There was an ad on the Muni, on the 30 through Chinatown, printed in English and Chinese. It was a public service announcement, warning people to beware of hustlers selling fake visas. Among other things, there was a bullet point that said,
Don’t believe anyone who says ‘we know people at the immigration service and can get your papers done quickly.
I imagine talking to a Chinese immigrant about this. I imagine their confusion. “But,” my friend Ming says, “it is very difficult to get a visa. If they know someone, this solves the problem.”
“It doesn’t work like that,” I’d tell him.
Ming blinks his confusion. How can it not work like that? If he had an uncle at the service, there wouldn’t be any problem. It was his cousin at China Airlines who got him the reservation from Bejing to San Francisco in the first place.
“It’s not like that. In America, it doesn’t matter who you know at the INS. Everyone has to wait in line just the same way.”
“It’s a fair system.”
“It’s not fair,” says Ming. “Helping the people in your family is fair. Helping your friends and business relations is fair. Treating them just like strangers is terribly, terribly…” He hunts for the word but there’s no English translation. It’s stronger than “rude,” more formal than “impolite.” It’s simply not done.
But this idea that status doesn’t buy you anything when it comes to rights — this is important to me. I This must have something to do equality, I think, with democracy even. How do I get across to him that this is right? “Ming,” I say, “in China, if you don’t know anyone important — say you’re a worker in a factory, or a cycle-rickshaw driver — then you don’t have a chance when dealing with the government. In our system, everyone has at least a little chance.”
“In your ‘fair’ system, they have no chance anyway,” he says sourly. “Chinese way is better.”
My turn to boggle. “How can you support the patronage society like that? How can you be for a system that is to the disadvantage of just about everyone who isn’t wealthy and powerful?”
Ming stares at me hard. “If you want a nice house in America, how do you get it?”
“Uhh… you buy it, I guess.”
“And this is fair?”
“Well, everyone has an equal opportunity to buy it.”
“Except those with no money,” he points out.
I blink. “But how else could you do it? You don’t just build a beautiful home and then give it away to your friends!”
“How,” he asks me, “can you support the market system like that? How can you be for something that is to the disadvantage of everyone except the wealthy and powerful?”
“No fair,” I tell him.