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Thursday, May 6, 2010 10:01 pm

Making room for the Huangs

Immigration policy and the skilled international

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In 2002, the government of the People’s Republic of China banned a book of oral history interviews with the sorts of people that the West does not hear about, and that the Chinese authorities do not wish it to. The compiler was one Liao Yiwu, a dissident writer who had been marginalized himself by the party. The people who spoke with Liao dwelled on the fringes of a society that is not yet Westernized but no longer quite Chinese. They included an abbot, a leper, a blind musician, a former Red Guard, a Falun Gong practitioner and a corpse walker. The last is a relic of the days when rural China had no roads or trains, and a family member who died in a distant part of the country had to be brought back to the home village by cart, guarded by kung fu masters hired for the job.

An English translation of a selection of Liao’s interviews was published in 2008 as The Corpse Walker: Real-Life Stories, China From the Bottom Up. The Westernized name of the man who translated them from the Chinese is Wen Huang. In a 2008 interview, he acknowledged his debt to the collection of interviews by Chicagoan Studs Terkel titled Working, which, he said, gave him a compelling picture of the lives of ordinary Americans. Huang wanted to introduce Liao’s people to the West in the same way that Terkel had introduced their counterparts to him.

Huang grew up in mainland China, graduated with a master’s degree in international journalism from Fudan University in Shanghai in 1989 and worked as a reporter for Xinhua news agency before coming to the United States in 1990. Life’s sometimes wayward currents washed him ashore in Springfield, where he earned his second master’s degree from the public affairs reporting program offered by what was then still Sangamon State University.

Huang is an able reporter, and writes better English prose than most native-speakers. He began his journalism career working for Illinois Issues magazine covering state legislators, where he became acquainted with the American characters marginalized by the government here – the one run by Mike Madigan. From there it was but a long plane ride and an even longer journey to the New York Times Beijing bureau.

Much reporting these days is not done by newspapers, at least by people who wish a regular life and a regular paycheck. In the mid-00s, Huang worked for Rotary International out of Evanston, where he explained Asia and the Pacific to Rotary and explained Rotary to Asia and the Pacific. He continues his career as a translator, most recently with Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival From a Chinese Labor Camp by Xianhui Yang. The book was published by Pantheon Books in 2009 with an introduction by Huang.

It is hard to imagine that any of his fellow graduates of the Public Affairs Reporting program could do his present job as capably, since most American-borns among them lack the breadth of cultural knowledge that he brings to the work. That makes him a useful citizen as well as a successful reporter.

I should add that I have not met Mr. Huang. I do not offer him as a model immigrant or a model citizen, although he might be both. I write about him not because he is unique, but because he is not, at least not among recent immigrants to this country. His story in broad outline is that of thousands, and it is those thousands who are my real subject, since it has been the result, if not the intention, of our government’s recent immigration policies to make it harder for Mr. Huangs to come to this country and work.

Sensible people, including an immigration task force of the Council on Foreign Relations,  have concluded that the U.S. must put attracting skilled immigrants from other countries at the center of its immigration policy. One way to do that would be to make it easier for international students who’ve earned advanced degrees in the U.S. to stay once they graduate. There is a bipartisan bill in the works in Congress that would give permanent residency status to immigrants who receive a Ph.D. or master’s degree in science, technology, engineering or math from a U.S. university. As one of the bill’s sponsors put it to the press, it makes no sense to educate the world’s future inventors and entrepreneurs and then force them to take those skills to enrich other nations.

Indeed it does not. But why only seek to retain future inventors and entrepreneurs? However scant may be skilled tech workers from foreign countries in the U.S., knowledge about the places they come from is even more so. Providing that information is the signal service that our Mr. Huangs do the nation. As for the yammering from the right about “them” taking “our” jobs, they are only “our” jobs if “we” are qualified to fill them.   

Contact James Krohe Jr. at peptobiz@mindspring.com.

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