Mockingbird practicing comic routine

Yunte Huang on racist immigration law in sweet home Alabamaa

Who but the ever marvelous Yunte Huang could possibly get away with this marvelous opening sentence in an op-ed piece in today's TImes Sunday Review: "IMAGINE this: It’s Sunday morning, beautiful and quiet, except for the mockingbird practicing comic routines on the sweet gum tree in the backyard." Then there is this gem, about Yunte as a new Chinese immigrant in Alabama: "In reality, I was kosher as far as my immigration status was concerned." That's good enough for me, as is the injunction he quotes from Leviticus to welcome the stranger in your midst. But perhaps the problem with the new Alabama anti-Mexican-American law is that its perpetrators think the New Testament freed them from that Old Testament injunction. I hope Yunte's article gets them to think again, or else We the Kosher (in the metaphoric sense!) will keep crowing like mocking birds in gum trees of our own devising.


The New York Time Sunday Review
November 19, 2011

Southern Hospitality, but Not for Newcomers

IMAGINE this: It’s Sunday morning, beautiful and quiet, except for the mockingbird practicing comic routines on the sweet gum tree in the backyard. As usual, you get ready and drive your family to church. Everyone is well dressed, and the kids are singing in the back seat.

Somewhere along the way, you spot a stranger by the roadside, carrying a Bible, looking lost. As a good Christian, you pull over and offer him a ride. In the car, you introduce him to your family, making sure your kids know their manners. You chat with the stranger. Chances are, he’s from somewhere else, maybe even another country. You drop him off near where he’s going; or, God willing, he’ll come, on your invitation, to your church for the service. If the latter, it will make your day, having welcomed a stranger into the benevolent fold of the Lord.

That stranger could have been me, 20 years ago, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Fresh out of college in Beijing, I had left my home country in the wake of the Tiananmen massacre. Landing in the sleepy college town, I was disappointed that Times Square was nowhere to be seen. I started going to churches, and without a car, I had to rely on good Samaritans for rides on Sunday. A newbie not yet brazen enough, I always carried a Bible, which seemed to work better than a hitchhiker’s thumb. When kindhearted folks — men in immaculate suits and women in puffy, flowery dresses — stopped for me and asked what church I was going to, I would invariably say, “Yours.”

If the same scene is played again today, you, the good Samaritan, could be in trouble. According to an Alabama law that went into effect on Sept. 1, it is a crime to knowingly give an illegal immigrant a ride. In reality, I was kosher as far as my immigration status was concerned. And even if I were not, you might walk away scot-free because you didn’t know I was illegal. But after Gov. Robert J. Bentley — who in January apologized for saying after taking office, “Anybody here today who has not accepted Jesus Christ as their savior, I’m telling you, you’re not my brother” — signed the immigration law in June, you probably wouldn’t stop for a stranger like me, kosher or not. And that’s one of the problems with the law — its mean spirit. It goes against a basic tenet of Christian belief: “Help them as you would a foreigner and stranger, so they can continue to live among you” (Leviticus 25:35). But that’s not my only beef with the law.

The reason I chose Alabama out of all the states was very simple: it’s alphabetically the first. It may sound incredible, but in those dark days after Tiananmen, when Beijing reeked of blood and horror, I was so desperate to leave the country that I simply did not care where I was going. I went to the university library and opened a guidebook to American colleges. Lo and behold, there was “Alabama” on the first page. (Sorry, Wyoming.) As much as I found Tuscaloosa to be almost unbearably provincial — think of leaving Moscow and ending up in Moscow, Idaho — I never regretted it.

Alabama, with its tall pines, red clay and festering swamps, was a land under a charming spell. As I learned to appreciate the rich history and culture of the Deep South, I also figured out a problem: race. Yellow, I found, was not a visible color in a society where everything had for more than two centuries been black or white.

Falling into such a racial vacuum was not, however, without advantage — call this the yin-yang of racism. Before xenophobia began to cast a different spell on the South, the folks were courteous, warmhearted, always ready to help out a stranger, as my hitchhiking amply proved. Even in my closest brush with the law during those years, I walked away with a profound admiration for the kind of hospitality characteristic of the South.

That was after I bought a car, a beat-up Toyota hatchback, for a whopping $500. One night, I did what I now know as a “California rolling stop” near the university campus. A patrol car seemed to zoom out from nowhere, and I was pulled over. With scenes of “My Cousin Vinny” fresh in my mind, I was more than a bit scared. I tried my best to sound apologetic and remorseful to the approaching policeman in his brown uniform and shining boots. To my surprise, he was very courteous, addressing me as “sir” in a pleasant, melodic drawl. After checking my license, and sensing there were no drugs or alcohol involved, he gave me a warning and let me go. (He didn’t actually wave me off with a “roll tide,” as a recent commercial comically portrays, but you get the drift.)

Such a comedy of manners — my Chinese politeness and his Southern chivalry — might not play out today in Sweet Home Alabama, because the new law allows the police, even in a routine traffic stop, to arrest anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant. Just imagine the paranoia that would have pervaded the situation, both the policeman’s suspicion and the driver’s fear. Or when, a year later, out of economic necessity, I wanted to open a Chinese restaurant in town and went to city hall to apply for a business license. The clerks looked at me as if I were fresh off the boat, but never thought to inquire into my immigration status. They were just happy that there would be a new business in town, a place where they could order egg rolls and sweet and sour pork.

I’m waxing nostalgic because I miss the time when the sweet Southern air was, at least for this immigrant, not poisoned by fear, the malevolent phobia that haunts Dixie today. The new law is as much an ineffective solution to economic woes as a xenophobic reaction by an already bifurcated community to the arrival of new immigrants, be they Asians or Hispanics. As Charlie Chan might have asked, “What in the name of Confucius happened to Southern hospitality?”

Yunte Huang is a professor of English at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the author of “Charlie Chan: The Untold Story of the Honorable Detective and His Rendezvous With American History.”