Set apart for better and for worse

Preview: While PBS' `Chinese Americans' is imperfect, it shows how cultural differences have preserved a rich identity but made assimilation difficult.

August 17, 1999|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN STAFF

For playwright David Henry Hwang ("Golden Child"), being Chinese-American has meant contending with "this idea of being perpetual foreigners."

For architect I.M. Pei, it's meant that, even after 60 years in this country, "I'm still Chinese."

And for Connie Chung, it meant beating her classmates to the punch when it came to joking about her distinctive appearance.

"The kids would say, `Can you see the ceiling and the floor, because your eyes are [so narrow]?' I used to make jokes about it. If I joked about it before anyone else did, then they wouldn't make a joke about me."

Unlike many of the other immigrant groups that have been profiled in PBS' continuing series of programs on the different cultures that have merged into the American melting pot, Chinese-Americans are always identifiably different. As "The Chinese Americans" (airing at 8 tonight on MPT) makes clear, that distinction has made it tough for them to assimilate.

"There was always something that made us feel just a little bit different," Jeff Yang, founder and publisher of A. magazine, tells the filmmakers. "Especially when you're going through adolescence and you're dealing with issues like appearance, you're dealing with issues like acceptance -- these things are harder when you're one in a crowd, as opposed to one of a crowd."

The hourlong program (which, because of pledge breaks, should run until about 9: 30 p.m.) speaks in depth about the differences that have set the Chinese apart. Depending on one's point of view, they have either given Chinese-Americans a distinct cultural identity or kept them from becoming part of the mainstream. They include everything from food -- as Yang notes, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches were never big in his house -- to attitudes about religion.

"The Chinese Americans" spends much of its time discussing how facets of Chinese culture have stayed with the children of these immigrants and continued to shape the way they live. A traditional reluctance to stand out in a crowd, for instance, discourages participation in politics, while the emphasis on familial responsibilities hasn't always jibed well with Americans' insistence on being their own person and establishing a separate identity.

What the program does less well is examine where these cultural fingerprints come from -- what has made Chinese society so different from ours? And while many hyphenated Americans view their cultural idiosyncrasies with pride, "The Chinese Americans" implies that its subjects have had to overcome theirs.

The program also barely touches on what may be the most fascinating, not to mention ennobling, aspect of the Chinese-American experience, the horrible conditions many immigrants faced when they arrived on these shores. In the 1800s, Americans were glad to let Chinese laborers build much of the transcontinental railroad, so long as they didn't demand much in the way of pay -- or object too strongly when discriminatory laws were passed, severely limiting the number of Chinese who could enter this country.

Perhaps "The Chinese Americans" does all it can in the one hour it's given to work with. Ending on a celebratory note, it displays a roster of success stories, including AIDS researcher David Ho, actress Joan Chen, tennis player Michael Chang and figure skater Michelle Kwan. Fine people all, but the Chinese have contributed more to the fabric of America than a handful of famous names.

`The Chinese Americans'

When: 8-9: 30 tonight

Where: PBS (MPT, Channels 22, 67)

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