It’s impossible to read Ying Ma’s fascinating memoir, Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, without wincing. She was born in Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city. Throughout her mostly carefree early childhood years, she kept her family’s secret: that her parents repeatedly sought permission to emigrate to the United States.
Her family was not poor, at least not by Chinese standards of the late 1970s and early 1980s. Yet her daily life would be considered squalid by First World standards. Her family lived in a two-bedroom apartment. She, her brother, and her parents shared one bedroom (and two plank beds). Her paternal grandparents and an uncle shared the other. At times, another uncle slept in the living room. They shared the kitchen and bathroom (such as it was) with the family next door. There was no running hot water, and the toilet was a hole in the floor. The elderly had a particularly hard time crouching.
Ying Ma’s childhood was nonetheless relatively carefree. She longed for more possessions, and eagerly consumed whatever Western products — like nail polish and candy — her relatives brought from nearby Hong Kong. But she excelled in school, was surrounded by friends, was doted upon by her grandfather, and looked forward (here’s the wince) to a fantastic new life in America.
As a child, Ying could not comprehend the more menacing aspects of totalitarian rule. Her third-grade teacher, for example, announced one day that instead of doing math, “You are all going to spend the hour confessing.” When the pupils expressed confusion, Teacher Fu explained, “The school knows that each of you, or someone you know, has behaved wrongly. . . . Now start writing.” Ying recalls, “I always believed my teachers. Now I was genuinely worried. Did the school already know I had relatives from Hong Kong who brought me toys and clothing from the world of the capitalist running dogs? Did it know I really, really liked American movies . . . ?” Panicky, she wrote about her brother’s choice to hang out with some bad elements in the seventh grade. “For days after my confession, I lived in abject horror.” She thought the police might come for her brother. She wanted to warn him, but didn’t dare, because to do so would reveal her betrayal. Such are the torments communism imposes on eight-year-olds.
In a better world, the Ying family would emigrate to the sunny uplands of the United States and bask in prosperity and freedom. Emigrate they did — but without money and speaking no English, they settled in a poor neighborhood of a poor city, Oakland, Calif. And there, Ying Ma was forced to confront some of the shameful aspects of life in this country.
Though far less poor than her classmates in China, the Oakland kids felt entitled to steal. On one of her first days in an American classroom, Ying Ma was shocked by the brazen theft of a shiny mechanical pencil one of her Chinese classmates had given her as a farewell present. Her outrage was pure: “Every one of my former [Chinese] classmates understood stealing to be shameful. . . . Our parents and instructors repeatedly condemned it. Those who disobeyed were severely punished with public reprimands in class followed by potential corporal punishment at home. . . . In the ghetto, however, I could not count on my classmates to know right from wrong, nor could I count on the adults to ferret out fault and dispense punishment.” In a way that counted very much to a young teenager — safety and security — Oakland was less civilized and less just than Guangzhou.
Ying Ma was also a victim of racism — though not in the way Americans are comfortable dissecting and condemning. Her mostly black and Hispanic classmates and neighbors engaged in daily racist taunts and sometimes violence. They victimized Asians of every stripe, calling Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese, and Filipinos “Chinaman,” “ching chong,” or “chow mein.” Black high school students screamed abuse at a middle-aged Cantonese cafeteria worker, calling her a “stupid Chinaman.” Though Ying burned with fury, she could do little to respond. “Physically, we were usually no match for those who discriminated against us. Culturally, we were predisposed to be less confrontational than our non-Asian peers.”
A black teacher, who took an interest in Ying Ma and helped to place her in the “gifted” program despite her limited English, is remembered gratefully, along with the black friend who stood by her when she was physically attacked by a racist (Hispanic) bully.
As with many other immigrants, the Ying family was able to escape poverty by fierce hard work, planning, and mutual support. Ying Ma herself was able to go to Cornell and then Stanford Law School. Despite her difficult path, she loves America. Her journey has made her the very best kind of conservative — one whose love of liberty, order, and self-reliance has been forged through gritty experience.
— Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.