President Barack Obama speaks at a town hall style event with Chinese youths at the Museum of Science and Technology in Shanghai, China, Monday, Nov. 16, 2009. (AP photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
As President Barack Obama visits China seeking to balance a seesawing relationship, Chinese-Americans embody the challenges facing the giants of East and West.
They have as many different feelings about their ancestral home — hope, indifference, pride, pain — as there are characters in the Chinese language. Yet many share a conviction that is both logical and personal: The destinies of China and America are inseparable.
“Each one is dependent on the other to make their economy strong,” said David Zhang, a New York City physician who immigrated to America at age 25. “The U.S. cannot leave China, and China cannot leave the U.S. It’s symbiotic, like an organism.”
The Great Recession has bound the two nations even tighter, and given China greater influence. America borrowed unprecedented sums to resuscitate itself. China, which needs American consumers to fuel its growth, supplied much of that cash and is America’s largest foreign lender.
“It’s like that little brother you always used to pick on, and now he’s lending you money,” said Nanci Zhang (no relation to David), a 22-year-old Los Angeles resident. “But you can’t quite conceive of one brother without the other.”
Nanci Zhang was born in Beijing and moved with her parents to the United States when she was 3. In her American schools, she remembers China’s long history being celebrated while its present was ignored. Now she sees her homeland coming to America’s economic rescue, and “it’s kind of validating.”
About three million U.S. residents are of Chinese descent, according to a 2008 Census estimate. About a third were born here, a third are naturalized citizens, and a third have arrived in the past few years, said Cheng Li, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C.
David Zhang came to America in 1985 looking for freedom and opportunity. “What I dream of here I couldn’t even dream of in China: cars, a house, a good, decent job. I could dream that here, and I realized it. Now in China, all these things we accomplished, they have accomplished.”
Zhang, a pathologist at Mount Sinai Hospital in Manhattan and president of the Association of Chinese American Physicians, leads regular delegations of American doctors to his homeland. He collaborates with China on cancer research and clinical trials and is urging his hospital to enter the Chinese health care market.
“As Chinese physicians, we meet with the (Mount Sinai) board of trustees regularly. Ten years ago you don’t even dare speak to them,” he said.
Yet many Chinese-Americans fear that China’s rise could create a backlash. They still have painful memories of Vincent Chin, the Chinese-American beaten to death in 1982 by two unemployed Detroit autoworkers as Japanese cars were beginning to decimate the American auto industry.
“That kind of hate crime, senseless hate crimes, would happen if the countries’ relations are not very good. So on a personal level, Chinese-Americans are always very anxious,” said Min Zhou, a sociology professor at UCLA and author of “Contemporary Chinese America.”
“As China’s economy has grown,” she said, “sometimes I would hear people say, even jokingly, ‘Oh, you’re taking our jobs away.’ When I hear this, I feel, ‘Who am I? I’m American.’”
Chinese-Americans also are acutely aware of China’s problems, such as pervasive pollution, widespread rural poverty and repression by the Communist government.
“I don’t feel like China is stable. It has so many problems, I feel like it’s ready to explode at any time,” said Amy Yuan Zhou, no relation to the professor, a 23-year-old UCLA postgraduate student who moved to America when she was 4.
Those problems have been a longtime source of tension with America, especially with U.S. criticism of China’s record on human rights and Chinese retorts about American hypocrisy due to its racial problems.
Now America’s first black president is forging a new image of inclusion, which could exert a subtle pressure on China to do the same.
“An African American president, that itself speaks loud,” said Li, the Brookings scholar. He said a Chinese minister of foreign affairs was asked at a recent press conference if he could imagine a minority as president of China, but did not answer.
Li hoped that Obama’s trip could mark a turning point, from American finger-pointing to a more respectful and cooperative exchange: “The 21st-century world requires a constructive relationship.”
Another turning point for some was the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. “The distance between us seemed to shrink,” said UCLA professor Zhou. “That’s pretty profound for me.”
“My parents liked seeing Chinese people succeed on a wider stage, especially in athletics,” said Nanci Zhang, the Los Angeles resident. “You and I both know what the Chinese are known for, things like physics and chemistry.”
So which country did she cheer for?
“The better one,” she laughed, without elaborating.
Perhaps she couldn’t. America took home the most medals: 110, including 36 golds. China was next with 100 medals — including a leading 51 golds.
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