Chinese Girl in the Ghetto

A politically incorrect memoir by Ying Ma.

Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Ying Ma, a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace at Stanford University. She is the author of the new book, Chinese Girl in the Ghetto , which has been endorsed by Ward Connerly, Founder and President of the American Civil Rights Institute and the man who has led the fight to end state-sponsored racial quotas and preferences across the country; and by Xiao Qiang, Adjunct Professor at the University of California at Berkeley and a prominent Chinese human rights activist.

FP: Ying Ma, welcome to Frontpage Magazine.

Tell us about your new book.

Ying Ma: Thank you Jamie.

The book, at its most basic level, is a story about a little girl’s journey from the insidiousness of Chinese authoritarianism to the horrors of inner-city America. The story begins in China in the late 1970s, where economic reforms are rapidly transforming the country into a more hopeful, more colorful place, and where our protagonist immerses herself in a world of fantasy and foreign influences while grappling with the mundane vagaries of Communist rule. In the mid-1980s, she happily immigrates to Oakland, California, expecting her new life to be far better in all ways than life in China. Instead, she discovers crumbling schools, unsafe streets, and racist people. In the land of the free, she comes of age amid the dysfunction of a city’s brokenness and learns to hate in the shadows of urban decay. The book is a story about her journey and how she prevailed.

FP: And that little girl is you, you’re the Chinese girl in the ghetto.

YM: Yes, the book is autobiographical. It is about my family’s journey from Guangzhou, China’s third largest city, to inner-city Oakland, California.

FP: On your website, you refer to the book as “a politically incorrect memoir.” What makes it politically incorrect?

YM: The book is politically incorrect mainly in a couple of ways. For one, it makes clear, through my experiences, that racial minorities are capable of profound racism. As you know, this is a politically incorrect thing to say because our political culture often views minorities, especially blacks and Hispanics, as victims of racism who are incapable of being racists. When individuals from these groups commit racist acts, people have a tendency to look away. This is outrageous not only for the targets of racism, but it is also unfortunate for those behaving in a racist manner because they’re never held to the same standards of personal responsibility and decency as others. In my book, I don’t look away, and my hope is that the book will help shatter the hypocrisy and the soft bigotry of low expectations commonly found in this country’s racial discourse.

FP: Tell us some other ways in which your book is politically incorrect.

YM: The political correctness that prevents people from acknowledging ghetto racism has a flip side:  it advocates special treatment for racial minorities. Both are premised on the assumption that certain racial minorities are perpetual victims who can never stand on their own two feet.

My book delivers a very different message. It tells a story about an immigrant family that arrives in America without English skills or financial resources. The parents work in menial jobs, at first earning less than minimum wage. Their two children wear clothing purchased from Goodwill or handed down from their relatives. The family uses second-hand furniture and at first, each of the children sleeps on half of a bed—one on the mattress and the other on the box springs. But five years after arriving in America, the family achieves home ownership, albeit in a bad neighborhood. A few years after that, one of the children makes her way into an Ivy League university.

There is nothing inevitable about this story. At each stage, someone exercises a personal choice. The mother who was once a school teacher in China chooses to become a seamstress in a sweatshop in America instead of letting her children go hungry. The daughter chooses to study day and night instead of skipping school or otherwise spending time “on the streets.” The family chooses to save for home ownership rather than splurging on fancier clothing or better snacks. Because of their choices, this family makes its way out of an impoverished and crime-filled ghetto.

I hope that after reading this story, people will recognize that no matter how underprivileged a child is in America, this country is a land of abundant opportunities and one can succeed without racial preferences, pandering from politicians, an endless slew of government handouts or all the supposed benefits sought by the racial grievance industry.

A story like this should not be politically incorrect, but if you think about the policy implications of the story, then many of our public policies based on the ideology of victimhood look a lot like hogwash. In many ways, these implications are perhaps even more politically incorrect than an honest discussion of ghetto racism.

FP: On ghetto racism, can you tell us more about how Asians come in contact with it and how you yourself have experienced it?

YM: It is quite common for Asians who are in America’s major urban centers to be at the receiving end of racism. For me growing up in Oakland, encountering racism from blacks, and to a lesser extent, Hispanics, was a regular phenomenon, and a daily occurrence in junior high and high school. Asian people—Chinese, Vietnamese, Korean or Filipino—are frequently berated as “Chinamen” and threatened or attacked physically. While Asians certainly are not immune to racist attitudes themselves—one would be hard pressed to find an older Asian immigrant who would be thrilled if his daughter brought home a black man, Asians usually keep their attitudes private. This does not make the racist attitudes any less unfortunate (and these attitudes do improve over time, especially with younger Asians who grow up in this country), but they are clearly distinguishable from the very public and often physical humiliations that other racial minorities regularly inflict on Asians. For instance, rarely would you see Asians screaming racial epithets at black people in public places, or threatening to inflict, or actually inflicting, bodily harm against someone because he is black.

FP: Share with us the bodily harm you are talking about.

