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Tuesday, February 26, 2008

"Driven Out" Chinese Purge

I wrote a blog some months back about a town near where I grew up, called Pekin. The high school's moniker was the Pekin Chinks and nobody seemed to recognize they were using a racial slur as they cheered their teams. One longtime Pekin resident wrote a bitter comment decrying my comments about institutionalized racism. It made me want to find out more about the roots of the term "chink."

I still haven't found any answers, but in a well written and researched book, called "Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans", by Jean Pfaelzer (2007), I found out about vicious cruelties to Chinese residents in Washington and California justified by some of our highest courts. There are dismaying parallels to events today.

In late 1885, the mayor of Tacoma, Washington, led a mob of 300 into Chinatown one night and forced everyone out of their homes and marched them out of town, forcing them to leave their businesses and belongings. The Chinese brought it to court, citing the U.S. government's Burlingame Treaty which made it illegal to deprive Chinese immigrants of the same privileges in respect to residence as others in our country. The mayor's lawyers cited the Dred Scot case of 1857 that allowed slave owners to fetch their slaves who escaped to free territories because slaves did not enjoy the same rights as citizens. The mayor's side won - just like Bush's side won against the prisoners of Guantanamo who thought they'd have the right of habeus corpus and a civil trial as prisoners of the United States. I guess the "supreme" in "Supreme Court" refers only to power and not wisdom or justice.

In San Jose, California, near where I live, the first statewide anti-Chinese convention was held in 1886, attended by anti Chinese clubs and the Anti-Coolie league. In 1880, the California legislature had made it illegal to hire a Chinese person. Ranchers, growers, and canneries were forced into mass firings. The more things change, the more they stay the same. Only the nationality has changed. But in San Jose, the Chinatown neighborhood was burned down six times and rebuilt seven. San Jose passed ordinances limiting Chinese laundries and fireworks. They posted police in doorways of Chinese owned businesses to discourage would-be customers. When two drunk men shot at and assaulted a Chinese man in 1879, they were each fined $10.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Three Cups of Tea

photo by Trudy Rubin

Just finished the book, "Three Cups of Tea," the story of former mountain climber, Greg Mortenson whose life took a radical turn when tribal villagers in Pakistan nursed him back to health in 1993 following a harrowing attempt to scale K2, a Himalayan peak. He told them he wanted to build a school for their children and that he'd return to do so. First he went back to Berkeley, California where he lived a hand-to-mouth lifestyle picking up night shifts as a nurse-paramedic, living in shared apartments and sometimes out of his car & storage locker. He made a list of rich and famous people and wrote fundraising letters, amassing about $20 for his efforts.

Eventually he succeeds and the school is built, but there are all kinds of riveting and entertaining stories along the way - as Mortenson wends his way through inter-cultural and actual minefields. His integrity and purpose draw people to him on both sides of the world and though he continues to live on next to nothing, he finds ways to build school after school in villages throughout Muslim Pakistan and Afghanistan where none existed before, and where girls and education were never imagined in the same sentence. The story takes on another dimension as he sees the beginnings of what became the Taliban and Al Queda as well as the aftermath of the US war in Afghanistan.
Read new articles on Greg's blog.

For me it was more than an inspiring, well-told story. I loved that he started out typing letters that got him nowhere. And that he was doing it from the Berkeley haunts I know so well. It made it all so real and accessible. Sure, there are many ways to view "Dr. Greg" in a transcendent "hero" category. His skill set alone - mountain climber, nurse, language-learner - put him in a unique niche. But instead, he could have been a Greyhound bus rider, a writer, and a great cook and somehow engaged with people from another walk of life and decided to make a dream come true for them (and him). As the book goes on, Dr. Greg becomes larger than life in terms of his dedication, asceticism, and bravery, but at the outset he's someone we've all known or almost been. Perhaps the momentum of his work carried him into a more mythical level of "hero-person," but the ingredients that generated his life path are not secret ones. They just usually get moved further back on the shelf.