An exploration of ties within immigrant networks, between people of different colors, and among all of us who have stories to tell.
A Nourishing Conversation with Katherine (Kat) Jinyi Li
I met Kat at the University of Chicago when we were both undergraduate students there.
We took a class together called Colonizations, a class that played a significant role in helping both of us establish a framework to see the world differently. It allowed us to ground our understanding of social justice in the historical roots of colonization.
In 2013, Kat and my paths crossed again when we collaborated with the Illinois Coalition of Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR) to research and write white papers on the effects of immigration on the Illinois economy.
Since graduating, Kat has traveled to multiple places and when we had the following nourishing conversation, she was living in a large favela community in São Paulo, Brazil. Kat has since moved back to the U.S. with her one-year-old baby in search of a new chapter of her life.
S: I will be honest and say that I follow you closely on Facebook. I really appreciate the articles and perspective you share on Facebook related to issues of immigration, race relations, and social justice. How did your interest in these topics arise?
K: That’s a big question, and it is definitely a lot of things.
My parents moved to the States in the late 80’s. My dad got a scholarship to study here but he didn’t have any family in the U.S. Without the migration restrictions in China, he could move wherever he liked in his new country. This made him feel free, and the possibilities were endless.
My parents started out in East Bay but ended up taking us everywhere, from Pittsburgh, Baton Rouge, Seattle, to Detroit, always looking for better jobs and a new life.
Every time we moved, there was a really strong Chinese community. Everywhere we went, my parents found a Chinese school or a Chinese church, and they put us kids in it. Although my dad didn’t have any family here, the Chinese immigrant networks were really strong. Immigrant networks in general are very strong. My parents would find an old acquaintance from their village who had a cousin who had an old teacher who was living somewhere and would welcome us to our new place, or would suggest another city for our next move.
Those experiences revealed to me, at a young age, the networks of immigration and how far they reached.
We had family friends living in Baton Rouge, whom my parents actually knew from their home province in Hunan, China, and then suddenly, we saw them on the other side of the country. Sometimes families moved after us, because my parents told them it was nice. That helped me to understand what mobility and community meant. I saw the importance of these networks, and I want to be a part of that forever. I want to continue to know how communities work and to help people who don’t have these networks get connected to them.
“Those experiences revealed to me, at a young age, the networks of immigration and how far they reached…That helped me to understand what mobility and community meant. I saw the importance of these networks, and I want to be a part of that forever.”
My parents split when I was in high school. I lived with my mom in Washington state for a while, but then moved in with my dad, who was living in metro Detroit. We lived all over the region, and we ended up settling in one of the whitest neighborhoods. My dad researched the neighborhoods and put us in the whitest school district because, well, that must have the best education.
Turns out, all the kids of color at my school had also been implanted from other parts of metro Detroit by their well-meaning parents. And we all ended up on stage on Diversity Day before a full, white auditorium. I had never felt so different and isolated as I did in high school, even though at the time I didn’t know to attribute that feeling to differences in race or culture.
“I had never felt so different and isolated as I did in high school, even though at the time I didn’t know to attribute that feeling to differences in race or culture.”
I did a couple years of high school in the Detroit suburbs and then got accepted early to the University of Chicago. I finished my senior year in high school early, and I decided to move to the Southside of Chicago. I knew that was going to be my home for at least four years while I went to college, so I wanted to learn more about the Southside. I loved Richard Wright and other Black writers who wrote about the city. Having lived a couple of years in Detroit and also having lived in the South, I was really interested in the Great Migration and how it played out in other Midwestern cities.
S: How did you do that? How did you get the courage to move to Chicago by yourself at age 17 and get by?
K: Well, I actually tapped into my family’s Chinese immigrant network. Of course, everyone in the Chinese community knows where everyone else’s kids went to college. And turns out, a couple of our old family friends had kids studying at UChicago. So, I hit ’em up, and they really helped me get settled in. They even let me crash in their living room for a while. I really miss them. The guys I lived with were like big brothers to me, and they really took care of me. I remember they sat me down that summer before college and told me to watch out for Yellow Fever. I asked, what is that? [laughs] They said, you know, there are white guys who had never seen a cute Asian girl before, so just be careful to make sure a guy likes you for you and isn’t using you to satisfy a fetish. They gave me the UChicago survival guide for Asians.
