The Transnational History of a Chinese Family
Beginning in the late 19th century and continuing to the early 20th century, many Chinese families struggled to gain social, economic, and educational stature in both China and the United States. In the book, A Transnational History of a Chinese Family, by Haiming Liu, we learn about the Chang family rooted in Kaiping County, China, who unlike many typical Chinese families’ exemplified hard-work and strong cultural values allowing them to pursue an exceptional Chinese-American lifestyle.
Even with immigration laws preventing Chinese laborers and citizens to enter unless maintaining merchant status, Yitang and Sam Chang managed to sponsor approximately 40 relatives to the states with their businesses in herbalist medicine and asparagus farming. Though the Chang’s encountered many of the hardships typical of Chinese families for the time, they relied on their outstanding work ethic so that their families would always be supported, receive the best possible education, and preserve family and kinship relationships to get them through the tough times and long periods of separation.
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America in the early 19th century was a place full of racial discrimination, and citizens were very unwelcoming to immigrants of other races. During this time period, they did not find the presence of these immigrants useful, and went as far as passing federal restrictions on immigration. For one race in particular, the Chinese, there were very high restrictions in place. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which we discussed in lecture, banned almost all Chinese laborers and their families from entering the U.
S for 10 years. Some changes were made, and the Act was passed again as in 1892 as the Geary Act, but it was not completely repealed until 1942. Luckily, being an herbalist, Yitang Chang was classified as a merchant, and this allowed them to immigrate into America since they were not laborers. This classification was a sign of an educated Chinese man, a quality many Chinese laborers and immigrants did not possess. Yitang was eventually able to bring over family members to help with his business once he was settled.
He first called upon his son Sam Chang to travel across the Pacific and assist him in the family business, giving him the opportunity to further support his family. MENTION WORK ETHIC AND HOW THIS RELATES TO THE CHANGS IMMIGRATION PROCESS, SOCIETY ALREADY AGAINST THEM Along with the Exclusion Act barring further immigration, immigrants who were already in America had to work around another restriction known as the Alien Land Act, which we also discussed in class. This prohibits both Chinese and Japanese immigrants from owning or leasing land unless they were American-born.
This made it arduous for families, as it forced them to rely on those family members who were citizens to register the land under their name, which made their kinship and appreciation for each other stronger. The Chang family had registered their land under Sam’s third and fourth daughters names as they were both American citizens, but not all families were privileged enough to have those members to fall back on. With all the discrimination the Chinese race was suffering in America, Yitang sought it to be best if his wife and kids stayed in China until he could make a better life in America.
Yitang and Sam Chang were successful in starting up an herbalist shop and asparagus farm and quickly realized there were many advantages to owning them, both socially and economically. Owning an herbalist shop provided cures and treatments for illness and other various diseases by using holistic medicine. It put the Chang’s in constant contact with both Chinese and Americans looking to him for help in his area of expertise. This was a reverse encounter many immigrants never experienced.
Patients realized the risks of this profession, as it dealt with human health, and they began to feel how beneficial these herbs were to their own health. After earning a positive reputation in the community, the Changs began to form relationships and friendships with people in a higher social class, one in which they strived for. These relationships he would later be able utilize in testimony when helping his family migrate to the U. S, a key role in the economic success of the businesses.
Like we discussed in lecture, most Chinese immigrants were laborers and did not receive many pleasant encounters with white men. Although Yitang was seen by many Americans as a valuable Chinese immigrant, he and his family members still received discrimination other immigrants had to face. Their thriving asparagus farm did not have as many social benefits as the herbalist business did, but the farm was their main source of income, and with this they were able to provide for their families while living transnationally.
Once the Chang family moved into Los Angeles and had their herbalist shop and asparagus farm under way, they realized the need for more laborers. In order to support their wives and kids with groceries, clothing, and education, the Chang’s needed to find the cheapest labor possible while still establishing the farm as a business that could support their income. The cheapest laborers were relatives, and they were for the most part thankful to come and work for Yitang, even if it was not their ideal working situation.
One frustration Sam expressed in the book that may correlate to the continuing poor treatment and vision of the Chinese, is that within the Chinese workforce, most hard-working laborers in the railroad, farming, mining, and foresting businesses were almost 50 years or older and sent a majority of their earnings back to their families in China. Meanwhile, the younger Chinese generations were involved in gambling, restaurants, and laundries as they did not have the willpower to spend long days in the sun working in the fields, and knowingly allowed their elders to partake in much harder work than they had.
