• Ying Ma, Chinese Girl in the Ghetto, Seattle: Create Space, 155 pages, 2012, $9.99.
Like most readers, when I decide to read a book, I have an idea what the book is about. I saw a small snippet of an interview with Ying Ma and was intrigued by her story. As a non-English-speaking immigrant, she realized the American dream, receiving an undergraduate degree from Cornell University and a degree from Stanford Law School, and working for a Fortune 500 company. She is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution, her writings have been published in numerous publications, and she is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
But I was totally unprepared and shocked when I read her autobiography, Chinese Girl in the Ghetto. The first shock was her reason for writing the book. The original idea was to write a book about a “journey from authoritarianism to a free society,” states Ying, but in 2010, multiple crimes by black teenagers against Asians in Oakland, Calif., changed the tenor of her book. Readers will be shocked by the black-on-Asian crime and abuse she and other Asians experience.
Like many, I assumed that once someone legally immigrates to the United States from a communist country, life becomes easy, but Ying’s book provides a realistic look at a life filled with poverty and daily fear from racism.
“I morphed from a carefree and happy child living under post-Mao Chinese authoritarianism to a bitter, foul-mouthed teenager fighting against the shadows of the American inner city,” states Ying.
The first half of the book is dedicated to her life in Guangzhou, China. The family’s living conditions, which were typical of most families in Guangzhou, were meager. Ying and her family slept in one bedroom, while her paternal grandparents and uncle slept in the other. They shared a kitchen and bathroom with the family next door. There was no hot running water and the toilet had to be flushed by bailing water from a large ceramic tank.
Ying may have been carefree, but her parents were not. The tenets of Mao’s communism remained. Her mother and other adults constantly feared the government and cautioned her children be careful about what they said and did, reminding them they were fortunate not to have lived under Mao’s rule.
When Ying was five she was sent to a kindergarten across town, where she stayed throughout the week and retuned home only on the weekends. During this time, a relative visited from Hong Kong and brought Ying a present of nail polish and painted Ying’s nails. When it was time to return to school, Ying’s mother warned her about telling anyone about the visits from these relatives, but 5-year-old Ying forgets her mother’s warning and waives her painted nails for all to see. In the end, Ying is told that she can no longer wear nail polish to school because it unfair to the other students do not have access to nail polish, “so I should try not to make them feel bad,” says Ying.
Because she is a shy, quiet child, Ying’s parents perceive her as less intelligent than her more talkative older brother and worry about her getting into good schools in China, but once in school, it becomes apparent that she is a not only very gifted student, but a very determined one — qualities that allow Ying to achieve in the ghetto schools she will attend.
The second part of the book looks at the nightmare Ying and her family encounter after moving to Oakland. Although their apartment is larger and they have running water, the family now lives in abject poverty and in fear of their black neighbors who regularly beat and rob Asians. Ying’s parents now work six days a week to support their family. Her mother becomes a seamstress in a sweatshop and her father takes a job cutting up fish. Ironically, Ying says her parents discovered that Chinese immigrants “derived great satisfaction from treating each other poorly” and “their employers treated them as if they were subhuman.”
Ying works hard in school, but has few friends. Evenings often are spent helping her parents with paperwork and taking them to medical appointments. She also cleans and cooks supper after school.
Using an uncle’s address, she is able to attend better schools in a more affluent area. One of Ying’s most disappointing moments happens after she pours her heart into researching and writing 40-page paper on the Hudson River School of Art and receives a B+. Knowing that other students with inferior papers got As, Ying questions the teacher about her grade and learns that the teacher never read the paper because it was handwritten. Ying had escaped the ghetto schools, but not the poverty that prevented her from owning a computer. After her brother heard what happened, he took his savings and bought her a computer.
Chinese Girl in the Ghetto is a fascinating and eye-opening story about legal immigration. There is some rough language within the book that illustrates her plight, but it is not offensive.
It is an inspiring story about one girl’s triumph over seemingly insurmountable odds. Much of her initiative and determination come from her Chinese heritage. After reading this book, I concluded that the United States needs legal immigrants like Ying Ma to provide an example for Americans who have lost their work ethic and desire for educational excellence.