Stories, Taoke (Business)

The Immigrant Mentality

In all probability, a lot of Chinese immigrants should not and could not have succeeded in a foreign land. But they did, anyway. How does one thrive with just wits and determination in a foreign land?  

In the early 1958, my father, along with dozens of his compatriots, took the biggest risk of their lives when they decided to leave China. The risk, however, is far from just uprooting one’s self and settling in an unfamiliar territory. They consider that the reward of what they embarked. At a period when China is gripped with an iron-rule and economy was non-existent, life elsewhere was considered a paradise. They gambled despite clear comprehension that failure at their attempt meant at worst, death — even to a nine year old boy.

Clearly the reward of such an act outweighs the risk by leaps and bounds. When my grandfather settled in Iloilo in the early 50s, he became at one point, one of the richest men in the province. Previously, a wealthy man in Fujian, his family lost everything even before the war. With no other recourse, he decided to try his luck in the Philippines.

In all logic, my grandfather should not have had such success. He did not speak any Filipino and had no money with him or any connections after exchanging their last material wealth for a ticket to the Philippines and his prized possession when he arrived here were the clothes he was wearing. But as cliché as it sounds, he rose against all odds.

His story is not unique among the Chinese immigrants. Often, one hears a similar theme about their ancestors.  These Chinese immigrants possess the same hunger and mental fortitude. They are motivated to succeed because it was clear that back in China, there were people who depended on them.

If you look at the Chinese virtue of frugality — a euphemism for stinginess — it traces its roots from our forefathers who saved and scrimped whatever they could. In reality, there was no room for frivolous spending when they were starting out. They had family back home depending on them. My grandfather started as a laborer for a hardware store, and he sends back half of his income to my great-grandmother.

One common question my students often raised is, “Why are Chinese good in business?” My answer has always been the same: “Are we?” As immigrants without connection and without resources, the best course of action was to work for someone else or venture into business. It’s not that the Chinese are good in business — there was simply no other way. Business for them meant trading and bartering. If your back was against the wall, wouldn’t you do anything to survive?

The immigrant mentality is seen as critical element for success, let alone survival, in this globalized society. To survive, immigrants toiled hard the land not their own. These experiences are then passed down to the succeeding generations. Although considered as local more than immigrantthey are nevertheless a minority, and could possess the same hunger and determinations as their parents.

That is why many second-generation immigrants succeed their parents and more often than not, exhibit the same values. Chinese call it filial piety, a Confucian value nurtured for 2,500 years.

Aside from the unwavering determination and an entrepreneurial spirit, what other trait defines the immigrant mentality ?

If we look closely at some of the Chinese business leaders, the one thing that they have in common (aside from their wealth) is philanthropy. Forbes defined it as, “promoting a spirit of giving.” Confucius praised it as something, “nobleness and superiority of character.”

Dr. Lucio Tan has the Tan Yan Kee Foundation. For the late John Gokongwei, Jr., it is the Gokongwei Brothers Foundation. George Sy has the Metrobank Foundation, while Henry Sy has put up the SM Foundation. Other business leaders have done the same civic engagements such as scholarship programs and medical missions among others.

In every sense, it is about giving back to the country that has “adopted” them. The Chinese immigrants were quick to assimilate, and they embraced this heritage. One historian explained that the reason the Chinese were able to thrive in this country is because they knew how to give back to the community.

The Chinese Way to Prosperity and Wealth author Michael Justin Lee wrote, “For centuries, the Chinese have managed to survive and thrive in virtually ever part of the world. From the nineteenth-century emigrants to twenty-first-century tiger moms, they have shown remarkable resilience and determination in achieving their goals even under the most challenging of circumstances.”

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