Response to Chinese-American Open Letters


Chinese version(中文版)

Referenced letters: Eileen, Yitao, Kalos

To Eileen, Yitao, Kalos, and the Chinese American Community,

My name is Matthew Shu, and I am a rising freshman at Yale University. Eileen, your letter reaffirmed to me why I have chosen to attend Yale, and I hope to collaborate with you in the future to achieve the changes we both call for. However, I disagree with parts of your letter and I worry that similar disagreements have distracted others in the Chinese American and wider Asian American community from accepting your premise and call to action. After reading Yitao’s and Kalos’ thoughtful responses, I hope to add my voice to this discussion.

Eileen, I do not agree with the mindset that “we owe everything” to Black Americans. When we make this claim, we’ve discounted our own agency in the fight to make America a more equal society. We’ve overlooked how Wong Kim Ark’s struggle cemented for all Americans the right to birthright citizenship. We’ve forgotten how Asian Americans in Lau v Nichols fought for “English as a Second Language” programs to become widespread in America’s public schools. The struggle against racism is not and has never been the struggle of Black Americans on one side and White Americans on the other, with everyone else on the sidelines rooting for a particular side. As you accurately point out, the protests in the aftermath of Vincent Chin’s murder represent a powerful moment of interracial cooperation. But he is not remembered by most Americans. Asian Americans are not the only ones who have forgotten this symbol of cooperation.

In this divisive atmosphere, Asian Americans have not been the only ones complicit in this “kind of silence” in the aftermath of heinous racist acts—from George Floyd’s murder to COVID-19-fueled xenophobia. We must chastise those in our community who stay silent, but in remembering our past, we must also clarify our message. What we owe Black Americans and other protesters today is not a debt, but rather, further cooperation in movements to create a better America.

Yitao, you are correct in calling out stereotypes against Chinese Americans. However, I believe you have fallen victim to similar stereotypes about other communities, as well as our own. When we attribute the general success of Chinese Americans as a product of our Chinese culture, we are implying the inferiority of Black and Hispanic cultures. By holding this viewpoint, we suggest that Chinese Americans are superior to others because of the cultural values we hold of self-reliance, hard work, and entrepreneurship. But as Kalos notes, are we then suggesting that other Americans do not place similar pride in these values? If so, why do second-generation Chinese immigrants in Spain have lower educational attainment than all other Spanish minorities [6]? Are Chinese Spaniards somehow deficient in the Chinese cultural values you claim as the primary reason for Chinese American success?

To properly explain the disparities in achievement between Chinese Americans and other minorities, we must understand the effects of starting points, ethnic capital, and racism. Eileen mentions the importance of 1965, the year a change in immigration policy led to increased preference for highly skilled and educated immigrants. While Chinese Americans have had a long and tumultuous history in America, most of us today have come to the country as a result of this act.

Yitao, I do not doubt you and all of our first-generation Chinese American parents have worked extremely hard to achieve the American Dream. As you stated, many first-generation Chinese Americans had little to fall back on when they arrived in America. However, it is crucial to note that despite this lack of material resources, many first-generation Chinese Americans had a valuable resource: prior education. 50% of Chinese American immigrants have a Bachelor’s degree or higher while only 4% do in China [5]. Meanwhile, only 5% of Mexican American immigrants have a Bachelor’s degree or higher while 17% do in Mexico. In the general American population, only 28% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Given how much we as a community value education as an indicator for future outcomes, wouldn’t you agree this hyper-selectively among Chinese American immigrants is an important factor in our collective success? Because such a large proportion of our community is highly educated, we are also better able to support children from less educated families by sharing community resources.

Unlike in America, only 40% of Chinese immigrants in Spain have even graduated high school, and less than 5% have a Bachelor’s degree or higher [6]. Only 11.7% of second-generation Chinese Spaniards are expected to obtain a university degree, compared to 21.4% across all ethnic minorities in Spain. Despite sharing the same home culture, there is a clear discrepancy in educational attainment between Chinese Spaniards and Chinese Americans. Chinese culture is an inadequate explanation for Chinese American success.

When we measure success by the change in education level relative to parents, it is actually second-generation Hispanic Americans who are the most upwardly mobile [3]. Unfortunately, this upward trend does not continue to third-generation Hispanic Americans. Immigrant optimism is a hypothesis in sociology explaining this statistical observation that for some ethnic and racial groups, 1.5 and second-generation Americans achieve the greatest educational success. There are two reasons for this idea. The first is that voluntary immigrants to America see adjustment issues as temporary and are more willing to find solutions to overcome the challenges faced. The second, more depressing, reason is that later generations of minorities have become disillusioned by the racism they have encountered as they strive for the American Dream.

