The Chinese in Silicon Valley: Globalization, Social Networks, and Ethnic Identity

By Lindell, Pamela Szeto | Anthropological Quarterly, Summer 2006 | Go to article overview

The Chinese in Silicon Valley: Globalization, Social Networks, and Ethnic Identity


Lindell, Pamela Szeto, Anthropological Quarterly


Bernard P. Wong, The Chinese in Silicon Valley: Globalization, Social Networks, and Ethnic Identity. Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005, 288 pp.

For many people, the phrase "the Chinese in California" is likely to conjure images of railroad laborers and Gold Rush era Chinatowns. Bernard Wong's ethnography assists in deconstructing this and other stereotypes about overseas Chinese, as well as the effects of globalization on such traditional anthropological topics as social ties, ethnic identity, and cultural practices.

Anthropologically-informed statements about globalization have become almost rote: globalization results in cultural homogenization; it leads to the breakdown of social groupings; it creates a population of rootless transnationals who feel no allegiance to their adopted countries. While these generalizations may be true in some cases, it is refreshing to learn of at least one exception-that of the Chinese in Silicon Valley. Though there are some commonalities within this group-it is overwhelmingly comprised of males who work in high-tech industries-the population is otherwise quite diverse. Subgroups can be defined by such factors as country of origin (American-born Chinese, Taiwanese, mainland Chinese, and others), length of residence in the US, and visa status.

One of Wong's main arguments is that globalization and localization can function concomitantly. "Localism, local social networks, and traditional institutions are maintained, and even cultivated and used for economic globalization" (44). The use of social networks is a case in point. Dealings between American and Asian companies take place via the "conduits" of Chinese Americans and their social ties, or guanxi, in Asia. These connections may be established on the basis of kinship, friendship, alumni associations, or any number of other ties. This model is imperative, Wong argues, because hightech businesses operate on an informal and highly personal level, which is more along the lines of an "Asian" model of business whereby "personalism, loyalty, and long working hours are expected" (49). Frequent travel and long working hours in a predominantly male workforce has resulted in a "bachelor society" among the Silicon Valley Chinese, so that while globalization has had the effect of lessening the role of the nuclear family, the roles of other types of social groups are maintained or strengthened. Furthermore, the Chinese in Silicon Valley are invested in their local communities as well as their overseas connections. They establish local groups, both formal and informal, based on friendships, associations, and common interests, and join pre-existing ones because, by and large, they see themselves as Americans and therefore have personal investments in local communities.

Another common assumption about globalization is that it leads to the demise of cultural diversity. Wong presents evidence that, rather than homogenizing into mainstream American culture, pan-Asian or even pan-Chinese culture, the diverse Chinese populations in Silicon Valley actively seek to maintain their ethnic identities and cultural practices through agents such as language, foods, etiquette, media, and traditional festivals. This brings up an interesting point regarding "Asian American" identity. In Hawaii where, for example, Asians comprise fifty-eight percent of the population, people of Asian heritage do not identify themselves as "Asian-American" but rather identify more specifically with their particular national heritage(s)-Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, etc. In California and other mainland states, the use of "Asian American" as an identity is more common, especially where numbers of Asians are low. Although, as Wong notes, the Asian population in Silicon Valley grew large enough in the 1990s that Asians began to more readily identify themselves by particular ethnic group, to identify oneself as "Asian" is still useful in certain contexts, "in order to have representation and a voice in the larger society" (201). …

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