By: Jerome Ma
Inscribed in the Declaration of Independence, seven words justify the motivation many immigrants possessed on their journey to America: “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” At least this was one of the few ideas about Asian American history I took away from our high school history classes that the textbook writers didn’t bother to leave out of the books. My parents immigrated to the United States from China in the 1980s under those audacious ideals – to foster a full and wholesome life (for themselves and their future children), to live out the democratic values of liberty, and most importantly (and simply), to be happy. Although I cannot fully vouch on my parents’ behalf that their newfound lives in America are complete under these three ideals, I will try to profess portions of my parents’ story prior to their immigration to America (to the best of my ability) and my story as a second-generation Chinese American and ultimately let the reader decide.
My parents came from modest backgrounds prior to immigrating to the United States. My father grew up in the poor countryside of Fuzhou, China, along with his three brothers, as a farmer – sowing the fields, harvesting crops, making use of all the arable land that he had for sustenance and for profit – all the while obtaining only a middle school education. My mother grew up in the urban city of Shanghai working as a machinist although having obtained her high school diploma. Despite receiving the high marks necessary for college acceptance, she had to put off college simply because she and her family could not afford the education. She still regrets that choice to this day. My parents met in Fuzhou but married in Shanghai, and after hearing the economic opportunities that await them overseas, they decided to uproot themselves and move to the United States in the mid-1980s under the Hart-Celler Act of 1965.
Through my uncle’s sponsorship on my father’s side who had already rooted himself here in the United States a few years earlier, my parents managed to settle in East San Jose, California. They chose to live there because San Jose was a brimming Vietnamese and Chinese “ethnoburb” at the time and offered a great consolation between mainstream America and the ethnic linkages to their homeland.
I still recall many cherished memories of my youth at my uncle’s house and our first house, but I also recall many memories of frustration, anger, and discrimination.
My parents were never there at home the first few years of my life. Instead, my uncle and grandmother raised me. In fact, I first learned how to speak Mandarin instead of English, but managed to learn some English through watching television (one of my many childhood outlets among others) and through friends at preschool.
Due to the lack of a proper American education and an American high school diploma, my parents were forced to accept menial job offers, forced to receive lower wages, and forced to work long hours each day. My father was a cook and my mother was an electronics prototype technician. The times my parents were there, they always fought over finances and bills. As a young child, I could not help but overhear them bicker over money and juxtapose their happiness to the happiness of the nuclear American families shown on television. I could not comprehend why there was such a stark contrast between the two.
My parents lived with my uncle for another year before moving out to their first apartment (still on the east side). After a couple more years of saving, my parents afforded their first home in West San Jose, and my mother gave birth to my brother. My parents thought their new home was a better location to raise a family. But if there was one thing my parents valued, they valued education. They felt that education was the key to obtaining high paying jobs later in life. They wanted to make sure to provide the proper foundation for a better life for us that they never had.
Moving to West San Jose meant moving to a much more ethnically diverse community than what was on the east side, which felt unsettling since I felt like I was dropped in the deep end of a pool of water and being told to tread. I had a hard time adjusting in elementary school; sometimes my teachers decided to put me in an English as a Second Language class simply because I learned Mandarin first and not English (my mother from that point on told me to report that I learned English first to all of my schools). I felt I had to work twice as hard as my white classmates to prove to them that I was a worthy competitor since my parents were never there to help me with my school projects when their parents sometimes did. I could not help but feel ashamed of my socioeconomic status when comparing myself to my parents. My parents shipped me off to multiple supplemental afterschool programs, otherwise called Buxiban in Mandarin, in a rush to help me keep up academically with my white counterparts. This “educational deficit” propelled me to go out of my way to learn new subjects and outpace many of my fellow classmates in mathematics and science among others.
But the burden of being a second-generation Chinese American did not stop there in education. Due to my parents’ limited English, I had to become a liaison between my parents and the outside English-speaking community. When my parents decided to open up a Chinese restaurant in 2005, I quickly had to learn how to act, execute, and defend on my parents’ behalf on various business transactions with leasing companies, the State of California, clients, etc., and when incorporating the business in the first place. Due to these instances, I felt that I was growing more and more independent throughout my middle and high school years, and ultimately shaped my character into a leader.
It was not until high school that I learned that many second-generation Asian Americans at my high school faced the same predicaments as I have, and it was not until high school that I started realizing this common unity. As a result, I co-founded with my friend the Asian Pacific American Students for Leadership (APASL) club especially geared towards enlightening fellow students with the lost stories and plights of the Asian-American struggle as a model minority, relearning their pasts, and nurturing the development of their own identity, no matter what race they were. After high school, this became one of my newfound passions.
After arriving at UCLA, my college experience is an interesting one in that I try to balance my parents’ wishes for me to major in something “practical” and my passion of learning more about my own identity. My parents initially wanted me to become a doctor, but I quickly learned that chemistry was not one of my strong suits at UCLA. As a result, I decided to major in Aerospace Engineering with a minor in Asian American Studies. The duality of having such strikingly different areas of study hopefully does my parents’ hard work immigrating and acclimating to America and does the discovery of my own Asian-American identity both some justice.
The discovery of the intersection of one’s life with war, peace, and justice “in many ways a terrible lesson” in that it forces oneself to acknowledge the painful, gaping holes that exist in one’s own life history and the history of his or her forefathers. However, it is “in many ways a magnificent one” in that, by acknowledging those holes today, we can illuminate the hope that the lives of our future children can become more enriched and proud of their own history. And by learning more of each other’s history, this facilitates an intergenerational union to become active agents for social change in our communities.