Like Chinese Americans, Korean Americans are another ethnic group in America seen as a “model minority.” But in Japan, Koreans are targeted similarly to Blacks in America. In her novel Pachinko, Min-Jin Lee poignantly shows the damaging effects of this racism [4]. Here is an excerpt capturing this frustration in a Korean-Japanese child:

Mozasu knew he was becoming one of the bad Koreans. Police officers often arrested Koreans for stealing or home brewing. Every week, someone on his street got in trouble with the police. Noa would say that because some Koreans broke the law, everyone got blamed. On every block in Ikaino, there was a man who beat his wife, and there were girls who worked in bars who were said to take money for favors. Noa said that Koreans had to raise themselves up by working harder and being better. Mozasu just wanted to hit everyone who said mean things. In Ikaino, there were homely old women who cussed and men who were so drunk that they slept outside their houses. The Japanese didn’t want Koreans to live near them, because they weren’t clean, they lived with pigs, and the children had lice. Also, Koreans were said to be even lower than burakumin because at least burakumin had Japanese blood. Noa told Mozasu that his former teachers had told him he was a good Korean, and Mozasu understood that with his own poor grades and bad manners, those same teachers would think Mozasu was a bad one.

So the ** what? If the other ten-year-olds thought he was stupid, that was okay. If they thought he was violent, that was okay. If necessary, Mozasu was not afraid to clean out all the teeth right from their mouths. You think I’m an animal, Mozasu thought, then I can be an animal and hurt you. Mozasu did not intend to be a good Korean. What was the point in that?

In the responses to Eileen’s and Kalos’ letters, I have seen many point out this is not only a generational divide, and that many in my generation hold differing views as well. You are correct. This is not a generational issue. It is not so simple as declaring that all our parents are racists and that we, the second generation educated elite, are above prejudices and here to save our parents from racist beliefs. It is preposterous, however, to deny that many Chinese Americans are racist towards Black Americans. Almost all of us have heard or even used the term 黑鬼 (hēi guǐ - black devil) as a slur. The simple existence of this term is evidence for the prevalence of racism within the Chinese American community.

The line between stereotypes and useful generalizations is a thin one, and there are times we have all crossed this line. But by engaging in more of the thoughtful dialogue Eileen’s letter has generated, we can all work together to dismantle our prejudices and promote anti-racist thinking in order to create the more equal, more judicial, and greater America we all call for.

When Obama declared in 2004, “there’s not a black America and white America and Latino America and Asian America; there’s the United States of America,” he claimed our shared American identity mattered more than our differences [1]. Yet, in light of George Floyd’s murder, it is clear just how much divides our country today. Perhaps it is better to see Obama’s words as a promise, another in a long line of promises made by great Americans like Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. Progress takes time, but as James Baldwin expressed over forty years ago [2]: “How much time do you want for your progress?”

Yitao, I too, do not condone the violence and damage done to small businesses as a result of these riots. As you say, these actions are “totally counter productive to solving the problems.” However, it is important to make a distinction between rioters and protestors. We can not let the actions of the rioters drown out the voices of the many more protestors who will not tolerate waiting anymore. The actions of rioters speak to the severity of the issues, but we must not let the debate over these rioters derail the necessity of making meaningful contributions toward police reform and anti-racism.


Matthew Shu (束骏杰)


[1] B. Obama, “Barack Obama’s Remarks to the Democratic National Convention,” The New York Times, Jul. 27, 2004.

[2] K. Thorsen, James Baldwin: How Much Time Do You Want For Your “Progress?”

[3] G. Kao and M. Tienda, “Optimism and Achievement: The Educational Performance of Immigrant Youth,” Social Science Quarterly, vol. 76, no. 1, pp. 1–19, 1995.

[4] Min Jin Lee, Pachinko. Grand Central Publishing, 2017.

[5] J. Lee and M. Zhou, The Asian American Achievement Paradox. Russell Sage Foundation, 2015.

[6] J. Yiu, “Calibrated Ambitions: Low Educational Ambition as a Form of Strategic Adaptation Among Chinese Youth in Spain,” International Migration Review, vol. 47, no. 3, pp. 573–611, 2013, doi: 10.1111/imre.12037.