Chinatown newcomers cope with language and other barriers
By Guo Shipeng
Li Zhijian was a millionaire in local currency terms before he emigrated to Oakland from the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in June.
Like many fresh immigrants in Chinatown who come to America for a better life but are overwhelmed by cultural and social differences, the 45-year-old former construction contractor is struggling with elementary English classes in an adult school in the hope that he could find a paying job soon.
“It’s hard. I may just go back to China after a while,” Li said on a recent afternoon, after an English class at the Chinese Community Center in the Chinatown.
“My wife has already returned to China for a break because it has been too stressful for her,” Li said. “Life is much more difficult than we imagined.”
Li used to run a company in the southern boomtown of Shenzhen, just north of Hong Kong. His immigration application dragged on for so long — more than 10 years — that he almost gave up.
“It’s for my children’s education. Otherwise we wouldn’t have come,” Li said of the family’s decision to join his elder sister in Oakland.
The kids, 15 and 14 respectively, received free education at Oakland High School, but Li still brought more than one million yuan (about $150,000) with him, an astronomical amount for many Chinese families.
“It’s not that much here. We’ll use it up before long. ” said Li, who shared a $2,000 a month house with his sister. “So I need a job as soon as possible.”
English skills are crucial since Li doesn’t want to do manual jobs in the many restaurants or other businesses in Chinatown.
“At least they need to understand what their boss is saying to them, or they can’t get employment or if they get employment they can be taken advantage of,” said Bobbie Her, an English teacher for Oakland Adult Education.
But for most new Chinese immigrants, most of whom are over 40 if not older, the chance of their picking up English at the adult school is low.
“The frustrating part is no matter how many times I repeat a practice, the second day they don’t remember anything,” Her said after teaching a class of Chinese immigrants at the Asian Resource Center.
Li was equally frustrated.
“I am too old. It’s like left ear in and right ear out,” said Li, who spent his day cooking meals, driving kids to and from school and attending the adult school himself.
Li’s relatives and friends tried to help by introducing job opportunies in the construction sector to him, but obstacles proved to be more than the language.
“I can’t even read the blueprints, not only because they are in English but also the measuring system is inches and feet instead of meters,” Li said.
“The techniques are also different. They build houses with a lot of wood and little concrete, while in China it’s almost all concrete and bricks. I can’t handle it.”
Li at least has family connections in Chinatown and speaks Cantonese, but for people like Zhang Changjun and his wife Gao Sumin, who are from north China and only speak Mandarin, to adapt to American life is even harder.
Zhang, 55, and Gao, 53, moved to Pittsburg two months ago from the Chinese port city of Tianjin. Their son has a well-paying job in the Bay Area, but they said they didn’t want to live off him.
“We’ve been looking for jobs in the Chinatown for a long time. We tried many restaurants recruiting dish washers or waiters,” Zhang said. “But when we opened our mouth, the bosses would turn us down because we don’t speak Cantonese.”
“The southerners don’t like us northerners,” said grey-haired Zhang, who took the BART all the way from Pittsburg to attend the free English class offered by the Chinese Community Center.
The couple, Li and other Chinese immigrants stayed outside the center chit-chating after the class, exchanging comfort, encouragement and job information.
“Things will get better. Don’t worry. It just takes time,” Zhang said.
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