Dr. Jean Wong

Editor’s Note: Dr. Jean Wong is Associate Professor Emerita in Languages and Literacy at the Department of Special Education in the College of New Jersey. While a graduate student at UCLA, she was the first paid interviewer for the Southern California Oral History Project. This was as told to William Gow on May 25, 2023 by Zoom, and edited by Samuel Yee.

Integrated, But Still Isolated

I was born and raised in Belmont, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. There weren’t many Chinese around. In fact, our family was one of the only Chinese families, and I would say the first Chinese family to be there. My father came to the U.S. by himself at the age of seventeen with a paper father. He worked in various Chinese laundries, Chinese restaurants and so forth. He joined the Army and fought in World War II, and he was posthumously honored in 2018 with the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal.

There were two families for a while in Belmont, and it gradually increased to three or four. That was it. I did my K-through-12 education there, and there was one other Chinese classmate, Marilyn. We felt pretty isolated, and there was discrimination. I would be laughed at, teased, called “chink chink chink” trying to get down my street, which obviously made me feel sad. “Why are you calling me names?” I could speak English. I didn’t feel any different, but I certainly was made to feel different. My father would mention, “Oh, people don’t like Chinese. People are anti-Chinese.” And I did wonder why he was saying that, because, except for being teased and laughed at, I didn’t feel any different from others. It was hurtful that I was treated that way, but obviously he felt that much more so.

When we were young, we wanted to fit in, and unfortunately it made us embarrassed about our Chinese culture and language. My parents were peasant farmers from Kaiping, so they spoke Kaiping dialect. Nobody else spoke that, obviously. When I walked out the door of my house, I felt very awkward and strange. I still remember when we would go off to the supermarket in Waltham, the neighboring town; if I saw another Chinese person, I would point that out to my mother. I would say, “Look! Look! There’s a Chinese person, there’s a Chinese!”

Discovering a Passion

“Did I see myself reflected in history classes or in the curriculum?” Nothing in the K-to-12 curriculum. I didn’t learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act or the Chinese working on the railroad, and there was nothing on the Chinese language. At that time, my sister was interested in taking Chinese language classes. They offered them on Saturdays in Newton, Massachusetts, and I thought, “Oh, how interesting!” I would’ve probably gone along, too, but my parents couldn’t take us because they were busy working seven days a week.

When I was applying to colleges, I was interested in Connecticut College for two reasons: One, I was interested in classics because I studied four years of Latin and three years of German in high school. I thought I could be a classics major and study Greek and Latin. But, as an aside, they offered Chinese language classes. You could major in Chinese, and there was Asian studies as well. I was still intent on majoring in classics, and I thought I would take Chinese classes, as well as Asian studies, as an aside. However, I got so impassioned with Chinese. And I did take courses in Chinese history, Indian history, and other courses in Asian and Asian American studies. It was my professor, Charles Chu, at Connecticut College.[1] He made the courses so exciting and interesting.

But Chinese was very difficult. It required about forty hours a week. It was a lot of work. I did well, and one other professor even said, “It’s too bad you have a yellow face.” The point was that people weren’t going to give me credit for having worked hard, because they’ll think it’s easy for me. It wasn’t. It was very difficult. Some of my college friends, when they asked me what I was majoring in, and I said Chinese, they would chuckle and laugh, “Isn’t that easy for you?” I would say, “Listen, if I majored in English lit, that would have been so much easier!”

From East to East

On the East Coast, there was not that notion that we were Asian American. That was a California thing. I went to Taiwan on a program for overseas Chinese as a senior in college, and that was my first time flying out to California. Coming from an isolated White community, I go out to San Francisco, L.A., and I see a Chinese taxi driver, a Chinese elevator operator, a Chinese this, a Chinese that. Growing up in Belmont, Massachusetts, I didn’t see that sort of thing. We only went into Boston Chinatown to go grocery shopping or to visit relatives and then come back. It was not so much “Asian American” as it was a touch of Chinese culture. Asian American stuff was something different. I later came to learn that as well.

After I graduated from college, I was lucky enough to be awarded a Thomas J. Watson Foundation fellowship, which was $7,000 to work on a project in Hong Kong, which took me there in 1973. Although it was just funded for one year, I wanted to stay two years, so they agreed to have me as a fellow for two years there. I fell in love with Hong Kong and liked it so much that I ended up staying in Hong Kong for about three and a half years. In my second year, I also began working for The Washington Post Hong Kong Bureau as the office administrator and an administrative assistant. And since I was interested in Chinese as well, I also became like an informal “China-watcher,” helping to look out for Chinese news stories. I could help the bureau chief with translating some People’s Daily editorials.

I was learning Chinese and Chinese culture, and living in Hong Kong, but I still felt conflicted. I felt different in Hong Kong and China, too. In terms of my identity, it was clear that I was not necessarily like the Chinese from China or Hong Kong. But then, I’m not like Americans from the U.S. either. In Belmont, I looked different. I have Asian features, but then I felt so much like my White community. In Hong Kong, I looked like everybody else, which is comforting, but I don’t speak Cantonese well. They say, “sit ten, mm sit gong” [can understand but can’t speak]. And I say, “sit gong” [can speak a little].

