A Tale of Two Immigrants (#173)

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.

When Sunny and Jay invited themselves to our house for a visit, they were not the easiest houseguests. In fact, my husband went back to work to escape them. 

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.

Published by

Autumn Ashbough

WF writing about the humorous perils of life with Chinese-American significant other.

19 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Immigrants (#173)”

  1. My father was a refugee back in the day as well and my mother’s parents were both refugees from the Soviet regime.So it makes me some odd mix of different nationalities with refugee backround.
    Back in the day when my dad was still a refugee there was much hate in Germany as well against them even though they were Germans like the rest! Perhaps I will have a post about that at some point on how both sides of my parents family fled from war back in the day.
    At least now Germany is doing some good with accepting the refugees from Syria and other war torn nations. I remember an article which stated something like “Germany took in 2015 more refugees than the US in 10 years” (or similar). I think thus far Germany has taken well over 1 million refugees in but then again many are distributed to other European nations, some are send back and others just want to go back on their own (especially in the Scandinavian countries as they can’t take the cold and the half year of darkness)

    1. Germany has taken a ton of refugees. I think only Iran, Iraq, and Jordan have taken more, but I could be wrong. The U.S. has definitely not done its part, which is too bad, given than we have the infrastructure and space for so many.

  2. My grandparents emigrate during the reign of the Kaiser Wilhelm. They were fortunate that they did not get persecuted during WWI (being German immigrants). They lived here 50 years but never learned English. They were good, hard-working people who wanted to see their kids do better. I have a soft spot for immigrants…well….because, like most of us, it’s how we got here. I don’t get this current stuff. If a terrorist wants to get in to do damage, he will no matter how many laws there are. Locally a Syrian (Christian although it doesn’t really matter) family was denied entrance despite having spent the better part of the last decade securing all the right documents. Their visa was cancelled so at this point it’s all in question. Our local congressmen/senators are working to get them in. They have family here. Had they flown in one day earlier…

    1. I hope your Syrian family gets in after all. It’s heartbreaking. My lawyer sister spent days at Dulles Airport, ready to throttle the CBP guys who refused to even give names. All they could do was interview travelers and ask if someone on their flight had been detained. SO frustrating.

  3. Wow, interesting read Autumn!

    Peter’s parents also have a pretty intense story that I still don’t have all the details of (for similar reasons as you describe) but the bits I do know have really helped me understand them. Some of the toughest things they endured between them include house arrest and being sent to the countryside during the cultural revolution before immigrating to Argentina and later Australia.

    I am still learning key bits of their story after years and I am not sure Peter even knows all of it.

    1. Exactly — Andy knows very little, and we will probably never know Jay’s entire story. He’s not a talker, but there are probably also some dark elements that he feels are better off forgotten. He might be right.

  4. After the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed, many people left Hong Kong and immigrated to other countries during the 80s and 90s. I was one of them and thankful for my parents’ decision. I’m fortunate to get to know so many good people since I moved to the US, and appreciate the opportunity I can work in the profession I like.

    It just breaks my heart to see what’s going on at my birth place and current home.

      1. I remain hopeful on how things will eventually turn out in the US. The foundations of democracy implemented in the US should be strong enough to absorb this kind of short-term set back (although it feels years already). China is a different story though…

          1. Is this just a temporary setback, though? One must remember that the decision to bar the entry of Muslims is not merely the result of one man’s whims. Trump is doing this to appeal to the significant and growing white nationalist sentiments in the US. (I don’t believe Trump personally cares about it one way or another.) There is a sense among many that the great multicultural experiment has come to a head, and this is seen in Western countries across the world.

            Apparently, “diversity” was tolerated only because white people have been comfortably dominant. Now that this dominance is beginning to be eroded, starting with the trend toward becoming a demographic minority, white people are not only starting to resent the loss of the dominant position they’ve enjoyed for so long but they’re also seriously worried about being drowned by a sea of brown masses in “their own country”. To the cliched claim of how diversity is what makes America strong, the white nationalists would say it’s the white people who have made America strong; the non-whites have just come to enjoy the fruits of white success.

