Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Syria Town

"Did you know that Chinatown was not always Chinatown?" Fred had told me during his interview. And he was not the only person I heard this from. Chinatown has been in Boston for a along time. It has expanded into what was the Combat Zone, and the Theatre district has come up to meet it so that recently I went to Penang after watching the Lion King instead, Lucky Dragon after going to a peep show at the Naked Eye. (I'm too young to have done the latter but you get what I'm saying.) But a lot of the places that we see as Chinatown, were populated by Syrian immigrants.

In fact the highway that displaced a lot of Chinese when they bulldozed all those homes and the "New York Streets" displaced a lot of Syrians and Jews as well. A lot of them moved to Brookline and the older Chinese American generations maintains ties with these old friends and neighbors. And some did not move. Some still maintain property in Chinatown.

Where the CCBA is now, was once a Lebanese club. What I'm saying is that Syrian American history in Boston, is very closely tied with the history of Chinatown.

Now I have no idea what Syrian Americans who have been in the United states for generations feel about Governor Baker saying he doesn't want any Syrian Refugees coming to Boston. In fact I would like to hear that perspective. But for instance, a lot of old school third generation Chinese Americans have differing opinions about new Chinese Immigrants.

But the Chinese were never viewed as being quite as threatening as people are now viewing Muslims or Syrians or people from the middle east in general. During the Vietnam war people were definitely racist towards people who looked like the people the U.S. was fighting a war with. Yes we were also fighting for people that looked Asian....and you could say the same thing about the situation we find ourselves in now.

During the cold war, a lot of Chinese and even non Chinese were seen as a potential threat. They could be Communist spies, that sort of thing. But I feel like that fear, though similar to terrorism, is also a little different.

If you go way back, Italians were the ethnic group viewed to be the bombing type, because of the anarchist movement, and the North End's population may have been seen as threatening and Un-American. That is a perception, that is almost unimaginable today.

Chinese being seen as un-american is still an issue though. That's why after 9/11 you saw a ton of American Flags go up in Chinese Restaurants in Chinatown not saying "United We Stand" but, "Time to Kick Ass."

Remember? And we had Freedom Toast and Freedom Fries? Remember that?

Part of that was patriotism. But I think part of it too was making sure Chinese Americans separated themselves from the new group that was seen as a threat.

Working at Sovereign Bank, (now Santander) my co-worker from Hong Kong talked to me about riding with a Sikh on the train every morning. Being from Hong Kong, he was very familiar with Sikhs. They were a big part of the British army and in many ways, for a time, seen as a step up from Chinese in that sense. In any case, he knew they were Indian and not Muslim. But suddenly he noticed after 9/11 that everyone looked at this Sikh man on the train differently.

"Can't they tell that they tie that thing on their head differently than the way a Muslim ties that thing on their head?"

I mentioned that the people who did 9/11 didn't even wear turbans anyway.

He wanted to say something on the train, but hadn't.

On the ABC news, they were interviewing a young man from Belgium who was in a neighborhood, kind of like Chinatown. In that it was an ethnic neighborhood inside Belgium. He didn't show his face but he said that most of the people in this neighborhood were radical Islam. That three of his neighbors had gone to Syria to train.

Now Governor Baker says that he will turn away Syrian Refugees. Marty Walsh made a statement that was meant to sound less antagonistic, but didn't go against Baker. And after all, we don't want something like what happened in Paris to happen here.

There is good reason to be cautious. Some weapons were stolen from an Army Barracks. Not the first time. A lot of stuff stolen in the Boston Area used to end up right over in Northern Ireland.

And of course in most recent times we had the Tsarnaev brothers. They became radical here.

In fact the big problem doesn't seem to be outside people coming in. But inside people reading stuff online and joining up with the terrorists.

This time nobody is looking at Chinese Americans with suspicion. Not for this issue anyway. But we need to be careful we, as Asian Americans, don't jump on a bandwagon and start pointing fingers at other groups just because we happen to not be under pressure at the moment. Nor should we just be silent when people start painting in broad strokes. Every group in Boston, at some point in History was seen as a potentially violent threat because of the actions of a few individuals.

How do Syrian Americans view the situation of a possible influx of Syrian refugees? I don't know but I would like to find out. Please tell me what you think in the comments below.

And don't forget to Share this post. It's a discussion we should all be having, instead of just shutting our doors and our thoughts.

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