Monday, March 1, 2010

Chinatowns in America: Thriving or Dying Enclaves?

Old folks in Chinatown San Francisco
Chinatown, San Francisco-similar to many Chinatowns all over the wolrd
A Dim Sum Restaurant in San Francisco

Whether its Philadelphia, San Francisco, downtown Manhattan, Flushing, Queens in NYC or Orlando, Florida-Chinatowns in American cities are enclaves with an environment totally different from the rest of the district they are located in. With their food, noise, smells, medicinal herbs, Chinese signage, ethnic Chinese bus drivers and policemen, even their own newspapers, Chinese in America can, (if they choose to) live a life steeped in their own culture, only having to learn very basic English to communicate with the outside world. A casual visitor will have a general impression that these are thriving enclaves, with the Chinese acumen for business fueling all manner of enterprise serving both the inhabitants of Chinatown as well as the world outside. Governments all over the world deal with the problem of enclaves of minority communities not integrating with the rest of the host country. So are Chinatowns in America fortress-like enclaves where the Chinese can live oblivious to whats going on in the rest of America? I do not think so, and here is the reason why:
One common observation is that generally the inhabitants of Chinatowns are old. In the shops and restaurants, on the buses and trains and on the streets you can't help but notice the predominance of the elderly, gamely shuffling along using walking sticks, still doing hard work, or sipping tea in a cafe. I pondered over this observation for a while before it dawned on me the reason for why the inhabitants of Chinatowns in America are so old. Actually this 'discovery' is quite a happy discovery: The people of Chinatown are old because many of the young have left. And the reason why they have left is that in the tried and true Chinese tradition, their parents ensured that they had a good education and were equiped with the skills for a successful life outside of Chinatown. A casual conversation with many of these sad-looking, shabbily dressed oldies may reveal that their sons and daughters are succesful investment bankers, lawyers, doctors, businessmen, tenured Professors in Ivy League Universities, IT experts and so on. Like all young up and coming professionals, the world is their oyster and they live flitting from city to city, leaving behind their proud parents in Chinatown. 'Leaving behind' may not be the right words to use, since in many instances, the children had invited their parents to move out and come stay with them. But like many Chinese parents the world over, the oldies of Chinatown prefer to stay put, living in the environment they have always known. An independent streak remains, and a contented smile lights up their faces when they think of how they have brought up the children to be independent and successful. However, the filial Chinese children do visit their parents especially during Chinese New Year when the whole family will gather for a reunion dinner.
In conclusion, the government has no need to fear that Chinatowns will be enclaves isolating the Chinese from the rest of America. Globalization, good education and the wisdom of the old people of Chinatown have ensured that Chinese in America will be integrated into American society.

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