Tag Archives: #chinese

A Legacy That Belongs to All of Us

For years, Asian-Americans donned a cultural Invisibility cloak before Western audiences. And although undiscovered, their stories have unfolded silently and beautifully from generation to generation. That’s why the five-part documentary series, Asian Americans, created by an all-Asian American team of filmmakers, plays such a critical role in chronicling the immigrant experience. 

Narrated by Daniel Dae Kim and Tamlyn Tomita, Asian Americans strings together the stories of the many struggles for freedom – from the Japanese incarcerations during World War II to anti-Asian immigration laws. The storytelling, accompanied by the power of the documentary’s visual component, delivers a poignant narrative about what it means to belong to a country unconditionally, in the face of both adversity and animosity. Asian Americans features interviews with some of our community’s most celebrated individuals, such as Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, Chinese-American journalist Helen Zia, academic expert Erika Lee,  and Indian-American comedian Hari Kondabolu. Their stories highlight the difficulty in navigating identity between two dichotomous cultures. 

The trailer for Asian Americans ends with the words, “and their legacy belongs to all of us!” As I reflect on my own experience as Indian-American, I realize how much I identify with these words. So many trailblazers have carved out a voice for our community — and PBS’s Asian Americans gives them the credit they rightfully deserve. 

While the documentary is impactful on its own, its content becomes more topical against the backdrop of a global pandemic. The current coronavirus outbreak marks an alarming rise in anti-Asian sentiment and xenophobic paranoia. According to a poll conducted in New York, residents have reported roughly 248 cases of racial prejudice since January. 1600 hundred attacks have been reported nationwide — a number which can only be an undercount, due to the shame and fear that contributes to such attacks. Divisive language surrounding this situation, such as calling COVID-19 “the Chinese virus” or “the Wuhan virus” turn Asian-Americans into a convenient scapegoat for unprecedented circumstances. Social media platforms document shocking tales of bigoted attacks against law-abiding Asian Americans, such as a video of two girls at Garden Grove’s Bolsda Grande High “screaming ‘coronavirus’ at Asian American students”. COVID-19’s impact on race relations is not making national headlines because of its novelty. Rather, it’s only chillingly familiar for the Asian American community.

Virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media.

In a virtual Town Hall hosted by the Center for Asian American Media, producers and members of this documentary discussed what it means to be of Asian descent during an international crisis. Some of the panelists included Viet Thanh Nguyen, Amna Nawaz, Hari Kondabolu, and more. And in a critical segment of this Town Hall, the panelists pointed out how coronavirus fears play into America’s history of race-based discrimination. It was only one generation ago, for instance, that Chinese-American draftsman Vincent Chin was beaten to death by two white men in Wayne County, Detroit. While Chin’s assailants were originally charged with second-degree murder, their only punishment was $3,000 dollars and no jail time. “It reminded Asian-Americans that progress hadn’t really been made.” 

Today, every voice in the United States has the opportunity to change our country’s cycle of systematic abuse. Rather than using a national tragedy to fuel dangerous and divisive rhetoric, we have the chance to truly move forward. And Asian Americans represent that effort towards a liberated future for the next generation of immigrants. “As much as tragedy is a part of our heritage here, so is possibility.”

The documentary premieres Money and Tuesday, May 11 & 12, 2020 at 8pm on PBS. To watch the trailer, click here! 

To find out more about the Digital Town Hall, watch a recording of the panel here.

Kanchan Naik is a junior at The Quarry Lane School in Dublin, CA. Aside from being a Youth Editor for India Currents, she is the Editor-in-Chief of her school’s news-zine The Roar. She is also the Teen Poet Laureate of Pleasanton and uses her role to spread a love of poetry in her community.

A Mason Jar of Fortunes

The most far-fetched prophecy I have ever received is: maybe you can live on the moon in the next century! Although all Bollywood and Western romantic numbers croon about flying up to the moon, I feel safer on terra firma.

To pull out a fortune from a cookie seems gimmicky to me. Regardless, it’s okay to succumb to a little bit of self-love and to justify this behaviour,  we read our message in a cookie with an enthusiasm that slowly dwindles as we go around the table and read each other’s luck. 

