Immigration has always been a story of sacrifice. Whether it occurred a century ago or just this past year, making the journey to a new land means giving up something from one’s first home. At Charles B. Wang Community Health Center, we witness the immigrant experience first-hand through our patients and employees. To learn more about our community’s experience, we asked three Health Center staff to share their own immigrant stories – each one capturing a distinct moment in the Chinese immigration history.
Regina F. Lee, Esq.
Executive Vice President, Public Affairs
A Different Definition of an Immigrant
I call myself an immigrant but my family has been here for more than 100 years. My great-grandfather was among the wave of immigrants from southern China who immigrated to the U.S. in the early 1900s. He came by himself and left his wife and family back in China. After he established himself, he was able to send for my grandfather. My grandfather did the same thing – he came to this country by himself and left my grandmother in China. And so did my father. Because of the U.S. immigration laws, only men were allowed to immigrate.
By 1959, the U.S. had a special resettlement program that gave people refugee status if they were escaping persecution from Communist China. We were living in Hong Kong, and my mother managed to get refugee visas for herself and her three daughters. So even though I am a fourth generation in the U.S., my mother was the first woman to come to the U.S. Our family history is very much the history of Chinese in America. It’s about separation, it’s about people coming and doing the best that they can do to survive and essentially building a better path for the future.
A Bachelor Society
By the time I came in 1959, Chinatown was very small – maybe 8 or 9 blocks. Canal Street used to be empty warehouses. It almost felt like living in a village in China. Everyone knew everybody else. If you were a Lee, you pretty much knew all the other Lee families.
My great-grandfather was running a grocery store on Pell Street with my grandfather – open 7 days a week, a lot of men from the community would drop by to get their mail. Growing up in that environment, you get a first-hand experience about what the community was like before U.S. immigration laws were liberalized. I didn’t meet my father until I was 8 years old. My grandfather, eventually, was able to petition for his wife. They were able to reunite after 60 years.
Making Best of the Situation
My mother grew up in a fairly affluent family. Her father, my maternal grandfather, actually came to the U.S. when he was a young man to study. He obtained a degree in mining engineering from a technical college in West Virginia and became an engineer for the building of China’s railroads. He had eight children – all the sons went to engineering school and all the daughters went to medical school.
So my mother was a medical school graduate when she came to the United States. But because it was the early 60s, there weren’t really any programs like ESL or retraining. My mother ended up working at a garment factory as a stitcher. It’s a very typical immigrant story – people who were educators and professionals in their home country and coming to the U.S. and having to accept whatever jobs or opportunities that are available to people living in ethnic enclaves. It’s such a powerful idea of immigrants in that generation getting on a boat without knowing what the future will be like for them, without language skills, not knowing whether they will survive but they make the trip anyway and they make it in order to build a better future for the next generation.
A Life of Public Service
My life history has been about working with refugees, immigrants, minorities. After law school, I became an asylum attorney. I spent 10 years representing refugees from all over the world. Then I created something called the Asian Community Development Corporation. I was the first executive director and we developed affordable housing in Boston’s Chinatown. After two years, I became the director of the State Office of Refugees and Immigrants and then went to Washington to become the deputy director for the U.S. Office of Refugee Settlement. Then I went over to the Office of Minority Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to help manage the first national initiative to eliminate health disparities. Finally, I came back to New York to the Health Center in 2011. All of my work has always been about advancing social justice for marginalized populations. I feel that my family’s history really influenced my career choices.
Director of Social Work
Beyond the Ocean
I was born and raised in Hong Kong and grew up in public housing. My apartment faced Victoria Harbor. When I was young, I would always look out the window at the harbor. I wanted to see what’s beyond the ocean, beyond my tiny apartment.
Going to college and studying abroad was a dream for me. Education was never a priority in my family. I was the oldest of two sisters and one brother. Being the oldest and a girl, my parents expected me to go to work and bring home money after graduating from high school but I insisted on going to college. When I was in high school, a social worker came and helped my family a lot. I found her work to be meaningful and realized it was something I could do to help others. So at that point, I was determined to become a social worker.
