WHEN Zhee-hwar Lyu and his family left Guangzhou, China, for Boston a year ago, he already had a support network waiting for him in Chinatown. In the depth of New England's recession, Mr. Lyu found a job in Maine within a week, through a Chinatown newspaper ad.
This job, with its 10-hour days and six-hour round-trip commutes from Boston, has proved "inconvenient," Lyu says. But through another ad, he has learned of a welding job, a hopeful sign that America might have some use for his skills as a mechanic. Until now Lyu, like a majority of Chinatown's males, has found work only in the restaurant trade.
"Before I came here, I thought I could get a job as a mechanic," Lyu says. "But when I arrived a friend told me, `Don't bother applying if your English is not good.' " Lyu's grueling work schedule does not allow for English classes. "As a new immigrant, I don't have the luxury to go to [English] classes," Lyu says. "I must first survive."
Inability to speak English is the grand unifier of Chinatown. It is also what keeps recent immigrants in entry level, low-paying jobs. But many recent arrivals to Boston's Chinatown are not seeking a Chinese-speaking oasis, but rather come to learn English and get ahead. At the Quincy School Community Center, the waiting list for "survival" English classes is three years long.
Since the 1850s, Chinese have come to the United States for better-paying jobs and greater personal freedom. The Chinatowns where they congregated, rather than delaying integration, have been the main places to learn English, find jobs, become politically active, and enter the American mainstream.
The impression held by many people in the United States that Chinese residents do not want to integrate does not reflect the reality of what it means to be a recent immigrant, says Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinese Progressive Association, a community group in Boston.
"Many of the people we work with have no English skills and come from poorer rural areas [of China]," she says. "For these, life in an urban area is enough of an adjustment."
Ms. Lowe, whose organization provides basic English classes and counseling on job disputes, says the image of Asians being unusually successful in their adopted country is inaccurate. While unemployment in Massachusetts has stabilized around 12 percent, it has hit 30 percent in Chinatown. Those fortunate enough to have restaurant jobs work 10 hours a day, six days a week, for much less than minimum wage.
Without a doubt, the Asian American community here, as throughout America, has produced some success stories, says Chau-ming Lee, director of the Asian American Civic Association, but the reasons for that success are cultural, not racial.
"In Boston, eight out of 12 high school valedictorians last year were Asian," he says. "But it was not because they were Asian - it was because they worked hard."
The Confucian philosophy, with its respect for authority, has two edges, Mr. Lee says. "Most Asians do not believe in government. The Confucian theory that one does not challenge authority also means that one does not want to be related to authority."
Lee says that Chinese hope to adopt some of the better aspects of American culture, such as the freedom of expression, and merge it with their own.
Immigrants who seem to adjust best to their adopted culture are those with limited skills, says Lee, whose organization coordinates a training program with a local construction-workers union. Those with higher education, such as doctors, mechanics, electricians, and businessmen, have higher expectations and skills that often do not transfer to similar jobs in the US. Many are disappointed at having to start over.
The adjustment was rough for Fuquan Zhang, a wholesale businessman from southern China. Unable to find a similar job in wholesale or even to start a business that drew on his expertise, Mr. Zhang spent eight years washing dishes and chopping vegetables in restaurants throughout Greater Boston.
"Since I was a new immigrant, I was prepared to take whatever jobs I could," says Zhang, who now works for the Chinese Protective Association, advising restaurant workers with job or salary disputes. But there are times when he still wonders if he will ever get a better life here.
For some immigrants, small business is an option, says Beverly Wing of the Asian Community Development Corporation (ACDC). But "many Asians come from cash societies, so they are not used to credit cards or lines of credit."
The ACDC helps entrepreneurs create budgets and file loan applications at the local bank. And while most businessmen flock to the restaurant trade, Ms. Wing is starting to see some diversification: hair salons, herbal shops, and video stores.
For the vast majority of immigrants, however, entry-level jobs are the only option. The challenge for community groups in Boston's Chinatown is finding alternatives to restaurant jobs.