Chinese Immigrant

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This paper examines interactions between a largely middle class-operated social service agency in Chicago's Chinatown, the Chinese American Cultural ...

HONORARY MENTION OF 2006 SUNTA GRADUATE STUDENT PRIZE: Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning: Chinese Immigrant Workers and the Brokered American Dream in Chicago SHANSHAN LAN Northwestern University

This paper examines interactions between a largely middle class-operated social service agency in Chicago’s Chinatown, the Chinese American Cultural Center (CACC), and its new Chinese immigrant clientele. Using ethnographic data obtained from the agency’s Chef Training Program, the research explores middle class Chinese-Americans’ role as cultural brokers in initiating new immigrants into the dominant U.S. race and class system. I argue that CACC’s management of recent Chinese immigrants’ racial learning is grounded in a middle class racial ideology of strategic colorblindness, which ends up perpetuating new immigrants’ racialized position at the bottom of the American labor hierarchy. [Keywords: Chicago, race, class, multiculturalism, Chinese immigrants, American Dream]

Introduction My goal is to find a hotel job, a Lao Fan Gong (American job) with Fu Li (benefits).1 If you work for Americans, you only need to work five days a week. You have vacation time and you have pay raise every year. If you work in a Chinese restaurant, you have nothing of that kind. Even you work there for twenty years, you are paid the same.2


im is a 42-year-old immigrant from Taishan in China’s Canton province. He and his family waited for twelve years before his brother-in-law sponsored their immigration to the USA in 2004. Jim has an associate degree from a technical school in China and has a limited command of English. During his first year in Chicago, he worked at a Sushi restaurant with low pay. The second Sushi City & Society, Vol. 19, Issue 2, pp. 254–286, ISSN 0893-0465, eISSN 1548-744X. © 2007 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Direct requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, DOI: 10.1525/city.2007.19.2.254.

Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning

place he worked paid better, but the Chinese boss from Hong Kong treated him poorly. After a careful evaluation of his situation, Jim decided to enroll in the Chef Training Program at the Chinese American Cultural Center (CACC), a social service agency in Chicago’s Chinatown.3 Founded in 1986, the Chef Training Program offers a 16-week training course in continental cuisine and promises to place its graduates in jobs at major Chicago hotels, restaurants and catering services. Like many other new immigrants who want to build a better future in the USA, Jim quickly learned that only a Lao Fan Gong can help him realize his American Dream, “I want to learn English well so that I have more choices in getting a job. I don’t want to get stuck in Chinese restaurants.”4 Jim is just one among many post-1965 Chinese immigrants who came to Chicago with a dream of social mobility beyond the ethnic Chinese labor market. Unlike earlier Chinese immigrants who were mainly from rural areas of Canton, post-1965 immigrants come from a variety of places and social backgrounds, including other parts of Mainland China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Burma, Southeast Asia, and South America (Wong 1982; 1998; Kwong 1987; 1997; 2005). Many of them are from middle or lower middle class urban contexts, and some even hold college degrees. Unlike their immigrant ancestors who were largely sojourners dreaming of returning to China with a fortune, these new immigrants usually come with their families and want to make the USA their permanent home. However, since the educational and social capital they brought from China cannot be readily converted to economic capital in the USA, many new immigrants have to initially settle in ethnic neighborhoods like Chinatown and rely on the ethnic Chinese labor market. Approximately 6,500 new Chinese immigrants arrive in Illinois every year and many of them need assistance in affordable housing, child care, employment and language training, and other social services (Adler 2000). Between 1990 and 2000, the population of Chicago’s Chinatown grew 22 percent to about 8,300 (Olivo and Avila 2004). Since affordable rentals in Chinatown are hard to find, most new immigrants end up in Bridgeport, a historically white working class neighborhood southwest of Chinatown, where real estate prices are 20 to 30 percent lower. By 2002 the estimated Chinese population in Bridgeport exceeded that in Chinatown and reached 10,000 (Kennedy 2002). Contrary to the Euro-American stereotype of Chinatown as a racially homogeneous urban enclave, Chicago’s Chinatown throughout its history has been a multiracial neighborhood. To the east and southeast, there are African-Americans in Near South Side, Douglas and Grand Boulevard.5 To the west, there are Pilsen

“I don’t want to get stuck in Chinese restaurants”

Chicago’s Chinatown throughout its history has been a multiracial neighborhood


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and Little Village, the two largest Mexican American communities in Chicago. The “core” of Chinatown, between Cermak and 24th Street, used to be an Italian neighborhood. The expansion of Chinese populations to Bridgeport started in the 1980s, when several Chinese-American developers started building townhouses heavily marketed towards Chinese immigrants.6 While the arrival of Chinese immigrants revitalized Bridgeport’s real estate market, tensions between Chinese-Americans and more established residents, mainly self-identified whites, also increased. Cases of interracial harassment and property damage are often reported with Chinese immigrants being the victims.7 Confronted with the changing economic and racial landscapes in a postindustrial metropolis, many new immigrants who settled in Chinatown and Bridgeport found themselves facing the double burden of limited social mobility in an ethnic economy and the daily necessity to navigate multiple color lines (Abelmann and Lie 1995; De Genova 2005; Hum 2002; Kim 2000). This paper examines interactions between a largely middle class-operated social service agency (CACC) and its new Chinese immigrant clientele. Using ethnographic data obtained from the agency’s Chef Training Program and Community Care Program, the research explores middle class Chinese-Americans’ role as cultural brokers in initiating new immigrants into the dominant U.S. race and class system. While the existence of ethnic brokers in immigrant communities is not a new phenomenon, the increased class distinction between poor immigrant workers and professional managerial elites in postindustrial cities is new. Also new are the multiracial transformation of urban landscape and the existence of multiple color lines in interracial and interethnic relations (Sassen 1999). Previous research on ethnic social service agencies often views them as autonomous ethnic spaces with a potential for political resistance (Rudrappa 2004; Vo∼ 2004), this study proposes to treat CACC as an ideological space where contradictory racial knowledge is taught and contested on multiple levels (Barrett 1992; Guridy 2002; Roediger and Barrett 2004). I argue that CACC’s management of recent Chinese immigrants’ racial learning is grounded in a middle class racial ideology of strategic colorblindness, which ends up perpetuating new immigrants’ racialized position at the bottom of the American labor hierarchy.


Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning

Research Methodology


his article is based on research conducted in Chicago’s Chinatown and Bridgeport communities from May to August 2003, June to August 2004, and all of 2005. During my yearlong stint in 2005, I lived with a Cantonese immigrant family in Bridgeport and participated in neighborhood life. From January to July 2005 I worked as a part-time outreach coordinator for the citizenship program at CACC. This job provided me many opportunities to travel beyond Chinatown to Chicago suburbs to do outreach work among middle class Chinese-Americans. Besides participant observation work, I conducted over 100 interviews with people from different racial and class backgrounds. They included twenty with Caucasians, five with African-Americans, seven with Latinos. The majority of interviews were conducted separately from my job responsibilities at CACC. I also conducted archival research in the University of Chicago, Chicago Historical Society, the Chicago Commission on Human Relations and the Chicago Police Department. The Chef Training class I sat in was the 53rd such class and had fifteen students. Tania and Joe were the only two African-American students. The rest of the class were immigrants from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Mainland China, and Burma/Myanmar. The class was cotaught by a Caucasian chef instructor and a Vocational English as a Second Language (VESL) teacher, who also functioned as the Chinese interpreter for the chef. In the morning, the students took cooking theories in a classroom, then went to the kitchen to practice. In the afternoon the Chinese students stayed for VESL classes and the African Americans left. In October–November 2005 I sat in the Chef Training classroom for one month, observing interactions between students and teachers. For sanitary reasons, I was not allowed into the kitchen. The chef instructor provided me with a textbook and every day I spent around two hours in the classroom like other students. I tried my best not to make my presence in the class intrusive. The students at first were curious about my research, but they soon got used to my presence and some even came to me during the break asking for help with their English. Besides classroom interactions, I sometimes ran into the students while shopping in Chinatown and we had brief exchange of conversations. Based on their availability and consent, I did personal interviews with the two instructors and eight students. Most of the interviews were conducted during lunch time or in the afternoons after the VESL class. I decided not to tape the interviews because of the haphazard way I managed to capture each student for an inter257

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view. Also I found that many of my Chinese informants were more relaxed talking to me when not being taped. I took extensive notes during the interview and usually reconstructed the whole conversation on my computer within twenty-four hours. Interviews on average lasted around one and a half hours. In one case, since the chef instructor was extremely busy, our interview was interrupted and we had to reschedule. In addition to my research at the Chef Training Program, I followed Aunt Lu, my Cantonese landlady who worked as a homemaker for CACC’s Community Care program and attended several events and trainings for homemakers.8 Funded by the Illinois State Department on Aging, CACC’s Community Care Program provides Homemaker Services for senior citizens and legal aliens, mainly Chinese-Americans, who are homebound and need special personal care.9 Although the interview sample from the Chef Training class is small and the data is gathered mainly in the classroom setting, this research is informed by my participant observation in the community and my extensive interviews with Chinese immigrants and others, including CACC’s multicultural staff and middle class Chinese-Americans in the suburbs. It is also informed by my year long working experience within the institutional setting of CACC (six months as a part-time staff, six months as a volunteer). I chose CACC as a research site because as the primary organization dedicated to integrating Chinese new immigrants into American society, CACC provides an ideal space of coalescence where interactions between its largely middle class Chinese-American staff and its immigrant clientele happen on a daily basis (Jackson 2001).

Race and the Politics of Social Service


ounded in 1978 by a group of Hong Kong students from the University of Chicago, the Chinese American Cultural Center (CACC) is now the largest Chinese-American social service agency in the Midwest serving mainly Chinese immigrants. CACC has four major departments: child education and development, family and community services, employment and training, and elderly services. Its mission is to strengthen the physical, economic and mental health of all members of the Chinese community in the greater Chicago area.10 CACC’s board members are primarily middle class suburban Chinese-Americans educated in the USA. Since some of them own businesses in Bridgeport which cater to the needs of new immigrants (law firms, real estate companies, medical clinics, insurance companies), these individuals often function as 258

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community leaders and cultural brokers bridging the immigrants and mainstream white society (Wong 1988). In its 2000 Annual Report, a promotional material written in English which serves as the official representation of the agency, CACC posits itself as the family, friend, and teacher of new immigrants who lack basic life skills in the USA and promises to guide them “to become independent, productive members of society.”11 As a nonprofit agency, CACC gets its support mainly from middle class Chinese-Americans and mainstream white society: about 70 percent of its budget is provided by government funding; the remaining 30 percent is raised by the agency itself from private foundations, individual and corporate sources (Shiao 2005). As an ethnic Chinese organization struggling for funding in a racially hierarchical society, CACC’s story of success has to depend largely on the promotion of the model minority myth. Commenting on the role of ethnicity in fundraising, CACC president Ruth said, I would say it’s a plus and a minus. On the one hand, it makes the application process more difficult because we don’t serve a broad range of population. On the other hand, there are big funding opportunities for drug prevention, child abuse and so on, but we don’t fit that high profile. We have a dedicated focused client population and some funding agencies want to be diverse in their funding and they fund Hispanics, Blacks and they think we are a good group to fund too.12 Ruth holds a flexible view of Chinese ethnicity. She realizes the limitation for CACC’s exclusive emphasis on its Chinese identity. Nevertheless, she is also highly aware of the value of Chinese ethnicity in bargaining with a racist white society, whose members buy into stereotypes such as the model minority and the urban underclass (Abelmann and Lie 1995). Ruth’s allusion to high profile programs such as drug prevention and child abuse is not only a coded way to talk about social problems in African-American and Latino communities, but an implicit attempt to distance ChineseAmericans from these “problem minorities.” Reflecting on the biggest challenges in fundraising, Ruth remarked, “we need to prove to them—mainstream funders, we can handle it. We need to tell people that the Chinese are willing to work. With some help from CACC they can become independent.” 13 According to Ruth, it is precisely the model minority image that helps legitimize CACC’s role as an ethnic broker between new immigrants and mainstream society. Lucy, one of 259

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CACC’s Caucasian board members who is a professor at a city college in Chicago, is more explicit about her fundraising strategy, What I used to convince people is what I think people respect about the Asian population. It’s hard working, well educated, or values education. Everybody believes we should help the elderly, everybody believes it’s important to help people get jobs. Job training programs make people independent. Those are mainstream cultural values. And this agency is promoting those values.14

The middle class ChineseAmerican version of multiculturalism practiced by the agency is marked by a strategic colorblindness

Lucy’s narrative appeals directly to mainstream funders’ endorsement of the model minority stereotype. She tries to convince white American society that there is no contradiction between the model minority and the poor Chinese immigrants, because ethnic brokers such as CACC are working to educate new immigrants to become the future model minority. In reality, CACC’s fundraising story represents the dilemma faced by many Asian-American community organizations. Due to the decline of the welfare state and the necessity to seek funding from private sources, nonprofit ethnic agencies like CACC have to tread the fine line between keeping the agency an autonomous ethnic space with the potential for political resistance and conforming to prevailing U.S. racial ideologies of multiculturalism and diversity. Scholars have noted that the post-civil rights reconfiguration of whiteness is often marked by the replacement of race with code words like culture or ethnicity, and the posing of one minority against another (Gotanda 1995; Matsuda 1993; Prashad 2000; Visweswaran 1998). In this vein multiculturalism only provides a new vocabulary to cover up the old status quo of white domination (Kwong and Miscevic 2005). In the CACC case, the middle class Chinese-American version of multiculturalism practiced by the agency is marked by a strategic colorblindness, that is, the manipulation of color lines in strategic ways to secure class, economic and cultural advantage for certain groups of social actors. The Chef Training Program is the most renowned program in CACC. It enjoys maximum mainstream media coverage among all CACC programs as representing the diversity of Chicago in its student body. In its 1997 Annual Report, CACC described the Chef Training Program this way: The Chef Training Program is open to all limited-income residents of Chicago and represents CACC’s desire to bring the diversity of Chicago together, working side-byside. A mix of languages, cultures, and ethnicity abound


Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning

in the classroom, each student learning from the other’s experience and talent. Learning to work in a multicultural environment is essential for today’s workplace and further provides for advancement in the future. Besides a picture of Chef Training students from diverse backgrounds working together is the caption, “CACC’s kitchen is a microcosm of Chicago—a mix of cultures, backgrounds, and languages coming together to forge a better future for the students and their families.”15 While the celebration of diversity in the CACC literature keeps the agency at pace with mainstream racial ideology of multiculturalism, in reality the agency has to struggle between keeping its ethnic image of being Chinese and opening its service to other minorities. While the presence of African-Americans and Latinos in the Chef Training class is celebrated as proof of the agency’s endeavor to promote diversity, the number of AfricanAmerican and Latino students is carefully monitored to maintain the token effect. Howard, CACC’s Caucasian chef instructor, explains to me the recruitment dilemma faced by the agency, Somehow there is a catch 22 there. If they market it too much, they will get lots of African-American and Latino students. Now the program is advertised mainly by wordof-mouth through the Chinese community. It remains very low key in other communities. They only got fifteen students this time. We usually have eighteen students. Three people mean a lot of income for the agency, yet they have to keep the imbalance, meaning they don’t want more African-Americans coming in.16 For each student in the Chef Training class, CACC receives around $5000 from the city and a private foundation. Half of the money is paid after the sixteen-week training, and the remaining half will be paid to the agency after a student is placed in a job for ninety days. The fact that CACC would rather lose $15,000 than to recruit three more African-American or Latino students speaks volumes for the tension between the model minority and the urban underclass stereotype. Since a larger part of CACC’s funding depends on the promotion of the image of the model minority, more African-Americans and Latinos may dilute Chinese ethnicity and make it harder for the agency to maneuver multiple color lines among Black, White, Brown and Yellow. This paradoxical practice of achieving balance by imbalance is at the heart of a middle class Chinese-American ideology of strategic colorblindness. In the name of multiculturalism and diversity, CACC’s middle class lead261

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ership is trying to distance itself from poor African-Americans and Latinos while appealing to the support of mainstream whites (Koshy 2001; Omi and Winant 1994; Ortner 2003; Prashad 2000). In his study of racial knowledge in Cuba, Frank Guridy (2002) conceptualizes race not merely as an identity or as a marker of social inequality, but as a form of social knowledge. He understands racial knowledge as a meaning system and interpretive framework that is constructed out of interrelated social, economic, cultural and political processes which have been naturalized as a social fact. David Roediger and James Barrett, in their study of racial learning of European new immigrants from 1890 to1930, find that IrishAmericans functioned as hosts in imparting contradictory teachings regarding race to new immigrants. They further anticipate that “the development of racial knowledge by recent immigrants to the Untied States is equally layered and complex” (Roediger and Barrett: 2004:187). Following these scholarly efforts to denaturalize racial knowledge as a social fact, I examine how Chinese immigrant worker’s learning racial knowledges in a multiracial urban center is mediated by CACC’s middle class ideology of strategic colorblindness. By analyzing the contradictions in CACC’s management of new immigrants’ racial learning, I illustrate the limitation of a middle class Chinese-American version of multiculturalism.

Lao Fan Gong and Racialized Class Mobility


cholars have noted that the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 not only brought an end to discrimination against Asian immigrants by abolishing national-origins quotas, but also facilitated class differentiation among Asian immigrants. While the occupational preference system favors the admission of highly educated professionals and managerial staff who can afford to settle directly into middle class suburbs, new immigrants with limited education and skills who are admitted through the family reunification often end up in ethnic enclaves like Chinatown (Liu and Cheng 1994). While this view of Asian immigration may be true to a certain extent, an overemphasis on the suburban—city divide may easily lead to a static notion of class that is solely based on geographical locations.17 It also obscures more nuanced understandings of class formation in the Chinese-American community, such as suburban middle class Chinese-Americans’ participation in the racial learning of new immigrants in Chinatown through social service work, and the daily struggles of immigrants like Jim, whose experience of downward social mobility is marked by the discontinuities of career 262

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opportunities and class status as a consequence of transnational migration (Abelmann and Lie 1995; Manalansan 2003). Scholars have noted that in a postindustrial economy class is often dispersed and displaced into multiple levels of human existence such as race, gender, sexuality and so on (The Comaroffs 2000; Ortner 1991). Instead of treating class as an independent denominator for social inequality, I identify class/social mobility as one of the major factors contributing to the differential racialization of groups of Chinese-Americans. I use the term middle class to describe Chinese-American professionals as the majority in this group self-identifies as middle class and holds many mainstream middle class values and ideologies. Yet this group’s higher social economic status does not make them immune to racism. However, compared with Chinese immigrant workers, they do have more symbolic and cultural capital to fight back or evade racist attacks at the personal level. Many scholars find it hard to apply the term “working class” to Chinese immigrant laborers who have long been kept outside the mainstream labor market and remained largely invisible to labor organizations (Kwong 1979, 1987, 1997; Bao 2001). Bernard Wong (1976) notes that in New York’s Chinatown the term Da Kung (workers) was used to describe blue-collar workers and unskilled laborers like restaurant and laundry workers. Peter Kwong (1987) uses “Uptown Chinese” and “Downtown Chinese” to describe class differences within the Chinese immigrant community in New York City. Yu Renqiu (1992) finds that Chinese hand laundrymen in New York City self-identified themselves as “poor laboring class.” Lisa Lowe (1996) employs the term “racialized working women” to incorporate the intersections of race, class, gender, immigration and transnationalism in Asian and Latina female immigrant workers’ experience in a postindustrial U.S. economy. Fully aware of the pitfalls of any kind of categorization, I choose to use the vague term “Chinese immigrant workers” to describe Chinese immigrants with limited English language skills who are mainly working at low-skill, blue-collar service jobs. These individuals tend to have limited financial resources and cultural capital to challenge their racialized social status. Jim has a hard time accepting his downward mobility after immigration. Back in China, he had worked for the Chinese government and was respected by many people. Now he is ordered around in a Sushi place by his boss from Hong Kong. In China, the government provided his family with three bedrooms and two living rooms; now the couple and their two children have to squeeze into a rented two-bedroom apartment in Chinatown, which costs the bulk of their monthly income. He notes: 263

