Migrant assimilation in spotlight after US tour guide's racist rant

A San Francisco tour guide delivered a racist rant on her last day of work, spewing expletives about Chinatown while leading a group of tourists on an open-top bus. -- PHOTO: YOUTUBE
A San Francisco tour guide delivered a racist rant on her last day of work, spewing expletives about Chinatown while leading a group of tourists on an open-top bus. -- PHOTO: YOUTUBE

A San Francisco tour guide delivered a racist rant on her last day of work, spewing expletives about Chinatown while leading a group of tourists on an open-top bus, prompting the ire of residents and city officials and once again bringing to the fore the issue of assimilation among immigrant communities.

In the video, which has hit nearly one million views, the guide makes comments like "f*** your noise, f*** your parades, f*** your dragons” as the bus drives through Chinatown.

Mr David Chiu, who represents Chinatown on the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, told the media that "it is incredibly sad and disheartening that in 2014 somebody would say such incredibly hurtful things".

More than one-third of San Francisco's population of about 800,000 consists of Asian Americans, and the Chinese form the largest portion of that group.

While the guide has apologised for her rant which she says was supposed to be the "satirical, comedic portion" of the tour, she has also admitted that she made a "personal jab at Chinese people" when she said: "When you come to America, you got to assimilate a little bit and here in America, we don't eat turtles and frogs."

While the point about eating turtles and frogs is more a cultural caricature than a solid example of the lack of assimilation, and while many new immigrants adapt very well to life in America, this incident does raise the question of whether ethnic enclaves can impede immigrant integration and how to prevent that.

Academics note that ethnic enclaves can serve a meaningful function, such as providing immigrants a cultural link to their countries of origin, and making it easier for new immigrants to find jobs, especially if they are unfamiliar with the language in their new home.

San Diego State University's Associate Professor of Economics Hisham Foad, who has studied ethnic enclaves in America, also raises an interesting point about how enclaves can help define a culture and make it part of the fabric of the host country.

He argues that "true assimilation happens not when a migrant is simply absorbed into the existing society, but brings his own identity and merges that with the existing culture to create a new identity".

Dr Foad says civil societies will form to meet the needs of the community, but as they mature, they will then reach out to non-enclave groups and local governments. "This very cooperation is a critical component of assimilation," he says.

But experts also admit that enclaves in America tend to diminish the need to learn English, thus significantly slowing down a person's ability to communicate and integrate.

A walk through New York's Chinatown will throw up many examples of people seemingly only conversant in Mandarin or Cantonese.

However, Professor of Communication and Asian Studies at Kennesaw University May Gao believes this is a problem that only lasts one generation.

"Most of the children of the first generation immigrants will attend schools in mainstream American society, and there they will learn English and American culture," she says.

While my Singaporean sensibilities - influenced by the rhetoric of the benefit of HDB ethnic quotas - tell me it might be best to avoid the formation of enclaves altogether, experts say there are ways to make it work.

Dr Gao says immigrants do want to integrate and free or discounted English lessons should be provided to assist them. She raises the example of Georgia where free English lessons are provided in schools to immigrant children.

Effort also need to come from within the communities. If they make the effort to move outside the enclaves, immigrants will interact more with the broader American society, forge personal connections and this interaction will mitigate the fear of the "unknown", says Dr Foad.

He adds that community leaders can also "highlight the accomplishments of their members in terms of the broader American experience".

If such steps are taken, perhaps we can avert such racist episodes in the future.

Referring to the tour guide, Dr Foad says: "I am guessing that she would not have been so quick to generalise and be so culturally insensitive if she were able to humanise Chinese Americans rather than treat them as some strange 'other'."

simlinoi@sph.com.sg