Helen Zia was one of five children of immigrants from Shanghai who had met and married in New York. Her father had a degree from Saint John's University, but he couldn't find a job after the family settled in New Jersey in the 1950s. "He earned money as a taxi driver," Zia recalls. "Later we kids helped him out in our home making baby toys and trinkets for flower shops." He regularly wrote letters to newspapers and politicians, complaining about their views on China. This attracted the attention of the FBI, which put him under surveillance. When an aunt was evicted from her restaurant after she had upgraded the kitchen, Zia began to wonder if Asians were singled out for such treatment. As a child, she began to dread one question--"No, where are you really from?" The message, she says, was "you can't be one of us."
She got the message. In her new book, Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People, Zia remembers receiving a letter from a Scottish pen pal when she was about 12. The girl had sent photos of herself and her family. "Of course," Zia writes, "she would expect pictures of me--and somehow I had neglected to mention that I was Chinese American." Certain that the Scottish girl would reject her, "since, after all, she had wanted an American pen pal, not a Chinese one," Zia never wrote back.
Zia says she had "become a member of the Invisible Society of Asian Americans who took their cues from the world around them." Her parents couldn't teach her what it meant to be Chinese in America because, she says, "they were just learning about America themselves." She had rendered her Chinese self invisible in order to fit in.
In 1970 Zia accepted a full scholarship to Princeton, where her class included 20 Asian-Americans, at that time the largest number ever admitted. It was only the second year women attended the school. While majoring in public administration, she plunged into all sorts of causes. "The Asian-Americans were carving out an identity," she remembers, "and I took part in anti-Vietnam war protests, women's lib marches, and antiracist third world demonstrations. My brush with student activism changed my life." So much so that she quit medical school after two years to become a laborer and organizer, much to her parents' dismay. By day she worked on construction projects in Boston's South End. "There were so few women on the site that people stopped in traffic to look at me." In her free time she strategized with other minority leaders on how to break into that "tight white fraternity" of highly paid building trades.
Higher wages drew Zia to Detroit in 1976. "I got a job in a Chrysler stamping plant," she recalls, "but two years later the auto industry collapsed and most of us got laid off. The executives, instead of looking at the rusted equipment, blamed us workers." They also pointed fingers at their Japanese rivals, whipping up xenophobic sentiments exemplified by bumper stickers reading "Honda, Toyota--Pearl Harbor."
The charged atmosphere was almost certainly a factor in the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, a 27-year-old Chinese-American who was clubbed to death outside a strip joint by two white autoworkers. After the killers got three years' probation for their crime, Zia says, civil rights activists turned Detroit into the epicenter of a national movement. By then, she had switched to journalism, having first written for the alternative weekly Metro Times and then joined the staff of Metropolitan Detroit magazine. For Zia, the Chin case was an "all-consuming" cause: she helped form a grassroots advocacy group called American Citizens for Justice. Eventually--after numerous petitions and protests--the judge who sentenced Chin's killers was ousted from office. "And Michigan's criminal justice system was revamped," Zia says proudly. "On the federal level, civil rights investigation into crimes like this is now a matter of course."
Wanting to be closer to her family, Zia accepted the editor in chief position at a trade magazine in New York. Later she was hired by Ms., where she'd been contributing articles on social issues such as the resurgence of sweatshops in America. She soon ascended to the post of executive editor. She'd also come out as a lesbian. Yet despite her flourishing career on the east coast, she decided to move to the Bay Area eight years ago to be with her partner, a social worker. "It was easier for me, as a writer, to put down roots in a new city," she says.
For the past decade Zia has compiled stories about the Asian diaspora in America, documenting cases of individual courage and civil rights violations. She has uncovered tidbits such as the first Asian-American birth recorded in New York (that of an Irish-Chinese child in 1825) and has investigated how coolies helped to build the transcontinental railroads. Her book--which includes an account of stereotypes and ethnic tags in pop culture--chronicles the struggle of Asians in America. She says she was spurred to write it after the recent campaign-finance scandal surrounding Al Gore's visit to a Buddhist temple in Los Angeles. The resulting "avalanche" of publicity reminded her of the Japan bashing of the early 80s and the McCarthy-era anticommunist hysteria that intimidated her parents' generation.
But Zia says she's noticed a change in attitudes since her youth--"All of my causes have seen vast improvement"--and the question now, she believes, is "What's next?"
"People used to define us, but we turn out to be none of those things," she says. "The time has come for us to define ourselves."
Zia will read from Asian American Dreams this Tuesday at 7:30 at Women & Children First Bookstore, 5233 N. Clark (773-769-9299).
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lionel Fluker.