By Joshua Barajas
When an optometrist could not explain a Chinese mother’s blindness, Amy Wong Mok, then a psychotherapist at a mental health center in Boston Chinatown, later learned the cause – the mother’s 14-year-old son came home one day with purple hair.
“She didn’t want to see,” Mok said, adding that for the mother, adjusting to life in the U.S. proved isolating even in her own home.
As China adopts a more central role as the world’s second-largest economy, the pressure to promote mutual understanding between American and Chinese cultures has become more crucial, despite a relationship that is historically rife with thinly veiled tensions.
As founder of the Asian American Cultural Center in North Austin, Wok said that when she moved to Austin in 1983, there wasn’t a community center for Asians. Once erected, the building’s motto became inclusive: “Where East meets West.” A gathering place for the Asian community, the Center also provides an opportunity for Asians and non-Asians to share their cultures.
“Cultural understanding is not just music and dance,” Mok said. “We’re helping to raise children to be global citizens.”
The Asian population in Texas alone has seen dramatic growth, necessitating such cultural centers in the state. Census data released earlier this year showed a significant growth in Asian populations in Central Texas, with Austin’s Asian population of 49,864 ranked second among the state’s largest cities, trailing Houston.
Yet Austin’s urban landscape hasn’t always reflected those growing numbers. The city did not have its Chinatown shopping center on North Lamar until 2006. Creating the facility “was a strategic decision,” Madeline Hsu, director of the Center for Asian American Studies, said. “Before, most Asians had to go to Dallas or Houston on the weekends to buy Asian groceries.”
Before the Center’s inception, Austin’s Asian representation rested with the number of Chinese restaurants in the area. According to Chinese Restaurant News, there are three times as many Chinese restaurants in America than there are McDonald’s franchises.
“It’s not very good Chinese food,” Hsu said, “but there’s a recognition of the Chinese having a place in the U.S.”
Hsu said the stereotypical image of China as an aggressive global actor reflects a deep-rooted fear among Americans that the Chinese hope to soften.
The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 – the first law barring immigration into the U.S. – was imposed to prevent an excess of cheap labor. “Over the long term, things have gotten better,” Hsu said. “But the Chinese were first… to be excluded [from the U.S.] by race.”
While the images of China in Austin may not yet be as refined or wholly positive as the Asian community would like them to be, Mok echoed the same sentiment she felt decades ago while attracting investors to help fund her Center. “Without a home, where can people find [the Asian community]?” Wok said.