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In Honor of AANHPI Heritage Month, A Snippet of One Asian Chinese American Woman’s Story

The picture was taken at the Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation Park on a trip to visit Chinatowns in the Pacific Northwest. To learn more about Chinese history within Tacoma, visit this link:

what happens when you lump 48 countries with hundreds of ethnic groups all into one

category. What non-Asian Americans see as a monolith, we know as an extremely diverse

group. Making up approximately 5.6% of the American population, AANHPI represent a wide

array of immigration stories, cultures, customs, and experiences. All this to say that my story is

just one of over 18 million different stories.

Growing up, there was so much I didn’t understand about my own heritage. My dad

immigrated to the United States from Hong Kong as a teenager, and spoke very little about his

experience. It was painful, and incongruent with the other people’s lives in our small town in

Indiana. He wanted my sisters and me to have easier lives than his own as “Americans.”

My parents married just one year after the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, and I was

born a year later, the same year the remaining anti-miscegenation laws in the U.S. were

repealed. My father was 28 when he married my mother, ten years his junior. At the time,

immigration from China was limited to 102 males per year. There were a few exceptions for

what is called “family reunification,” but for more that 70 years, immigration of Chinese women

was few and far between.

As a kid, I didn’t know how anomalous my own birth was. It would take me decades to sort

through the complexity of my own multiracial identity. What I finally came to understand was

the story of my family’s long and difficult history in the United States.

My great-great grandfather was one of the 20,000 Chinese immigrants who constructed the

western section of the transcontinental railroad. Chinese workers comprised as much as 90% of

the workforce. “These Chinese laborers worked under extreme and hazardous environments.

Due to their ethnic appearance and language barriers, the Chinese were greatly taken

advantage of by their employers. These Chinese laborers became pioneers in the collective

labor actions of American labor history, while also contributing to the economies of the U.S.

After the completion of the project my great-great grandfather was deported back to China.

My great-grandfather acquired a Visa to the United States, but before he could embark, his

brother (my great-uncle) took it and traveled to the States, assuming his name. Undeterred, my

great-grandfather immigrated to the U.S. by crossing through the Mexican border. They both

settled in Chicago along with a large number of immigrants from their region of southern China.

The day after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces launched an all-out assault

on Hong Kong, then a British colony. My father was only four years old when his family was

forced to flee to the countryside for safety. His mother, two older sisters, and younger brother

all died early during the occupation. Without his grandmother’s protection and care, my father

would have met the same demise.

My father and another boy were adopted by dad’s great uncle and immigrated to the U.S. in

1952 as what would become known as “paper sons.” While his great uncle did not have

children of his own, the purpose was not to make a family, but to have workers to support him.

As an unaccompanied minor to the U.S., my father spent three months in the detention center

in San Francisco before being released. When he arrived in Chicago, his great uncle informed

him that he owed $10,000 for bringing him to the States. This led to years of indentured

servitude to pay off a debt he never consented to.

Dad worked hard, holding multiple jobs at a time. His kitchen skills earned him his own

restaurant in a popular Chicago hotel. But rather than working to make other people money,

my father and his friends moved to a small town in Indiana to have a restaurant of their own.

The best part of this heritage is that my father didn’t let hardship jade or harden him. He was

the most generous and kind person I’ve ever known. He taught me the value of hard work and

sacrifice. He always encouraged me to pursue any career I wanted, and wanted for me the

freedom to have choices that he did not. Moreover, he didn’t just take care of my family. He

and my “uncles” employed hundreds of people in our small town over thirty-five years. They

hired youth who couldn’t otherwise get jobs, cooked all of the staff meals to order at the end of

the night, and were the mainstay of many families’ incomes over the years. The three of them

put all of their children through college, so that none of them would have to do the back-

breaking work it took them to make it in America.

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