Living on my own in Chicago wasn’t too big of a step, because I had learned to be very independent early on. Even before my parents got divorced, they often left me and my siblings home alone. I knew how to cook for myself and how to get around. In high school when I lived with my dad in Detroit, he was in China a lot, so my sister and I took care of each other. I already kind of lived on my own. I was already working, and I had been saving up money since I was 14, so I was ready to set off on my own.
The first place I crashed was a studio of a friend of a family friend who lived on 63rd Street, and I was right by the Green Line. I worked as a community organizer for Alderman Sandi Jackson in the 7th Ward, as a research assistant at the UChicago hospital, and had other odd jobs to get by and pay the bills. I was really lucky, because I mostly got free rent from people through the Chinese-American community: someone would be moving out and they would let me stay the last 3 weeks in their apartment in exchange for helping them get their stuff in storage.
When I got to UChicago, I looked around and saw people who had been sheltered their whole lives who didn’t know how to live on their own. I saw a lot of privilege. I saw people who didn’t know how to leave Hyde Park, didn’t know how to be part of a city, and didn’t know how to form bonds with people outside of their own social class.
“When I got to UChicago…I saw a lot of privilege. I saw people who didn’t know how to leave Hyde Park, didn’t know how to be part of a city, and didn’t know how to form bonds with people outside of their own social class.”
At the same time, I wanted to make an effort to learn about this privilege. I heard so much messed up stuff from my peers in class – things people say when they are blinded by their privilege, racial or economic or otherwise. But I knew that these students would eventually hold power and be in decision-making roles in our world, because of their elite status and connections. If I didn’t figure out how they operated, I wouldn’t be able to argue my way in. This was why I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to hear all sides, even if they were wrong, and bring them to the table with other colors and opinions. Everyone has life experiences, and everyone has a piece of truth.
“Everyone has life experiences, and everyone has a piece of truth.”
Going to UChicago was huge for me, because it gave me an intellectual context to analyze the things I was already thinking about. I took a class called Colonizations, and it blew my mind.
My high school gave me a traditional white education, so I didn’t learn about the history of people of color. I didn’t know we existed in the framework of anything.
S: Me too! We were in that class together!
I felt ashamed for not knowing the history of people of color, of my own people. Because my high school also gave me a completely Eurocentric education in which I did not know my people existed in the framework of anything.
“My high school gave me a traditional white education, so I didn’t learn about the history of people of color. I didn’t know we existed in the framework of anything.”
K: Yea! Colonizations opened up a history that connected slavery, colonization, and revolution. I gave me a whole new lens to see the world.
In Colonizations, we were learning about how the French philosophy of colonization was different from the British one. The French colonizers said, “Everyone we colonize will be French.” They forced the people to speak French and to talk about regional cheeses and wines. The French came in and said, only our story, the French story, matters, and they erased everyone else’s stories. They put policies in place to do just that, and it affected education, immigration, and colonization. I got interested in how that philosophy played out today for people living in France.
Growing up in the States, I was able to experience so many different cultures, even though there was a white narrative that often ignored our stories. But France was interesting to me, because it had a totally different theory of race. They say, “Race doesn’t exist, because we are all French, but to be French, you must be X, Y, and Z.” I was curious how that worked for immigrants. How did it affect recently-arrived immigrants and long-time residents differently? How did it work for people who didn’t look like white French nationals?
“Growing up in the States, I was able to experience so many different cultures, even though there was a white narrative that often ignored our stories.”
I ended up traveling to France during the summer after my first year in college. I stayed with friends of friends, but I didn’t speak French. So I asked around to find out where the Chinese people were. I wanted to be around people who spoke my language. I found out later that there were three Chinatowns in Paris, but I went to one particular neighborhood called Belleville, which would later become a sort of second home to me.
In Belleville, the residents were actually really mixed. There were North Africans, Black Africans, Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis, Tibetans, among others. But many of the business owners were Chinese. Talking with locals, I found out earlier that summer, there was a giant riot led by Chinese people.
Many Chinese immigrants keep everything in cash – the majority of the Chinese diaspora either don’t trust banks or don’t have access to them as undocumented immigrants. This was known in the neighborhood, and fellow immigrants staged attacks on Chinese people, because they looked small and defenseless. Immigrant youths would stage raids on Chinese weddings and steal the hongbao, traditional red envelopes that families and friends filled with money on happy occasions. The police never reacted to reports of these crimes, and when the police did come into contact with Chinese immigrants, they would chase or beat them. On various occasions, members of the community were killed. The Chinese residents of Belleville were pissed. They held a march, which turned into a giant riot. They lit cars on fire and destroyed police cars. There were all these pictures about it everywhere, with signs in Chinese and French.