YM: There are countless examples of troubling black-on-Asian violence, but let me just offer a short list from the year 2010. In April, two black teenagers punched a Chinese immigrant, 59-year-old Tian Sheng Yu, in the mouth in downtown Oakland. He fell on his head, spent the next few days in critical care, and subsequently died. The same two teenagers assaulted the victim’s 27-year-old son before and after they assaulted the father. Between late March and early April of the same year, five black teenagers assailed five older Asian women, including one who was 71 years old, on separate occasions in or near a public housing project on the Lower East Side of New York City. In late March, five black teenagers surrounded a 57-year-old Asian woman at a light rail bus stop in San Francisco; one of them grabbed her and threw her from the platform onto the rails before beating her. The criminals in each of these cases acted for no apparent reason aside from the satisfaction of perpetrating a beating.

My book does not focus on these crimes, but the crimes I mention here took place when I was working on my book, and I note in the book’s introduction that my writing was very much animated by the grotesqueness of the attacks and the eagerness with which elected politicians, community leaders and members of the media dismissed or denied the racial element of the crimes.

FP: Expand a bit on black-on Asian racist crimes and crime that is racially motivated.

Ma: I hope that my book will bring attention to the plight of everyone, not just Asian people, who suffer from the ugliness of the ghetto. And of course not every incident of black-on-Asian crime is racist.

This issue of black-on-Asian violence is complicated, but we shouldn’t be afraid to tackle it. First, let’s break it down. There is crime, there is crime plus racism, and then there’s just racism. Sometimes, the crime has nothing to do with racism. For example, a criminal simply wants to rob somebody and he doesn't care who it is, so he robs the first black, white or yellow person whose wallet is potentially full.

But is it really that simple? On a lot of occasions, Asians feel that they're the target of crimes because they're Asian or because of the characteristics commonly associated with being Asian (e.g., smaller in size, more likely to carry cash in their pockets, less likely to fight back, don't speak English and are less able to seek help from law enforcement officials, etc.). So when criminals target them, they’re doing racial profiling, criminal-style. Are the crimes that result racist? Well, race is definitely an intrinsic part of it, even if it's an unarticulated or subconscious part. At a minimum, such crimes are racially motivated, and there's something really disingenuous about dismissing any racial element whatsoever when crimes like these are perpetrated.

Now when you throw in crimes that do not have a profit motive or does not create an tangible benefit for the criminal, then it becomes a much more serious race matter. If the criminals are not after money or sex, why are they just beating up yellow people? In the aftermath of the black-on-Asian crimes that I’ve listed for 2010, quite a few public figures argued that some of the attacks could not have been racially motivated because the assailants had previously attacked black people too. But one can be a thug and a racist; the two are not mutually exclusive; and we should stop pretending that they are.

This leads us back to my book. As I describe in my book, ghetto racism encompasses both the criminal and non-criminal. When non-criminal, racist behavior takes place in the ghetto frequently, without anyone batting an eye, one must ask: at what point does this non-criminal racism motivate a racist crime? In my book, I talk about getting into a fight with a Mexican girl in junior high school. I’m sure she wasn’t planning to get into a fight with a nerdy Asian girl like me; she was just being a racist and expected me to put up with it like every other Asian girl at our school. When I did not, violence ensued. So the question is: if you're a teenager and you grow up in an environment where it's okay to discriminate against Asian people, are you really going to think twice about punching a “Chinaman” for no reason? Probably not.

What I emphasize in the book is that it is crucial discuss race issues honestly. If a crime is racially motivated, we should not be afraid to say so. Certainly, strong and cohesive families, good schools and tight-knit communities go a long way to combating racism and crime, but I also hope that people will recognize that in the imperfect world where all or some of these ingredients are missing, it is important for all of us, particularly authority figures like teachers, parents and elected officials, to denounce racism, no matter who is perpetrating it.

FP: You have written about race issues before, and some of your readers have accused you of being racist against black people. How do you respond to these critics?

YM: Well, their accusations are premised on the same preposterous assumptions that plague this country’s racial discourse. A lot of people, especially those on the left, seem to think that just because you criticize certain black people or the behavior of certain black people, you are automatically a racist. So we see these accusations leveled at the critics of President Barack Obama. In this narrative, Tea Party activists must be racists because they cannot possibly oppose a black president for reasons other than his race. Similarly, some people refuse to believe that I can criticize black people for behaving reprehensibly in the ghetto without somehow harboring racist attitudes toward all black people.

What we should ask ourselves is, what’s more racist: holding black people to the same standards and expectations of personal responsibility as we would for any other racial group or pandering to them with low expectations? In my book, some of the people who repeatedly exhort blacks to do better, whether academically or in other ways, are the black teachers in the ghetto. Maybe they know something that our politically correct culture does not.

FP: In your book, some of the most touching and positive portrayals are of black people.

