Over the holiday weekend, in addition to bidding farewell to our dead-tree labor o’ love, we found a few spare moments to start reading The Snakehead, the new book from Chatter author Patrick Radden Keefe. We’re only 50 pages in, but so far this tome gets Microkhan’s equivalent of an Ebert-ian “thumbs way up” rave. Just an endlessly compelling account of the Golden Venture disaster, in which hundreds of Chinese immigrants washed ashore in Queens after their freighter ran aground.
What we really dig is the way Keefe uses that narrative as a way to explore immigration patterns&patterns which often defy our assumptions of what makes people “vote with their feet.” Early on, for example, Keefe adroitly explains why the vast majority of Chinese immigrants who’ve arrived in New York over the past few decades come from nothern Fujian, a relatively wealthy province:
Demographers who have researched migration find that it is not actually absolute poverty that drives people to leave one country for another. The poorest provinces in western China have rarely been a source of outmigration. When everyone around you shares your own meager lifestyle, there is actually less of an inclination to leave. Instead, it is “relative deprivation” that tends to drive migration: income disparities, the experience of watching your neighbor do better than you. So, ironically, economic development sometimes causes people to leave rather than stay put. Some did better than others when economic reforms came to Fujian, and those who did not fare as well—the subsistence farmers and schoolteachers, the local [Communist] Party officials who had fallen out of favor—were suddenly able to glimpse the kinds of material comforts they had lived without their whole lives.
We’ll certainly have more to say about The Snakehead as we keep plowing through. In the meantime, check out Keefe’s Slate dispatches from his reporting trip to China. And this recent documentary is worth a gander, too.