I was so shocked. I had never seen Chinese people get organized and get angry before. I was raised to suppress anger, lower my head, and work hard if I was ever frustrated with my situation. I had been bullied and targeted for being Chinese before, but I just internalized it and kept my head down.
S: Yes. Me too! That cultural message is so toxic and disempowering.
K: Absolutely. But there I was, in Paris, among these Chinese people who were making demands on the state, making demands on their peers to treat them with respect. Seeing my people get pissed really lit something inside of me. That was not anything I had ever learned before in my own culture. It made me think more deeply about what it meant to be an immigrant in France. What did it mean for all these people of all these different colors to become French, to become possible in the French state.
“I was raised to suppress anger, lower my head, and work hard if I was ever frustrated with my situation. I had been bullied and targeted for being Chinese before, but I just internalized it and kept my head down…But there I was, in Paris, among these Chinese people who were making demands on the state, making demands on their peers to treat them with respect. Seeing my people get pissed really lit something inside of me.”
After that summer, I wanted to go back to Paris. I got the National Science Foundation grant to do my BA research in Paris in the summer of 2012. I also got a human rights internship at an organization that served refugees. For my BA, I went to talk to undocumented Chinese immigrants and learned about how they organized themselves in Belleville, Paris, where there were all these different colors and conflicts going on, how did they hold their own?
S: That is super interesting! Personally, I haven’t been in a lot of spaces where Chinese-Americans, and the diaspora in general, talked about race relations – other than the relationship between Chinese people and white people. What are your thoughts on colorism and how the Chinese diaspora is interacting with racism?
K: Yea, that’s a whole big topic. We don’t really talk about race relations within Chinese-American communities.
Growing up, because my family moved around so much, we had a lot of interactions with all different kinds of colors. Whether we were living in a majority Chinese, Hispanic, Black, Muslim, white, mixed or whatever neighborhood, there were always stereotypes exchanged between the different communities.
“Whether we were living in a majority Chinese, Hispanic, Black, Muslim, white, mixed or whatever neighborhood, there were always stereotypes exchanged between the different communities.”
For example, I have family that recently immigrated to San Francisco. There is a part in the southeast of San Francisco that is majority Black. It’s basically the last standing Black neighborhood in San Francisco because of gentrification. My aunt and uncle who don’t speak English go to a Black church on their street, but still make generalizing statements about violence and crime in Black communities. That’s what they see outside their window, and that’s what they internalize, because even though they are treated well by their Black congregation, the overall message of the American dream is to aspire to whiteness.
And many first-generation parents don’t know about the history of slavery in this country; they don’t know about the history of housing segregation; they don’t know about the history of discrimination and police violence; they don’t know the struggles for civil rights in this country. They just see the standard of whiteness in America and they think, don’t be like Black people. They don’t care about history – they care about surviving in the now.
“The overall message of the American dream is to aspire to whiteness.”
It’s something I think about a lot and have a lot of conversations about. I have talked to many people, even people in our generation, who are really supportive of Peter Liang. But they don’t understand that in the end, it is not about a Chinese officer getting treated equally as a white officer. No. It is about a Black man’s life being as important as any other person’s life.
“In the end, it is not about a Chinese officer getting treated equally as a white officer. No. It is about a Black man’s life being as important as any other person’s life.”
S: I hear ya. I have had a few of these challenging conversations too. It is hard for immigrants who, from their perspective, have struggled so much in order to succeed in this country, to understand that they have privilege, even though they have struggled. On a personal level, how have you navigated spaces in terms of race with your kid’s dad?
K: Yea, it’s been interesting. Both of his parents are a mix of so many things, including Asian and European immigrants as well as indigenous and African slaves.
S: Have people commented on you two or you and your baby? I ask because I have rarely seen a Chinese mom with a mixed baby who is not half white.
K: Oh yea, one of the most common interracial relationships is between an Asian female and a white male.
