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|Stuck in the Middle By: Lisa See|
Stuck in the Middle
By: Lisa See
In 1871 my great-grandfather Fong See, an illiterate peasant, left his village in southern China for Sacramento, California, in search of his father, who had disappeared during the building of the transcontinental railroad. At about the same time, Letticie Pruett's family crossed America in a covered wagon and homesteaded in Oregon. By the late 1890s, after years of manual labor, Fong See owned the Curiosity Bizarre, which manufactured underwear for brothels. Letticie had run away from home and ended up in Sacramento. When no one would hire a single, uneducated woman, she drifted into Chinatown and the Curiosity Bizarre, where she begged Fong See for a job. He hired her, one thing led to another, and they decided to get married.
It was against the law in California and many other states for Chinese and Caucasians to marry. It was also against the law for Chinese to own property in California, and unlawful at the federal level for Chinese to become naturalized citizens. These laws had grown out of the so-called "Driving Out," when Chinese had literally been driven from Western towns�when they weren't hung, shot, burned or stabbed by members of the white community, who had no fear of retribution because Chinese could not testify in court against Caucasians. What started as informal harassment was formalized with the Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred the immigration of Chinese laborers and led to even more institutionalized racism.
But with a contract marriage drawn up by a lawyer, my great-grandparents set out to achieve the American Dream. Fong See and Letticie raised five mixed-race children and ran five antique stores in southern California. Fong See became the patriarch of Los Angeles Chinatown. He was the first Chinese in the U.S. to own an automobile and was one of the few Chinese to do business with the white community by selling props to the nascent film industry and antiques to customers like Frank Lloyd Wright. Despite these successes, Fong See's four sons�all American-born citizens�had to go to Mexico to marry their Caucasian fiances.
Drop down another two generations. I am only one-eighth Chinese, with red hair and freckles. People often ask me where I fit in and how I define myself. My answer has to do with where I grew up and what I saw around me. Fong See had four wives, as Chinese traditional codes dictate for men with great wealth and prowess, so the Chinese side of my family in Los Angeles numbers close to 400, with only a handful that look like me. It's been 130 years since my great-great-grandfather left China, and we've become educated, changed our way of dress and lost our Cantonese. But there's a deep core that connects to our peasant ancestors.
Many small rituals in my daily life mirror what I experienced as a child. I tell my sons to put only what they're going to eat on their plates, and I still pick at their discarded chicken bones. When they want comfort food, I cook them rice. (Shortly after going to college, my older son called to announce happily that the girls next door had a rice cooker.) When my younger son boasted that he'd told his chemistry teacher to stop checking her e-mail during class, I made him go back the next day with a gift of a perfect orange and an apology.
I do look different, and nothing will ever change that or people's reactions. At my baby shower, some friends mistook my father, a professor, for a Chinese waiter. I've had Chinese Americans and Chinese-in-China talk about me as though I weren't there: "I had a cousin from the south who looked like her, but her hair is disgusting." On book tours, Caucasians will often ask point-blank, "Why would you choose to be Chinese when you have all the privileges of being white?" Given my family and the era in which I grew up, I don't know that I had a choice.
The last of America's miscegenation laws were overturned in 1965. Intermarriage is common, and if you walk into a classroom today, it's impossible to tell a child's exact race, or what race or ethnicity he or she may identify with. You certainly can't with my own sons, who are only one-sixteenth Chinese and otherwise Irish, English, Scottish, Spanish, Russian, German, Austrian and Polish. I tell them it's up to them to choose their own identities just so long as they marry nice Chinese girls. They think I'm kidding. I'm not, really. Who, I wonder, is going to cook them their rice?
Official Website: http://www.time.com/time/world/article/0,8599,106429,00.html
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