Though far less poor than her classmates in China, the Oakland kids felt entitled to steal. On one of her first days in an American classroom, Ying Ma was shocked by the brazen theft of a shiny mechanical pencil one of her Chinese classmates had given her as a farewell present. Her outrage was pure:
"Every one of my former (Chinese) classmates understood stealing to be shameful. ... Our parents and instructors repeatedly condemned it. Those who disobeyed were severely punished with public reprimands in class followed by potential corporal punishment at home. ... In the ghetto, however, I could not count on my classmates to know right from wrong, nor could I count on the adults to ferret out fault and dispense punishment."
In a way that counted very much to a young teenager -- safety and security -- Oakland was less civilized and less just than Guangzhou.
Ying Ma was also a victim of racism -- though not in the way Americans are comfortable dissecting and condemning. Her mostly black and Hispanic classmates and neighbors engaged in daily racist taunts and sometimes violence. They victimized Asians of every stripe, calling Chinese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Filipinos "Chinaman," "ching chong" or "chow mein." Black high school students screamed abuse at a middle-aged Cantonese cafeteria worker, calling her a "stupid Chinaman." Though Ying burned with fury, she could do little to respond. "Physically, we were usually no match for those who discriminated against us. Culturally, we were predisposed to be less confrontational than our non-Asian peers."
A black teacher who took an interest in Ying Ma and helped to place her in the "gifted" program despite her limited English is remembered gratefully, along with the black friend who stood by her when she was physically attacked by a racist (Hispanic) bully.
As with many other immigrants, the Ying family was able to escape poverty by fierce hard work, planning and mutual support. Ying Ma herself was able to go to Cornell and then Stanford Law School. Despite her difficult path, she loves America. Her journey has made her the very best kind of conservative -- one whose love of liberty, order and self-reliance has been forged through gritty experience.
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