It’s interesting, because when I was with my white French boyfriend, we would go to Chinatown and people would always be side-eying me – sending looks that said I was betraying my race or I was trying to forget who I was. People see you with a white person and might think, oh she must be looking for a green card or looking for money. Hell, that’s what my ex-boyfriend’s family told him when they met me. But I think that when you are with another person of color, the Chinese community doesn’t judge you as hard. Maybe because they assume you’re succeeding on your own and not piggy-backing on some white male savior.
Who knows, either way it’s messed up.
S: Yea. I have had very similar experiences in my own life too.
K: Yea, with my baby now, it is also very interesting. I went to a pharmacy in Brazil to buy sunscreen, and I had my baby with me, who is mixed. I asked what sunscreen I should get, and the store employee said oh you are mixed-race, so you can just get 15 SPF.
But I am 100% Chinese.
K: I don’t know. Race…
Content Warning: the following section contains accounts related to sexual violence. To skip this, scroll down to the next section, marked by an imagine of Kat standing in front of a building in Paris, France.
While I was in Paris, I also learned a lot about my own strength and how I can stand up for myself.
In Paris, when I walked in the streets, people would say, “Hey China girl, how much do you cost?” There were lots of Chinese prostitutes in France. Some people would try to grab me, yell at me, or follow me. I wasn’t sure how to respond.
“While I was in Paris, I also learned a lot about my own strength and how I can stand up for myself.”
One day at work, at the refugee organization, I had just finished teaching a French class. One of my colleagues came into the room after everyone had left. He asked me how the class was. He closed the door and suddenly blocked my body against the wall, put his hands on my mouth and body. I somehow broke free and ran out of the room, but he followed me back to my desk. He told me he would be waiting for me upstairs.
I remember being completely frozen before it hit me, and I broke apart.
Another male colleague stopped in for a chat and realized something was wrong when I couldn’t steady my voice. At first, I didn’t want to tell him, but then it just spilled out. I told him what happened and that I felt really uncomfortable and didn’t know what to do. He said to me, “Well, there are so many Chinese prostitutes on the streets, so sometimes guys just want to try it out. It’s foreign fruit, and they just want to taste it.”
At the time, I thought maybe that argument was valid. And I began to make excuses for my aggressor. People always told me not to get so worked up when men approached me on the street, saying, “Oh, for French men, this is just flirting. You should take it as a compliment.” I tried to understand this new culture I was in as a valid way of life, rather than seeing the constant harassment as a symptom of an oppressive system based on racism and sexism.
Multiple colleagues told me to let the incident go. But after confiding in some friends, I decided to report the incident. I remembered that this guy worked with refugee women, kids, and families. If I didn’t speak up, he could continue working here, and he could harm others.
The guy was fired immediately.
This experience taught me that cultural relativity can only shape our values so much. I learned that there were things that were clearly wrong, and we must keep our moral compasses about us. There are things that you believe to be true that are true, and you shouldn’t question it just because other people are telling you to or questioning you. Some things are simply wrong. And you should hold onto your beliefs when you need to.
“I learned that there were things that were clearly wrong, and we must keep our moral compasses about us. There are things that you believe to be true that are true, and you shouldn’t question it just because other people are telling you to or questioning you.”
After that summer in Paris, I returned to UChicago to finish school. I had the opportunity to work for a political science professor while also taking a class on race in Latin America and the Caribbean.
I learned about the myth of a racial democracy, a very Brazilian, very Latin American idea. It says, “We are all mixed up, so we are all equal.” I thought it was a totally new philosophy on race compared to France or the U.S. I wanted to learn more about it. I wanted to keep learning about racial relations, because I was interested in multicultural societies and how people of different colors, cultures, and national backgrounds can mesh together and how that affects immigration law and people’s rights.
After graduating from UChicago, I returned to Paris to earn a master’s degree in journalism. While I was in Paris, I became increasingly interested in Brazil.
“I wanted to keep learning about racial relations, because I was interested in multicultural societies and how people of different colors, cultures, and national backgrounds can mesh together and how that affects immigration law and people’s rights.”
In Brazil, over half the population is Black or Brown, yet you only ever see white people represented in media. You only see white people as lawyers and teachers. People of color were hidden in Brazilian culture until the movie City of God came out and became an international success. People started to see, celebrate, and even fetishize Black people in Brazil. They learned that Black people have lives too, and that their image could make big bucks. But they were also forced to see that Black Brazilian people have emotions; they have voices; they fall in love; they eat dinner. People started to realize that because the cameras were coming to the favelas.