This was viewed by many as un-filial, especially from a culture so embodied with ‘filial piety’, which is a virtue of respect for one’s parents and ancestors. This did not seem to be the case with the Japanese-Americans however, who regardless of their age, dedicated so much hard-work to the farming and grocery business. Sam writes in a letter home, “While the Japanese have made much progress, the Chinese have achieved downward rather than upward mobility,” and refers to the younger Chinese generations as “parasites” and “lazy bones. Sam was intelligent enough and quickly figured out the importance of weeding out the unproductive workers who complained too often, and keeping the ones who complained from time to time but whose work reflected dedication. To Sam’s surprise, even a few of the younger Chang relatives who were sponsored to help on the farm complained often and did not show as much commitment as Sam had expected. It was apparent when workers, especially family members did not share the same interest in the goals of the farming business and were solely concerned with making their wages and returning back to their families as soon as possible.
This occurrence was very rare in the Chinese culture, as one of their main values is the strength of their kinship relationships. In the Chinese culture the word “kinship” refers to the entire family, including extended family. Not all Chinese businesses encountered this struggle with diligence, while some failed under the lack of perseverance, and the ones that did, play a role in the different views Americans had of Chinese people compared to the Japanese. While some of the kinship relationships in the Chang family ere slightly severed, most family members who were given the opportunity to work on the asparagus farm saw it as an honor and were thankful to be sponsored by Yitang. Unfortunately, and fortunately, Yitang acquired many of the relative workers due to family unrest in China. While returning home for a visit four years after his initial trip to America, there were family conflicts where they were fighting over land and ended up spliing into two different kinship organizations. The arguments resulted in outrage and sometimes violence.
Yitang finally urged his kinship to move out of the province to a safer area until he could get them to the U. S. This shows how rural families, the Chang family in particular, would move from time to time depending on their social and economic situations in order to strengthen their family success and kinship relationships in the migration process. Many Chinese businesses were not as successful as the Chang’s. Struggles arose because families could not make enough of a profit with just one farm of agriculture and did not have the resources or money to purchase more land or hire workers.
The Chang family, having their herbalist medicine shop was crucial to their success. Although the farming generated more revenue, the family members who were sponsored to America came in as merchants claiming work at Yitang’s herbalist shop. They eventually maintained another asparagus farm and generated enough of a profit to further educate their children and grandchildren so they could have lives just as fulfilling, which in the Chinese culture was the greatest honor a parent could feel.
Education for the Chinese was the most important achievement and was the gateway to all the success the Chang family incurred on their transnational voyage. It all started with Yitang as a young herbalist mentor and only after years of schooling and experience gained enough confidence to travel to America to open his own shop in Los Angeles. With having the experiences he did and knowing how important education is in reaching your goals, he strived to instill the desire to receive the best education possible in all his children and grandchildren.
Self-sacrifice of the parents obliged the children to work vigorously in school in hopes of pursuing a good career that allowed them social mobility. The Chang family benefitted greatly from having received educational opportunities in both China and America. Education for most started in China where they received basic Chinese literacy schooling, but they would eventually leave home to attend more advanced schools in other towns or cities. Sam’s son Tennyson and daughter Constance were paid more attention to in this book in regards to education.
Both were born in China and while Tennyson stayed there throughout his entire schooling and career, Constance went to America for part of her schooling, but then returned to China for a college education. While attaining an education in the early 20th century America was cheaper for the Chang family, it was not necessarily the best choice for their ideals and overall morale. Sam believed that it was important to have a well-versed knowledge and understanding of the Chinese culture and education as well as having an English educational background.
Because of this, Tennyson who remained in China and never had the exposure to the English language that Constance did, searched for someone to come and teach him English. The Chang family stressed being culturally diverse, but when it came down to it also stressed looking into a future in China as the economic and social opportunities were far more vast and accommodating. Many Chinese-American children attended school in America their whole life, and it was known that secondary school campuses were not a very suitable environment for young children, women in particular.
At this age kids are very impressionable and the values that American born Chinese possessed were different than the naturalized Chinese citizens. While Sam never personally saw his own daughter struggle with low self-esteem, or harassment by men, the general consensus was that the children were very impressionable and for this reason he made the tough decision to send Constance back to China for her senior high, and college. While low self-esteem wasn’t a huge worry for Sam with Constantine, children that did suffer from it tended to come from and surround themselves with people of lower social classes.
Yitang and Sam made the choice to surround themselves with wealthy, educated, upper-class Chinese and even Americans during their stay in the states, and they only hoped to encourage their children to want the same as it helps maintains important relationships, and a healthy, determined mind. In Sam’s decision to send Constantine back to China it is apparent that the cultural values and aspects gave way to the economic aspects. The position of higher social status of the Chang family in both China and America is an example of how the Chang family was not your typical Chinese immigrant family.
During the years of Yitang’s stay in America his kinship relations and commitment to home never changed. His transnational achievements were not internally gratifying for only Yitang, but also for the whole Chang lineage. Due to his major successes obtained while abroad, family members in China built an ancestral hall in his honor. Ancestral halls were usually constructed after someone has passed, so the proposal for it to be constructed during his life further illuminates just how highly regarded he was in the Chang family.