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restaurant work is xinku (hard and bitter). For people from the countryside, it may not be hard work. But I used to work in the city, in the Bureau of Agriculture. Because of reform in China, state enterprises like my working unit had to worry about funding. If my job in China was stable, I definitely would not have wanted to come here. Nobody can predict the future in China. In the past the state provided us money, but now everything has changed.18 I asked Jim about his dream for the future. He said quickly, “Well, I want to be You Chuxi (successful). I want to have my career and lots of money. I want to have a nice house, nice car and my own business.” He thought for a while, and added, “I just cannot give up so easily!”19 Like Jim, the majority of the Chinese students in the Chef Training class are Cantonese speakers who emigrated to the U.S. with their families in the past five years. Most have a high school education. Occasionally they are college graduates. All the Chinese students had some experience working in ethnic Chinese businesses: restaurants, flower shops, video shops, or bookstores. With an average age of thirty-six, the Chinese students in the Chef Training class represent a relatively younger and ambitious group of immigrants who are actively planning and strategizing their dream beyond Chinatown and the ethnic Chinese market. Since enrollment in the Chef Training class requires proper legal documentation, all Chef Training students are either permanent residents or U.S. citizens. It is precisely their legal status that gives Chef Training students a sense of entitlement to the American Dream. They are not satisfied with performing backbreaking manual labor side by side with undocumented immigrants in ethnic restaurants. Instead, they want a career path that may lead to upward mobility. Students, like Jim, have to invest a great deal to enroll in the Chef Training class. Even though tuition is free for low income families, by sitting in the class for four months, Jim will lose around $8000 as a restaurant worker. The family has to depend on his wife, who works in a garment factory in Bridgeport and earns $900 per month, to pay the rent and living expenses. Jim admitted that he had complicated feelings coming to the class, but he could not give up his Lao Fan Gong dream: I want to raise myself to a higher level and get a better job. I used to be the only employee in a Sushi place. My boss didn’t want the customer to wait long for fear they would leave, so he kept pressing me to work faster and faster. It’s 264

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different in a hotel. If the chef says a certain dish will be ready in thirty minutes, the client has to wait thirty minutes. The chef’s thinking is quite different from the boss. The boss cares about his customer leaving, but the chef cares about the quality of the dish.20 What Jim dreams of is not just a job with higher pay, but a job with a certain level of professionalism that may give him a sense of confidence and control. Making a contrast between speed and quality, Jim is making a distinction between manual labor and professional work. By desiring to learn English and to receive professional training, Jim is rejecting the traditional Chinese immigrant dream of saving enough money to open one’s own restaurant, which requires intensive physical labor but only minimal English language skills. It must be noted that for many new immigrants the term Lao Fan Gong is rather vaguely defined as a job paid by white Americans—meaning white Americans as the boss, rather than a job held by white Americans. In other words, new immigrants like Jim know quite well that the Lao Fan Gongs they dream of are merely hotel jobs, meaning in the lower-tier service sector. Compared with the gloomy future of working in a Chinese restaurant, there are advantages associated with working at an American job. First and foremost, since jobs in big hotels are usually unionized with benefit packages such as health insurance, vacation time and retirement benefit, a Lao Fan Gong may provide some sense of security for new immigrants who plan to settle permanently in the United States. Wendy, a Chef Training student in her 40s who came to Chicago six year ago told me, “I want to find a job with insurance because my health is not good. At my age, kitchen work can be very exhausting for me. The benefit is better in a western restaurant. You get better insurance, better pay. The work is not as hard as in a Chinese restaurant.”21 For many Chinese immigrants, a Lao Fan Gong is held higher in prestige than a Tangren Gong (Chinese job) because it symbolizes one’s entry into the “system,” the mainstream American labor market. As echoed by Jim in the beginning of this paper, by working at a Lao Fan Gong one can claim entitlement to a more dignified life style resembling other average Americans: stable employment with benefits, annual pay raise, and more leisure time with the family. Viewed from a structural perspective, this new immigrants’ desire for Lao Fan Gong has to be contextualized within the long history of racialization of Chinese immigrant labor in the USA. From the transcontinental railway workers to the Chinese laundrymen, from waiters and waitresses in Chinese restaurants to seam-

Chinese immigrant laborers have forever been kept outside the mainstream labor market and remained largely invisible to American labor organizations


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stresses in the seasonal garment factories in Chinatown, Chinese immigrant laborers have forever been kept outside the mainstream labor market and remained largely invisible to American labor organizations (Kwong 1979; 1987; 1997). Following Lisa Lowe’s (1996) argument that the concept of class is always a racialized concept for Asian-American laborers, I propose that new Chinese immigrants’ aspiration for Lao Fan Gong, their perception that a white American job is more desirable than a Chinese restaurant job, represents a moment of penetration into the racialized nature of American labor market (Willis 1977). In other words, new immigrants are savvy enough to learn that working in the ethnic niche is a dead end and that there are advantages associated with working at a “white American” job (Roediger 1991). By desiring Lao Fan Gong, new immigrants are implicitly contesting their marginalized status in the labor market and making claims to their legitimate inclusion into the national imagination. While new immigrants invest much hope in Lao Fan Gongs for their upward social mobility, the road leading to the realization of a Lao Fan Gong dream is not an easy one. Many scholars have agreed that post-industrialization and flexible accumulation of late capitalism have profited from invisible third world and immigrants labors in ethnic enclaves. To a certain extent, the direct exploitative relations between capital and labor are obscured by the existence of middle class ethnic brokers/contractors, whose daily interactions with immigrant clients/workers in ethnic communities have fostered increasingly intra-racial exploitation (Bonacich and Appelbaum 2000; Kwong 1997).22 Ironically, this intra-racial exploitation is often legitimized by a compartmentalized view of multiculturalism and diversity by mainstream society. In reality, many new immigrants find that their efforts to achieve social mobility outside the ethnic economy has to be mediated by middle class ethnic brokers whose differential class interests often compromise race-based grassroots project for social equality (Espiritu and Ong 1994; Prashad 2000).

Learning the American Way


n her study of Cambodian refugees in California, Aihwa Ong comments on the mediating role of social workers,


service agents are in a position in which they not only broker relations but also translate dominant discourses into micro-practices that allocate, classify, categorize, and

Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning

formalize categories of the human—refugee, patient, welfare recipient, raced subject, feminist, middleclass parent, American teenager, or flexible worker—and then try to mold their subjects into exemplars of the desirable categories. (2003:17, emphasis added) In a similar vein, because of its self-identified role as translator and educator, CACC holds the authority to interpret mainstream culture and racial system to new Chinese immigrants. Since the agency’s work is operated largely within the assimilation paradigm, the social changes it advocates mainly focus on the discipline and reformation of new immigrants’ “un-American” mindset and behavior. While new immigrants like Jim came to the Chef Training class with their Lao Fan Gong dream, the first lesson they learned was to fight against the new immigrant syndrome and to reform their ethnic self to not look like a new immigrant. In class the discipline of new immigrants often extends to personal domains such as hygiene and life habits. Students are given advice on how to keep a respectable physical appearance: they need to wash their hair regularly, keep their shoes shining; male students need to keep the facial hair under control, trim their moustaches, and keep them clean. Howard, the chef instructor, once discussed the etiquette of hand shaking:

The first lesson they learned was to reform their ethnic self to not look like a new immigrant

When you shake somebody’s hands, don’t frown. Look them in the eyes. In the Orient, people avert eye contact. It’s a beautiful custom, but we are not in the East. Look straight into the person’s eyes, smile gently. Make sure your breath is good. Do you know what your breath smells like? Do you care what your breath smells like? You may have body odor too. Check with it. It’s really important. You may lose your job! How do you get rid of bad breath? You got to wash your jacket everyday, especially after you had Chinese food. It will smell. My Chinese students should be more careful about their breath because the amount of garlic in your diet. I can smell garlic from some of my Chinese students one foot or two feet away. (Emphasis added)23 The chef took a small green tube off his key chain. “Two bucks from Walgreen. It’s called breath freshener.”24 He passed it around the class so that everybody could take a look at it. It is important to note that within the ethnic space of CACC, this definition of the immigrant body as unclean and thus posing a threat to the American nation-state is largely couched in the 267