I went to social work school in Hong Kong. I was very lucky that my college collaborated with a university in America and was allowed to pursue an MSW program. I had a lot of difficulties convincing my parents that I wanted to pursue higher education. They would ask me: “When are you bringing money home? What about your brothers and sisters? Who will support them?” But I had to do what I had to do. So I decided to leave my family behind for higher education and to study abroad. It was a culture shock when I moved to America, and I knew only a few classmates. I learned English in Hong Kong but never practiced. In order to improve my language skills, I blocked myself from all Chinese media and practiced by spending a lot of time listening and reading English media and materials and communicating with non-Chinese-speaking friends. Living alone in America with limited language skills and resources was hard, but I had made my choice.
Two Suitcases and a Dream
When I came to New York City in 1996, I only had 2 pieces of luggage and 1,000 dollars. My first job was working in a preventive program that supported families in the city. I was hired as an assistant team leader without any experience. I carried a full caseload and learned how to manage a program at the same time. I mainly focused on the Asian immigrant community. The immigrants have a lot of limitations and they often had to rely on someone who didn’t speak their language. Being an immigrant, I knew what they were going through. I understood the language barrier, the culture shock, and the social isolation – especially when it came to international students.
Now, my goal is to educate people in the mainstream community about what Asian Americans are going through and get them the right resources. I feel like I accomplished my dreams and finally made my parents proud. I have proved that with enough determination and persistence, even an immigrant girl from an underprivileged background could still make her dreams come true.
Youth Services Coordinator
Freedom and Opportunity
My dad was the first that came to the U.S. His reason for coming to America was freedom and opportunity. He’s from Guangzhou where opportunity was limited and the pay was not that good. At the time, the ratio of USD to RMB was one to eight. So let’s say you’re earning 1,000 dollars in the U.S. – that was equal to 8,000 RMB in China. A typical person salary at the time in China would have just been 1,000 RMB.
My mom also came for opportunity. In Taishan, opportunity was really limited – even less than Guangzhou. So she knew that she needed to get out in order to have a better future. I was born in China and came here with my mom when I was one. At the time she was only in her early 20s. So she gave up her friends and her family traveling all the way from one country to another. I would say she also gave up her youth in a sense. Your 20s is your prime time to explore life. She never even had that opportunity because she gave birth to me and a few years later she gave birth to my brother.
The New Immigrant Mentality
My mom started working in a factory and each day she was only earning 40 dollars. Each seam you do is two or three cents – she wasn’t the fastest of all her peers at the time so she worked seven days a week and at least 290 days of the year. On the days she had off, she and her friends looked for part-time work. During the day, she had to send me and my brother to daycare. Each one of us for daycare was 15 dollars, that’s 30 dollars total. She also had to buy buns for us to eat as a snack and then there’s the MetroCard fare. So at the end of the day there’s very little left of that 40 dollars. My dad’s income at that time was a little bit more, like 60 or 70 dollars a day. But you have to use that to pay for rent. Between the two of them there was very little spare money. They didn’t go out on dates or have special dinners, they couldn’t enjoy the simple luxuries because their mentality at the time was “I need to pay for rent. I need to save money for a house.” Growing up, as long as I had time with family and some food to eat, I was happy. That helped shape my attitude of appreciation and independence. I knew my family didn’t have much money so when I went to college, I worked so hard. I applied for scholarships and grants. I also did work study to take care of myself in college. And thank goodness I did that because I went to Skidmore College, a private institution.
Eventually, my mom realized that it was really hard to take care of both my brother and I because she just didn’t have the time or financial resources. So she sent my brother back to China to be raised by our grandma for the first two years of his life. Because my brother was born in the U.S., he could spend more time in China before she had to bring him back. When she went back to China to pick up my brother, he didn’t recognize her. He said, “Hello yiyi (Chinese for aunt).” She asked him to call her “Mommy” but he wouldn’t answer her. I don’t think he even understood what a “Mommy” was. It was only until later when he went back to the United States and became more comfortable with her that he started calling her “Mommy.”
Dreams of My Mother
My mom tells me from time to time, “I wish I studied English when I was in my early 20’s.” Because she’s now in her 50’s, it’s hard for her to learn a new language. I asked my mom, “What are your dreams? What are your goals? What do you want out of life?” She didn’t know how to answer because she never thought about it. That was never a luxury that was given to her.
I’m really thankful that my parents worked so hard to raise my brother and me, and I really want to give back and provide for them.