“My hands are full when you give me your hand.” – Edmond Jabes, The Book of Questions: Vol II
It’s 2001. A greasy slice of pizza falls onto the kitchen floor of my grandfather’s Chinese restaurant in Queens. Without pause, my grandfather, who I call A-yeh, picks it up and takes a bite. My wide, flat nose—identical to his own—scrunches up in disapproval. That’s gross, I think to myself. “When I was nine we were homeless and ate banana peels picked from the garbage can” A-yeh says. That’s gross too, I think to myself.
At eleven years old I know nothing of suffering, nothing of bodily harm. I know only of the deserved bright red marks my mother leaves on my palms with a wooden-handled duster. I am the only Chinese girl at a 97-percent-white Catholic school. In religion class they teach me sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me. I get straight A’s but I do not believe in God. The pain I know is inflicted through repeated exclusion and weaponized words I am too embarrassed to ask my parents to define. Urban Dictionary tells me how others define me: chink, gook. It will take years for me to learn how to define myself.
The violence in A-yeh’s life began when he was four years old in 1937 during the Sino-Japanese War. The Japanese pillaged his village in Sanzao, killing his mother and millions of others during their imperialist pursuit. Her face is one he cannot remember. What he can remember is seeking refuge at nine years old in Macau, a Portuguese colony, with his older sister and his father, my great-grandfather Lum. The journey proved unsuccessful and after a year the Lum family returned to Sanzao. With no opportunities in sight, great-grandfather Lum fled to Hainan Island in the South Pacific—known as China’s Hawaii—to find work. A-yeh and his sister were left to fend for themselves; they would never see their father again. Fellow villagers who returned from the island a year later told them great-grandfather Lum had died of disease or overwork. A-yeh was left an orphan, albeit more fortunate than his sister because he was a boy that could carry on a family name.
Wong would be our adopted last name. The Wong family wanted a boy and it’s in their arms and under their roof my grandfather found a home. Later on, the entire Wong family would flee from the Chinese Civil War and find refuge in Hong Kong, where my father was born. “How did you feel about your biological father’s death?” I ask A-yeh. “No feeling, I didn’t cry. I had food to eat and a place to live, that was good enough.”
For great-grandfather Wong, that wasn’t good enough. Good was in America, a country that didn’t want him. In 1882, 70 years prior to his arrival in New York, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. It was the only law of its kind, one that prohibited people of a specific ethnicity from entering the United States. It was passed because the Chinese, though once welcomed as menial labor to build the Transcontinental Railroad, were later deemed a threat to white people and the economy at large. They were scapegoats for decreased wages and increased unemployment, the same role Mexicans play today in Trump’s fear-mongering theater of alternative fact.
But the law couldn’t stop great-grandfather Wong who made his way from China to the United States in the 1940s. Leaving behind his family, he boarded a cargo ship, hopped port, and took a gamble–serving as a cook in WWII in exchange for citizenship. He peeled potatoes as bombs exploded around him, risking his life for a better future—for himself, for his family, for me.
Though the ban was lifted in 1943, quotas weren’t. People whose faces resemble mine wouldn’t be allowed in the United States until the Immigration Act of 1965. Great-grandfather Wong and our family would have to wait until the 1970s to call New York City, a sanctuary city that’s also Donald Trump’s hometown city, their home. Their first address was a tenement in Chinatown. My grandfather’s first job was as cook at a Chinese restaurant he would later call his own. It was at this restaurant, called Ho Wan, meaning “good luck,” in Queens (Trump’s home borough), two teenagers–the girl, a refugee–met, fell in love, and had me.
Great-grandmother Wong never boarded a plane to the United States. I question why and ask my father if his grandparents had a happy marriage. My faulty logic believed two people in love couldn’t survive apart. My father laughs, saying my mind is too American. “It’s a sacrifice they had to make so they could survive” he says. Great-grandfather Wong died in 1970, one month after his family arrived in America. I would never get to meet him. Great-grandmother Wong said his heart problems were caused by loneliness.
When I express to my immigrant parents the ache and anxiety I feel these days they respond as if the equality I desire is a false idol. “Nothing can ever be equal” they say. I question if this would be their philosophy if we weren’t given privileges as model minorities–the myth that all Asians are smart, successful, and self-sustaining. I go on explaining, “Chinese people created the model minority myth and made up stories about having brilliant kids and traditional Confucian family values as a tool against oppression. White politicians then used our tool against others. First during the Cold War to gain allies and again during the Civil Rights Movement to divide and conquer people of color.” This information leaves them unaffected. I say “I’m tired of Asian people aspiring to whiteness instead of giving a shit about black and brown people.” What they hear is “you’re racist.” “Just because equality can’t exist doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive towards it,” I argue.
I have long hesitated sharing my family’s narrative because I am fearful our story will become propaganda for the American dream that no longer exists in Trump’s America. My grandfather’s story is just like many other immigrant stories, though our struggles are not the same. I share now because we need to be reminded of how little things have changed and how much more work we have left to do. A-yeh used to welcome every one of his restaurant’s customers by calling them “my friend.” He teaches me open arms can be a form a resistance. If inherited trauma exists, so does inherited resilience.
“The GoldenDoor” is our weekly essay series that offers first-person perspective on the immigrant experience in the United States.