I have visited the New-York Historical Society several times and was excited to hear about the Chinese-American exhibit that is currently on display. Even though the NYC Marathon made it difficult to reach the Historical Society, I did make it through the barricades to the exhibit on 11/2/14.
I learned a lot from reading the displays and found answers to many of my questions about my roots.
My father came to the U.S. with his parents in the 1920s from Canton. The family went to Helena, AR and stayed in the area to this day. Many of us younger folks have dispersed across the country to take advantage of better economic opportunities than currently exist in the Mississippi delta, including myself.
See the website www.deltaculturalcenter.com where my family’s pictures from the 1920s are on exhibit. A summary of my family’s history is contained in a free pdf, DCC_Promised_lessonplans.pdf, produced by the cultural center as a diversity lesson plan for school children.
My father was Sam in that picture from 1920. He married Susie Jiu from Mississippi and had four children (three girls and a boy), three of whom are still alive. Susie died in 1956 after the birth of her 4th child, and Sam went to Hong Kong to get a new wife to provide him with more sons and to care for his children. (The concept of romance was sorely lacking in his second marriage. All he was looking for was a cheap servant to take care of the household.)
On April 2, 1957, he married my mother, Pearl Fung, and I was born on January 14, 1958, in West Memphis, AR. Two girls followed in 1959 and 1961. Then there was a break until 1966 with the birth of my little brother.
We worked very hard in the family grocery store, but with the encouragement of my mother, I made it out of the Mississippi delta. Education was the path out of a life of hardship, she insisted.
I went to Princeton University in 1976, and encountered culture shock. There were no other southern Chinese there. There was a Chinese students group at the Third World Center, and its leader didn’t even know I existed. One day he saw me, ran up to me and demanded to know if I was a Princeton student. “Yes,” I told him. Why didn’t he know about me?, he asked. I told him I had no idea. He insisted that I come to the Third World Center for the next meeting of the Chinese students.
Needless to say, I didn’t fit in, because the other Chinese students at Princeton were either from an inner city ghetto such as NYC’s Chinatown or one of the others on the east or west coast or from rich families with professional parents that had never worked in a family grocery store. The kids from the ghettos couldn’t identify with my life experience, and I similarly had difficulty identifying with theirs. Many of them had a “chip on the shoulder” and felt the University owed them reparations for the deprivations they and their families faced in America. I had never set foot in a Chinese restaurant kitchen or Chinese hand laundry. The other Chinese students from a privileged background were from prep schools and had parents who were doctors, lawyers, engineers, etc. (There were a few exchange students from Hong Kong, Malaysia, Burma or other Asian country where the Chinese had emigrated.) None of the other Chinese students even bothered to talk to me. I never felt welcome at the Third World Center and never returned for another meeting.
After graduating, I went to New York University for my MBA and an internship at Arthur Andersen & Co. After earning my MBA, I went to Merrill Lynch for 13 years. Then I joined the Related Companies and have been there for 15 years.
I have many experiences that I am willing to share and can flesh out many of my life experiences, including being right around the corner from the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, seeing the disparity in the treatment of girls vs boys in traditional Chinese families (e.g. my mother was married off to my father as a “bridge to America” for her brother, mother and sisters, even though she had her own romantic interest in Hong Kong), suffering from discrimination as a token Chinese student in my high school in Memphis, and being told that mandatory school busing did not apply to me, since I was neither white nor black. I could go to any school as I was an “other” and didn’t enter into the busing equation. My Spanish professor at Princeton said that he knew he wasn’t supposed to ask but said that he also couldn’t resist asking: where did you learn to speak Spanish with a twang? He said he never would have expected my answer. When I first moved into my building and was returning home from a long day of work at Arthur Andersen, a doorman ask me “where are you delivering?” I was furious that the idiot thought that I was delivering Chinese food while dressed in my business suit and carrying a briefcase. I guess he thought I was packing sweet and sour pork in my briefcase! Needless to say, that doorman did not last long.
When I’ve returned to the U.S. from trips to Europe or Asia, I’ve gotten many hard stares from the Customs Agents who look at my passport with my “place of birth” being shown as “Arkansas, USA” and double check to see if the passport is real. I get questioned to this day about “where are you from?” I always respond Arkansas, and then I wait for the usual reaction. Some ignorant folks then ask further, “where were you born?” I again respond Arkansas. It is incredible how some people refuse to believe my answer. That’s why I appreciate the opportunity to submit my story to the New-York Historical Society to show the diversity of the Chinese American population.