My parents would always say this to me when I was growing up. For those who can’t read Chinese (don’t worry, I can’t either, thank god for Google!), the proverb translates roughly to “Ride a cow while searching for a horse.” Now, they weren’t telling five-year-old me to go find a cow in New York City and roam around the streets to find a horse. Chinese proverbs tend to have a deeper meaning; what they were telling me is that I should work with what we have while continuing to look for something better.
To say that Chinese immigrants have had a rough time in the United States is an understatement. Angel Island was created to better enforce Chinese exclusion laws, many Asian immigrants were detained for inordinate periods only for them to get sent back home¹. They were paid 30-50% less compared to the white laborers building the transcontinental railroad and were responsible for paying for their own food² .
Growing up as a first generation Chinese American, my parents often repeated that proverb to remind me that, even though I may not have much or if I am down on my luck, I have to work with what I have ceaselessly moving forward. I attribute a lot of my own personal success to that mentality. While I am proud and happy with where I am today, I can’t help but reflect on the struggles that continue to persist within my community.
I think it’s easy to focus and indulge in the success of Asians in the United States. Asians have a higher median weekly income than any other group³ ; half of Asians in the US have a bachelor’s degree or higher⁴ ; and 61% of new immigrants have at least a Bachelor’s degree⁵. But I believe that success stories often overshadow the problems in the community in which they come from.
Here are some harrowing statistics:
- Asians in the United States have the largest inequality gap between the high earning Asians and the lowest⁶ .
- Asians Americans are the most impoverished group in New York City⁷.
- Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, unemployment for Asian Americans rose by 6,900% compared to last year’s (147,000 compared to 2,100)⁸ .
Speaking from my own experience, lots of the Chinese elderly (those who didn’t have the opportunity to learn English and get a high paying job) are the most affected group in the city. If you take a walk in congested areas around New York City, it’s almost impossible to not come across an elderly woman/man pushing a cart or carrying large garbage bags filled with cans and bottles. More often than not, they’re struggling to make ends meet; they’re trying to pay for rent, food, and whatever money they have left goes to their family members. These are just some of the many topics that continue to affect Asian Americans in the city.
While I think it’s very important that we honor and celebrate our successes, it’s equally important, if not more, that we continue to support our community members and provide them with a plethora of services that will help them. Personally, I believe that there needs to be more funding for community-based organizations in low-income neighborhoods to help address the issues affecting them. As a community, we need to continue to voice our opinions and advocate on the issues that matters most.
- Judy Yung ,”The Chinese Exclusion Act and Angel Island: A Brief History with Documents”, Bedford/St. Martin, September 28, 2018, 19
- Lesley Kennedy, “Building the Transcontinental Railroad: How 20,000 Chinese Immigrants Made It Happen” History.com, April 20, 2020, https://www.history.com/news/transcontinental-railroad-chinese-immigrants
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, “The Economics Daily, Asian women and men earned more than their White, Black, and Hispanic counterparts in 2017”, Bureau of Labor Statistics, August 29, 2018, U.S. Department of Labor, https://www.bls.gov/opub/ted/2018/asian-women-and-men-earned-more-than-their-white-black-and-hispanic-counterparts-in-2017.htm
- Abby Budiman, Anthony Cillufo, and Neil Ruiz, “ Key facts about Asian origin groups in the U.S.”, Pew Research Center, May 22, 2019, Pew Research Center, https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/05/22/key-facts-about-asian-origin-groups-in-the-u-s/
- Pew Research Center, “The Rise of Asian Americans”, April 04, 2013, Pew Research Center, “https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2012/06/19/the-rise-of-asian-americans/
- Rakesh Kochar and Anthony Cillufo,“ Income Inequality in the U.S. Is Rising Most Rapidly Among Asians” Pew Research Center, July 12, 2018, https://www.pewsocialtrends.org/2018/07/12/income-inequality-in-the-u-s-is-rising-most-rapidly-among-asians/
- Victoria Tran, “Asian Americans are falling through the cracks in data representation and social services”, Urban Institute, June 19, 2018, https://www.urban.org/urban-wire/asian-americans-are-falling-through-cracks-data-representation-and-social-services
- Shannon Liao, “Unemployment claims from Asian Americans have spiked 6,900% in New York. Here's why”, CNN.com, May 1, 2020, https://www.cnn.com/2020/05/01/economy/unemployment-benefits-new-york-asian-americans/index.html