With appreciation to The News-Press.
"The blue Pontiac LeMans stayed parked for weeks because Dad was afraid to drive it."
"When I was accepted to a variety of colleges, it was the culmination of the sweat and tears of an entire lineage of village peasants."
"And let's not get into her reaction to my marrying a Caucasian."
Coming to the Golden Mountain
Published in The News-Press on 2/27/11
Forty-four years ago today, my family came to America.
I was 7, a precocious only child with starry eyes as gleaming as the plane that soared with promise across the world, from Hong Kong to Chicago.
Abiding by strict immigration procedures and sponsored by my father’s sister, we had waited more than five years since leaving our Cantonese village to get to “Gum San,” the Golden Mountain called America.
It was 1967, during one of Chicago’s historic snowstorms. The blizzards were great for a kid who had never seen snow but a cold awakening for my parents. They struggled to find their place as bewildered strangers in a land where everything was foreign: the weather, language, food, people, culture, life in the Uptown melting pot where we rented an apartment.
In Hong Kong, Dad worked days in a laundry, and attended night classes to be certified as a mechanical engineer. Mom had been one of the first two girls in our village to attend high school, and worked as a teacher. Here, he became a draftsman, she sewed pockets in a sweatshop, and I became a latchkey 2nd-grader.
We labored to learn English--they barely reached remedial levels and I initially failed spelling tests repeatedly. Truth be told, much of my early education came from after-school TV shows like The Brady Bunch (Oh, to be Marcia, Marcia, Marcia!).
Dad was paid $600 a month for years, well below his value, while Mom started at $1.25 an hour--25 cents more than the minimum wage at that time. Hoarding every dollar (in the oven drawer among other hiding places until one fateful fire), we paid back our debts, saved for a house, went on a vacation to Wisconsin Dells, and bought a car, because I was so ashamed to be without.
The blue Pontiac LeMans stayed parked for weeks because Dad was afraid to drive it. Having never taken real lessons, he went through three red lights the first time out—as the kindly policeman pointed out. Dad didn’t even know what a traffic light was. (And then he taught Mom! All of which explains a lot.)
In 1973, we studied to become U.S. citizens, in part so that we could in turn sponsor other relatives to come to America. It was another five years before my parents voted.
The most pivotal outsider in our lives was Mel Meyer, a volunteer who taught music, arts and crafts for the park district. His passion was nurturing the needy, begging and borrowing instruments, supplies, clothes, food and jobs. He taught me to play piano (badly), got me various scholarships to musical events, and, most importantly, introduced Mom and Dad to garage sales. Such treasures they found for pennies. If one blender was good, why not have five?
While I had other helping hands who lifted me along the way, my parents’ world centered around the extended family, and self respect and self reliance. Growing up in China without anything to call their own, always hungry, often barefoot, my parents were consumed with building up their security, and with my excelling. They could not fathom how anyone in America couldn’t make something of themselves, with all the opportunities this land offers.
It isn’t easy to be the sole receptacle into which every hope and dream and expectation is poured. Always, the parental lament for more, the incessant badgering for better. If you’ve been following the tale of Yale Law professor and author Amy Chua, aka Dragon Mother, you have a taste of my childhood. (In an ironic twist, my daughter is taking her second class with Chua this semester. It makes me shudder. And if I come across as a bit driven, you now know why. )
When I was accepted to a variety of colleges, it was the culmination of the sweat and tears of an entire lineage of village peasants.
I went to the University of Illinois at Champaign in 1977. After two years in pre-med, I switched to communications and launched into a journalism career that eventually brought me here to you. (Even now, Mom will say, with disappointment, she had wanted me to be a doctor. And let’s not get into her reaction to my marrying a Caucasian—an older, divorced, smoking Caucasian with a child at that.)
Nine years ago, my parents moved from Chicago to live by us in Bellevue, WA. They marveled at their carefree retirement in a beautiful home surrounded by lush trees and mountains, with an expansive garden where Mom could move one flower and plant at a time to suit her obsessive tidiness. They were constantly surprised as I urged them to spend the money they had saved for so long, to finally enjoy themselves.
Now, they live with us in Estero. Dad began declining a few years ago and is largely disengaged, with symptoms of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Mom has devoted herself to his care and delights in the moments of lucidity she can stir in him. It’s hard on all of us and there is much strain in the house. And there is a lot of love, rooted in memories, respect and gratitude.
Today, I want to say “Thank You” to my Mom and Dad-- and to all the Moms and Dads and Grandparents and Aunts and Uncles and Guardian Angels who toiled in their journeys here in America, who gave so deeply of themselves, who paved the way for us and our descendants, who helped build this precious “Golden Mountain” with pride and honor and promise, always promise.
Editor's note: My Dad, Yuen Ding Chan, passed away Nov. 17, 2014, at age 81, surrounded by all his loved ones.