Forming a Chinese identity when everyone else is either black or white.

Author:Jung, John
Position:5J Paper

Ethnic identity (1) involves the cultural aspect of an individual's sense of self. These beliefs attitudes, and values are acquired to a large extent from experiences of interacting with others from one's own ethnic background, especially during the early formative years. For example, American-born Chinese growing up in a place like San Francisco with a large Chinese community, form a Chinese identity because they live, play, and attend school and church with mostly Chinese friends and family in Chinatown and nearby areas. But is the process of forming ethnic identity different in its characteristics when the only available contact with people of one's ethnicity is limited to one's parents and siblings, as was the case for me growing up in the Deep South as a member of the only Chinese family in town?

The Chinese in the South were severely isolated as there were only 190 Chinese men and 55 women living in the entire state of Georgia in 1930. My parents came to America in the late 1920s and ran a laundry in Macon, near the geographical center of Georgia. It had a population of about 55,000 when I grew up during the 1940s. We were the only Chinese in Macon at that time although there had been three Chinese laundrymen and as many as eleven Chinese in 1908, but they had all left by the time my parents arrived. When we eventually left Macon by the mid-1950s, there was not a single Chinese left in town.

Growing up, I learned from my parents that there were a few other Chinese in the South, more or less as isolated as we were. These Chinese laundrymen had come from the same Taishan villages of Guangdong province. As a child, I thought it curious that Chinese immigrants in the South, many of them relatives of my father, were also in the laundry business. Thus, nineteen or twenty of the male descendants of my great-great-grandfather came to own or operate Chinese laundries in Georgia, Alabama, and Tennessee, starting from about 1915 until the 1960s, with one still operating. Five of his grandsons, and eleven of his great-grandsons left China to escape economic hardship in the early part of the last century and ended in the Deep South running laundries. This could hardly have happened by chance. Most likely, the first of his descendants to leave China headed for the South because he had either a relative or a friend from his village there who helped him get settled, and, in turn, he assisted other relatives to come to the South.


The Deep South is infamous for its long history of racial segregation and violence against blacks. Fortunately, as a child 1 was not exposed to or aware of the extremely violent forms of racism toward blacks, and in a few instances toward Chinese, that occurred in the South. However, I was well aware of racial segregation and Jim Crow traditions because it was so apparent in all forms of daily interactions that favored whites over blacks. Drinking fountains, public toilets, schools, movie theatres, and bus seating sections were strictly segregated.

But Chinese are neither black nor white, so how did our family fit in in Macon? The townspeople, black and white alike, often treated us as foreigners, approaching us with some mixture of curiosity, hostility, superiority, and ridicule. Since there were only six members of our family, most Maconites were unlikely to have acquired their knowledge and attitudes about Chinese from direct interactions with them.

Media played a larger role in shaping their images and attitudes toward Chinese. For example, in 1908 the local newspaper (2) announced the New Year's celebration by Macon's "celestials," as Chinese were called then, focusing on foods from China such as "dried fish with staring eyes," bird's nests, and other delicacies (see Figure 1). This mocking tone toward Chinese customs encouraged racial...

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