My Immigrant Story
Anyone who knows me well will tell you with confidence that I have a good memory. They may even tell you that I have a frighteningly good memory. So please, trust that the things I tell you now are true and real (and verified by people who were already adults at the time) even though I was very young.
I was born in a Chinese town that I promise you’ve never heard of.
My first memory is dropping a bowl of rice on our dirt floor, breaking the bowl and my mother crying. Suffice to say, this was not a promising omen to a continued future in that environment.
So when my parents decided to emigrate to the US, my only impression was that we were going far away on a series of buses connected by grocery store doors. I was very excited because I had never been on a bus (and obviously, never a plane either) and had not in fact been further than 5 miles from our home in those first 4 years of my life.
My parents chose Savannah, GA of all places to begin our American life. Mostly, we chose that city because my great-aunt lived there and subsequently so did we for about a year. This great-aunt, whom I called “nai nai”, became my de facto babysitter. Due to their busy restaurant working schedules, my only memories of my parents during this year were fights they had at night that woke me up and a horrible conversation in the kitchen in which they asked who I would leave with if they got a divorce. Parents of the Year Awards, these people were not going to get.
But they worked hard; hard enough that we eventually moved to the roughest part of downtown, in a studio with only 1 table and 2 mattresses on the floor. I have since visited my childhood home in China and this was a big step up.
In this studio, I had my first taste of pizza. I loved it. I started kindergarten at this age. I did not love it. My parents had (at the urging of my converted-due-to-missionaries grandmother) enrolled me in a conservative Baptist elementary school with teachers who were unnecessarily mean to me and children who did not come near me, not to play or eat or read. At the time, I didn’t understand why. Now I know and that knowing will forever lay weight on the way I move through the world.
My parents continued to work demanding hours and I was placed each summer into various day cares, where my 7-10 year old peers would ask me things like, “are you black? You’re so dark.” I was the first Asian most of them had ever seen and honestly, crisped up like a golden basted turkey in that Southern sun.
Life went on, things “normalized”, I made friends who did not constantly question why I looked different, we adopted dogs, we ate at Applebees, we went to state fairs, we bought a computer, we became the model of a good American family, little old white women would tell me how pretty and exotic I was, we added a new little citizen to our family in the form of my sister and finally…at 11 years old, I became a citizen.
On a rainy day, we drove to Lexington, Kentucky where I walked into a small, grey room alone. An immigration officer asked for my name. I got it wrong. It was the only question I was asked and I got it wrong. Not because I was nervous, not because I was stupid. For as long as I could remember, I had my Chinese name at home and my American name to the world at large.
In that small, grey Immigration office, I learned that I had a third name: the horrible, butchered Anglicized version of my Chinese name that existed on all my legal documents. When I tell people my “real name” these days, they laugh. They think it’s funny. I agree, it’s a funny name. But that laugh always accompanies a sad little twinge of the reminder that I am misplaced in some ways and even what I call myself can be determined as “not real”.
After the Immigration officer corrected me, I signed a social security card, said a little vow, and walked out the door. My biggest concern at this point was why I did not have to answer any of the difficult questions my parents had pored over for years (mostly on the toilet) that they would need to answer in order to become citizens. For fuck’s sake, I still don’t remember what number president Lincoln was—although I do somehow have every state tree memorized for each state I’ve lived in. I guess my good memory is selective.
But what I will remember now about this time in our collective history was how anyone could decide that an entire group of people could be banned from a country that held as its mission, purpose and creation one ideal: that you could settle here for new opportunities as anyone. But that’s the thing about immigrants, we could be anyone and we’re also not just anyone. Immigrants are not concepts or statistics or representatives. They are each whole people with whole stories. Their parents work hard, so hard, even when they aren’t particularly good parents. Their children do things like run around the neighbor’s yard in a Princess Jasmine costume eating grapes. They have more children who are automatically American citizens through no effort of their own and more as an accident of birth. They have to take tests, which are equally ridiculous in their breadth and a testament to just how much more of a right they have to call themselves citizens. They had to fucking study. They had to earn it.
If you truly don’t believe this country was founded with an immigrant’s heart or propelled by immigrants’ dreams, then you can damn well look at the food you eat every day. I dare you, I fucking dare you, to tell me with a straight face while you enjoy a taco or shwarma or potsticker that immigrants don’t belong here.
I will smash it in your smug, idiot face.
I did not protest at SFO the night I wrote this but my heart swelled with love for those who did. It happened to be the first night of the lunar new year so I went to dinner with Asian and non-Asian friends, followed by fireworks in Chinatown. Holidays are an easy time for me to feel connected and proud of my heritage, which extends long past what you see on the news about China. It is not only a shame for all of us, but a travesty, to deprive other people with their own heritages and their own stories to tell the opportunity to share those experiences with us. There is never a moment I do not feel the two sides of my life rubbing against each other, no matter how many “well-meaning” people tell me that I’m “basically white”. I am not. I am basically Chinese-American, with a touch of Iranian (thanks, great grand-papa for the thick and luxurious hair), but also much more. I want to know how much more we can all be.