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For Chinese American families, young people are taught to self-police lest they offend

Before Curtis Chin’s family got into the car, there was always a pause, then a talk about how to act

Jialei Sun

In the early 1940s, my great-grandpa, Joe, bought a home off Grand River Boulevard. It was in a White neighborhood, just outside Detroit’s Chinatown. Before the family could move in, dozens of their future neighbors — all White — barged into our family’s Chinese restaurant and demanded they back out of the deal, “Wouldn’t you rather stay with your own kind?”

Tom Chin with his grandsons, Chris, Curtis, and Craig Chin.Courtesy of Curtis Chin

In the early 1960s, when Detroit moved to demolish the original Chinatown (as well as the city’s African American neighborhood, Black Bottom) to make way for the new John C. Lodge freeway, my grandpa, Tom, looked into buying a plot in Southfield, the first suburb outside the city’s confines to the north. The White owner refused to sell to him. Great-grandpa Joe convinced one of his Jewish customers to buy the land and resell it to him at cost. He rewarded his friend with a lifetime supply of free egg rolls.

In 1980, when my dad, Al, bought our house in Troy, a suburb even further from the city’s center, he was able to do so without any middlemen. But we still felt overt prejudice. When our family moved in, we found the racial slur, “JAP,” scrawled into the concrete of our porch. Later, our home was the target of BB gun bullets through our window, raw eggs on our driveway, auto skid marks on our lawn, and our mailbox being smashed.

And that was just in the first year.

Was Lady Liberty for real, or what?

While the Statue of Liberty famously proclaims, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,” America hasn’t always welcomed every immigrant with the same open arms.

A parade makes its way through Detroit's Chinatown at Cass and Peterboro streets, May 15, 1963.Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

As Chinese Americans, our history has been defined by exclusion. We were the first ethnic group to be forbidden from entering the country through restrictive immigration laws. (Over time, this ban was extended to all other Asians.) The Chinese Exclusion Act was finally repealed in 1943, but the Chinese and other Asian American communities continued to be shut out of many neighborhoods in this country.

Racist incidents, like the ones experienced by my family and other Asian Americans, were never discussed in the history classes of the public schools I attended in the Detroit area. If we were lucky, the teachers spent a few minutes on how the Chinese came to America and helped build our railroads. But they never mentioned how those same hard workers were unable to bring over their wives and families, and how their homes were burnt down, as they were lynched and driven out of towns throughout the American West.

Despite being outnumbered and lacking any political representation, our community did its best to resist and push back against this discrimination. Whether it was organizing large labor strikes or working through the courts, Chinese and Asian Americans fought to demand access to the American Dream. And my family did what we had to do to overcome these hurdles.

Self-policing in mind, body, spirit

When I was growing up, whenever my family ventured beyond our known spaces — our home and school and Chinatown — we knew we had to be careful of our physical safety. Before my family got into the car, there was always a momentary pause, followed by a brief “talk” about how we needed to act.

Kim Lee, 7, and Lim Shaw “Tom” Lee, 14, stand at the front door of the Chinese School of Detroit, Oct. 12, 1952.Walter P. Reuther Library, Archives of Labor and Urban Affairs, Wayne State University

The sad truth (all too familiar for others not in the majority community) is that the No. 1 rule was to police our own behavior. My parents always said our actions were a reflection on ourselves, our family, and the entire Chinese American community. Talk about putting pressure on a kid! I resented it. But I knew I had to do it.

We were also told not to speak Chinese, at least not in public. We could and did use it at home but not with outsiders. My parents said they didn’t want strangers to think we were talking about them behind their backs. So, everything had to be in English.

Also, we couldn’t say anything (in English) that reflected a positive attitude about China or even any other country in Asia. This censorship was a litmus test to prove our loyalty to America. That’s why, before we went shopping in our American-built car, we were reminded to only pick products with the label of Made in the U.S.A. (With manufacturing leaving the United States, that task got harder and harder.)

I listened to my parents and followed as best I could. I understand that they were just trying to get us to blend in and be accepted so we could find success (more than they had). However, these lessons have not been relevant for a while. After the repeal of the Chinese Exclusion Act and further expansion in immigration law in the ’60s, the community has grown exponentially. There are now enough of us to stand up for ourselves.

Part of the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents has been because White supremacist groups see we are no longer being that docile group: We are being our full selves.

My husband and I don’t have any kids, but that is the message we tell our nephews and nieces, to be proud and demand full inclusion in American society. Whenever a group stands up for itself, there is inevitable pushback. But as we have seen throughout our country’s history, that is the only pathway to full inclusion.

Curtis Chin’s memoir, “Everything I Learned, I Learned in a Chinese Restaurant,” about growing up in Detroit in the ’80s and coming out, is being published by Little, Brown and Company in 2023. He can be reached at curtisfromdetroit.com.