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Social differentiations such as class and race are taught to new immigrants in coded phrases such as personal taste, hygiene, and even intelligence

language of social mobility and ethnic solidarity (“you may lose your job!” see also Ono and Sloop 2002; Shah 2001). To a certain extent, the agency’s emphasis on helping new immigrants achieve social mobility obscures its role in reproducing some of the existing racial stereotypes against new immigrants. As a matter of fact, the image of the family is a powerful trope CACC deploys to appeal to both its mainstream funders and new immigrant clientele. At a talk to the chef students, Ruth said: “you should work hard because when you go out, you represent CACC. It’s like the relation between the child and the family. CACC is your family. The child is always connected with the family. So CACC’s image depends on you.” While Ruth’s deployment of the family trope appeals to students’ sense of ethnic solidarity, beneath this narrative of family intimacy is the patronizing middle class entitlement to set up a code of behavior for its new immigrant clients, which oftentimes reflects the agency’s own middle class standing on race and social mobility. Besides the child and adult relationship, the contrast between Chinese and Western ways is also constantly emphasized in the class. Frequently, they are presented in a hierarchical manner with Western ways being desirable and the norm, and Chinese ways being undesirable and even a hindrance to the achievement of the American Dream. For example, at one time the chef told the students that most of the garnish of western dishes was done by hands. When some students looked surprised, the chef said, you worry about your health? If you go to an ethnic restaurant in the corner and the kitchen is full of underpaid employees, and the most expensive item on the menu is $3.99, what do you care about your health? In an upscale hotel, the people are better paid and they are usually smarter. They would clean their hands before they serve the food.25 After the chef’s instruction on the art of plate construction, Amanda, the VESL teacher, offered her own advice, “When you go shopping, don’t always go to Wal-Mart. The more you go, the lower your taste. Go to Michigan Avenue.26 You don’t need to buy anything. Pay attention to their design, their taste. That’s what you want to learn.” Through this half-joking, half derogatory pedagogy, social differentiations such as class and race are taught to new immigrants in coded phrases such as personal taste, hygiene, and even intelligence.


Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning

Besides learning to reform their ethnic selves, immigrants are also taught to accept their proper roles in the workplace, proper as prescribed by middle class ethnic brokers. Howard once asked students not to turn down entry level jobs, “don’t say ‘no’ if someone offers you a $7 job. That’s not bad. You have to put a price tag on your balance. They are getting you health insurance, life insurance, retirement benefit and so on. Then it’s no longer $7. It’s $10 per hour.” Amanda continued, don’t expect that after graduation you will immediately become a chef. Think about the benefits [for entry level jobs]. For you who have never had a job in the U.S., just take it. It’s going to be your first job in this country. You got to have some working experience in the U.S. when you go job hunting, otherwise you will never get a job. Don’t be too critical. After you work at this first job for one year, you may think of changes.27 On another occasion, the chef lectured students about workplace ethics, “When you do land a dream job in your dream hotel, with all the benefits, make sure you are open to learn from your chef. Do what you are told to do. Don’t offer your opinions. Opinion is not worth a penny.”28 Within the larger context of CACC, hard working ethnics are oftentimes associated with obedience at the work place. During the annual dinner for CACC’s Community Care program, three women were given the awards of excellent homemakers. They were each presented with a certificate, a red envelop and had the honor to take photos with Ruth. Their supervisors explained why they were selected: The first winner followed the supervisor’s orders faithfully and was easy to manage. The second winner had a good working attitude and did not complain when her supervisor assigned her to a client who lived far away. The third winner was not afraid of hard work, dirty work. She worked diligently and had genuine love for the elderly. So the two most important criteria for being a model homemaker are obedience and hardworking ethics. For the chef training students, who are supposed to work at American jobs in the future, obedience also means complying with existing racial hierarchies in the work place. Although race is never mentioned in the class, by defining what types of jobs Chef Training students should be expecting, CACC staff is implicitly teaching new immigrants about racial hierarchies in the workplace.29 At the top there is always the chef or the supervisor, who is presumably white. It is the job of a chef’s

Obedience also means complying with existing racial hierarchies in the work place


City & Society

assistant that is being openly advocated in the class as the preferable Lao Fan Gong for new Chinese immigrants. By instructing students to treat the chef /supervisor with respect and refrain from offering their own opinions, CACC is preparing new Chinese immigrants to become an obedient working class of color in a racially hierarchical labor market. It is also worth noting that while great emphasis is laid on the benefit package attached to the job of a chef’s assistant, there is no mention of the large presence of Latino workers who toil at the lowest tier of the hotel industry at minimum wages. By teaching students that certain types of Lao Fan Gong are more desirable for Chinese immigrants, CACC is perpetuating existing racial stereotypes against Latinos, who are often stigmatized as “illegal” immigrants (De Genova 2004). While implicit knowledge about racial difference in the workplace is conveyed to students through apparently neutral information about the job market, overt racial talk is strictly forbidden in the class. Once I was observing the class when Howard asked the students to remain quiet working in the kitchen. After translating this to the students, Amanda told the class the following story, one of our girl students came back one day and complained about discrimination in the hotel where she was working. “My supervisor was not happy because we talked to each other in Chinese during work.” I told her it had nothing to do with discrimination. In big hotels people work quietly. Talking aloud is not proper behavior. Don’t always think of “discrimination” when something bad happens. Don’t abuse the word. You pay respect to others and you will get respected by others.30 During my interview with Amanda after class, the TaiwaneseAmerican VESL teacher further illustrated her take on discrimination, People with higher education have a higher level of understanding towards things around them. Take discrimination for example. I don’t think it’s a big deal, but if one doesn’t quite understand what’s going on because of limited education, they will make a big deal out of it.31 Amanda’s is a typical story of the success of hardworking immigrants. She came to USA from Taiwan in 1983 as a graduate student and finished her master’s degree while raising two children. Describing herself as “an educated person with a cultivated mind 270

Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning

(xiu yang),” Amanda attributes Chinese immigrant workers’ claim of discrimination to their ignorance of the American system and their lack of education. In Amanda’s value system, being American means being colorblind (or strategically colorblind). By blaming immigrant workers’ plight on their low education and lack of xiu yang, she unwittingly (or consciously) turns a racial issue into a moral one. Instead of criticizing structural oppressions such as white privilege and the racialization of urban space, middle class Chinese-American social workers like Amanda are treating new immigrants themselves as the problem.32 Implicit in this middle class embrace of the individual merit-based American Dream is a reluctance to disrupt the status quo of white domination. The reason for this reluctance is that middle class Chinese-Americans have a stake in the white-endorsed multicultural show. At CACC’s annual fundraising dinner in 2005, some CACC’s staff performed a fashion show with traditional Chinese costumes. Ruth, the president, featured as a beautiful princess in the Han Dynasty. It is interesting to observe that while the smell of garlic on Chinese bodies and the sound of Chinese language in workplaces are reproached in the Chef Training classroom as un-American behaviors for Chinese immigrants, a mystified Chinese culture recuperated from the ancient past is celebrated at the fund raiser as the culmination of the Chinese contribution to a multicultural America. This selective construction of Chinese cultural symbols highlights CACC’s role as a gatekeeper in initiating new Chinese immigrants into the American race/class system and in manipulating the representation of Chinese ethnicity to mainstream society.33 In this vein, being multicultural at CACC becomes largely a middle class prerogative, a strategic deployment of Chinese ethnicity in order to appease to the multicultural gaze of white American society (Hannerz 1974).