Unfortunately, the United States has the largest number of COVID-19 infections in the world and with it, we have seen a rise in anti-Asian sentiment. I chose to remind you of all of the precious fortune cookies that unite families at a dinner table.

In 2013, our friendly yoga teacher gave us a mason jar with a picture of her place of worship, a fragrant herb, and a colored strip of paper with a blessing. Mine was – “Get up and out, the day is bursting with moments.” by Rabindranath Tagore. We all went home with our jars and I put mine on my kitchen alcove. Over the years I kept putting other blessings in this jar along with strips of fortune. 

Growing up, we ate Indian food at home every day and so to change our taste we went once a week for and Indian Chinese dinner in Mumbai. Hakka noodles, American chop suey, chili chicken/paneer, and big bowls of hot and sour soup were our favorite entrees.  Indian Chinese food is not available in Huntsville but the next best option for my Indian friends is the American style Chinese food at PF CHANGS, doused generously with extra hot chili sauce. After spicing our palettes and clearing the sinuses, it’s time to read our fortunes. Unlike my other friends, I don’t like to eat the sugar cookie. I just hold the twisted fortune crisp in my hand and take a tentative bite of the vanilla and sesame flavored shell. Then I put it down and after everyone else has read their fortunes, I read the vague aphorism silently. Then I put it in my purse and at home transfer it to the mason jar. Every time I open the jar, I think of my yoga teacher and once again I read my fortune. I turn it over in the palm of my hand, look at the random lotto numbers and stash it away in my jar.  

I did not know that these fortune cookies are not Chinese. They were popularized in America by Japanese immigrants in the 19th century. They were first made in the Benkyodo bakery in San Francisco and served with hot tea. Later, Kito the founder of “Little Tokyo” in Los Angeles sold his flour tea cakes with fortune slips to the Chinese. During World War II, when 100,000 Japanese were in internment in America, the Chinese started mass producing these cookies. Ever since that time, they appear as a courtesy dessert along with the check at Chinese restaurants. These cookies are accepted all over the world, including India, where people are fond of fortune-tellers, soothsayers, and Palm readers. Strangely enough, they are not popular in China and are considered to be too American. 

I have never visited China but I have lived in America for almost three decades. We live in a sparsely populated region in the South but my American friends, family members, and strangers are all sheltered in place. A few of us go for solitary walks or wave at people from our porches. Friends FaceTime us to update us about their health or share their thoughts on social media. We wash our hands, run fingers through our hair, take naps, and spend days and nights in our pajamas. Time as we know it has slowed down. There’s nothing rushed. We all are running out of projects at home. We clean, purge, organize, sort, grow herb gardens, sew and donate masks, cook, share jokes, indulge in arts and crafts, read the stack of books put aside for a rainy day. 

Today, I decided to open my jar of fortunes to look for a clue to solve the viral pandemic. I pour a cup of coffee and pour out my fortunes on the floor and arrange them in a cyclic semblance of destiny.  

Affirmative:

  • You will be honored with a prestigious prize or award.
  • Your dearest wish will come true.
  • A pleasant surprise is in store for you.
  • You will always be surrounded by true friends.
  • You have a strong desire for home, family comes first.
  • Good news will come to you by mail.
  • You have the ability to sense and know higher truth.
  • You will conquer obstacles to achieve success.

Sarcastic:

  • You are an evening star in someone’s romantic eyes.
  • You are competent, creative, careful. Prove it.
  • Generosity and perfection are your everlasting goals.
  • Focus on your long-term goals. 
  • Good things will happen sooner or later.
  • Golden hours are coming to you eventually.
  • A cynic is only a frustrated optimist.

These strange words remind me of the hilarious attempts of two Asian women working at the Fortune cookie factory in Amy Tan’s novel “The Joy Luck Club” who are not able to translate these proverbs into Chinese. They give up thinking that they don’t contain any wisdom but just bad instruction.

Cryptic:

  • Your smile is a curve that gets a lot of things straight. Answer the call to help a friend.
  • Now is the time to call loved ones. Share your news.
  • Don’t pursue happiness, create it (Mango?!).
  • Your luck has been completely changed today.
  • Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things unseen?
  • The joyfulness of a man prolongs his days.
  • What you plant now you will harvest later.
  • You will learn about love and a peaceful heart. A smiley face and a Spanish translation. 