            I think this is probably the beginning of a long-term trend, the new normal.

            And hi, great blog BTW. (-:

            1. Hi, Harukaze and thanks for commenting. I don’t think this is a permanent setback, but then again, I was sure Hillary would win, so what do I know? Various friends and relatives in other parts of the country — and even Andy — were far less optimistic than I was. On the other hand, Hillary carried the majority of the voters. I think now it’s a race against time and the rearguard actions of the Republican party. The old white racists are dying out. The younger generation is becoming far more political, especially those of color. And people of color will eventually be the majority in this country.

              On the local level, though, the Republicans have control of most of the states. This gives them control over voting and education. They’ve shown that the Constitution means less to them than winning, and so I expect they will continue to disenfranchise as many people of color as possible while teaching creationism instead of critical thinking in schools.

              If Trump can cram enough biased and ill-qualified candidates into the judiciary, Republicans won’t get called on the gerrymandering and voter suppression that helps them control swing states like North Carolina.

              I think the midterms will be a solid test on the strength and growth of the Resistance. If Congress can be turned at least half-blue — and if the world lasts that long — I’ll remain optimistic.

              But until then, I’ll be protesting and donating and glorying in every Trumpian setback. Just like most other Americans. I mean, even the suburban whites in Utah came out and gave their dick of a Congressman (Chaffetz) a piece of their mind last night. Same thing in Tennessee! These are not places where Republicans generally meet with resistance.

              Don’t give up on us yet.

  5. Sunny and Jay have come far together. Doesn’t sound romantic like the modern romance we’ve all come to know, but I think they did recognise that two is better than one on many levels.

    Australia has been taking in refugees. But over the last few years with a change of government, this is seemingly becoming less. Refugees have gotten a lot of coverage in our local media to, well, almost nothing anymore these days unless it is a group of people protesting for equal rights. Australia is certainly trying its best to help the refugee crisis, but I do think we lack space and the resources to house them – it just hasn’t been properly managed and with racist sentiments here, it does not help.

    1. Yes, that’s exactly it — they are a team, and they were both looking for an advantageous merger. Meanwhile, my parents married for love…multiple times. Maybe they should have been more pragmatic.

      I think that’s the most frustrating part about the refugee crisis — out of all countries, the United States is the best equipped to cope with an influx of refugees. And we take so few. We’re the international shirker when we should be the international leader.

    1. Rage & despair. But I have seen a couple of stories where various Muslims are heartened by the thousands of protesters and chants of “No hate! No fear! Refugees are welcome here!”

      Meanwhile, pro-Trump rallies attract less of a crowd than Starbucks. I saw one with EIGHT people.

  6. I love hearing these immigrant stories… They’re so inspiring. In the current political realm, it also makes you realize that without immigrants this country wouldn’t be what it is today.

    My mom was a refugee and my grandmother was an immigrant. If Trump was president at the end of the Vietnam War, I wouldn’t even be here today. I’m absolutely outraged about the refugee ban, because America vets the hell out of refugees (some people wait years to finally get into this country). I hate how Trump has painted this picture to his not-so-well-informed voters that we roll out the red carpet and let in refugees without any kind of screening process. We’re EXTREMELY rigorous, and from what I hear we only accept women, children, the highly educated (ph.d or bust) and perhaps interpreters/informants who RISKED THEIR LIVES to help us on the battlefield. Ughhhhhh!!! I get so upset.

    My Vietnamese friend told me the story of her parents and it totally trumped my mom’s. They were on a raft from Vietnam, got taken in by Thai pirates, her mom gave birth in a Thai prison, and they somehow escaped and ran to Hong Kong where they boarded a boat to the USA and arrived here with… NOTHING! Totally mind blowing.

    I’m crossing my fingers that our judicial system will come through and repeal this stupid ban.

    1. I know, the vetting process for refugees is intense. We’ve got some problems with our visas being overstayed, but the refugees are not the issue, and especially not refugees from the banned countries.

      White men with guns scare me more than Muslims.

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