Chinese Girl in the Ghetto – a gifted young woman in the slum of Oakland

Ying Ma
Ying Ma

“Chinese Girl in the Ghetto” tells a story of a family that left China for America, and ended up in the slum of Oakland, California. I’ll talk about the ironies, but first lets look how bad the experience was:

China was a totalitarian country, and so the girl of the family, Ying Ma, starts the book by saying she’d like to talk about the “freedom” that we have here but as she was writing the book saw headlines that “two black teens punched a Chinese man, 59 year old Tian Sheng Yu, in the mouth in downtown Oakland. Tian fell on his head, and eventually died. In the same year, five black teens assailed five older Asian women, including one who was 71 years old. Black teens kicked and beat 83-year-old Huan Chen after he got off a bus. He died too.

The story has ironies.   In China, Ying Ma’s rule-abiding eagerness delighted her teachers. She was rewarded with a captain’s badge. Her school encouraged peer scrutiny of the lazy and disobedient. At one point some students started a Martial Arts group, and invited her to join. When the school found out about it, it was considered a gang and illegal. When a student told the teacher that the captain (Ying) had also been in the gang, she denied it, and a boy lied to protect her. Why did her school get so unhappy with an off-campus activity?  Ying explains that “The state was suspicious of organized activity springing up outside its purview.”

Its ironic that the adults who students trust, and who reward “good” behavior, can be encouraging bad behavior, like snitching on what is a innocent activity in any free country.

Ying Ma’s new home, Oakland California, had storefronts with shattered windows, streets full of potholes, and bridges and tunnels splashed with graffiti. The department stores smelled of urine. There were iron window bars on the liquor stores. Apartment dwellers had their belongings spill beyond their front doors in plastic bags.

And there were the homeless. Some of these approached her parents asking for money. The parents did not give money, and at times the panhandlers “followed us for half a block, other times they yelled obscenities or racial slurs.”

Teens crept up behind Ying’s Grandmother to frighten her. Ying’s uncles got beaten and robbed.  Ying did not dare to go out after dark.

Ying Ma’s father was a senior mechanic in China, but in the US he worked for less than minimum wage as a manual laborer. In the US he worked for Chinese employers, some who treated him badly.

Then Ying went to school. She was stolen from and notes that “In China, all classmates understood stealing to be shameful. Not here.” And the adults would not punish the young thieves – (my thought: maybe they were afraid of the parents, or did not have the backup of our legal system or the school administration.)

“The walk to junior high took less than fifteen minutes, but it felt like an eternity. ” Ying Ma dreaded the walk. “I hated the frequent violence, the constant racism, my shabby clothing, and the shallowness of adolescence.”

In school classmates resented her because she answered questions they could not, scored better, wore thick glasses and was not interested in their adolescent games or flirtations with one another.

“Racism, which had been a minor issue in elementary school, was a constant presence in junior high. Numerous black students regularly screamed racial epithets at their Asian counterparts. “”Ching Chong,” “Chinaman,” and “Chow Mein” became our names.”
Sometimes Asians were physically assaulted.  “No one ever doubted who would win in a fight.”

She did not think much of her peers. “Other girls my age gossiped incessantly. I was not interested. They obsessed over makeup and hair. I did not have money for the former or the patience for the latter…Everyone else loved movies and television and idolized celebrities. I had never been to a movie in America and considered celebrities and celebrity worship moronic.”

She was comfortable with gifted black students – from them she received no racial slurs or physical confrontation. “Perhaps our nerdiness brought us together.”

She managed to get into a public high school in the hills, supposedly the best in the city. The bus from her area was packed with black, brown, and yellow people. The back of the bus belonged to the black students. They threw paper balls, candy wrappers, assorted junk, racial slurs, and profanity at the “Chinamen” in the front or in the middle.

The “Chinamen” ignored them and discussed Hong Kong movies or actors.

Ying Ma was very good at math and other subjects. On her own she started reading Ayn Rand, John Steinbeck, John Locke, Machiavelli, and the Federalist papers. It took her to a “world of ideas as fascinating as the inner city was ugly.”