Mysterious:

  • Be prepared to receive something special.
  • The best times of your life have not yet been lived.
  • Everything will now come your way.
  • You will discover an unexpected treasure.
  • Now is a lucky time for you to take a chance.
  • You are going to change your present line of work.
  • Soon someone will make you very proud.
  • You were born with a sixth sense. 
  • Confidence is at a high? Whose?

Ominous:

  • If it seems fate is against you today. You are right!
  •  A closed mouth gathers no feet!
  • You will die alone and poorly dressed!

Duds:

  • How about another fortune
    • Blank fortunes are the scariest because you freak out that something bad is going to happen to you. 

I look at all these fortunes and put them back in the Mason jar and sit on my deck under a blue sky. I pray for all the people who are ill with this virus and especially for those who have succumbed to this terrible illness. I take a strip of green paper and tune into higher consciousness. I breathe in and out. I write, “VIRUS BEGONE!” and put it back into my mason jar.

Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.

Chinese-Indians Recall Life in Internment Camp in “Deoliwallahs”

How do you write a book about loss—a loss that’s so propulsive as to ravage the notion of home, country and identity? What do you put in it, and what do you leave out? What message will this work deliver and how does it answer the questions of the moment?

In “The Deoliwallahs—The True story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment,” co-authors Dilip D’Souza and Joy Ma unpack these questions while chronicling the disturbing and fragmentary experiences of Camp Deoli survivors—people of Chinese-Indian heritage who were interned in a desert prison camp in Deoli, Rajasthan after relations between India and China deteriorated. 

The book is brilliantly braided together with analyses, personal stories and commentaries, with journalist D’Souza providing the political backdrop and events leading up to the Chinese-Indian incarceration, and Bay Area writer Ma—who was born in the camp—delivering the human stories.

The term “deoliwallah” then becomes a reflexive term enveloping remembrance, endurance and an indictment against the prevailing perspectives of the time. 

It began with a dispute over the border between the two countries, as it inevitably does. D’Souza’s research revealed that in 1958, a Chinese map appropriated 1,00,000 square kilometers (38,000 square miles) that India thought of as its own. China claimed that India had “gradually extend[ed] its control over territory in the east.” The Indian view, on the contrary, was that “the border has been in existence and observed for 3,000 years,” with several treaties and conferences affirming its existence. 

This finger-pointing rapidly escalated to border skirmishes. Then the tenor of the dispute changed on October 12, 1962, when India’s Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru told the press that he had given instructions to “free the country,” and the press reported this as “Nehru’s famous call to ‘throw out the Chinese.’” 

Jawaharlal Nehru being led to the Banquet Hall by Mao Tse-tung.

Chairman Mao Zedong framed his response to this rhetoric with “a massive, pre-planned Chinese attack” against India on October 20, 1962. “Within two days, an entire Chinese division, having crossed the border and torn the Indian defense to shreds,” continued to advance aggressively, wrote D’Souza. Indian soldiers, ill-prepared for the weather and poorly equipped with weapons, lost handily to the Chinese. In a month and a day, the war was won by China, and China made the decision to withdraw its troops to “their original pre-war positions,” leaving India to “lick its wounds.”

This bruising defeat, however, needed some reprisal and India found it in the passing of the Foreigners Law Act and the Foreigner’s (Restricted Areas) Order in India, which targeted people of Chinese ethnicity in India. D’Souza wrote that “taken together, these acts formed the legal fig leaf for the Deoli incarceration.”

“When you have war situations, odd things happen, perverse things happen,” remarked D’Souza, explaining the ways that we tend to simplify the rationale behind sweeping actions taken when countries are in conflict, drawing a comparison to the US detention of people of Japanese origin in 1942, an event that occurred twenty years before Deoli, at an even bigger scale.

And as we have seen in America and Germany, memories of detention and confinement doggedly pursue survivors serving as signposts of trauma and loss.

Joy Ma excavated personal accounts of this trauma and its aftermath, tracing the journeys of Chinese-Indians who were rounded up and detained “by peeling away the layers of repressed memories,” and tracking the legacy of injustice. 

