What does it mean to ‘belong’ as Asians in America
This novel celebrates and illuminates the struggles and achievements of a largely-ignored group in the rich history of the U.S. – the Cantonese men who conquered building the toughest part of the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad – the tunnels through the granite of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Chinese Brothers, American Sons tells the little-known story of these brave adventurers through the eyes of two brothers, Li Chang and Li Yu, who arrive in San Francisco in 1854 in search of the Gold Mountain. Despite being the target of racism and not fitting in, their journey is one of hope and triumph – the Chinese brothers are no longer invisible, they are now American sons.
Every group that has immigrated to America has struggled to “fit in” while battling the hatred and discrimination from those already established.
First there was the “Yellow Peril” and later xenophobic myths that Asians were disease carriers, a threat to the nation and could never truly become American. Now history repeats itself with the mantra of President Trump, calling COVID-19 the “Chinese Virus” and the “Kung-flu.” Since the pandemic, there have been more than 2,500 reported “hate-crime” attacks against Asians in the United States.
In “Chinese Brothers, American Sons,” Li Chang and the younger brother Li Yu constantly try to “fit in” amidst the racism of outright hostility or microaggression of thoughtless, unintentional racism and violence of the macho west. They faced discriminatory western laws, ruthless railroad moguls, and endured the back- and mind-breaking construction of the treacherous, western portion of the Transcontinental Railroad, and yes, American food.
Ed Shew was born in 1949 to Chinese parents in St. Louis, Missouri. His story of trying to ‘fit in’ is reflected in his novel, as well as this editorial.
My family also tried to “fit in.” A poignant story was when I was in second grade, and my mother was invited to a potluck. She cooked a Cantonese dish of tomato, green pepper and beef—food usually reserved for Sunday’s special meal prepared by father. No one sampled mother’s food. I vividly recall the heartache in her face. She did not “fit in.” When she turned her back, I quickly scooped up several servings of the tasty dish and gobbled them down. Later, knowing some of that food had been eaten, her countenance was joyful—I was happy, too.
It is common in Chinese culture to not question authority, to not be problematic or opinionated. Thus, a defining moment while I was working in human resources was when I heard an employee grievance on behalf of a new HR director. The director advised me to remember that I was part of management and to make my decision accordingly, and I responded that my recommendation would be based on an objective investigation. I was never asked to hear another grievance. I proudly did not “fit in” the stereotype.
I’ve even been asked, “Don’t you think you’ve benefited from being Asian?” After being spat at a couple times during the Vietnam War, denied employment and housing, and stopped seven times for traffic violations—and not once given a warning, always receiving a ticket—well, I hide my scornful smile. I also believe every Asian American is wounded when asked, “Where are you from?,” which continues to cast us as “perpetual foreigners.”
What irks me is that unless one is hung by one’s neck, the racism directed towards Asian Americans, specifically Chinese, is often dismissed. In fact, the largest mass lynching in the U.S. happened on October 24, 1871, in Los Angeles, when 18 Chinese immigrants were tortured and then hanged while a crowd of white onlookers watched and even cheered.
But I have learned that the fundamental elements of fear, ignorance and arrogance are common to all racial tragedies. To rank historical struggles by one’s race serves no purpose.
In the novel, the scared, unsure boy Li Yu becomes a confident, guiding force of the Chinese railroad workers’ strike. Like Li Yu, I have evolved.
For nearly six years, I assisted with the effort to expand Medicaid. Colorado opted in for Medicaid expansion in 2013. In August, voters in Missouri passed expansion that provides health insurance for the working poor. The night it passed, Facebook pages exploded with celebratory messages from supporters. I received several messages. One said, “Ed, you were the first person to speak to me about why Medicaid expansion is important to you and why you were involved in making this happen… Personal conversations like that make a difference.” Another told me, “I voted yes, thanks to your promoting on the issue.” This is an example of how we can make a difference for the lives of others.
“Belonging is being somewhere where you want to be, and they want you. Belonging is being accepted for you. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else,” Brene Brown, Ph.D. said.
I have made that evolution from always trying to “fit in” to knowing that I “belong.”