In Praise of Immigrants

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Saturday was the Lunar New Year – year of the Rooster – time for action! I had a few hours on Saturday morning available, and thought it would be fun to go draw the Chinese New Year celebration downtown. What a party! The tradition lion-dragon dancing from storefront to storefront to collect the little red envelopes of luck, with drums beating and symbols clashing behind, to ward off evil spirits. What could be better than that? I’ll tell you what – English style poppers exploding confetti all over the streets! The joyful atmosphere was a nice distraction from the contentious political atmosphere of the last week.

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An what a fantastically happy event it is in New York City! I look forward to it every year, and not only for the bakery fare. ;) There were Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans out in force, as well as New Yorkers and tourists of all nationalities and ethnic backgrounds. It was a true celebration not only for the Chinese New Year, but also a celebration of culture, the famous “melting pot” that is New York City and by extension, the United States. How ironic, as this party was going on, that other immigrants and visitors to America at John F. Kennedy airport, only a few miles away, were being detained.

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While the different clubs and Chinese organizations were preparing for the festival the day before, President Trump was signing an executive order installing a temporary travel ban on visitors and refugees from seven specific nations. The American immigration law of 1965 specifically prohibits exclusion for immigrants to America based on country of origin or religion, yet this executive order seems to be founded on just that – the executive order “severely restricts immigration from seven Muslim countries, suspends all refugee admission for 120 days, and bars all Syrian refugees indefinitely.” [quoted from The Atlantic, see article HERE.] Syria, Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Yemen are the countries affected – and the “indefinite” restriction is on refugees from the worst humanitarian crisis of our times going on now in Syria.

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As I look at this drawing of a grandmother in her wheelchair, touching the lion dancer for luck, I think about family and respect, so important to the Chinese cultural tradition. This executive order will keep families separated, or create separations which didn’t before exist. It feels so un-American, and cruel. It reminds me of another cruel immigration law from way back – the Chinese Exclusion Act. An 1882 law that prohibited all immigration of specifically Chinese laborers. 1882. Yes, you read that right. Do we really want to bring that kind of thinking back?

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The rationale for the Chinese Exclusion Act at the time sounds quite similar (to me) to the rationale for the famous WALL that the President wants to build along our southern border. The administration of Chester Arthur in 1882 wanted to protect American jobs after the Civil War – and so the Chinese laborers, who had built the western part of the trans-continental railroad – were scapegoated as the ones taking American jobs. Never mind the poverty related humanitarian crisis going on in the Guangdong province at the time, it was “America First” in 1882, as our current president wants it now (to quote his inaugural address.)

Fortunately the law was overturned partly during WWII, and then wholly in 1965. And the Chinese immigrants who came to America have assimilated into American culture, and brought so much, without losing their unique identity in the process. After all, what could be more American than a Friday night spent at the movies, with dinner at a Chinese restaurant? I would love to see the day when tourists flock to New York City to take part in the Eid celebration like they do for the lunar New Year.

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As the celebration started winding down, people were strolling along the confetti covered Mott Street. Chinese-American families gathered around their children, who were fighting with poppers and strutting in their brocade finery. Tourists were enjoying dim sum and taking copious photos of the brocaded children and the occasional lion-dragon winding down the street. (Which is is exactly –  a lion or a dragon? I asked my Chinese students in class yesterday but could not get a definitive answer! haha) And as I sat in a bakery eating a moon cake, I was reading on Twitter about the protests forming at airports across America, to release the travelers held by the executive order.

It my be up to the citizens of the US to uphold our American ideals. We may not have always done a great job of immigration in the past – but I hope that someday Americans don’t look at 2017 the way we now look at 1882. Let’s take the words of the Statue of Liberty as our true, not our idealized, version of ourselves.

A few more drawings of the New Year’s celebration below – –

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Comment (1)

  1. Tracye

    We live in interesting and conflicted times and your vibrant sketches to tell a very American story.

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