Background of Chinese Immigrants
The lives of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. follow two basic patterns. Some of them who come to the U.S. with human capital, such as higher education and fluent English get dignified jobs and reside in suburban areas. In contrast, those who are less educated with low skills and do not speak fluent English reside in enclave ethnic areas such as the Chinatowns in many large cities. In his study of the emergence of new Chinese new migrants, Liu (2005) identified four types of Chinese immigrants: “Students-turned migrants, emigrating professionals, chain migrants, and illegal immigrants” (p. 291). The vast majority of Chinatown residents are chain immigrants and menial workers. Chinese immigrants and the U.S. born Chinese have achieved higher educational performance than other minority groups and more and more have professional positions. In line with neoliberal thinking, Chinese Americans are called the “model minority.” Chinese immigrants are mostly voluntary immigrants; when they come to this Anglo-origin society, they are supposed to “have an obligation to assimilate into our language and culture” (Urciuoli,1996, cited by Schmidt, 2000). In this atmosphere, many Chinese Americans choose assimilation to achieve their American dream. In this article, I focus on the Chinese immigrants who are low-skilled, poorly educated and with little or no English, and who live in ethnic enclave areas. Their American dream is to own a house, to own a business or have a stable job, and then send their children to Ivy League colleges. They usually do not participate in any part of the political process in the U.S. I will discuss the benefits of speaking English and the benefits of speaking Chinese for this group of immigrants and their offspring.
The Benefits of Speaking English
As an immigrant myself, I lived in Chinatown in Chicago before moving to a suburban area. My cousins, aunts, classmates, and former colleagues still live in Chinatown. Immigrants who live in Chinatown hope to be able to speak English and would prefer to assimilate to the host society since, they explain, they will spend rest of their lives in the host country and their children are Americans. They say that having fluent English can lead to a better life in the U.S. The desire of Chinese immigrants to learn English is also observed by scholars (Kilbride 2009; Louie, 2004; Zhou, 2009). Many Chinese immigrants also understand that proficiency in English can bring more opportunities and facilitate upward mobility. Lazear (1997) raises the point that language learning is an investment that facilitates the “trade” among different cultures. The communication on which human social activities are based only occurs when people of different cultures understand the same language. The trade benefits become available and increase when they understand each other. Chinese immigrants recognize that the foreseeable benefits of speaking English include enabling them to communicate with their children’s teachers, health care providers, landlords, and others with whom they must interact on a regular basis. Lowering information barriers helps them find better jobs and, consequently, achieve economic success in the new country. English skills are also crucial for them to pass the US citizenship exam, an important sign of being American—of having assimilated.
Kilbride’s (2009) study of immigrant women learning English found that immigrant women desire to have proficiency in English, which “is important for the mental health and well-being of the women themselves” (p.7). This can be seen in life skills as basic as using public transportation. Those who do not speak English may choose to avoid public transit as much as possible. For example, when they travel outside Chinatown without understanding the language with which they are surrounded, they feel threatened. For example, the garment workers in Chinatown come voluntarily to the U.S. with minimal or no English to pursue a better life; they want to integrate into U.S. society to maximize the economic benefits and achieve their American dreams. However, they are isolated in Chinatown. Residential and occupational segregation affects their ability to speak English and as a consequence limits their integration into the larger surrounding community.
Overall, immigrants’ English proficiency can not only generate benefits through their improved labor market outcomes and enhance the psychological wellbeing, but also improve their children’s education and subsequent advantages when entering the workforce.