships on anti-piracy patrol in the Gulf of Aden — though dismissed by both governments — did little to subdue the sense of distrust brewing between policymakers on both sides.

Something tells me that these renewed tensions between China and India are likely to get worse before they get better. If so, this is the last thing the world needs, but something that the U.S. may secretly like to see — two emerging superpowers and challengers to the U.S.’s global superiority sniping at each other and raising tensions in the region.

The other unknown is how will rising tensions between China and India affect relations between the Chinese American and Indian American communities in the U.S. Up to this point, these two Asian American communities seem to have good relations with each other, as they share many characteristics and experiences in common, particularly concerning immigration and entrepreneurship issues.

Nonetheless, with so many Chinese and Indian Americans maintaining connections with their ancestral countries, if tensions rise back there, they may eventually spill over into their lives in the U.S.


June 12, 2005

Written by C.N.

Asian Women Small Businesses

Fresh on the heels of stories proclaiming that college-educated Asian American women make more than White women, as reported by The Arizona Republic, the Center for Women’s Business Research notes that the number of Asian women-owned small businesses have surged in recent years:

Nationally, the number of Asian women-owned businesses surged 69 percent between 1997 and 2004. That’s about twice as fast as other minority groups. Sales and employment also have soared. Meanwhile, overall business numbers grew 9 percent.

Asian women become entrepreneurs for the reasons others do: to boost their earnings potential, to balance work and home life or to pursue an idea, experts say. But the top reason is that they desire independence.

The article notes, and as I’ve found out in my own research on Asian American self-employment, there are a variety of reasons why Asian American men and women go into business for themselves. Some of it is opportunism, while others are of a last resort. Whatever the motivation, it’s encouraging to see Asian American women taking the initiative to work toward their success.