Sunday, 6 December 2009:
There’s a significant Asian community here in Austin, especially as the 50,000-student University of Texas, based in this city, attracts a huge number from across the Pacific. The community provides a ready market for supermarkets catering to its needs, one of which is “Mai Dan” – which I believe is the Vietnamese pronunciation of its proper name.
Mai Dan is located in a shopping area called Chinatown Center – actually a large carpark surrounded by 4 or 5 single-storeyed, unconnected buildings. The place grated me the wrong way the moment I saw it. There was a stereotypical Chinese arch out front with statues of three sages (or were they gods of fortune?) while the roof over the building housing Mai Dan was upturned at its corners. Both were marks of shallow orientalism.
Like Mai Dan, all the other shops catered to the Asian market. There were Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants, cellphone retailers, and a video store with nothing but Vietnamese movies.
Inside the supermarket itself, just about all the aisles were crammed full of stuff for a Chinese or Vietnamese lifestyle – many different grades of rice, soya sauce, bean paste, sesame oil and so forth. A few aisles were filled with things no Western supermarket would ever dream of. One had jars upon jars of creepy crawlies – it wasn’t clear to me if they were dead or alive, but edible they were meant to be. Another aisle offered many varieties of ancestral altars, censers, joss sticks and auspicious door plaques.
Where Western supermarkets had 100-metre walls lined with freezers for frozen foods, Mai Dan had a 50-metre wall lined with aquariums, from which you could pick your live fish, crab or eel. It was a world away from the antiseptic Western supermarket.
The management, supervisors and key personnel, e.g. butchers, were, as far as I could tell, all Vietnamese, speaking Vietnamese among themselves. The shelf stackers, cleaners and security guards were all Hispanic, speaking spanish among themselves. The division was so stark, I didn’t see a single exception to the rule.
Where are the African-Americans? They generally share the same poorer neighbourhoods as the Hispanics, so if Mai Dan was close enough for Hispanics to find work there, why not the African-Americans? The first explanation that comes to mind is that the Vietnamese owners refuse to hire Blacks. But might it also be that the Blacks didn’t even come looking for work?
* * * * *
I see in Monday’s Straits Times that Minister for Muslim Affairs, Yaacob Ibrahim spoke out about the social problems within the Malay-Muslim community. One sentence in the news story (Straits Times, 7 December 2009, Deaths of kids from broken homes a ‘wake-up call’) struck me:
His despair is almost palpable as he described how these tragedies are symptomatic of a deeper sociological problem and spells out the dangers of ignoring this long-standing problem of broken homes in the Malay community, saying it will lead to an underclass.
‘Once it emerges… you can never remove it,’ he warned, as he expressed his fear of the situation deteriorating and going the way of the blacks and Hispanics in the United States.
There is a world of difference between the situation of the Blacks and that of the Hispanics. Exceptions notwithstanding, Black communities are too often characterised by single-parent families, absent fathers, drugs, jail and a culture of non-achievement. Hispanic families are not like that, if one looks past the illegal immigrants who tend to be detached from their families and living in fear of the law. In settled Hispanic communities, the family structure is very strong. There do come across as culturally less demanding of achievement compared to other immigrant communities from Asia, and yes, they do have a gang culture at its margins, but it’s quite unfair to lump them with the African-Americans.
My sister teaches English as a second language to adult students from many different immigrant sources, and her observation is that immigrants who have chosen to come to America work very hard to get up the ladder, and this is true whether they come from Latin America or Asia. The slight difference is that Asian families tend to invest very heavily in education for the next generation, and for that, the parents work extremely hard. Hispanic parents also work very hard though their priorities may be somewhat different.
First generation immigrants differ from what she loosely termed ‘indigenous’ communities in terms of the jobs that people would take. Immigrants do the low-status dirty work if they have to. Perhaps because they are separated from their home communities by physical distance, it is easier for them to take on low-status work. In contrast, it is hard for ‘indigenous’ communities to do that, because the loss of face is too great. Their communities are right here in the US, not across the border.
By ‘indigenous’ communities, she meant both the Native Americans and the African Americans, the first tending to feel a sense of entitlement as the original inhabitants, the second still nursing a sense of victimhood, and thus an elliptical sense of entitlement (remedy) too. Instead of competing hard like the Asian and Hispanic immigrants, they seem to be waiting for a kind of justice.
The Straits Times also reported:
Meanwhile, [Yaacob Ibrahim] made a plea to better-off Malay-Muslims not to turn their backs on these families but ‘make it their mission in life to think about it, to write about it and explore solutions’.
The African-Americans who have made it to the middle class and beyond, according to my sister, likewise turn their backs on the underperforming ones. In fact, they may hold even more disdainful attitudes than Whites towards the ghetto Blacks. Their attitude is very easily summed up: They think the underperforming Blacks are plain lazy.
I would hasten to add that dysfunctional families and the cascade of problems that follow should not be so simplistically reduced to personal failure. Yaacob Ibrahim provided a similar caution:
However, he does not view their behaviour as a lack of morality, saying it is a sociological phenomenon.
There was one thing in the news story that I didn’t think was correct though. It was this:
[Yaacob Ibrahim] fears that should [having babies out of wedlock] become rooted, it would go the way of black and Hispanic Americans, where many girls get pregnant to get out of poverty because the state would then take care of them.
This may be true of many European countries, but I don’t think it is so in the United States.