Dosing Out Lessons Of Diversity
By Lydia Lum
My eyes were still adjusting to the auditorium lights flickering back on, as the crowd of young American soldiers swarmed me. I had just finished my slide-show talk about Angel Island — the Ellis Island of the West Coast and a major entry point for Chinese Americans. Most of the soldiers had never heard of Angel Island. They peppered me with questions. Why is Angel Island not in American textbooks? What are the feelings today of immigrants such as my great-uncle, who came through Angel Island and faced hatred and discrimination just because they were Chinese?
That’s when I realized I had stepped into a new realm. I was no longer just a journalist sharing photographs and first-person stories of my Chinese forebears who had immigrated to America before World War II. I was no longer just a guest speaker of the U.S. Army, hopscotching through tiny German towns and spoon-feeding troops a dose of diversity as if it was over-the-counter cough medicine. I had become an educator. It satisfied and terrified me all at once.
As a working journalist, I have always believed that we, the media, educate and influence the public. Sometimes I even used that belief to convince myself it was so important to “get the story” that we were justified in telephoning crime victims, camping outside embattled politicians’ offices well into the night, and photographing hospital patients in pain. Handling some of those stories over the years has not been easy. Sometimes I have felt so uncomfortable I have wondered why I have stayed in the business.
As I answered the soldiers’ stream of questions during my weeklong German tour, I was reminded why.
Journalists have the rare opportunity to witness and record history — from up close. We have the opportunity to shape that information into stories for people who are unable to witness it. We can question those in power and tell their stories and we can tell the stories of the underdogs who refuse to quit. The Angel Island story is one of those.
In 1998, I began freelancing a documentary project about the Chinese immigrants who came through Angel Island in San Francisco Bay between 1910 and 1940. Unlike Ellis Island, which Europeans considered a gateway, Angel Island was more like a prison. It was like the neighboring Alcatraz. There was no escape. At that time, White Americans were detaining and interrogating my Chinese elders under the old Chinese “exclusion laws.” Their purpose was to allow entry only to Chinese immigrants who could prove, under intense questioning, they were related to U.S. citizens. White Americans were trying to protect jobs they believed were their birthright. If Americans didn’t believe the immigrants’ citizenship claims, they deported them to China. My great-uncle, Raymond Lew, was one of the 175,000 Chinese who came through Angel Island. Today, he is one of fewer than 500 remaining survivors.
I have met and interviewed others like Uncle Raymond across this country. When I share their Angel Island recollections, I know I tell a story that is little-known in the general public about a generation of Chinese who immigrated long after the California gold rush ended and the transcontinental railroad was built. This discrimination against Chinese immigrants precedes the more widely known
internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
During my week in Germany, I told many Angel Island stories as I crisscrossed U.S. Army posts in tiny towns northwest of Frankfurt.
My audience of soldiers, mostly Blacks and Whites in their 20s and 30s, were full of questions as well as stories of their own. As I listened, I knew my talks were about far more than mere storytelling. This was education. Ideally, it’s knowledge that pushes students of all ages to think critically, to question, to search for answers and alternatives.
Lately, the hundreds of troops I met have been placed on high alert. Many can expect to be deployed on a moment’s notice to Afghanistan and the surrounding region. I hope that as the war against terrorism grows my little Angel Island talks will help them. Those teaspoons of diversity insight are better than none, especially when we are all in a continuing struggle to understand, accept and get along with one another.
— A longtime Black Issues correspondent, Lydia Lum is a frequent public speaker and is authoring a book about Chinese immigrants at Angel Island. She can be reached at email@example.com.
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