She got a scholarship to Cornell University in a pretty area of upstate New York. When she went home for vacations, like her parents, she had to live with “the gunshots, the racism, the indignities, and threats and the fear.”

As she studied for the New York Bar Exam, her father made the mistake of “driving up to the stop sign by our corner liquor store with his windows rolled down. As his car stopped, a group of teenage girls descended upon him. Several ran to the driver’s side of the car to beat him on the face and shoulders and head. The rest ransacked the glove compartment.”
Ying’s father managed to drive away, not seriously injured. But no one reprimanded the girls or called the police.

Ying’s family finally had the finances to move into a new house on a safe and quiet street in a neighborhood where “the grass is green and the birds are chirpy.” They can plant a garden, can take walks whenever they want to. Says Ying: “twenty years after our arrival in America, we were finally free.”

So now, lets notice some ironies. The first is that in a free country, many people in our extensive slums are really not free – not free of fear, for example. The slums also reach out and attack the suburbs sometimes.
There is a basic lack of understanding of the pathology of our bad neighborhoods. There is a church in Phoenix that recently encouraged its members to give up their homes in safe friendly neighborhoods, and to move into a slum, as a kind of witness to Christianity. And their members are indeed doing that. They should have read Ying Ma’s book first.

Then there are our courts that tried to repair the inner-city situation by busing students from good neighborhoods to bad schools in the inner-city and vice-versa. When this was tried in Boston it caused havoc:

Busing riots awake hatreds
Busing riots awake hatreds

Images from the riots of 1974 still sear. Stanley Forman won the Pulitzer Prize with his unforgettable photograph of a black man being rammed with an American flag outside Boston City Hall.

‘The plan that Garrity imposed upon the city was punitive in the extreme,’ write Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom in ”America in Black and White,” their essential 1997 book on race relations. ‘Indeed, the judge’s advisers and the state Board of Education believed that those against whom it was directed – in their eyes, localist, uneducated, and bigoted – deserved to be punished. The plan thus paired Roxbury High, in the heart of the ghetto, with South Boston High, in the toughest, most insular, working-class section of the city.

Apart from the dumb idea that kids are better off spending an hour in a bus rather than walking to school, the plan didn’t help the minority students achievement scores.

Those of us who live in safe neighborhoods pay a price for what goes on in the bad neighborhoods. The slum dwellers who bother to vote generally vote for whatever politician blames their problems on other people (such as “the rich”), which means that the problems do not get addressed. We have to work in cities that are dangerous to commute through at night, and since darkness falls early in the winter, there is no avoiding the night. A few of us get killed, including several incidents I’ve heard of students being shot or knifed at ivy-league colleges like Yale, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, etc.

And a final irony. Totalitarian China did its bit to make the American inner-city worse: two weapons firms, the China Northern Industrial Corp., also known as Norinco, and Polytech, tried to ship 2,000 AK-47 rifles with a street value estimated at $4 million to the US. “The…weapons were headed for street gangs in cities across America, said Michael Yamaguchi, U.S. attorney for Northern California”.

I should say that Ying Ma did get along very well with a rainbow of multiracial fellow workers at a job during her school years at a movie theater, and she did get along with the more motivated black students.  She did not come to the US with any preconceptions about slums in America, and she got a rough education. Many of the racist and nasty young people she met will grow up to be nasty adults, and many will fail to hold a steady job. The pathologies will just grow.

My feeling is, that something should be done apart from throwing money at the problems in our inner cities. We’ve thrown a huge amount since President Johnson’s “Great Society” initiative. Maybe some of it helps. Much of it does not.
Also, there is no reason that young people who want to learn, and be a constructive part of society, should have to undergo all the tension and humiliation and fear that many of them do undergo in our schools and neighborhoods.  If going to school is such a negative experience, then maybe alternatives should be found.

Sources: – on the arms dealers who tried to arm gangs
Chinese Girl in the Ghetto – by Ying Ma (2011) – on the Boston busing riots


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