YM: Absolutely, I could not have gotten out of the ghetto intact without the goodwill and assistance offered by others, including many who were black. For example, I am grateful to my fifth grade instructor, who looked after me and made sure that I was promoted to the only “gifted” class in my school. I also write about one of my black classmates. She and I met on the first day that I stepped foot into a public elementary school in America. When, three years later in junior high, I got into a fistfight with a Mexican girl who discriminated against me, everyone of my Asian friends disappeared, and this black girl was the only one who tried to intervene on my behalf.

I think that my book makes clear that human decency and cowardice exists in every race. Recognizing that reality, rather than trying to silence valid criticisms of bad behavior, would be a far healthier way to conduct political debates and go about addressing social problems.

FP: Speaking of cowardice and your Asian classmates, your book is quite critical of Asians. Tell us more about that.

YM: Where racism is concerned, everybody bears responsibility. In my book, the racists are condemned for behaving in a racist fashion, but the targets of racism are also criticized for not speaking out and not fighting back. As a teenager growing up in the ghetto, I resented being called a “Chinaman” every single day, but I resented even more deeply the “Chinamen’s” silence before racism. More often than not, I joined in this silence, but as I write in the book, I loathed our choice, our shame.

I’m not advocating that every nerdy Asian schoolboy should get into a fistfight with a racist who happens to be twice his size, and I do understand that the fear of physical confrontation is very real. Just look at Mr. Tian Sheng Yu, who died because he stood up to the thugs who punched his son in Oakland. With that said, there are ways that people can speak out and take action without endangering their personal safety. Silence before racism will never lead to personal dignity.

FP: Your book describes the difficult circumstances that you faced as an immigrant. Certainly, numerous Asian immigrants face similar difficulties when they arrive in the United States. Would you advocate racial preferences for Asians?

YM: Absolutely not. I oppose preferences for every racial group. I believe that Asians and all other racial minorities are capable of competing without special treatment from the government or pandering from politicians. Just because you don’t come from a wealthy family does not mean that you cannot excel. Certainly, plenty of Asians do not agree with me. In 1996, I served as a staff member on the California Civil Rights Initiative Campaign (CCRI), a ballot initiative that ended state-sponsored race-based and gender-based quotas and preferences. During the campaign, I worked with a number of leaders and activists in the Asian community to seek passage of the initiative. Yet about four years later, some of these very same leaders and activists eagerly sought hiring preferences for Asians from the George W. Bush administration. It dawned on me then that they were never interested in equal rights and equal treatment before the law; they just didn’t like the absence of quotas and preferences for Asian people. It was quite unfortunate.

Again, my book does not make any policy recommendations, but I would not want anybody to read my book and walk away thinking that just because hardship exists in the immigration experience, the solution is to dole out more race-based preferences or handouts.

FP: Let’s return to what you said earlier about personal choices. You believe that exercising choice is a form of personal responsibility, including for those who live in the ghetto. This proposition makes your book quite politically incorrect. Please comment.

YM: Ultimately, everyone, no matter his race or ethnicity, needs to take responsibility for his own actions. If we lived in a society where there’s no social mobility, where hard work amounts to nothing and initiative is not rewarded by success, then perhaps it would be valid to think about intrusive social engineering to bring about a more equal society. But everybody has a choice in this country. One can blame society for being unfair and history for having wronged him or his ancestors, and we can all make excuses for ourselves, but in the end, everyone has a choice to choose decency over hate, to get a job instead of deal drugs, to go to school rather than beat up strangers on the streets. Sometimes the choice is not easy, but advocating the need to take responsibility for your choices should not be a controversial proposition. Unfortunately, our political discourse is so corroded by the language of racial grievance that common sense often winds up sounding controversial or racist.

FP: We have been talking thus far about your stories from the ghetto, but half of your book is actually set in China and offers an intimate portrayal of daily life under post-Mao authoritarianism. How does your discussion of China relate to your discussion of the ghetto?

YM: The best writing of this book actually appears in the China half, and I would recommend it for anyone who wishes to learn more about modern China. While my stories from the ghetto are jarring and ugly, my stories from China are joyful and charming. Yet even in the middle of all the joy and charm, the Chinese government intrudes into the lives of its ordinary citizens, and authoritarianism always rears its ugly head at a time of its choosing. By describing my life in China, I offer a contrast between an authoritarian political system and our own. Here in America, the government does not intrude into its citizens’ lives as the Chinese government does, but life in America can be far from perfect. So in my story, I morph from a carefree and happy child living in Communist China to a foul-mouthed teenager fighting against the shadows of an American ghetto. In the end, I prevail because, as I’ve said earlier, America offers boundless opportunities for a better life, but I hope that my description of life in China will force my readers to think more about freedom and the choices it makes available.

Given everybody’s obsession with China these days, my book probably would sell much better had I written about China alone and skipped any references to the unpleasant reality in the ghetto. One of the rewards of freedom, however, is that one gets to speak her mind. I have tried to do that in my book. I will leave it up to my readers—and the market--to decide whether that was wise.

FP: Ms. Ma, thank you for joining us today.

YM: Thank you.

FP: For all of our readers, Ying Ma’s book, Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, is available for purchase on Order it here.


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