“I’ll be back in only a year,” a young, bright-eyed Jian Kong whispered, stroking his wife’s icy cheek. It was 1989. Jian hugged his wife for the last time before his departure. His daughter, not even a year old, shivered from the cold, despite being swaddled in blankets. He thought this was true: he would return to China with the money he earned in America. He had a work permit and a year-long opportunity to become a third officer for an American cargo ship. If he did well enough, perhaps he would have the means to have his family join him. If not, the money he could earn in America was ten times his Chinese salary, so they could start a better life upon his return. The future was unknown, but he thought one thing was certain: he would see his family again soon.
As the months in America went by, however, his goal strayed farther from his reach. “It was 不可能, impossible, to return to China due to the strained political environment,” he said during an interview. Once he finished his year on the cargo ship, he was left to his own devices and had to find a new job. Back in China, he had been valedictorian and prodigious in his Chinese studies. As a celebrated sailor in his early twenties, he earned a substantial income compared to most people from his poor hometown, where cans of Coca-Cola were luxuries. His remaining opportunities in China were nothing compared to lavish American dreams, which was why he left—but no one understood.
New York City, perceived as the melting pot of America, was more hostile than he had imagined. Employers measured his intelligence by his broken English, and everyone thought he was incapable. He constantly faced discrimination. No one had any sympathy for a young Chinese man who looked like he did not belong, no matter how smart or accomplished he was in his former country. Jian had to take a job as a delivery boy, which entailed hours of grueling work for minimum wage. “我没有别的选择. I had no other choice.” He worked all day, biking miles through the city because he couldn’t afford a car. He could make some deliveries on foot, but even those did not go smoothly. During one trip, he was assaulted by a gang of boys who seemed younger than him. They targeted Jian due to his skin color and perceived ignorance, and robbed him of everything he had.
Although it was one of the worst losses he had faced, Jian had only four words to say about the situation: “愈戰愈勇.” The Chinese idiom literally translates to “more fight, more brave,” or “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” He did not let any obstacles stop him, no matter how insurmountable they seemed. He worked even harder, making enough money to take night classes in English at a community college after sending initial earnings to his wife in China. With his acquired knowledge, he spent hours studying for the GRE. He borrowed books from the library and poured over them at night, while working all day. The lack of sleep and added stress of trying to get his family green cards to come to America tortured him. On the day he was admitted to Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health, he was “高兴要死”—so happy he could die. In Chinese, the common phrase “could die” expresses fervent emotion.
Still, his hardships were nowhere close to being over. Although Jian was able to find a job doing data entry for a company, he had to fill the quota of thirty hours of work a week, all while keeping up with his classes. After nearly three years living a double life of working and studying every day, Jian acquired a Master’s Degree in Biostatistics, but none of his family could attend his graduation ceremony. He celebrated alone and endured a persistent longing for his family, whom he had not seen in years. Phone calls home were two dollars a minute, but he spent his precious wages just to hear his wife’s voice. At the same time, she was trying everything in her power to come to America, but the process for obtaining a green card was incredibly complex, especially with a young child. She finally arrived in America in 1996—six years after the original plan.
Jian and his wife, Lily, spent five more years enduring life in America before they decided to have a second child: me. I spent most of my life ignorant of my parents’ experiences, sheltered by privilege and resources. I never knew what it felt like to grow up for years without a father, like my sister, or to wait by the phone every day, like my mother, or to have to survive in an unfamiliar world, like my father. No one has ever paid attention to my accent, and I have never had trouble expressing myself. This is not the same for my father, despite living in America for over twenty-five years. He never had an outlet to tell his own story because he could never find the words in English. I became Jian’s outlet purely by virtue of being his daughter; yet his story would have never been told if I had not asked to write it.
Millions of stories just like my father’s are overlooked and never given a spotlight. According to the Population Reference Bureau, the United States admitted an average of 735,000 immigrants per year in the 1980s, and over one million a year since the 1990s (Martin). Immigrants leave their home countries for family, money, or political asylum. However, upon their arrival, they are often met with hostility. Language barriers, discrimination, and a constant feeling of estrangement hinder their road to success. According to Urban Institute, 60 percent of legal immigrants have limited proficiency in English (Trenkner). Language laws, therefore, are common anti-immigration policies. From 2000 to 2010, more than a hundred towns, counties, and cities approved policies similarly hostile to immigrants (Trenkner). These statistics do not consider the additional biases that may be present in workplaces, schools, or communities.
Immigrants are often stigmatized due to their accents or appearances, and few understand the hardships they endure. More immigrants need to have a platform for their stories, and our society must learn to respect the people who sacrificed everything to live in this country. It starts with recognizing your own unconscious biases—if an immigrant with a heavy accent was telling their story, you might not give them the same attention as someone speaking in perfect English. Take time to educate yourself and ask questions to people from other backgrounds; pay attention to their words rather than their differences.
When I asked my father if he had any regrets or if he had any advice for other young immigrants, he simply said “塞翁失馬,” meaning “Sai Weng lost his horse.” The ancient Chinese proverb has a similar meaning to “every cloud has a silver lining.” Sai Weng was a man who lost one of his prized horses. Rather than being upset, he asked, “how can we know this is not a good thing?” and the horse returned with another horse. Rather than celebrating, however, Sai Weng said, “how could we know this is not bad?” and his son broke his leg riding the new horse. Once again, Sai Weng asked, “how can we know this is not good?” and it turned out that due to his injury, his son was not recruited for a war (Su). In essence, my father believes that everyone should adopt Sai Weng’s attitude. If bad things happen, keep faith and stay optimistic. Although some instances may seem like the end of the world, be motivated instead of discouraged. However, if good things happen, stay resilient and prepare for the worst. Preparing for and accepting the worst outcome has always been his life philosophy. If my father had given up at the end of his first year and returned home, he would have had none of the same experiences, and most likely would not have had a second child. If he had let discrimination deter him, he never would have achieved success. Today, he is respected and lauded for his achievements within his community.
It is now 2020. Jian Kong’s hair has streaks of white, and his wisdom shows on his face. Despite being almost sixty years old, he still has the same work ethic he had decades ago. He is growing old with his wife, and his children have all grown up, but one thing is certain: his story deserves to be heard.