By Mahlon Meyer
Northwest Asian Weekly
The house on the corner has rotting, moss-soaked shingles. It has chipped paint on the door. And toilet paper accumulates on its ill-tended lawn. Amidst the other neat, tidy, and immaculate houses and lawns in a suburb east of Seattle, it is an anomaly.
And for many residents of the Eastside — who according to community leaders and school officials have similar eyesores in similarly immaculate neighborhoods — it is a sign of a new immigrant Chinese investor.
“This is not a perception,” said one community leader who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitivity of the subject. “They buy homes and don’t live in them, newspapers pile up, people are concerned, they look like sh**. It not only brings down the property value, it’s not safe for kids with squatters and drug users moving in.”
Media coverage of “absentee landlords” from China who have parked money in Eastside homes is not new.
But now an increasing number of new Chinese immigrants, aware of such issues, are taking social action to give back to the community, not only to change perceptions but also to foster pride among their children.
Little Masters Club, an organization of new Chinese immigrants, with a membership of almost 2,000 families, for the last five years has been fundraising at Microsoft to contribute to local PTSAs, visiting Children’s Hospital and Mary’s Place to lead activities, and educating local Chinese about the importance of giving blood.
“We have two principles,” said Amanda Han, the group’s founder. “We believe that kids gain pride by sharing their skills with the community at large, and we believe that the kids should do it themselves.”
Little Masters was originally focused on activities within the Chinese community, such as a radio station for kids or fundraising to allow students to take mission trips to poor communities in China and offer financial and technical support.
“In the past, the Chinese were thinking only of taking care of themselves,” added Han. The club was meant as a way for teenagers to act as teachers, and she believes peer-to-peer coaching was more motivational than traditional education.
“We were in survival mode.”
But the club grew and more families joined. Little Masters now has three WeChat groups of 500 members each and a fourth one is almost to the limit of 500. The community has extended its practice of encouraging kids to share resources with the larger society.
Along the way, club leaders had to adapt to a new society. While in China, it is common for students to sell artwork for charities, such as schools for the children of migrant farmers. Here, an attempt to do so was a failure.
“The kids felt they weren’t any good at fundraising,” said Han. “So instead of giving money, they decided to put on activities.”
At Mary’s Place, a homeless shelter for women and children, and at Children’s Hospital, they volunteered their time and shared Chinese cooking and games.
Learning from that experience, the club created a program to train its young members in fundraising.
Starting in 2015, they began a program of skits for children to learn how to talk to strangers.
“We taught them that you must look people in the eyes and if people are talking on the phone, not to bother them,” said Lily Yin, a member of the club.
Last year alone, the teenagers from Little Masters raised $8,400 from Microsoft for educational programs conducted by their PTSAs, said Yin.
New immigrant Chinese have also taken the lead in some school auctions on the Eastside.
At Somerset Elementary in 2015, there were less than 20 Chinese parents at the PTSA auction. By 2017, the figure jumped to over 90. This year, 150 Chinese parents bought tickets for the auction and bought prizes.
And at Somerset, as at other schools on the Eastside, the auction is now led and managed by a new Chinese immigrant.
As the demographics of the school shifted from Chinese being in the minority to now comprising roughly half of the student population, Dong Hu, who chairs the auction, said he felt compelled to continue a “good tradition.”
His decision was also practical. He was worried that donors from the past might decamp when the white parents that had been running the auction stepped down after years of hard work.
“In this kind of situation, we have to rely on the mainstream people,” he said, meaning the Chinese.
But Chinese activists insist they are motivated by a source of pride in being a part of the larger community.
Yin said, “For those of us who have lived over here longer, we’ve witnessed the contributions of others and we’ve been inspired by the spirit of public service of these people.” Yin trained kids in fundraising for Little Masters and arrived from Shanghai 20 years ago.
Still, despite the outreach of groups like Little Masters and new immigrant volunteer leaders in schools like Somerset, tensions still remain — and not only on the side of white community leaders.
One small business owner from China, when asked to share stories from her friends about the hardships that led people to move out of China, responded with an email full of outrage and frustration.
“Thank you for trusting me,” she wrote. “But whether it’s the English or the Chinese media, the reporting about Chinese immigrants recently has been distorted, has taken things out of context, has in some cases just layered on the writer’s delusions, and has totally misrepresented our true feelings.”
“This is especially true of the foreigners who have absolutely no understanding of our position,” she added. “I feel a great sense of harm and totally disrespected.”
Experts that study immigration say individuals are often overwhelmed when they encounter broader perceptions that marginalize whole groups of people.
“A newcomer does not always realize the blanket of blame or perception applies to them, whether they fit the idea or not,” said Bettie Luke, a prominent educator, activist, and diversity trainer. “The personal self is not known until that individual shares information, usually after trust is built.”
And in Bellevue, where Asians comprise over 34 percent of the population, separating individual identity from perceptions about a group might be particularly difficult.
On top of this, a reigning atmosphere of xenophobia in the United States makes tensions even more severe.
The community leader who portrayed the Eastside as filled with widespread anxiety over Chinese absentee landlords concluded that the current political atmosphere exacerbates such worries.
“We’re in a horrific time of intolerance,” he said. “The climate is ripe for assuming bad intentions.”
Mahlon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.