Growing Up Chinese and Rich in the San Gabriel Valley
illustration by Fred Harper
I once made a visit to a great big house in the San Gabriel Valley. The door opened to a little Chinese girl with a large fur scarf draped around her tiny neck. The floor was marbled and cold, the ceiling high, the grand hall empty and everything lighted by dimmed chandeliers.
"Hi, I'm your English tutor for today," I said, taking off my shoes.
She nodded and led me into her dining room, where her books were stacked on the long, glass table. Another chandelier anchored the room.
"What homework do you have today?" This time I spoke in Mandarin, not sure if she fully comprehended my previous statement.
"A lot of workbooks." She responded in Chinese. She sounded like she was from Sichuan. Her accent was different from mine, earthier, raspy and with a heavier emphasis on the "r" sound.
Her family had moved from China to L.A. just a year earlier, and I could hear their voices rumbling through the big house. Throughout our tutoring session, I saw no evidence of them.
I felt right at home.
My childhood home was the exact same setup: a large, two-story house with chandeliers in every room. I, too, did my homework on the grand dining room table. Tutors visited me at home every day of the week.
The tutoring was for my parents' peace of mind. They had arrived in Los Angeles when my mom was pregnant with me, with hopes for a different life, to achieve the over-advertised American dream, which in the 1980s was plastered all over Taiwanese newspapers. And while they worked hard and made that a reality, paying for my tutoring had been their insurance, their way of reassuring themselves that every single ounce of the American school system would be taken advantage of and pumped into their daughter, through and through.
Meanwhile, at the turn of the millennium, my father saw the uptick in the Chinese economy and became the Chinese Businessman, each month shuttling between West and East. He tapped into the riches the Chinese economy had begun to produce.
We were not alone in enjoying financial success with the rise of China's economy.
"Six. There are six new houses that have been built within the past year," I said.
It is summer and my friend and I are walking down my street in Arcadia. Every day, large wooden planks and metal beams appear on different lawns. Construction is rampant.
Arcadia is in the heart of the San Gabriel Valley and one of the most affluent neighborhoods around. The houses have always been large, in my recollection. But recently, lovely homes have been replaced with bigger, greater and grander mansions. Word is that Chinese businessmen finance the makeovers with cash — driving up real estate prices, to the delight of Realtors and the horror of people trying to buy homes.
Though the area is quiet, occasionally we see Chinese women wielding designer handbags. Some will make a quick dash to the mailbox before heading straight back into their large houses. They don't make eye contact or smile at us; it's not part of the culture.
The San Gabriel Valley has been the heart of the Chinese diaspora since the 1970s. Its many towns are largely suburban and sometimes posh, such as San Marino and Arcadia. They are growing increasingly Chinese and increasingly rich.
In China, the San Gabriel Valley is widely advertised as the place with a great public school system, perfect weather, available real estate and a built-in Chinese culture that makes the transition from East to West virtually seamless.
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While the SGV is well-known in L.A. for its extensive choices in Chinese food, it's a difficult place to decode unless you know the language.
"Look at that one," my friend said, motioning to a giant, gray mansion fitted with Victorian-style awnings. "They have a fountain."
"And a great big American flag," I added, amused at the patriotism.
A couple miles away, Chinese teenagers get out of their newly detailed Ferraris, grab a drink from the local boba shop and whirl away. These Chinese have unbridled admiration for all things Western.
"America" in the Chinese language translates to "beautiful country." Their homes are modeled after those in Beverly Hills. European car brands such as Bentley, Ferrari and Mercedes are king.
Once, a chef in Temple City talked incessantly about how popular his beef rolls were, wrapped in a scallion pancake and stuffed with peppery chunks of beef. "They look like burritos!" he said in Chinese. "Americans love burritos." His menu was an ethnographic gem of handmade noodles and traditional Northern Chinese dishes. None of that mattered. When he saw a journalist and her camera, all he could think about was the burritos.
The community gets a lot of flak. All the signs are in Chinese, people say. The menus are hard to read. We're taking over the school systems. We're taking over the real estate. We're flaunting our wealth.
Some will disagree, but this is xenophobia and fear-mongering. It's a big cloud of irony because to the Chinese, they're not here to take over. They don't even seem to notice the metaphorical pitchforks. If they do, they don't debate it publicly. They're too in love with L.A., its sprawl and opportunities, to engage in a war of words. The San Gabriel Valley is their cushion — a true Chinatown wrapped inside of suburbia.
It is the kids who, as they're shuttled through the public school system, are the most aware of how different their valley life is from much of Los Angeles. "When I was young, people made fun of me for speaking Mandarin," one of my students had told me during a vocabulary test. "So I stopped." I pointed out, "Chinese is very useful" and he responded, "But I don't want to be a FOB."
FOB (fresh off the boat) describes Chinese immigrants who haven't assimilated. It's a noun but can be used as an adjective, as in, "You dress really fobby." It's a derogatory self-description for those who act "too Chinese."
Despite the pressure on adolescents to assimilate, some don't. If you hang out in the area long enough, you'll see two distinct groups: the Americanized young Chinese (dubbed ABCs, or American-born Chinese) and the FOBs.
The segregation is real, albeit unspoken. "English is hard," my young Sichuanese student said, staring at her grammar worksheet, her brows furrowed.
"Well, what subject do you like? What do you want to be when you grow up?" I asked, eyeing her pile of textbooks.
She was barely 12, yet her workload was that of a college student. Her parents had her days booked from 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. School and then tutoring. Work after work. She was, as I had been, chained to the American dream of her mother and father.
"Nothing." She muttered in her raspy Sichuan accent. "I miss Sichuan."
"Then miss it. And make that your dream," I said, wishing mere words could free her of her parents' preconceived life for her, fully installed in a cushy job with a European car and handbag to match, eating a burrito, her Sichuan accent a distant memory.
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