An inflection point in this terrain of recollections occurred when Ma interviewed Yeeva Cheng, the daughter of Michael Cheng, who was a teenager when he was incarcerated in Deoli. With eloquence and insight Cheng described how she absorbed the emotional ordeals of her father. One particular incident stood out in her mind. Cheng’s high school class was reading a book about a group of girls going to a foster home. For the school assignment, the students were asked to come up with five things they would pack if they had to leave suddenly. When Cheng told her father about the assignment, she said that she might want to pack a book. Her father laughed and said, “We didn’t even have a knife to cut our meat or to cook our food.”

It’s perhaps interesting to note that every Deoli survivor interviewed by Ma remembered what he or she carried to the camp, even six decades later.

Ying Sheng Wong recalled how a group of soldiers knocked on his house in Shillong on 20 November in 1962, when he was 16 years old, and told the family to take “only a few belongings.”

Andy Hsieh, also a teenager, was pulled out of his boarding school in Shillong, and “packed everything they thought they needed for a journey with no certain duration,” including his football shoes.

When Stephen Wan’s family was picked up, they were told to take “a few clothes,” with them. 

Effa and Jack Ma, Joy Ma’s parents, were allowed to carry Rs. 500 and one bag of personal belongings per person as well as some New Year cookies.

Keiw Pow Chen, on the other hand, remembers how the guards “rushed them out of their home in such a hurry that they ‘didn’t carry anything.’”

Many others, too, were not given time to pack, and some were still in their nightclothes when they were picked up, ill prepared for what was to come.

The meager belongings of the detainees were testimony to how confused, surprised and hopeful most of them were, tending to believe that the situation was temporary at best, since many of them had been born in India and for generations had considered India as their nation and home. They were of Chinese origin but nationally and culturally Indian. That’s why the internment became an unfathomable betrayal to many.

When I sat down with the authors, I probed the question of who has the right to tell this story. D’Souza said that when they decided that the book required talking to the survivors, it was clear that Ma, who was born in Deoli, had a personal connection to the narrative. She had that right. So, while D’Souza worked on the political details leading up to the Chinese-Indian detention, even traveling to Deoli to record his observations, Ma approached community members. People from the camp remembered her as “that little girl,” the baby in the camp, Ma said, so it was easier for her to ask the tough, often painful questions of others from the camp. 

In addition to Joy Ma, there were four others born in the camp. Ma said that their stories are not included in the book, as also the stories of several others who were not yet ready to share what they have spent a lifetime trying to forget. It’s taken a long time for Deoli survivors to be willing to tell their stories, Ma disclosed. As a result, the events surrounding the detention assumed an “epic, iconic status in their minds,” she said. When Ma first started conducting interviews, she described an outpouring of “despair and hopelessness” from having kept the stories to themselves for such a long time. 

At a packed book reading at the India Community Center recently, the authors asked the audience to raise their hands if they’d heard of the internment camp in Deoli, Rajasthan, and a mere handful had their hands up. In “The Deoliwallahs,” D’Souza describes how astonished he himself was in March 2012 when he was first told about ordinary people, “totally innocent people,” being sent to a prison camp in India. 

Why is the Chinese-Indian incarceration not well known, I asked Ma and D’Souza? Fear of retaliation against family members in India has kept the story under wraps for years, the authors explained, leading to a conspiracy of secrecy around the event. 

Both Ma and D’Souza hope that this book will lead to better awareness of the Chinese-Indian internment, and like the United States, the Indian government will come to acknowledge the wrongs of the past and begin the dialog necessary to evolving into a more compassionate and responsible nation. 

Jaya Padmanabhan is a journalist, essayist, and fiction writer. She writes an immigration column for the San Francisco Examiner and her columns and articles can be found in Forbes, Next AvenueThe Bold Italic/MediumElemental and India Currents


THE DEOLIWALLAHS—The True Story of the 1962 Chinese-Indian Internment by Joy Ma and Dilip D’Souza. MacMillan, 2020. Amazon: 198 pages. Hard Copy: $12.41. EBook: $9.99 License to image in the article can be found here.