Fuzhou America Conference

On October 8th, 2022, as the Baruch Performing Arts Center continues to reopen its doors and welcome all varieties of audiences back into its theatres, Baruch College hosted an unprecedented gathering. A self-organizing community made up of mostly the descendants of immigrants from Fuzhou, China came together for their largest ever in-person conference, “Take Out Only.” The conference was sponsored in part by Baruch’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Asian American Studies Program. Ken Guest, a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology, was invited to give one of the keynote addresses. He’s been working with this community for 25 years.

“In the anthropological field, it’s what we call ‘longitudinal research,’” Guest said. “That’s a way of saying that you’ve devoted your whole life to something. I started working on the parents of this community that came to the US in the 90s and early 2000s. It is incredibly gratifying for me to see this new generation come together. And to be invited into their community as a researcher to provide a data driven perspective is really unique.”

Over the past 25 years, a wave of over half a million immigrants have come to the United States from Fuzhou, a large metropolitan area in Fujian, a province in southeastern China, revitalizing New York City’s Chinatown and changing the cultural and ethnic makeup of the Chinese American community. Guest’s first book, God in Chinatown, which began as his dissertation at the CUNY Graduate Center, traces their journey by exploring their work in restaurants, garment shops, and construction, and the vast human smuggling network that often aids their arrival in the United States. His writing also addresses the role of Fuzhounese religious communities both here and abroad, the religious revival that has swept coastal China, the Fuzhounese role in the rapidly expanding U.S. network of all-you-can-eat buffets and take-out restaurants, and the higher education experiences of the Fuzhounese second generation, particularly at Baruch College.

Fuzhou America, the non-profit that organized “Take Out Only” and oversees an online community that brings nearly 8,000 second generation Fuzhounese Americans together, relates the prototypical Fuzhounese immigrant narrative on their website. “You know how the story goes… someone in our family-usually a father, uncle, or grandfather-crossed the Atlantic by boat. Then, they opened up take-out restaurants in every corner of this country. From the rural villages back in Fuzhou, they succeeded in carving out a space for us in America.”

But, the descendants of this first wave of Fuzhounese immigrants now find themselves in a situation familiar to many children of immigrants growing up in insular communities: torn between their aspiration to assimilate into American life and their parents’ expectation that they continue working in their demanding restaurant businesses. “I wanted to imagine that there could be something more to my life than just working in a restaurant, only building towards owning my own restaurant or maybe becoming the boss’ wife,” said Lei Wang, herself a Fuzhounese immigrant and student at Baruch. “The options are really very limited for most people who come from Fuzhou. But now, I’m only a few weeks away from my graduation!” For Lei, and many of her generation, things seem to be changing.

“Take Out Only” was in part an event to collectively process this experience, reflect on the trauma of the past, and the possibility of the future. “This was really a powerful moment of self-recognition,” said Guest, “they wanted so many different perspectives included: a historical angle, a panel on entrepreneurship, and in the afternoon they wanted do a panel on intergenerational trauma led by Amy Zheng, a second generation Fuzhounese immigrant who has her PhD in Psychology. I was amazed that they wanted to open up and talk about that part of their experience.”

Fuzhou America Conference

The breakdown in communication between generations is especially challenging for this group. In many cases, the younger generation has trouble even speaking with their parents in their native language. Most grew up learning English and Mandarin, the dialect that has now become nearly universal in China due to the central government’s attempt to flatten out regional differences. Their parents often only speak the local dialect that they grew up with. For young Fuzhounese Americans, expressing themselves to their parents at all can sometimes seem impossible. In creating a safe space where this community can delve into their shared experiences, “Take Out Only” is the first event of its kind.

“It was inspiring to be able to help them frame their personal experiences in a slightly larger context,” said Guest. “Really it’s an extension of what I experience with my students all the time in my anthropology classes. Of course, Baruch students typically know about immigration when we get to that section on the syllabus. But it’s an anecdotal first-person experience. They have never thought about it in terms of these huge historical patterns and where they fit into that. They start to see that they’re not alone.” 

In continuing to document this generation’s experiences, Fuzhou America has asked Ken Guest to help. “We’ll see how it all continues to develop,” he said, “But, I think there’s at least one or two more books to be written on this community. To work closely with them on how their story is told is really exciting.”

Fuzhou America Conference