With 772 You Get Eggroll
The immigrant question in 1980s Springfield
September 3, 1981
Looking back at this piece, I realized I was mistaken in assuming that, forty years later, Illinois would be arguing the Buddhist question the way it once argued the Catholic question. We are not exactly arguing the Muslim question—some Illinoisans are just shouting about it—but Islam is the question of the day.
Oh yeah – I’m pretty sure I took that girl to Taft’s before the dance, not after. Sorry, Georgialyn.
Which come first? The sweet and sour chicken or the egg roll? Springfield now boasts no fewer than nine Chinese restaurants. Those restaurants, like Darwin's Galapagos finches, prompt certain speculations about the evolution of local populations. Did Springfieldians not eat Chinese ten years ago because there were no Chinese restaurants? Or were there no Chinese restaurants because Springfieldians did not eat Chinese? Or (most likely of all) was it because there were no Chinese?
According to the U.S. Census, there were 772 Asians of various nationalities living in Springfield in 1980. The city's Indians, Vietnamese, Koreans, Chinese, Taiwanese and Japanese thus compose only 0.6 percent of its population, which makes them collectively an even smaller minority than aggregate-demand Republicans. But the Asian presence in the city is out of proportion to their numbers, in part because of their color, in part because of their costume, and in part because it sometimes seems that every single one of them cooks.
It is true that restaurants have long served as high-water marks by which one can chart the ebb and flow of ethnic subcultures in U.S. cities. I assume there were scone shops in colonial New England; the Chinese aren't the first new arrivals who learned that the most mundane native skills acquire a profitably exotic appeal in this country. For those whose ambition is thwarted by handicaps of language or education, the skillet is as good as a college degree. Thus the fact that Stevie's Latin Village in Springfield now houses the China Inn is a socioeconomic datum of considerable significance. So is the opening of the House of Hunan in a defunct Burger Chef, and the conversion of Taft's (a hamburger joint on the east side where I took my first-ever date after a dance) into Chishing and Pam Ming King's Hong Kong Garden.
How, then, does one explain the fact that although roughly half the Asians living in Springfield are Indian, there is not a single Indian restaurant in the capital? One must remember that restaurant-keeping among Asians is not, like black hair, a genetic predisposition. It is circumstance, not chromosomes, that put so many Chinese in the kitchen in Springfield, and it is circumstance that has kept Indians out of it. The Indians are the WASPs of the local Asian community. Because it remains one of India's two official languages, immigrant Indians usually speak English. They are schooled in democracy, and, like early Americans, were molded in part by the British colonial experience. They are well-educated and ambitious, and arrive here not as refugees but as physicians, engineers and teachers. It took the Italians of Springfield three generations to make it from the ethnic enclaves on the north side to the affluent subdivisions of the west side; it took the Indians only as long as the drive from the airport.
The Indians, in short, came admirably equipped to excel, compared to their hemispheric kin. Because it is both a bureaucratic and a medical center, Springfield is home to what is probably a higher percentage of Indian professionals than might be found in other U.S. cities. (It's been estimated that half the Indians in Springfield are engineers.) Of the nation's 362,000 Indians there are more than a few restaurateurs, to be sure; New York's Mayor Ed Koch praised Indians at an India Day parade by saying, "They give us their culture and their taxes—and their wonderful restaurants." If any of Springfield's Indians were to open a restaurant, one suspects, it would be as a tax write-off.
If Indians are the WASPs of the current Asian immigration, the Chinese and Vietnamese (and to a lesser extent the Koreans and Taiwanese) are its Poles and Italians. Americans are generally ignorant of the East; when our Debbie Courtright interviewed a Gujerati engineer named Ashok Bhatt in 1978, he told her of being shown a bathtub by his American hostess, as if he'd never seen one back home. The diversity of language, culture, history, and religion among the Asian newcomers is at least as broad as that of white America's European ancestors. In the course of my own limited rambles around town I have encountered an exiled South Vietnamese army officer, the son of a South Korean political dissident, a Calcutta physician, and a Chinese economist; a sign across the street from my apartment announces the reassuring presence of one Chan-soo Kim, M.D.