Dilemmas of Multicultural Teaching


hile one of the proclaimed goals of the Chef Training Program is to train students to “work in a multicultural environment,” in the class multiculturalism was represented mainly through the two African-American students. Despite the fact that Latino immigrants are heavily represented in the hotel industry, there is a silence on Latinos in CACC’s multicultural teaching. This can partly be explained by the racialization of Latino workers as illegal immigrants (De Genova 2004). Joe and Tania, the two African-American students in CACC’s 271

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In CACC, racial knowledge about AfricanAmericans is taught by an insistence on some topics and silence on others

Chef Training class, were both hyper-visible and hyper-invisible in CACC. Their hyper-visibility points to the stigmatization of African-American identity in a nation-state which conflates Americanness with whiteness (Lopez 1996). Their hyper-invisibility speaks of the paradoxical absent presence of race in a selfproclaimed colorblind society (Prendergast 1998). Together, Joe and Tania’s experiences in the class illuminate the limitations of a middle class Chinese-American multiculturalism, which harbors contradictory teachings about race. Joe lives on Chicago’s south side. It takes him an hour train ride to get to CACC. Joe is on probation and learned about the program from his probation officer. Fully aware of the racial stereotypes against Black males, Joe came to CACC and talked to the agency’s recruitment staff in person to show his sincere interest in joining the program. At first, they worried about me a lot. They thought I would mess up with everything. Actually, they must have thought for a long time before they let me in. They called me one day before the class began and told me I could come. I think they finally decided to have me because they thought I was sincere. Now I come to class every day on time. I want to prove to them I am sincere and I really want to learn how to cook. Now we get along really well with each other.34 (Emphasis added.) One thing Joe probably did not know was that CACC needs him to be in the class for funding reasons, and for its multicultural image. The presence of Joe in the class poses a dilemma for CACC’s middle class leadership. They need to keep him in the class as the token of diversity; yet they need to handle him with care as he embodies the taboo subject of race. In CACC, racial knowledge about African-Americans is taught by an insistence on some topics and silence on others. CACC staff is careful not to mention Joe’s background to the Chinese students. The Chinese students are told again and again that they need to get along with the two African-Americans. During one of the afternoon VESL classes (when Joe and Tania are not present), Jack, the Chinese-American program coordinator, explained: The chef told me you are on good relations with Joe and Tania. That’s good. Joe is a very good person. He has the highest motivation in class. We used to think AfricanAmericans are lazy, but the two turn out to be really good and hardworking. Especially Joe, whose background is


Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning

complicated, but he found his new life at CACC and he is very happy here.35 Despite Jack’s praise of Joe and Tania as hardworking, the two are labeled as exceptions to their race. While Joe and Tania are singled out as “really good and hardworking,” other African-Americans remain lazy in the Chinese eyes. There is a benign racism in the class: while new immigrants are disciplined at all levels, Joe’s position in class is rather special. He was praised for every little effort he made in learning and was never criticized for anything he did wrong. CACC’s overemphasis of the personal merits of Joe and Tania leaves some deeply entrenched stereotypes against AfricanAmericans in general unchallenged. By providing a public script in reference to African-Americans, that is, always speak of them in positive terms, CACC staff manages to relegate negative feelings and remarks concerning African-Americans to personal domains such as gossip, rumor and other informal exchanges (Pollock 2004). Jason, one of the Chinese students, reported to me that the chef told him Joe was from a broken family and a bad neighborhood and we really should not be so strict with him. In reality, CACC’s special treatment of Joe and Tania serves to breed a sense of difference between Chinese and African-American students, and its hesitation to exercise discipline on African-American students paradoxically leads to the neglect of the latter’s tangible needs in class. Despite CACC’s emphasis on good relations between Chinese and African-American students, interactions between the two are largely restricted to the classroom. Outside the classroom, Jim was the only friend for Joe. They developed their friendship during the fifteen-minute break time between classes: one is eager to practice English with a native speaker, the other is eager to fit in a Chinese dominated environment. During my interview with Jim, he proudly told me many things about Joe that I did not know: his parents, siblings, and his girlfriend. Then he mentioned an incident: last Friday Joe asked me to go to see a Jackie Chan movie in downtown. My classmates told me not to go, “you know nothing about this guy. You’d better be careful.” So I didn’t go. This Monday Joe brought me a Jackie Chan video. I tried to pay him, but he said he gave it to me as a gift.36 Jim’s testimony illustrates how racial stereotypes are perpetuated through informal personal networks and how peer pressure functions as a regulating mechanism which guards against closer interracial relations. The movie incident also reveals CACC’s ambivalence in racial teaching: while sticking to the politically correct way of 273

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CACC staff did nothing to disabuse stereotypes against AfricanAmericans in daily life

talking about African-American students in the classroom, CACC staff did nothing to disabuse stereotypes against African-Americans in daily life. The agency’s non-interfering attitude towards Chinese students’ informal racial learning formed a sharp contrast with its discipline of the students’ personal life to fit into its hardworking model minority image. It also betrays the marginalization of African-American students in relation to a middle class ChineseAmerican agenda. In other words, middle class Chinese-Americans seem to be more concerned with manipulating the Black/white color line for the purpose of obtaining funding than for promoting multiculturalism and diversity in its more proactive sense. Ironically, it is also from within the monitored space of CACC that Joe and Jim built their friendship, although that friendship is largely marginalized. I heard lots of complaints about Joe’s laziness from Chinese students, but I never heard anything bad about Joe from Jim. While other Chinese students’ negative opinions of Joe were purely based on classroom observations, Jim knows Joe more intimately as a friend. When I asked Jim why some Chinese are prejudiced against African-Americans, he said, They think Blacks don’t work and live on government welfare, but not all Blacks are like that. When I was working in the Sushi place, we had Black customers who have college education, who work in government offices. When I was working in a Hong Kong takeout, there was this white man who tried to eat for free. He was so big and it took the four of us to hold him. Finally the police came and handcuffed him. The police made him pay his bill and told him never to come back again. He is a white man, but he tried to eat for free.37 Without romanticizing the interracial friendship between Jim and Joe, I want to point out that new immigrants are not merely passive recipients of CACC’s colorblind teaching. Scholars have noted that the process of Americanization is multi-lineal and marked by chaos and pluralism (Barrett 1992; Gerstle 1997; Sanchez 1990). Jim’s example shows that CACC is not the only place where new immigrants learn about race and class.38 Although being a new immigrant in this country for only one year, Jim’s learning from his friendship with Joe and his working experience at the two sushi places put a human face on interethnic relations that promise to move beyond the antipodal image of the model minority and the urban underclass.


Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning

American Dream Brokered


hile CACC staff continues to give students hope for finding a Lao Fan Gong, in reality the social mobility they advocate is only limited to lower level service work. One afternoon, Jack, the Program coordinator, talked about job market information to the students. Jack first gave the students a handout (see Appendix), then started explaining the job market situation: There are 160 hotels in downtown and we have relationship with 78 of them. We Chinese are hardworking people and our agency has a good reputation among employers. I’ll train you what to say during interviews. I want you to get the benefits you deserve. It’s long term investment. Even you start with $7, after you work at it for several years you will get $10 per hour. Once they hire you, they won’t fire you so easily. No Chinese were fired within three months. So have faith in this program and have faith in yourself.39 Despite Jack’s encouraging words, I noticed on the handout that compared with other Illinois occupations with the most openings each year, restaurant cooks’ wages are the lowest—$7.15 for entry level, $10.50 for experienced. An experienced electricians and plumbers can make $29.11 to $33.31 per hour (see Appendix). The truth is that the jobs listed in the handout were simply not comparable in terms of training and skills. The fact that CACC, a Chinese-American social service agency, can only secure funding for a Chef Training program, instead of a building trade apprentice program, demonstrates the existence of real barriers for Chinese immigrants to entering skilled, higher paid occupations. It is also remarkable to observe that few new Chinese immigrants ever questioned CACC’s assumption that they can only work as restaurant cooks. The idea of the ethnic niche is so powerful that it continues to shape new immigrants’ imagination about job opportunities and social mobility trajectories in a racially segregated U.S. labor market. One reason for Jack’s confidence in the Chef Training program is the existing needs of the market: restaurant cook ranks the third occupation with the largest annual openings in Illinois. However, the existence of this large demand for low-wage service jobs in Chicago is symptomatic of the postindustrial reconfiguration of economic and racial landscapes in urban United States, which draws poor immigrant and minority labors to the urban center

Few new Chinese immigrants ever questioned CACC’s assumption that they can only work as restaurant cooks


City & Society

“Mainstream cooking? No! They don’t speak English”

in an increasingly polarized urban economy (Massey and Denton 1993; Sassen 1999). Jack’s faith in CACC’s relationship with big hotels in downtown Chicago also testifies to racialized hiring practices in American labor market: employers may be readier to hire Chinese immigrant workers recommended by CACC because of the agency’s accredited reputation among its mainstream funders (De Genova 2005). In other words, CACC has to play with its model minority image again to guarantee placement of its students to hotel jobs. Jack’s confident promotion of the Program actually concealed the dreadful truth that the Lao Fan Gongs CACC promises to place new immigrants in are merely jobs in a higher level of ethnic niche, i.e. jobs racialized as undesirable for white Americans and thus reserved for immigrants of color. In this vein, CACC’s efforts to socialize new Chinese immigrants into the hotel industry, an ethnic niche more commonly held by Latino immigrants, serves to highlight racial hierarchies in the labor market. I once asked Howard whether he thought his students could go mainstream. He said, It depends on what you mean by mainstream. Mainstream cooking? No! They don’t speak English. Even when they find a job, it’s still in a much insolated environment, locked up in the kitchen all day, chopping vegetables. There are lots of meanings for working in the food industry. Someone working in a hotel delivering food can also be working in the food industry. As far as the agency was concerned, that’s fine, but my goal is to raise the class to a level of name recognition, so it can be recognized as other cooking schools.40 In contrast to Jack’s public demonstration of faith in the Program in front of the students, Howard’s private observation points to the discrepancy between the students’ expectations and the goal of the agency. While the students came to the class dreaming of becoming professional chefs (at least chef’s assistants) and finding a Lao Fan Gong where they are treated with dignity and respect, the agency is more concerned with getting enough students enrolled in the program so that it can get continual funding. While the chef instructor expects a better marketing strategy, more diverse students and higher professionalism for the class, the agency gives more weight to protecting its model minority image and preparing students to become members of an obedient working class of color. Jim keeps a tight schedule for himself in order to learn English. After the VESL class ends at 4:30 p.m., Jim runs to a church sponsored evening class in Chinatown to take a two-hour English class


Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning

from 5 to 7p.m. When he returns home in the evening, he does homework and prepares for the next day’s class. On Saturday mornings Jim goes to a volunteer tutor in the same church, who helps him practice conversational English. For the rest of the weekends, Jim works in a Chinese restaurant to relieve his family’s financial burden. In spite of all his efforts to learn English, Jim was not sure he will get a hotel job, I don’t know what the future would be like. My English is not good. I don’t know how to answer all the interview questions. Right now life is hard for my family. I have very complicated feelings. I know a friend who graduated from the 48th class. He is now working in Double Happiness [a Chinese restaurant]. He didn’t find any American job. I am worrying that I won’t be able to find a Lao Fan Gong either.41 Many students in the class shared Jim’s worry about the future. Annie, a female student in her thirties who came to the USA six months ago, started to internalize CACC’s middle class teaching by blaming herself for her poor performance in class: “I must be stupid. My classmates are smart and they can understand what the chef was talking. I am missing a lot in class. When I try to understand the first sentence, the second sentence already came.”42 Vincent, another Chinese student in his late 30s told me about a fight that had happened in the previous year’s class: I heard there was a fight at last year’s graduation ceremony. There were problems with the job placement. Someone complained, “Why so and so got the job in a big hotel and I didn’t. I am also a graduate from this class.” It turned out that they recommended those students whose English is good to some downtown hotels and didn’t recommend others.43 Sympathizing with those who complained, Vincent continued, “You need to give people a chance. Although my English is not good, you may let me try for the interview. Maybe they want to hire me.”44 Vincent was not surprised about the fighting. Instead, his indignity was directed towards the unfairness of CACC’s job placement policy. For new immigrants who have invested their time, money, energy, and a dream for social mobility in the class, fighting is merely a desperate way to express their frustrations and helplessness over a brokered American Dream, which is getting more and more out of reach. 277

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CACC’s gate keeping work helps to entrench new immigrants of color into the lowest tier of the U.S. labor hierarchy


cholars are debating whether the ethnic niche helps promote immigrant social mobility or not. In her study of New York’s Chinatown, Min Zhou (1992) argues that ethnic enclave economy can provide Chinese immigrants with upward social mobility. Peter Kwong (1987; 1997; 2005) disagrees with this idea by emphasizing class differentiations and intra-ethnic exploitations within the Chinese immigrant community in New York City.45 Based on his research in San Francisco’s Chinatown, Don Mar (1991) notes that the ethnic labor market is merely a lower tier of the secondary labor market rather than a labor market which possesses more desirable employment characteristics than the secondary labor market (Mar 1991:17). This research contributes to the debate by critically examining the role of ethnic brokers in facilitating upward mobility for new immigrants beyond the ethnic niche. Instead of focusing on ethnic and economic factors in explaining the new immigrant experience, I examined the persistence of racial hierarchies in a postindustrial economy through the discipline and surveillance of new immigrants’ racial learning by a middle class-operated social service agency. As both a caretaker for the Chinese immigrant community and a socializing agent of the state, CACC’s middle class agenda not only functions to promote upward social mobility among new Chinese immigrants, but help perpetuating existing racial stereotypes against them (Ong 2003). For new immigrants in CACC’s Chef Training class, social mobility beyond the ethnic niche proves to be a brokered American Dream. Although new immigrants like Jim hesitate to accept the fact that working at a Lao Fan Gong can be a dead end in itself, their future has already been largely determined by an inherent contradiction within the American Dream: its promise of universal equality and success through hard work depends largely on a racist economic and social structure which offers limited social mobility opportunities for minorities and immigrants of color. It is true that many of CACC’s board members and staff sincerely believe they are working for the benefit of new immigrants and the ChineseAmerican community. Yet in its struggle between keeping the agency as an autonomous space and conforming to pressures from both public and private interests, CACC ends up working in compliance with a white-dominated colorblind racial society. CACC’s gate keeping work helps to entrench new immigrants of color into the lowest tier of the U.S. labor hierarchy.

Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning Appendix: Illinois Occupations with the Most Openings Each Year Long-Term On-the-Job Training

Occupational Title

Annual Openings

Hourly Wages





General Maintenance & Repair Workers ❖




Installation, Repairing, Equipment Maintenance

Perform work involving the skills of two or more maintenance or craft occupations to keep machines, mechanical equipment, or the structure of an establishment in repair.





Installation, Equipment Selection, Mathematics

Construct, erect, install, or repair structures and fixtures made of wood, such as concrete forms; building frameworks, including partitions, joists, studding, and rafters; wood stairways, window and door frames, and hardwood floors.

Restaurant Cooks




Equipment Selection, Monitoring, Coordination

Prepare, season, and cook soups, meats, vegetables, desserts, or other foodstuffs in restaurants.

Electricians ❖




Installation, Troubleshooting, Repairing

Install, maintain, and repair electrical wiring, equipment, and fixtures.

Police & Sheriff’s Patrol Officers




Judgement/ Decision Making, Active Listening, Speaking

Maintain order, enforce laws and ordinances, and protect life and property in an assigned patrol district.

Plumbers, Pipefitters & Steamfitters




Installation, Equipment Selection, Operation & Control

Assemble, install, alter, and repair pipelines or pipe systems that carry water, steam, air, or other liquids or gases.

Machinists ❖




Quality Control Analysis, Operation & Control, Mathematics

Set up and operate a variety of machine tools to produce precision parts and instruments.

Fire Fighters




Coordination, Equipment Selection, Critical Thinking

Control and extinguish fires or respond to emergency situations where life, property, or the environment is at risk.

* Top three required skills from O*NET ( Occupations marked by a ❖ indicated “Best Bet” occupations, which combine a high growth rate with a large number of annual openings and are well-paid for the level of training/education. SOURCE:


City & Society

Notes Acknowledgments. I would like to thank my dissertation advisor Nancy Abelmann and her advisee group for providing me critical feedbacks to revise this article. An earlier version of the article was presented at the Migration Studies Workshop at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and I thank all the workshop participants for their helpful comments. My dissertation committee members: Professor James Barrett, Professor Martin Manalansan, Professor David Roediger and Professor Arlene Torres, have read the article carefully and provided very detailed feedback. I thank them for their constant encouragement and support. I am grateful for the patience and help of Petra Kuppinger for the publication of this article. Thanks also go to the three anonymous reviewers whose critical feedback has made this article much better. This project was funded by a research fellowship from the Center on Democracy in a Multiracial Society at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in spring 2005; and a Dissertation Travel Grant from the Graduate College of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in fall 2005. 1In

Cantonese, Lao Fan literally means foreigners. Most of the time Cantonese Chinese use Lao Fan to refer to white Americans, occasionally they use the term “white devils” too. They have a separate term for African Americans, either “Black devils” in a derogatory sense or “Blacks.” Gong means job in Cantonese. Together Lao Fan Gong means American job. 2My interview with Jim was conducted in mixed Mandarin and Cantonese. This interview was conducted on October 29, 2005. All translations in the following are mine. 3CACC is a pseudonym. 4Interview with Jim, October 29, 2005. 5Douglas and Grand Boulevard used to be the Bronzeville community described by Drake and Cayton in Black Metropolis in 1945. 6Chicago Tribune, June 4, 1989. 7Most of the time, hate crime against Chinese immigrants remained unreported because of language barrier, fear of retaliation and distrust of the police. 8All my research in CACC has been approved by its leadership and concerned department managers. 9Homemaker Service is defined as general, non-medical support by supervised homemakers who received specialized training. See http:// for more detail. 10Quote from CACC 2004 Annual Report. 11CACC 2000 Annual Report, P. 3. 280

Race, Class and the Politics of Multicultural Learning 12Interview

with Ruth, August 17, 2005. Throughout this article, I capitalize the term “Black” in my description of African-Americans in order to emphasize Blackness as a racialized identity. I choose not to capitalize the term “white” because of its unmarkedness or invisibility as a dominant racial identity. 13Ibid. 14Interview with Lucy, August 31, 2005. 15CACC 1997 Annual Report, P. 9. 16Interview with Howard, October 25, 2005. 17In Immigrants Act Lisa Lowe questions the notion of “middle-class professionals” by a reinterpretation of the concept of “white-collar proletariat.” She suggests that Asian immigrant professionals are exploited as “variable capital” by a globalized U.S. economy through transnational capitalist strategies for maximizing profits. (Lowe 1996:189–190). 18Interview with Jim, October 29, 2005. 19Ibid. 20Ibid. 21Interview with Wendy, November 14, 2005. 22This is more or less typical of earlier immigrants in ethnic niche employment, like Italians, Mexicans, Greeks in laboring jobs, or Jews as garment workers (see Peck 2000) 23Field notes, Oct 6, 2005. 24Ibid. 25Field notes, Nov 2, 2005. 26Michigan Avenue in downtown Chicago is famous for its expensive shops and window decorations. 27Field notes, Oct 20, 2005. 28Field notes, Oct 14, 2005. 29In her study of adult English classes for Vietnamese refugees designed by American teachers, Kelly notes that the rudimentary vocabulary concerning occupations taught to the students served to place Vietnamese refugees on the lowest end of the occupational spectrum: room clerk, salesman, cashier, laborer, cook, cleaning person, plumber, bricklayer, secretary, typist, seamstress, and nurses’ aide (1978:57). 30Field notes, Nov 1, 2005. 31Interview conducted in English, Nov 1, 2005. 32Waters (1999) notes that instead of constructing immigrants as the problem we need to go back to the Black and white racial structure to identify the origins of social problems. 33In her study of West Indian immigrants in New York City, Mary Waters (1999) notes that the cultural traits West Indians take pride in, hard working, diligence, are selective constructions by Black immigrants in order to confirm their own stereotypes and self-images. 34Interview conducted in English, Oct 24, 2005. 35Field notes, Oct 24, 2005. 36Interview with Jim, Oct 29, 2005. 37Ibid. 281

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a study of Chinese immigrants’ racial learning in a multiracial community setting, see Lan (2006; 2007). 39Field notes, Oct 24, 2005. 40Interview with chef, October 25, 2005. 41Interview with Jim, October 29, 2005. 42Field notes, October 26, 2005. 43Interview with Vincent, November 14, 2005. 44Ibid. 45For more detailed reviews of the debate on ethnic enclave economy, see Alba and Nee (1997); Nee, Sanders and Sernau (1994).

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