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We Are 'A Nation Of Immigrants,' Then And Now

The author, pictured as a young boy, and his family visit the World's Fair in New York City in 1965. (Photo courtesy H.L.M. Lee)
The author, pictured as a young boy, and his family visit the World's Fair in New York City in 1965. (Photo courtesy H.L.M. Lee)

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The Trump administration recently changed the mission statement of the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, which originally acknowledged our diverse origins by stating: “USCIS secures America’s promise as a nation of immigrants…”

In the new version that sentiment has been ghosted, replaced with: “U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services administers the nation’s lawful immigration system…”

It’s only words, I know — but the United States was founded on words, which can cement memories or erase them.

In the summer of 1965, when I was 7 years old, my family took a vacation to visit relatives in Queens and see the New York World’s Fair. We were a Chinese family from Ohio packed in a Ford station wagon with no radio and no air conditioning. While my father drove and my mother sat in front, my brother, two sisters and I fidgeted in the back seat and sucked dried, salted plums to ward off car sickness. After traveling all day, we arrived well past nightfall at the home of my Aunt Louise and Uncle George.

My cousins, my siblings and I are all first generation Americans. The grandparents, aunts and uncles on my mother’s side, though, are almost all immigrants from Hong Kong. They fled the Sino-Japanese war sometime in the late 1930s or early 1940s, but for unknown reasons left my mother behind with her grandmother to fend for themselves. To enter the United States, the escaping members of her family bought false identity papers. One at a time, under various names, each found passage posing as relatives of people already living here, exploiting a loophole in the Chinese Exclusion Act that otherwise prohibited immigration.

A photo of the author with his family. (Photo courtesy H.L.M. Lee)
A photo of the author with his family. (Photo courtesy H.L.M. Lee)

New immigrants, Gung Gung (Chinese for maternal grandfather) and Pau Pau (Chinese for maternal grandmother) owned a laundry on Astoria Street in Queens. After my grandfather died of lung cancer, my grandmother ran it alone and lived in the windowless basement of the same building.

Customers would greet my Pau Pau with “hello” and a claim ticket, but she could only mumble back in Chinese and a little pidgin English. Nevertheless, they understood each other through the language of dollars and cents.

Whenever I recall that laundry, I feel the tremendous gulf between my grandmother and me. Before arriving in America, she lived in a small Chinese village. What could she have known about the United States? What made it worth the long journey across the Pacific, with the risk of being turned away if she failed the interrogation at Angel Island, in the port of San Francisco? What made it worth leaving her 5-year old daughter — my mother — behind, not to be reunited for 15 years?

Aunt Louise, my mother’s older sister, who escaped to the United States with Pau Pau, went to school here, learned English and as an adult worked at a drug store on Mott Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Eventually Aunt Louise and her husband bought their own home — the one we visited that summer of 1965 -- where they raised their children, born as U.S. citizens.

As first generation, my cousins and I grew up knowing China only through the stories of our parents. My mother rarely spoke of the past, though, leaving me with nebulous images of rice paddies; of villages with walls everywhere; of the ferry across Hong Kong harbor, livestock on the lower deck with passengers who couldn’t afford the upper deck.

The American experience is a work in progress, growing by accretion like the layers of a pearl.

During our vacation to New York, Aunt Louise took us to the Statue of Liberty. It should have been momentous to an immigrant family like mine, but I recall nothing about the ferry to Liberty Island, nothing about that towering figure overlooking the harbor and nothing about walking to the pedestal. My only memory is of climbing the stairs inside the statue, the sound of footsteps echoing off endless plates of metal. One step at a time, my father and I ascended in a long line of people seeking to reach the top.

The American experience is a work in progress, growing by accretion like the layers of a pearl.

On a plaque at the Statue of Liberty, Emma Lazarus’ poem "The New Colossus" challenges us with the famous lines:

Give me your tired, your poor / Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Despite being installed after the statue’s construction, those words are no less an expression of our country’s values, just as the Bill of Rights is no less fundamental because it was written after the Constitution.

The other day I re-read "The New Colossus" and was struck to learn the Statue of Liberty has a name, memorialized so she will not be diminished by time or government functionary — Mother of Exiles.

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H. L. M. Lee Cognoscenti contributor
H. L. M. Lee is a writer, electronics engineer and owner of a small high-tech company. He also writes web content and marketing materials, and develops video scripts for a peer reviewed scientific journal.


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