Here is the story I told about my parents for a long time.
My mother and father arrive in the United States in their mid-20s. They come to America with only a suitcase of clothes and five dollars in their pockets. This country is foreign, and vast. This is a place where people do not look like them, where people do not speak like them. This is a place where people are incredibly kind — and incredibly cruel. A professor deliberately sabotages my mother’s recommendation for a job. A neurosurgeon saves my father’s life.
Many years pass, and my parents keep working. There is graduate school, and employment, and layoffs, and employment again. My parents move from a bad apartment to a better one, move from a place in the city to a house in the suburbs. It is 2017 now, and my mother is a tenured professor. It is 2017 now, and my father is a businessman.
I suppose this is a good story. Immigrants arrive to America searching for a better life. Immigrants work hard and actually find it. The journey isn’t easy, but they make it eventually. That diligence, that perseverance, earn them a white picket fence and a nice, green lawn. All that’s missing in the picture now is a dog.
It’d be easy to believe that this is the only narrative. It’s charming, inspiring — it wraps up neatly with little mess. For the majority of my life, I wanted to believe in this story and only this story. My parents came from nothing and made something of themselves! This country — this country really is amazing!
I know now that my parents were lucky. I know now that despite the suitcase of clothes and the five dollars in their pockets, my parents did not really come from “nothing.” Both of my grandfathers had gone to college. My parents themselves had graduated from the top university in China with computer science degrees. They got student visas to study industrial engineering at Purdue University. They could speak English. They became citizens.
I don’t want to diminish my parents’ success. I don’t want to say that it wasn’t hard for them — in China and in America. My parents tell me of their childhood, how the feeling of hunger was so common that it followed them to bed every night. My parents tell me of their first few years in America, when my father was sick, and they didn’t know what was wrong. These are the truths. But, there are other truths too.
It’s funny, I was so angry at my parents when they refused to acknowledge this. When they kept pushing their narrative, their American Dream — that they were the good immigrants, that there were somehow bad ones. I told them that yes, they worked hard for what they got, but it was also the luck of the draw. I told them that if they had been born in different circumstances, circumstances that they didn’t have any control in choosing, things might have turned out another way.
But I’m not angry anymore. Or, maybe I’ve come to understand that it’s more than a little complicated. I told my mother and father, “Don’t you know? The same people who hate the ‘bad’ immigrants, they’ll come after you too.”
My mother said, “You’re right.”
My father said, “There’s nothing we can do to change their minds.”
My parents know the reality of this country they moved to, that they now live in. I can’t count all the instances that I’ve experienced myself — I can’t even imagine what my parents have gone through. Yet, I know that pain: a pain like a stab wound, a pain that lingers for days. The substitute teacher who asked me why I didn’t have an accent. The man at the mall who badgered me and my mother about why “Orientals didn’t shave.” There was this woman, I remember so clearly that I can hear her voice even now, the way she spat at us: she called us “peasants” repeatedly, because she thought we stole her taxi.
I can understand why my parents choose not to think about these things too much. I can see why my parents want to buy into the belief that they are the “good” immigrants. It’s much easier to live in that kind of world. It’s harder to accept the place we actually find ourselves in.
I don’t want you to shame my parents for their decision. I think that is a conversation between me and them alone. Yet, I do want you to stop for a moment — just a moment — and consider this:
What happened this Tuesday was not so far removed from us. We’re sitting in our nice homes now, with our nice fences, but we are only temporarily aesthetically pleasing.
This, like many things, could turn on a dime.
Alice Zhao | email@example.com