-by Ernie Diaz
When it comes to minority suffering, none is as unsung as the suffering of the hyphenated Chinese: Chinese-American, Canadian, English. This is because their suffering is not often material, but always existential. They belong neither at home nor in the home of their fathers. Of course, none save the most ignorant tell them they don’t belong, but the signs are everywhere – the strange countrymen who ask them if they speak the language, the parents who struggle to contain them in alien molds, the rare and always painful portrayals on-screen.
The ever-growing feasibility of China has been drawing hyphenated Chinese here in like proportion for decades. Here their isolation swells then splinters, into bitter disillusionment. Tough to dig your roots when your long-lost cousins don’t even want you to teach them English. The hyphenated Chinese is just as strange to them as to his countrymen, only here his strangeness is of a less appealing, less exotic degree.
What can we say to you tormented hyphenated Chinese, when so few others even see a reason for compassion – “It builds character?” Take solace, if you can, in the strange case of two brothers, born and bred Chinese, but whiter than Howdy Doody.
Only on the surface, though, only a skin-deep little difference in reality, but then who among the masses sees more than skin-deep? Few at first, all too few, in China as in the West. Imagine those adorable little white devils up top, deep of eye and high of nose-bridge, in late 1960s PRC, out on a dairy farm in rural Shaanxi, where white people only existed on the end of bayonets in propaganda posters. Hyphenated Chinese kids often get picked last for kickball; the Engst brothers stopped traffic – bicycle traffic. The bell-ringing must have been mortifying.
“What kind of parents would do that to their children?” Another parent would easily wonder. Whatever else they were, they were not the stupid kind. Erwin Engst was a Cornell man, schooled in agriculture. Joan Hinton had worked on the Manhattan Project. Funny, with the History Channel and all, but many today are amazed that Americans growing up during the Depression, educated and unschooled alike, turned to socialism by the thousand, rather than waiting for a good war to turn the bank spigots back on so their kids could live in the space age. Think of those commies as the Occupy movement of the early 20th century, except in mortal danger from the Man. Steinbeck covers the subject epically.
So Erwin and Joan were one of those activist couples way right on the bell curve, who take drastic steps to validate their beliefs. Joan passed away a fervent Maoist, after the Chinese had all but disowned him and she was alone with the Shining Path. But like her Chinese immigrant analogs, she did her best to give her sons Bill and Fred English. And like their analogs, they just couldn’t see the point. To this day they speak it with Chinese accents and suspicious syntax.
People’s stories are so scantily told on that superficial level of national and linguistic identity, though. It is in the emotional realm of interfamily politics that personalities are shaped and fates decided. Older brother Fred was a model communist, unquestioning and authoritarian. All too happy to take close charge of his little brother’s political soul, he made an ongoing project of quelling Bill’s unseemly questioning of the status quo, his faithless tendency to always ask Why. The crucible on which their childhood relationship melted then hardened into one of adult antagonism came with the Cultural Revolution.
They came of age in the late 60s and early 70s, on the dark side of the moon. Capitalist kids had to contend with getting the car on Friday night and turning their rock records down. What the Engst brothers put up with as embodiments of the enemy they haven’t yet revealed, though we may hope for a memoir. Unlikely it will come from Fred. Bill revolted when the Party mobilized him for re-education on a tea farm. Only his big brother’s confidence in the Party’s divine authority swayed him.
Bill’s voice still cracks with emotion when recalling his time on the farm. Fred’s cracks too, but with fond nostalgia, when recalling the proletarian warmth of the wood factory where he worked while his brother plucked tea leaves. B.F. Skinner be damned – they were nurtured the same, so how else explain such varying natures? Bill lacked the communist gene.
Fred remained pure, even after both had moved back to the United States. “So what if you can speak up in the U.S.? If they speak up and being imperialist power, then still imperialism,” Fred says in his second tongue. “My brother probably doesn’t see that. I don’t know. That’s why we need to talk more.” They do their talking, much less acrimonious nowadays, mostly on Skype. Fred has been back in China since 2007, a university professor of economics.
In Fred’s endgame we come back to nature vs. nurture. For at no point does a hyphenated Chinese living in China revert to smoking on the stoop and cavorting about in hot weather with his wife-beater rolled up to expose his belly. And Fred, for all his years in America, never came to see the unmatched appeal of capitalism, consumerism, and all the flashy distractions they endow. Last year he spoke for the International League of Peoples’ Struggle, at their 4th International Assembly. At his following statements, westerners of authoritative faith will scoff, while the well-read will ponder.
“If there is a ‘trap,’ it is a trap that was set-up by imperialists. This is because the
multinationals are not interested in true development in Third World countries. They will try everything they can to prevent a Third World country from acquiring advanced technologies so that it could move up the industrial food chain into high value-added production, thereby becoming positioned to compete with the multinationals.”
“Although close to 80 percent of the industrial labor force works for the private sector,
some key industries in China – such as petrochemicals, coal and electrical energy, rail and air transportation, communication networks, banking and finance services, and other
monopolistic industries as well as military-related machine-building industries – are
controlled by the state; this enables these industries to focus less on quarterly profits and
more on longer-term projects, such as investment in infrastructural and strategic endeavors, with super-computers and the countrywide bullet train network as outstanding examples.”
“This is the irony of history! It took a period of independent socialist development first
– a break from the worldwide capitalist system – to make possible the indigenous capitalist development in a Third World country.”
You can download the entire essay here.