Back to America

When I was in Hong Kong, I also traveled to Taiwan and the Philippines a little bit. And then I met what turned out to be my husband in Hong Kong. He was an American doing dissertation research there. That brought me back to the U.S. We moved to UCLA, where he was a professor in what at the time was called the Department of Oriental Languages. They eventually changed it to the Department of East Asian Studies and then later to the Department of Asian Languages and Cultures (ALC) – a little bit at my recommendation. When my husband became chair, I said, “Don’t you think you should change the name ‘Oriental languages’?”

My time in L.A. was from 1977 till 1988. 1988 to 1989, my then husband and I went to China. I had two stints in China long-term: 1979 to 1980, and then 1988 to 1989, which was actually the tumultuous year of the Tiananmen Movement. That, unfortunately, turned into the Tiananmen Massacre. In 1989, we returned. My husband knew he was leaving UCLA to go to Princeton, where he was taking up a position as a professor. For him, it was a second coming to Princeton, because he actually left Princeton to go to UCLA back in 1977.

I began work on my dissertation. I had applied to UCLA as a grad student in the teaching English as a second language program and did a certificate, as well as a master’s. After I finished my master’s, I got interested in a Ph.D. in applied linguistics. So really, I was at UCLA doing my applied linguistics from 1981 to 1994. It took me a long time to finish the dissertation and file. I then began my job at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) as an adjunct professor in the fall of 1996, and then on a tenure-track position in the fall of 1997. Before I retired, I finished twenty-five years at The College of New Jersey. I’ve been in New Jersey since then.

Chance Encounters with the Chinese Historical Society

In 1979, 1980, we went to Guangzhou, People’s Republic of China, where my husband was doing research, and I was teaching English as a foreign language at Zhongshan University 中山大学. That’s where we met Lucie Cheng, a colleague of my then husband. She was involved in overall exchanges between UCLA and China. Then, when I came back from China in 1980, I was looking for work, and Lucie mentioned that there was a job offered through the Asian American Studies Center, and she put me in touch with Suellen Cheng.

That really was my beginning of working on the oral history project in 1980, and I was very interested. Suellen is friendly, easy to talk to, and she’s from Taiwan. We had this connection. She said the goal of the project was to find the older Chinese around in L.A. I thought of my parents as well; they’re from China as transplants too. That notion of finding and conducting interviews with the older Chinese around in L.A. was interesting to me. That was a way to get into learning more about L.A. I was still considered fairly new to Southern California.

I was not aware of the larger nature of the project; there were so many volunteers working on it. I knew this was a project that was rooted in the Asian American Studies Center, and I knew that Munson Kwok and Suellen, through the Society, were involved in it. I was very much impressed with what Suellen, Munson, and the others were doing. They were very much focused on Asian American issues. Coming from the East Coast, I had not heard of this term “Asian American”, and we didn’t have this kind of community. And so, it was Suellen who put me in touch with a list of interviewees. It was a way to meet Chinese people. It was very interesting to me that the people that I was interviewing all knew English very well.

Connecting with the Community

Were any of these interviewees memorable? Certainly so. I wish that they were still alive because I would want to be in touch with them. I remember their names, forty-three years later. For example, Louise Leung Larson was the first pioneer news reporter. She became a friend of mine. She would come over to my house, and she met my son when he was born. She knew my daughter, and subsequently through her, I met her daughter, Jane Larson. I was in touch with Betty Lem. She asked me to go over multiple times. She and I became friends. Sometimes, these were retired Chinese Americans who wanted connections. Betty would just call me and say, “Come on over. Come have tea and chat.”

Sometimes, interviewees were kind of skeptical and suspicious of me. I’d call up, and here’s this stranger who wants to come and interview and record them. But for many of the interviews, I was pregnant with my first child, and here I am, this person who is about 4’ 10” carrying this tape recorder in a beach basket. I think that helped to ease their nerves.

I also remember interviewing some celebrities, like actors Keye Luke and Bessie Loo. Aside from the celebrities, there are people who are your ordinary folk, and I don’t mean that in any derogatory way. We need to preserve ordinary life. We analyze them differently, but they are from ordinary life, ordinary scenes. There’s a lot of precious stones that need to be turned over. Ordinary folks like Don Hang Wong, I did three or four tapes with him. I would love to listen to those tapes again. It might make me cry to hear them. I’m a nostalgic type. I wish I could be in touch with them. I’m just so glad that the history is recorded, and Suellen and the others went to find all these people to interview.

Final Thoughts

There definitely has been progress made, but I think the visibility-invisibility of Chinese Americans in recorded history is still an issue. It seems as if Asian Americans are still invisible. In terms of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs, sometimes I think we still get lost in the shuffle. We still have to say, “Hey, remember, we’re a part of the DEI.” I see this at many institutions. Immigrants need to make adjustments and learn the language and culture. They become Chinese Americans, Asian Americans, the future generations. In my field, we talk about the need to “trans-language,” meaning we need to allow the languages that people know and come with to be a part of the mix. It’s not as if you have to forget Chinese because you have to learn English as the dominant language in order to survive. Being multilingual is part of the Asian American identity and culture. It’s not one or the other, but a fluid kind of thing.

[1] Charles Chi-Jung Chu (1918-2008) was a master calligrapher, painter, and scholar. He taught at Connecticut College until 1984. He was a graduate of National Central University in Nanjing and came to the U.S. in 1945 to pursue graduate studies at UC Berkeley and Harvard University. Prior to founding and directing the Chinese program at Connecticut College, Chu taught at Yale University for fifteen years.