Peasant, fisherman, Ph.D.—all are "Asian" although many of them did not even feel "Indian" or "Chinese" until they left the homeland, where their allegiance was to caste, state, or province. Some came as political refugees, some as economic refugees. Some are Buddhist, others Catholic; a Taiwanese in 1980 was reported making a living in Modesto as a Methodist minister. Most arrived relatively unschooled in English, and although few were unskilled, language barriers kept many from practicing the trades they followed at home.
They share much in common nonetheless, principally a capacity for hard work which Americans have long since chosen to honor rather than imitate. C. tells me that when her color TV went on the fritz she chose not to surrender it to the clumsy ministrations of the store which had sold it but took it instead to a Mr. Kim, a Korean repairman. He proceeded to violate every tenet of modern American business practice by 1) fixing the set; 2) fixing it promptly, and; 3) charging a fair price for the work. I foresee Asian banks, built on the profits of countless bowls of won ton. Who knows? Perhaps someday some enterprising Vietnamese, having made a killing in catering, will go into land development and open a subdivision called "Mekong Meadows."
The fact of the Asians' rise does not interest me as much as the manner of it. Consider politics. It will be fascinating someday to listen to local pundits gather on the tube to argue the Buddhist question the way they argued the Catholic question in the '60s, more fascinating still to see what innovations await the traditional political weiner roast. The Indians have already reached one political milestone in Illinois; an Indian businessman has been indicted in Chicago on charges that he illegally funneled campaign money to Dan Walker's 1976 gubernatorial race through a front called the American Asian Alliance. If true, the allegations will establish again that public officials in this country are bribable by anyone, regardless of race, creed, color, or national origin.
As noted, the Indians have already risen, economically speaking. But their social progress may be stickier. Springfield is a small Midwestern town, after all, even if it does have nine Chinese restaurants. If it took the Illini Country Club seventy-five years to admit a Jew, for example, how long will it be before it admits a Hindu? There is always the chance that Indians may choose to organize their own counter-country club, much as local Jews did in 1956 when they founded the Lake Shore Club. (V.S. Naipal has written of the men of Rajasthan, who were "a model village, and-so they considered themselves. There was little more that they needed . . . . It took time to understand that they were only peasants, and limited." Country club material if ever there was any.) Of course, middle class Indians are more likely to play cricket or tennis than golf. But they have shown a flair for snobbishness, especially toward other Asians, and so I predict they will be aces at the country club. We might even see a club from which white Americans are banned, which would be nice.
Clearly, accommodation will require some adjustments. I confess I look forward to that night when the first Asian-American is crowned queen of the Beaux Arts Ball. She will doubtless bear a name like Traci Ting, and she will march from the podium to the rhythm of old-line members beating their gray heads against the walls out in the lobby. There may even come a day when the girls of the Junior League get together to swap curry recipes. Brave new world, indeed.
The new Asians will make it in Springfield. It will cost them much, of course. Already many have made the traditional adjustments of the displaced. On Monday they change their names to conceal their ethnic origins, then on Tuesday form an association to celebrate the ethnic identity they abandoned on Monday. On Wednesday they reserve a booth at the Ethnic Festival, and on Thursday they run for the school board.
Usually, the greater the sense of loss of ethnic identity, the more self-consciously ethnic one becomes; the process of becoming Asian-American, like that of becoming Italian-American or German-American, means becoming neither Asian nor American. Last winter I often saw an Asian family—Vietnamese I believe—emerge in the mornings from their upper-floor apartment downtown. One of them was an old man who wore a stocking cap against the unfamiliar cold and whose eyes looked blank, as if they'd so wearied of trying to understand all the new things they saw that they gave up trying to see. Every time I saw him I thought of my own great-great-great-grandfather who, having shepherded his brood to this country from Germany, died just two months later, very far from home, of what I have always assumed was a broken heart. Immigration is for the young; the old have too much baggage to make such trips. □