At my first internship while I was getting my master’s degree, I came to Brazil to work during the World Cup. I covered stories on police violence during the protests. That summer, I got involved volunteering in youth programs in one of the largest favelas of São Paulo, called Heliópolis, a community that has more than 100,000 people. A lot of the teachers in the youth program don’t have formal pedagogy degrees, but they have been teaching ever since they were teenagers, and many of their students end up teaching too.
Now I live in Heliópolis and teach a communications class to high school youths in a drug-prevention program.
The movie City of God portrays these massive funk parties in the streets of the favelas. That started in Rio, but we adapted it here. Honestly, it is really not glamourous. It is actually pretty gross. It’s kids doing drugs, and girls at age 12 having sex on the streets. It is very hyper sexualized and full of drugs and drinking. It is loud, and the police is always around, and they disperse people with tear gas bombs. It is not a good environment to grow up in. A lot of the youths in my program see that stuff constantly. They used to go to these parties, but then they started coming to the program and are exposed to other activities that they can be doing.
When I started teaching at the youth program, I saw that they had cameras that were given to them by their financial sponsors, so I said, let’s use these! I asked the youths what they were interested in. What aspects of the community do you want to focus on? What are the things that people outside of this community don’t know about us or don’t talk about? What happens in this community do you want to talk about? I brought into my class some articles from the national media about our community. A lot of media spotlight on our community is about violence: how this person died or this riot happened. It is about sex and drugs and drug cartels.
But of course there are a lot of really good, hard-working people who live here. I live here. My neighbors live here. My son’s dad’s family is here. There are tons of things happening here beyond what is shown on TV, which only shares one version of favela stories with the world. So, we sat down and talked about what parts of our community did we want to show. What were people talking about? What were people worried about? What did we want to change? We started doing mini videos about it. We created a web series of different episodes addressing different issues.
“There are tons of things happening here beyond what is shown on TV, which only shares one version of favela stories with the world.”
S: Wow. That is awesome! Is that your full-time job?
K: No. I teach once a week on Friday afternoons. The rest of the time, I write for a news website called Plus 55.
S: Yea, I saw your article about the LGBTQ runaway shelter!
K: Yes! I started working for them recently and write daily articles and report on different feature stories.
S: As a journalist, how do you form relationships with people so that they will open up to you and tell you their stories?
K: I try to be as honest as possible. Since I am interested in social justice issues, I show my sincere interest in wanting to learn about these issues. I did a story on the favela economy [editor’s note: this story was featured on Huffington Post Brazil]. Brazil is in an extreme economic downturn, and I wanted to talk to business owners in my favela. When I approached them, some people said, oh we don’t really talk to people about ourselves. They are deeply distrustful of the media.
So I explained that I live here too, and I see all these people opening up businesses and I see your business, so I just want to learn about what’s like for you. If someone doesn’t want to talk to me, then that’s fine. Sometimes it is hard not to lose confidence when people don’t want to talk. But then you do meet cool people. I met this lady that runs a food stand with her husband from her kitchen. Now she’s getting me gigs to take pictures at kids’ birthday parties and quinceñeras. These relationships are what keep me going as a journalist and as a community organizer.
“These relationships are what keep me going as a journalist and as a community organizer.”
Sometimes I am actually very shy. Getting someone to open up about these complicated issues can be scary. I think, am I going to get this right? Am I going to do it justice? I try to constantly get different angles because I believe in telling a well-rounded story.
A lot of times I also have to bring my baby with me, because there’s no one to watch him. I did a story on infants with microcephaly that were born to mothers who had Zika. When I did that, I brought my son with me. I actually debated it a lot. What was it like to see someone else’s healthy baby when you have your own baby who has complications from microcephaly? I would be this woman barging into the space with her healthy baby.
But at the time, I actually didn’t have anyone to leave him with. So I had to either bring him with me or I couldn’t do the story. I really wasn’t sure about it, but in the end it opened up the conversation. The event was a march of mothers and babies. People saw him and said, “Are you here for the march? Does your son have microcephaly?” I said no, I am journalist here to cover the protest. Some people said, “but journalists don’t have babies.” [laughs]
I think having my baby on the reporting trip ended up making people see me as human too, not just someone there to take and sell their stories.
That’s what it is about – human beings having conversations to understand each other better.