Ted Gong is a modest man who emits a kindness reminiscent of my own Chinese father. He’s also the executive director of the 1882 Foundation and retired Foreign Service officer. On this particular afternoon, he was dressed in comfortable blue flannel—an attempt, I’m sure, to maintain some dignity in Washington, D.C.’s boiling summer heat.
Earlier in the day, Ted had contributed some particularly compelling arguments during “Where Policy Meets Personal,” a panel that examined issues of immigration and legal protocols at the 2017 Folklife Festival.
We moved into the shade of an elm tree. I had some questions for him about the oddly specific name of the foundation, current East Asian immigration policies, and the complex sectors of the Chinese American community.
Ted explained in a steady baritone that the 1882 Foundation is committed to issues of civil rights, race relations, and immigration reform for the Asian Pacific American community. The organization also records the stories of Chinese immigrants to pass down throughout the generations and preserve Chinese American oral history.
The organization draws its name from the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the only American law ever passed that prevented immigration and naturalization on the basis of race. Ted’s mother was affected by this law when she tried to immigrate to the United States.
“My mother tried to come here when she was sixteen years old,” he said. “She was held at Angel Island, an immigration detention center on San Francisco Bay. They say it’s the Ellis Island of the West, but it was designed to detain and hold Chinese people to ban them under the 1882 act. She stayed there for eleven months before she was deported back to China.”
After the Gold Rush in 1849, Chinese workers were drawn to the West Coast in pursuit of economic opportunities, such as the railroad industry. Other laborers would not work for the low wages the railroad companies offered, but Chinese workers would. As a result, they were blamed for stealing jobs. Ted explains that the Chinese workers, deemed racially inferior by many Americans, became the scapegoat for declining wages and unemployment that infested the country.
In 1882, President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act into effect. The act halted Chinese immigration for ten years and precluded Chinese living in America from becoming U.S. citizens. The law was only repealed during World War II when the United States relied on China as an ally against Japan.
“The original act was meant to be a temporary exclusion,” Ted explained. “It then was renewed ten years later in 1892, upheld in 1902, and then made permanent,” Ted explains. “So when people talk today about temporary revisions of law, we need to be cautious of what that actually means.”
A thought popped into my head: history repeats itself.
On June 26, 2017, the Supreme Court allowed portions of President Trump’s travel bans via executive order to go into effect. The decision means that people and refugees from six mainly Muslim nations will be temporarily banned from entering the United States. The only exception is for those with a narrowly defined “bona fide” relationship, such as a close familial tie, with an entity in the country.
“We’ve had executive orders that expanded background checks—although not the Chinese Exclusion policy, because that was just plain racist,” Ted said. “Executive orders come and go, and there are good ones and bad ones. America isn’t obligated to take refugees; we set our immigration policies every year. The idea that the current executive order has done something new to exclude refugees is not true.”
Ted paused. He looked past my left shoulder at the crowds dancing to the drumbeats from another session. He then peers at me through his thin-rimmed glasses and asks me about my own immigrant background.
I was born in Fuzhou, Fujian, my mom’s hometown in China. A month after I was born, my dad left for America to begin graduate school in Texas. My mom and I followed him to America three and a half years later. For me, America is the only home I have ever really known.
As I unraveled the concise version of my life story, I admitted to Ted one of my most shameful secrets: I grew up embarrassed to be Chinese. Until sophomore year of college, I remained willfully ignorant of my Chinese heritage.
I leaned forward, gesturing more than usual and avoiding prolonged eye contact, something I tend to do when I feel highly self-conscious. As I verbalized these insecurities, all I saw was understanding and sadness compounded on Ted’s face. I imagine he has heard similar sentiments shared from the Chinese American youth he has spoken to. In an eerie way, it felt like I was confiding all my worst secrets to my own father, though I never have before.
I paused. I noticed the sounds of children playing tag in the background. Strange that I hadn’t heard them earlier. Ted sat patiently, observing me. His silence created a space absent of judgement. It comforted me. I imagine him doing this every day when he gathers his oral histories at the 1882 Foundation. I told him that only recently have I begun attempting to uncover more of my Chinese American history, from policies to current social issues affecting our community in the United States.
Ted proceeded to delve into the history and contemporary groups of Chinese immigrants.
“Fujian people do not traditionally migrate to America like the Cantonese or the Taiwanese, so they didn’t have those people to draw them here,” Ted said. “The time I was in Hong Kong doing anti-trafficking stuff, the Chinese trafficking tended to be Fujianese. You get people caught in vans and trucks through Europe who were trying to embark on something to the United States.”
As a former senior advisor at the Department of Homeland Security, Ted has seen how different immigration tactics have manufactured severe current divisions within the current Chinese American community.
Some Chinese move to the United States as professionals or students—my father is under this group. Another faction consists of unskilled, agricultural workers who came to work in restaurants or back rooms. Ted explained that the current sector of the educated and upper-class Chinese immigrants constitutes the more politically conservative groups.
“They’re pro-business—most probably voted Trump,” he said. “In Austin, Texas’s case, they’re very anti-affirmative action. For example, with the recent Abby Fisher case, in which a white female student argued that she was denied admission to The University of Texas at Austin based on race, this Chinese community strongly supported anti-affirmative action.”
Ted’s own generation differs from this recent group of upper-class, more conservative, immigrants. His group that grew up with the civil rights movement tends to be more progressive on social issues.
“For example, we generally gravitate toward Black Lives Matter, whereas this other group gravitates toward stricter policing,” Ted said. “And they’re very strong and vocal about it.”
Throughout our discussion, I kept thinking: history repeats itself.
In America, we erect memorials and museums to remind ourselves of the past: to celebrate and to contemplate. But I also see them as reminders of what happens when people become complacent with the status quo. Time and time again, immigration bans and racial prejudices repeat due to situational politics, economics, and opportunism. Demographics of people emerge as dehumanized chess pieces in a larger power struggle.
Every day, I think about how different my life would have been if I had never immigrated to America. The United States has become home for so many immigrants like my parents, and the only home for children of immigrants like me.
After the conversation with Ted, I walked out on the National Mall to see a young Chinese girl chasing her father on the lawn. She was probably around six or seven years old, dressed in a sun dress and pigtails. I felt like I was looking at a younger version of myself. For me, growing up as a Chinese American girl meant being attacked with various racist or micro-aggressive remarks, cringing every time I heard my parents’ broken English, and silently despising my own heritage.
As I watched her dad carry her on his shoulders and dance across the Mall, the little girl looked like Supergirl in flight. Hoisted on her father’s shoulders, she must have felt invincible in that moment. I hope she won’t feel what I felt growing up.
I firmly believe empathy is one of the most important qualities we can cultivate in ourselves. Equipped with empathy, we can connect to a specific story from a stranger, harness the anger from the injustices that permeate our society, and take action—whatever that may look like for us individually.
Especially with my generation and the younger ones that follow, we need to participate. We need to tune in and revisit history to learn—and relearn—what is at stake for decisions made. Then, we need to take our stand. Otherwise, history will have no choice but to repeat itself.
Laura Zhang is studying neuroscience and Plan II Honors at The University of Texas at Austin. Currently, she is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and exudes a passion for social justice, stories, and dogs of all kinds.
Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage