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To Be Chinese in America

A poll finds that Chinese Americans are still viewed in a 'very negative' light; Asians say they are dismayed but not surprised by the troubling results.

April 30, 2001|LISA RICHARDSON and HILARY E. MacGREGOR | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

Enough of believing that excellence alone will earn equality. Enough of not complaining. A recent poll revealing that one-quarter of Americans hold "very negative attitudes," toward Chinese Americans and one-third question their loyalty to the U.S. has burst a long-simmering bubble of frustration. After 150 years in the United States, many ask, what will it take to be seen as American?

"What these numbers do is force us into a realization that we're always having to earn our recognition over and over again," said Henry S. Tang, chairman of the Committee of 100, the Chinese American leadership organization that sponsored the telephone poll of 1,216 people in early March. The pool of respondents was 78% white, 12% African American, 5% Latino, 2% Native American, 1% mixed, 1% Asian and 1% "other."

"No matter how educated we are, or how well we do, it doesn't matter. It's not a cumulative process as it is for many other fellow Americans. If you're Chinese, you can leave the campus with a PhD degree and a year or two later be accused of being disloyal," Tang said.

The poll also found that when the same questions were asked about Asian Americans in general, the same negative perceptions persisted.

FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 6, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Attitude survey--An April 30 story in So Cal Living about a poll on attitudes toward Asian Americans said respondents were queried about a number of minorities, including Jews. Although pollsters did not specifically ask about attitudes toward white people, the story's wording incorrectly implied that Jews and whites are separate groups.
FOR THE RECORD
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 6, 2001 Home Edition Part A Part A Page 2 A2 Desk 2 inches; 48 words Type of Material: Correction
Attitude survey--An April 30 story in So Cal Living about a poll on attitudes toward Asian Americans said respondents were queried about a number of minorities, including Jews. Although pollsters did not specifically ask about attitudes toward white people, the story's wording incorrectly implied that Jews and whites are separate groups.

"It's outrageous, just outrageous," said Loni Ding, an Emmy-winning filmmaker and producer of "Ancestors in the Americas," a PBS television series on the legacy of Asian immigrants from the 1700s to the 1900s, due to air Thursday. "Of course you feel something like this personally, but the structure of it is social and political," Ding said. "Hurt is a luxury. It is too small; it's too personal. This should scare the hell out of you, it should make you mad. I mean, when will this end and who will do something about it?"

Locally, several Asian Americans said they were alarmed and frustrated by the poll results, but not shocked. "Unfortunately, it's not a surprise," said Chris Komai, spokesman for the Japanese American National Museum. "But it's kind of depressing to think we haven't progressed beyond this."

Although the poll was conducted before a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet along the coast of southeast China earlier this month, many said they have seen a noticeable increase in public hostility toward Chinese people since then. In the last weeks, talk-show hosts and radio personalities have called for the internment of people of Chinese ancestry, and some even urged a boycott of Chinese restaurants or did humor pieces mocking Asian accents. On "Meet the Press" earlier this month, journalist David Broder stated: "Chinese are not nice people."

WQLZ radio station in Springfield, Ill., has been the target of Asian outrage since a disc jockey allegedly called for rounding up Chinese people and holding them until the spy plane's crew was released. The comments were meant to be funny, said station general manager Tom Kushak, but they have caused a flood of complaints. "This is a touchy issue, and different listeners can interpret it differently, but if anyone heard this broadcast and thought it was racist, I'll certainly apologize," Kushak said. He claimed that the broadcast was not taped.

"The DJ, who, by the way, is Mexican American, also said: 'Until this thing is settled, I'm not going to go to Chinese restaurants, I'm not going to eat on fine china and I'm not going to play Chinese checkers,' " Kushak said.

While many find the study's results alarming, there are few data against which to measure it. It is unclear whether the fact that one-quarter of the U.S. population has "very negative" feelings about Chinese Americans represents a worsening of racial attitudes or an improvement.

Dora and Walter Wong of Monterey Park say they do not feel such negativity aimed their way in daily life. They exist, however, mainly in a Chinese American world. Their friends are Chinese Americans, as are the books and newspapers they read and the restaurants they frequent. "It's better than 30 years ago, before Martin Luther King," said Dora Wong, 65, who grew up in Mexico, the daughter of a Mexican mother and a Chinese father.

Back then, it did not take polls to reveal anti-Chinese sentiment. In 1956, when the couple tried to rent an apartment in Los Angeles, they were refused for being Chinese. And Wong said her brother had trouble buying a home in Montebello because of his ethnicity.

The poll also found some positive attitudes toward Chinese Americans, who were lauded for strong family values and for business acumen. And though one-third of Americans question the loyalty of Chinese Americans, almost 70% said they are as patriotic as other Americans. Taken together, however, the results evince the pairing of fear and admiration that experts say stretches back to the arrival of great numbers of Chinese immigrants on U.S. shores in the mid-19th century.

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