Letter From New America: From China to India to Calif.'s Far North

Letter From New America: From China to India to Calif.'s Far North

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WEED, Calif.—Cliff Chang’s is an unlikely tale in a very unlikely setting, a quintessential California story of Communist takeovers, the British Raj, San Jose cabbies and a Mexican eatery in the town of Weed, just off I-5 in the shadows of the majestic Mt. Shasta. In a time of fear, as Americans retrench from the world and from each other, his life attests to the realities of a country struggling to keep its Dream alive.

“He talks too much,” Chang’s wife Claudia, a native of Jalisco, Mexico, says with a wry smile. And for good reason; he can do it in six languages, ranging from Spanish, Mandarin and Bengali to obscure Chinese and Indian dialects that only locals of those distant regions understand—a repertoire that bespeaks a life of migration, hope and entrepreneurialism. The story begins, not in Weed, but in China during the Communist takeover.

“My family is from the Hubei region,” Chang says. “They fled when the Communists took over in 1949. [They] tried to reach America but were told to look for the first white people they could find. That’s how they ended up in Calcutta”—then newly freed from British rule. “They took a wrong turn,” he adds jokingly in an accent as hard to place as it is to understand why a Chinese man would be greeting customers at a restaurant named Dos Amigos.

“I’m turning the tables,” Chang adds, referring to the large number of Hispanics working in Asian restaurants across the country. “Life is good!”

My family and I met Chang and his wife during a recent drive from San Francisco to Seattle. His restaurant lies off the highway, just south of the Oregon border and across the street from Taco Bell— about as close as many Americans seem willing to get to Mexico these days. “We just got back from a 45-day, 9,000- mile drive to the Yucatan and back,” Chang, a brawny man in his mid-forties, tells me, his eyes sparkling beneath a black Raiders cap. “Don’t believe the headlines,” he urges when I ask about the safety of travel there. “Mexico is beautiful!”

Yet driving through this small town, I felt my own shudder of reticence. Born and raised in San Francisco, reeking of liberalism, I’ve always experienced a quiver in my gut when venturing into rural, conservative America. It’s a mistrust that is tearing at the fabric of this nation—one that immigrants like Chang are challenging.

“My dad nearly beat me up when I told him I wanted to come to the U.S.,” he recalls. In India, his father had gone into dentistry, establishing a successful business that he intended to keep in the family. “But things were tough back then in that city of 20 million,” recalls Chang, the only one of his siblings not to take up the family practice. “So in 1992 I came to the Bay Area and began driving a cab in San Jose.”

Chang was robbed four times during those years, the last time catching the would-be thief, who turned out to be a serial bank robber. The commendation from then-Governor Pete Wilson stated: “California is a safer place thanks to men like Mr. Chang.”

With the money he saved, Chang managed to bring his Indian-Chinese family to the U.S., most of them eventually resettling in and around Weed. “It’s quite a sight when the family gets together,” Claudia laughs, “this enormous Chinese family all speaking Hindi to one another peppered with Spanish, English and Chinese.”

Still, things haven’t all been rosy for this intrepid entrepreneur and father of three. Over the years, he’s owned numerous motels, restaurants and other small businesses in this economically challenged region. “About four years ago, I was forced to shut down several of my businesses after a raid by ICE [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] agents. I had no one to run the place,” Chang says, “and so I asked one of the agents why he was coming after businesses like mine and ignoring the real crooks out there.”

“Like those on Wall Street?” I ask.

“Yeah, but I’m not complaining. Life is good,” he says emphatically.

My family and I bypass Weed on our return trip to the Bay Area. The radio is saturated with reports of the shooting in Tucson of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. I recall a conversation in Seattle with a young Arizona woman of Korean and American descent, who said she was mistrusted by whites who mistake her for Hispanic and by Hispanics who reject her as an outsider. I think of the interview on CNN later that day, Wolf Blitzer pressing his guest to answer whether the Arizona shooter was from the “lunatic right or lunatic left.”

And I give a nod in Chang’s direction as Weed whizzes past—home to a family crazy enough to believe that boundaries, whether cultural, linguistic, geographic or political, cannot and do not stand in the way of progress, but in fact serve as its very backbone.