Political and social upheaval in her native country has shaped the life and career of Min Zhou, an experience she shares with the many of the immigrants she, as a sociologist, studies.
As a child growing up during China’s turbulent Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, Zhou saw her parents sent to labor camps in the countryside for "reeducation," leaving her behind to serve as the 10-year-old head of her household in charge of a 9-year-old brother and 5-year-old sister.
"The three of us experienced a sudden fall from being the highly prized children of the Communist Party to being the children of the enemy — 'the capitalist roaders.' We were home alone in a big house and often ostracized by some of our peers in the neighborhood," recalled Zhou in her recently released autobiography, "The Accidental Sociologist in Asian American Studies"
(UCLA Asian American Studies Center Press, 2011). Eventually, six working-class families moved in, including 13 other children.
To keep her quest for an education alive, Zhou read everything she could find, mostly Mao's works and some banned books. She practiced math on an abacus and managed to acquire an important skill that would lead her to a better future: She taught herself English by listening to old Linguaphone vinyl records on an beat-up turntable.
At 16, Zhou graduated from high school, but Chinese universities had been shuttered by the Cultural Revolution in 1966. So she was sent to teach high school in the middle of sugarcane fields and later became an executive secretary for managers at a state-owned sugar refinery.
But she never gave up hope for a college education. When China again began administering national higher-education exams, Zhou was among the 5.7 million test-takers to apply and one of the fortunate 270,000 who actually got in.
Sun Yat-sen University became her academic home, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in English, eventually joined its faculty and later gained her academic footing. When American sociologists visited her campus, Zhou, serving as their interpreter, heard for the first time about the concepts of culture, class, gender, stratification and social inequality.
"It was then that I became intellectually aroused and fascinated by sociological ideas," she recalled. That set her on a path to to the United States in 1984 to pursue a master’s degree and later a doctorate in sociology at the State University of New York at Albany.
Still, leaving China was a bold move for Zhou.
"I had never set foot on American soil or on any foreign land outside of China," Zhou recalled in her book. "I left behind my entire family — my husband, my 10-month-old son, my parents, in-laws and close relatives — and my friends. ... I had just turned 28, but looked like a malnourished 18-year-old freshly out of a Third-World high school. I was naïve, unprepared, and financially poor (as clichéd as it sounds, I flew to America with only a $50 bill in my pocket)."
In 1989, political events once again intervened in her life. While traveling, she learned of the violent military response to student-led protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Fearing a backlash against Western-educated academics, she decided not to return to China and instead found a faculty position in Louisiana State University.
In 1994, Zhou came to UCLA where she is now a professor of sociology, studying and teaching about a range of topics related to international migration, immigrant life and success, and Asian Americans and ethnic communities. In 2009, she became the first recipient of the Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in U.S.-China Relations and Communications.
A dedicated teacher and a prolific researcher, Zhou has written books about the social and economic potential of Chinese America, Chinatowns, immigration and community transformation. She has also co-authored books about Vietnamese children adapting to life in the United States, contemporary Asian America and Asian American youth.
Zhou may be best known for her thought-provoking study of New York’s Chinatown. Her research revealed that, despite poverty and a lack of job skills and English proficiency, many new immigrants live in communities that support their economic development and adaptation to their new homeland.
And she disagrees with those who say that immigrants are trapped in their communities, or "enclaves," as she refers to them.
"If you look at ethnic enclaves like Chinatown, you see mobility between the generations," Zhou said. "Many in the first generation stay in their enclaves because they feel if they speak English with an accent, people may not be as patient with them, or they know their cultural interests are different from those outside of the enclave. By the second generation, more than three-quarters of them are fully assimilated, and the intermarriage rate is very high."
Another area of Zhou’s research is based on the theory of "segmented assimilation" that she developed in collaboration with sociologist Alejandro Portes from Princeton.
"While classical assimilation theory expects immigrants to eventually melt into the white, middle-class American mainstream, in segmented assimilation there may be multiple outcomes," Zhou explained. "This includes the classical model, but it may also be that immigrants assimilate into the mainstream without shedding their ethnicity. Or, at the other extreme, they assimilate into the American underclass."
Many of Zhou’s students can identify with their teacher’s struggle to adapt to life in the United States. As a graduate student, she worked in Chinese restaurants, garment shops and a hotel, and cleaned homes. In fact, their many questions about Zhou’s personal journey led her to write "The Accidental Sociologist," which presents her story and highlights her research.
Zhou notes that many Asian American studies courses, including her Chinese immigration class, focus on analyzing a range of structural and cultural factors influencing outcomes of social mobility among ethnic minorities.
"Chinese immigrants do well because their migration has included a strong middle class, and those in the lower class can access the resources of this middle class — money, education and businesses — in their ethnic community," she said. "By comparison, some immigrant minorities, such as the Mexican immigrant community, don’t have such resources to draw on, because less than 10 percent of first-generation Mexicans have college degrees, while nearly half of first-generation Chinese do. So pre-migration characteristics matter."
Zhou, who is also the Chang Jiang Scholar Chair Professor at Sun Yat-sen University, is pursuing new research in other areas. She is studying the migration of Africans for work or business ventures to Guangzhou, southern China’s largest city, and is examining the racial issues that are emerging between Africans and Chinese in China.
Zhou is also a visiting professor at Central China Normal University, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and Korea University. But she most enjoys being at UCLA.
"It’s the best," Zhou said. "It is intellectually stimulating, and the students at UCLA are a joy because they are very diverse and bring their experiences into the classroom. So it’s not just me lecturing. They also help me to keep a more open mind, and be more sensitive to class, race and gender issues."
Her choice to become a sociologist, she explained in her book, was not so much "accidental" as it was the result of her life experiences. "I think my unique childhood and immigrant experiences, not merely accidental happenings, helped me to grow from a naïve foreign student to a mature sociologist and Asian Americanist."