The Snakehead 

The Shocking Risks Illegal Chinese Immigrants Take To Make It to America
New books dissected over email.
July 21 2009 12:10 PM

The Snakehead 

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Hey Sudhir,

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First, thanks for taking part in this dialogue. I'm a huge admirer of both Off the Books (which I reviewed for Slate) and Gang Leader for a Day, and your work on the underground economy, gang culture, and the urban poor was a touchstone for me during the years I spent researching The Snakehead. So this should be fun.

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You've thrown out a fascinating series of questions, but let's start with the most fundamental: What, if anything, does the American Dream alluded to in the book's subtitle mean to a generation of undocumented Fujianese immigrants who paid criminal smugglers to bring them here illegally? Does it entail the degree of cultural assimilation that it has for other ethnic groups in the past? And how do we reconcile the paradoxical poles of this story: an almost starry-eyed idealism about America as a land of hope, justice, and opportunity—and the shocking crime and exploitation that people from other countries so often encounter in order to get here?

For most of the Fujianese immigrants I interviewed, a new life in the United States entailed, in roughly the following order:

  1. stable and abundant jobs that might be exploitative but would nevertheless reward long hours with take-home pay in U.S. currency;
  2. Freedom with a capital F: a relatively uncorrupt political system in which the decision to start a business, write a manifesto, or move across town was not subject to the approval of the party elite;
  3. a strong education system in which even the children of poor, uneducated, non-English speakers can eventually obtain college degrees;
  4. and for a small but significant minority, the chance to have as many children as you want without fear of retribution for violating population control policies.

I'm generalizing, obviously, but when I asked people to explain why hundreds of thousands of people paid snakeheads like Sister Ping $35,000 and risked their lives to come here, these were generally the reasons they gave.

And that articulation of the American Dream—people fleeing oppression and seeking opportunity—doesn't seem so different from what you would have heard from a European immigrant coming over in steerage a century ago. What is shocking are the risks that many of the Fujianese undertook to get here.

Sean Chen, one of the central characters in the book, left Fujian while he was still a teenager; trekked over the mountains of Burma and through the Golden Triangle; hid out in a safe house in Bangkok; took a snakehead ship as far as Africa, where it broke down and he ended up getting stranded in Mombasa; and took another snakehead ship, the Golden Venture, down around the Cape of Good Hope (where it almost overturned in a hurricane) up into the mid-Atlantic (where there was an armed mutiny) and as far as Queens, N.Y. (where the ship ran aground and 10 passengers died trying to swim ashore). The survivors of the Golden Venture spent twice as long on their voyage to America as the Pilgrims did on the Mayflower in 1620. For their troubles, they were thrown into American prisons, where many of them remained for nearly four years.

Today, more than a decade after his release, Sean Chen lives in Philadelphia and still doesn't have a green card. And here's the thing: He loves America, would never go back to China, and doesn't regret a minute of it.

Perhaps the strangest feature of this story is one that resonates, I think, with your own research: On the one hand, the snakeheads and the Chinatown gangs who put passengers on rickety ships and held them hostage until they could pay off their debts are denizens of an underworld that is brutally cruel and exploitative. But on the other hand, Sister Ping remains a widely admired figure both in Chinatown and China, a homegrown Harriet Tubman who empowered her countrymen to escape poverty and create new lives. In marginalized immigrant communities, as in the poor, generally African-American communities you have chronicled, figures like Sister Ping manage to both nurture and exploit the people around them, and a series of quasilegal or downright illegal indigenous institutions spring up to resolve disputes, supply credit lines, and generally help people get by.

But in the end, I may come out of writing the book more optimistic than you came out of reading it. Sean Chen had a son recently who was born in the United States, and while some of the Golden Venture passengers have never fully assimilated to American life, their American citizen children generally will. Some level of off-the-books criminality may have been necessary for this group to arrive here and get a toehold, but I do think that the next generation will begin to assimilate into the American mainstream. Most of the Fujianese I met who arrived in the United States illegally didn't stay in Chinatown long: There's no percentage in opening a Chinese restaurant in Chinatown; better to move into a suburb where your Chinese restaurant is the only one for miles around. Their children tend to assimilate quickly, going to school, learning English, and often handling the family's dealings with the outside world (paying the bills, handling green card applications, and so forth). In fact, the successful assimilation of the kids often impedes the assimilation of the parents, who come to rely on them whenever English needs to be spoken. But in the larger scheme, that first generation is just an interlude, and in growing up so quickly the kids are really obliged to become American.

"We'll get there, Pop," Michael Corleone tells his father. "We'll get there." And despite the criminality and depredations associated with the arrival of the Fujianese—and unlike many American-born individuals in the underprivileged urban neighborhoods you have studied—I think that most of them ultimately will.

Does the notion of "getting out" and "joining the mainstream" have any of the same currency or meaning in a poor African-American enclave in Chicago as it does in a poor Fujianese enclave in New York?

Best,
Patrick

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