Chinese Diaspora
by Vivien Schweitzer
BBC News, March 3, 2005
For the large Chinese community living in the US, China's emerging economic and political power is a source of pride and strength.

"China is evolving at such a rapid pace. When they say something people listen, which engenders a significant level of pride in being Chinese," said Charlie Lai, co-founder of Manhattan's Museum of Chinese in the Americas.

"This spans the political divide - and when people talk about who they identify with, they don't necessarily identify with Hong Kong or Taiwan or China, they just say they are Chinese," he added.

Judy Zhang, a teacher who has been in the US for nine years, went back to her native Shanghai on holiday last summer. "I saw China blooming, and of course we Chinese overseas feel good when we see that China is strong," she said.

China's image in the American media has also improved.

Journalist Qin Lee, a reporter and news anchor with Sino Television said: "The image of China before was quite distorted, and the media focused only on human rights and Tiananmen Square. But now the American media also focuses on the positive aspects, like culture and the improving economic situation."

And conversely, she adds, people in China are learning more about the negative sides of life in America, especially from the internet. "Before, people thought everything about America was great, and now they know more about homelessness, for example," she said. "There is a much more balanced image of both countries."

Migrant dream

Despite the improving economic situation in China, immigration to the US has showed no sign of slowing down.

According to data derived from analysis by the Asian American Federation Census Information Center, there were more than 1.5m Chinese living in the US in 1990, compared with 2.3m in 2000.

But the rapid pace of change in China makes some expatriates feel like tourists when they return home. One man, who did not want to be named, came to the US from Shanghai in 1992, and says he is amazed at the "tremendous transformation" his home town has undergone.

"I first went back in 1996 and was quite disappointed, as there was a lot of pollution and the economy was not so good. Then I went back a year ago and that changed my view of China tremendously," he said. "Shanghai is a blooming city, and native Chinese like me now need a map to get around," he said.

Rainbow Lui, a 16-year-old student, moved to New York four years ago from Hong Kong, and she also said she was amazed at the rapid development during her absence. "When I go back to visit Hong Kong, I don't know how to get home from the airport, because the people and places are changing so fast," she said.

Cultural identity

America's Chinese community is keen to retain its distinct cultural identity - and even second generation immigrants try to remain true to their Chinese roots. William Dao, an associate at the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, was born in the US to Chinese parents, and is very proud of his cultural heritage. "I definitely feel more American, but my family instilled a lot of values and traditions and Chinese culture into me, and I try to retain as much of it as possible," he said.

Seventeen-year-old Cindy Yuan was born in China and moved to the US at the age of five. "I eat Chinese food every day and speak [Chinese] at home," she said.

Even Juntao Wang, a dissident, has fond memories of home. He spent four and a half years in a Chinese jail for his involvement in the pro-democracy movement, but despite his harsh treatment, he longs to return. The Chinese government has not yet granted him permission to do so, and he is currently studying at Columbia University.

Juntao Wang says his "mission in life" is to improve the situation in China. "The Chinese still think the motherland is a good country," he said. "It's good that the economic situation is improving," he added, "but that doesn't mean we can't make things better."

Charlie Lai agrees. "I think the economic link is really overriding some of the political concerns," he said. "It's about who is doing business with who, and can we make a buck."

And China's rising economic influence is certainly on the minds of many American business leaders. John Wang, president of the Manhattan-based Asian American Business Development Center says that US-China trade relations are "expanding dramatically".

"More and more US manufacturers are making their products in China because of low labour costs, but there are also more American businesses looking to enter the Chinese market and sell there," he said. "And China is also encouraging [its own] enterprises to move to the US market," he added.

And according to some people, that newfound economic power is what has made people in other countries notice the Chinese living in their midst.

"Because we have a powerful country we are getting more respect in the world," one man said.

Copyright BBC, 2005