Thursday, May 1, 2014

ethnic enclaves

#MTBoS30 4/30

I actually know very little about ethnic enclaves. I'm confident there's a body of literature, but sometimes I suspect it will never rise to the top of my reading list. But here's what interests me about them:

I grew up in the Midwest, which is not a new story for this blog, nor is the fact that there weren't a whole lot of people who look like me and those who did tended to find each other (Saturday Chinese school, anyone? Potluck dinners with all 7 Taiwanese families in the area with kids +/- a decade in age?). What I don't think I've written about much is how, when I went to college, I tried to rush an Asian American sorority with the hope of finding some girlfriends with whom I could process the whole thing about being Asian, being in college, being hit on by guys who were offended that I didn't find "I like Asian girls" to be a particularly enticing pickup line, etc. It didn't take long for me to realize that, at my university, the Asian American Greek scene was dominated by upper-middle class students from places like Flushing or Monterey Park whose experience of being Asian-- the dim sum, the Coach purses, the slang, the culture-- was more foreign to me than Midwestern Whiteness.

In my Midwestern city, we've got a few blocks downtown called Asiatown (right-- not big enough to differentiate), where recent immigrants tend to cluster until they've gotten their bearings and enough cash to move out to the suburbs, and where they thereafter only return to go grocery shopping or pick up community service hours (for those under 18). By contrast, in the Chinatown of the (much larger) city where I live now, people stick around long enough to inherit property from their grandparents; there are thriving neighborhood and cultural associations, politicians and professionals who provide services in multiple languages, festivals, and other features that I consider to be markers of a community.

Based on what little I have read about ethnic enclaves, and stories from friends/acquaintances I've accumulated over the years, it seems that there can be, on the one hand, so much more opportunity (jobs, friends, acceptance) in an ethnic enclave-- when you speak the language, share kinship ties or similar backgrounds, etc.-- and on the other hand, real economic and political isolation from centers of power. Hence, the connection to recent musings on segregation and who really benefits from integration.

That's it-- no particularly well-informed thoughts here, although I welcome reading recommendations and perspectives in the comments. I'll close with a piece that I originally encountered in Tongue-Tied: The Lives of Multilingual Children in Public Education. I've read it a thousand times but keep reading because (or in spite of the fact that) it evokes deep feelings every time, probably because in it I recognize myself: I was the girl who couldn't be beat at spelling bees, who "reads and reads and worries whether you’re reading enough or the right thing."

"You’re proud. You’ve done this by yourself, or with your family behind you. And I’m impressed. You can make the English language roll over, bark on command, sit up and beg, you—who were raised on spuds, grits, rice, or tortillas.

But I’m sad, too. For the English language robbed of the beat your home talk could give it, the words you could lend, the accent, the music, the word-order reordering, the grammatical twist. I’m sad for you, too, for the shame with which you store away—hide—a whole treasure box of other, mother, language. It’s too rough-mannered, you say, too strange, too exotic, too untutored, too low class. 

You’re robbing us, robbing the young one saying her first sentence, reading her first book, writing her first poem. You’re confirming her scorn of her cradle tongue. You’re robbing her of a fine brew of language, a stew of words and ways that could inspire her to self-loving invention."

Rosario Morales, "I Recognize You."


  1. Thank you for sharing your perspective. Like yourself, I know very little about ethnic enclaves, but I enjoyed reading your thoughts on them. For many in the US who are not white, there is definitely a tension between maintaining your own cultural identity while also trying to assimilate into the dominant culture. What factors do you think influence the degree of segregation vs. integration?

    I've noticed something similar as a gay man. In Houston and Dallas, there are areas known as "gay ghettos" which are basically enclaves based on sexual orientation. However, in Austin, no such place exists. Gays are much more distributed around the city. I'm sure different factors are at play from ethnic enclaves, but it's always interested me how these cities are so different.

    1. That's a great question, and I'd like to think about it more (and I suspect there are people somewhere who've made it a research question and written about it, too). Reading your comment leaves me with a gut feeling about safety-- where do people who are new to a place, or who suspect they'll be marginalized/won't fit in/might be "unwanted"-- feel safe, both physically and emotionally? With others like them, or intentionally distant from others like them?