Immigration, the DREAM Act, Buddhism, and the myth of the “quiet Asian”

In a three part series, Karn Saetang, a Chicago youth organizer for the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, shares his personal story, how his Buddhist faith guides his work, and how Asian-American youth in Chicago are busting the myth of the quiet Asian.

Today, Karn writes about the psychology of enclave communities and his Thai immigrant heritage. Enjoy.

A lot of the reasons enclaves exist, especially among some Asian communities is a matter of safety.  I don’t necessarily mean physical safety, but just that sense of emotional and mental safety.

Picture yourself as a young woman, born and raised in Thailand, and the only language you know and speak is Thai.  In Thailand, you had a pretty steady job at a bank, and all the money you make goes to your large family; mom, dad, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts.  Every Sunday, you go to the wat (temple), and pray for a better life for your family.  You fall in love with a man in Bangkok and get married.   He then decides to pursue an American dream in Chicago.  He invites you to join him, for a better life for you and your future children.  You don’t know anyone there.  You don’t speak the language.  You’ve never even left the town, but now someone is asking you to go to the other side of the globe.  All you know about the U.S. is from what you’ve seen on television.  You leave.

You pack your whole life into two suitcases, and leave your mom, dad, brothers, sisters, uncles and aunts.  And you move to Chicago.  You were never had much money in Thailand, but the apartment you move into is too small, even for you.  You’re scared.  Not because of the apartment, but because of the long periods of quiet.  You don’t know where to go.  No one in your neighborhood looks or talks like you.  You don’t know who to ask because you don’t speak the language.  All your friends are on the other side of the globe.  While your husband is out working some low-wage labor job, you sit at home and read a book.  You turn on the television, picking up bits and pieces of English.

You get so bored, you decide to do something that seems mundane to everyone else.  You decide to buy some food at the local fast food restaurant.  You walk in, you read the menu, and decide to order one of the items you know.  You walk up to the cashier, who looks at you funny.  You know you want a burger, but you don’t know how to order it.  You speak the words you know, but you don’t know enough.  The young cashier gets impatient and yells at you.  He knows you don’t speak English, but he decides to yell English words at you, and he seems to think that the louder he yells, the more you’ll understand.  You can tell he’s angry at you.  He yells louder, and the people in the restaurant just stare at you.  You’re scared again, know you’re scared because you wish you were back to those long periods of quiet.

You wish you were back in Thailand.  You don’t know what to do, so you quickly walk away without looking anyone in the eyes.  You walk home, and once you get there, you fall into bed and cry.  This is not home.

It’s years before you meet another Thai person.  You eventually have two children, and you’re extremely proud of the fact that they both speak fluent English, though sometimes you don’t understand what they say.  You eventually find another wat in the southern suburbs of Illinois, and you meet more Thai people, who eat the same food as you do, who speak the same language as you do, who speak fondly of the mother country as you would.  They even laugh like you.  These people don’t yell at you using words you don’t understand.  With these people, in that space, you feel safe.

But whenever you venture outside that space, people yell at you for not speaking English properly.  People call you names like “chink” and “gook.”  People see you as someone who would be easy to rob, and do it.  But you put up with it, because with all its flaws, you feel your children will succeed here.  You know your English speaking children will translate for you.  You know they will get good grades in school and get good jobs.  You know they will try to make it safer for you in more places.  You know they will be happier here than in Thailand, and that makes you happier.  So while your children are out there, learning and working in America, you go to the wat, with the closest thing you have to a family, where you feel safe.

So in a perfect world, people of all cultures would live side by side.  But in this country, in this world that we’ve created, I feel as though immigrants aren’t the ones responsible for these ethnic enclaves.  Some really have no choice.  Living in Chicago, one of, if not the country’s most segregated city, I personally would love to see integrated neighborhoods.  But at the same time, I understand why these communities exist, and until people learn to openly accept people of all ethnic groups, I think it’s necessary.  This story was about my mother, who without having the support of other Thai people, without that “enclave,” would not be where she is today, and I love her and my second family for that.


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