My maternal great-great grandfather was the most recent immigrant in my family tree. Enraged and disgusted by the rise of German nationalism in the late 1800s, the German patriarch came to the United States. He was so angry with the Fatherland, in fact, that no one in his household was allowed to speak German. Ever.
It wasn’t until recently that I understood exactly how he felt. Ever since the Inflated Tangerine Fascist took office, I’ve regretted not learning Cantonese. It appalls me that such a vile, morally bankrupt cretin is not only human, but American.
Maybe I’ll start speaking in pig Latin.
The story of my angry German ancestor is boring compared to Andy’s family, though. While I knew both of my husband’s parents were refugees from the Chinese Civil War, it took me years to get the whole story.
Andy’s not the most talkative guy, but that’s not the only barrier. Like a lot of first-generation Americans, Andy’s goal was assimilation. As soon as he entered kindergarten, he stopped speaking Cantonese. He focused on eating, dressing, and driving like an American.
Growing up, Andy didn’t want to hear about life in China, or fleeing China, or coping with poverty in Hong Kong. I refrained from prying, which was a herculean task. I KNEW there was a great story buried in “went to Hong Kong in the middle of a war.” I bided my time.
As we sat in the Costco parking lot, I finally had my chance. My in-laws were stuck in the backseat. Costco wouldn’t open for a half-hour. I turned around and asked Jay for the story.
Jay, ever the word Scrooge, gave me a summary. His family fled the communists south, into Vietnam. That went poorly. Less than a decade later, Jay’s family fled the communists again, this time to Hong Kong. Jay worked two jobs while getting his degree in Civil Engineering, then worked two more as an engineer.
“That’s it?” I asked. Where were the details? Did anyone chase them? Did they hide? Did they leave before or after American forces took the place of the French? Curiosity warred with white manners.
Jay waved at his wife. “You want her story.”
“I do? I mean, yes, of course I want her story.”
And unlike Andy and Jay, Sunny was happy to tell it.
Sunny’s father was a military judge, stationed in Canton Province. When the Communists took over, he fled for British-held Hong Kong. The judge took one route. Sunny’s mother took a second route with her third daughter. Two servants took yet another route with Sunny and her older sister. Sunny told me how she and Yee-mah hid in baskets during most of the trip. When they were finally allowed to stretch their legs, both girls ran into an empty field. They refused to come back, and the servants had to chase them.
“They were so angry with us,” Sunny told me. “But we didn’t know. We thought it was a game.”
Sunny’s family was fortunate. Despite her ill-judged foray into the field, she made it safely to Hong Kong. So did her mother, father, and three of her sisters. Only the youngest sister, a baby, did not. Sunny’s mother, worried that a crying baby might give the fugitives away, left her youngest daughter with the servants. When they could, they wrote to their youngest and sent money.
They didn’t see her again until 1999, when Britain’s lease on Hong Kong expired and China took over. Then the entire family flew to Hong Kong and met up with her.
“Oh my God! That must have been so amazing,” I gushed, expecting a joyful Joy Luck Club reunion.
Sunny shook her head. “Not really. She is very angry. Very bitter. She’s hard, and all she wants is money.” Sunny showed me a picture of her youngest sister. This auntie looked at least a decade older than her older sisters.
“Wow,” was all I said. (I would have said her bitterness at being left behind was understandable, if anyone asked me. But no one has.)
In Hong Kong, Sunny’s family took any jobs they could get. Her father worked as an usher in a movie theater. When they were old enough, the sisters worked in a bean sprout factory. “It didn’t pay much,” Sunny said, “but we could eat all the bean sprouts we wanted.”
“Is that when you met Jay? When did you know you’d marry him?” I expected a romantic story — which shows just how privileged white Americans are.
Refugees have other priorities. Like survival.
Sunny said, “Well, on our first date, Jay took me to see a movie. Only, he had two jobs and was so tired that he fell asleep!”
“He feel asleep on your first date?!” I was horrified. “And you MARRIED HIM?”
Sunny laughed at me. “Of course. It showed how hard he worked. I knew he’d be a good husband.”
Still reeling from seeing my romantic dreams crushed by pragmatism, I managed a “Huh.” Then I rallied and asked, “So why did Jay marry you?”
“Because I’m pretty.”
That’s as much romance as there was for Sunny and Jay. They eventually jumped through a ton of bureaucratic hoops and immigrated to the U.S., living in Honolulu. Sunny worked for a hotel. Jay worked for consulting firms and the Army Corps of Engineers. Gradually, Yee-mah and other family members joined them. Some started businesses. Their children became successful engineers, doctors, and IT specialists.
Sunny and Jay’s story is not unique. There are millions of American immigrants just like them. And there are hundreds of millions of American school children who’ve learned that immigrants and refugees make America great. We’ve all learned the poem New Colossus, on a plaque by the Statue of Liberty:
“Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” – Emma Lazarus
But now, our golden door has slammed shut, just as it did against the Chinese in 1848 and the Jewish refugees in 1939. Even worse, the current administration specifically barred Syrian refugees — people who are refugees partly because an ill-considered American war in Iraq destabilized an entire region of the Middle East.
We owe those Syrians, just as we owe our veterans. But we’ve barely taken in 10,000 — less than 1/5 of what Canada has accepted.
Barring those Muslim refugees and vetted visa holders is legally wrong. Our courts point this out to Trump daily; hopefully the trend continues all the way to the Supreme Court.
Barring any refugees and immigrants is also morally wrong. They need help. The United States can help. How can we NOT help? We claim to be the country that leads the world, that welcomes the world, that offers refuge to people from all over the world. This is the country we glorify to our children.
That country, and not Donald Trump’s racist USA, is America at her best.
So let them in.
Or send the Statue of Liberty to Canada.