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jean

Yours, ours, theirs, are political affairs.

by jean at 01:29 AM on April 01, 2005

When riots broke out over the verdict in the Rodney King trial in 1992, the violence came as close to me as East Los Angeles, which borders the city I live in. The first day, before I knew what was happening or why, there was a burnt rubber smell in the air and gray smoke coming from the direction of East L.A. When the violence ended, people across the Southland became upset that their city police departments were so badly provided for that the National Guard was needed to protect us. Only one police department was equipped with fully automatic weapons. That was the one in my hometown. A bedroom community whose biggest news recently has been that Phil Spector might have murdered a woman in a perfectly fine mansion on top of our one and perfectly fine hill.

I didn't know Los Angeles then as well as I do now, so the reports of buildings and strip malls burned to the ground were kind of anonymous to me. What did I know after all; I was a dutiful honors student that only left her hometown to take the SAT, to play the violin in orchestra competitions, and maybe to receive a commendation from the Goethe Institute.

The Chinese immigrants in my area were isolated from the rest of the Southland. They had their noses to the grindstone trying to raise children that would turn out fabulously wealthy. There was no time then to get to know Los Angeles, California, or even really America.

I don't think this was because the Chinese immigrants, and other Asian immigrants, were bad people. I think that they realized that their green cards were precarious things, able to be yanked away by the INS at any time. And the INS was famous for being a Terry Gilliam-like bureaucratic nightmare. For years, you could assume that any visit there would take between four and eight hours, most of which would be spent waiting in line or being bounced from one office to another. My college roommate once thought that she was going to be deported because she couldn't find her green card. Turned out an INS clerk had dropped it into her case file without realizing it, and the file had been put away in a cabinet.

Fear was a good reason for trying to grab as much of the American dream as one could, while they could. I mean, overseas they immunize you by gouging a little hole in your upper arm and putting the vaccination there. Imagine that! I can roughly tell, by looking at their upper arms, which of my friends immigrated after school age. The vaccination leaves a round scar the size of a dime. Sometimes I caught people staring at my scar-less arm with awe. You could read right on their face that they thought I'd lived a blessed life, since I'd obviously spent it all here.

It's pretty true. Unlike friends I've had, I've never had malaria. I did not escape Vietnam on a boat, didn't see a family member almost drown at sea. I am not missing a parent because the Khmer Rouge murdered him. My father never even saw combat growing up in Taiwan, or at least I don't think he did. My family didn't have to change their names to avoid being killed because of their ethnicity, although one side would have faced certain torture or murder if they hadn't left China after the civil war. There is that. And the other side is of an ethnicity which generally hates the first.

Yet comparatively I have been blessed. What do you do with such a blessing? A lot of older immigrants, understandably still traumatized and shell-shocked, cynically say that you should get money and lots of it, so much that you could protect yourself from any bad thing with it. Since when push comes to shove, no matter what country you're in, you get saved quickest if you're the richest.

I think that approach saves the body, but not always the soul. I sometimes envy people I know whose families don't mind, although they have seen as bad as mine or even worse, that their children do work which is not the absolute most profitable. They make some allowance for the well-being of the heart as well as the body. I've been blessed in some ways, but not in all the same ways that they have been.

comments (6)

Great post. I remember when the anthrax was wafting about my home town and people were wondering whether smallpox was next. Turns out that those who've been vaccinated against it also have this telltale scar on their upper arm. I found myself checking people out to see if they were doomed like me. Smallpox is one of the worst ways to die.

by anna at April 1, 2005 8:36 AM


Hmmm.. now I'm curious as to what my vaccination scar is. It's about the size of a pencil eraser on upper arm... maybe that's smallpox.

This is a wonderful post Jean. My family also has been blessed; Indians rarely emigrate to the States from any sort of persecution.

I didn't know you're a violinist too! Of course, since you're Asian, I should have known. :D

by snaggle at April 1, 2005 5:41 PM


That second to last paragraph is likely whats sends fear into the hearts of stupid white supremacists (that and one of their daughter's marrying a black guy). In the early years of this country waves of immigration, West-ward migration, and later moving from agricultural to an industrial society has kept people at all levels constantly wanting to grab as much as they could. But, once you hit the Pacific, or moved from the farm to the big city, people really had everything they needed. The Depression kept people striving for a while longer, but the "Greatest Generation" is the last generation of American-born people having to struggle for anything, really. But, this is why immigration is great - every dya there are boatloads of people arriving and they are hungry and motivated. They are the new pioneers, ready to conqueror new American frontiers, even if now that fronteir is just owning your own home or business and sending a kid to college.

by mg at April 1, 2005 6:00 PM


Thanks guys! Snaggle, I am guilty as charged. I even used to play piano, too. I didn't play either super well, but enough to have a lot of fun. A lot of my favorite classical composers are the same now as they were back then... must have been something about playing the piece. For any kid who has the interest, I would totally recommend teaching them a classical instrument. There's like no downside.

MG, I wonder what future Americans will be like. The question of what to do with yourself when you supposedly have everything has got to be one of the hardest to answer.

by jean at April 1, 2005 11:08 PM


Thanks guys! Snaggle, I am guilty as charged. I even used to play piano, too. I didn't play either super well, but enough to have a lot of fun. A lot of my favorite classical composers are the same now as they were back then... must have been something about playing the piece. For any kid who has the interest, I would totally recommend teaching them a classical instrument. There's like no downside.

MG, I wonder what future Americans will be like. The question of what to do with yourself when you supposedly have everything has got to be one of the hardest to answer.

by jean at April 1, 2005 11:42 PM


Oops... sorry about that!

by jean at April 1, 2005 11:45 PM



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