It was 1987. My dad arrived at the airport early, and stood waiting at the gate. A year had passed since he had last seen my mom. A year since he had borrowed just enough from a friend to pay for his one-way flight out of China. And a year since he had said goodbye to his new family—just a month after my birth—to start school in the United States. Now, after his first year in the U.S., he had managed to save up enough to not only pay back his original flight, but to also fly my mom and me to join him.

He stood waiting as strangers filed past, one by one. And as the plane began to empty, he could feel the knot in his stomach tightening. He had planned out all the details over the phone with my mom weeks in advance. Long distance phone calls were expensive in 1987. Personal cell phones were still a decade away. And my mom didn’t speak a word of English.

My dad had sent hand-written signs to my mom in China with instructions on how to use them during her trip. “Can you help me find my connecting flight,” one sign read in English. Then in Chinese: use this if you get lost trying to make your connection. There was a sign for finding a bathroom. A sign to ask for water when thirsty. And a sign to apologize when I needed a diaper change. Altogether, about a dozen signs were packaged neatly and sent to my mom prior to her intercontinental journey. It was her first time flying.

As the last passengers filtered out of the jet bridge, my dad had to subdue his panic. Did she board the right flight? Where could they be? Are they okay? And just as fear began to flood his chest, my mom’s tiny frame slid into view with my one-year-old self tucked in her arm. She would later explain that she had intentionally waited for everyone else to exit before attempting to juggle an infant and all her belongings. We had arrived safely.

It was my first day in America.

* * *

I was raised in a home of immigrants. In many ways, it was a typical Chinese American home, if there can even be such a thing. As a kid, home meant family outings to the lake and game nights in the living room. It also involved absorbing my dad’s lessons on atomic particles, and visiting Harvard during a family road trip—all before I had finished the third grade. But primarily, it was where I could be myself. Where I could scream and jump and explore, always knowing that the primary forces to reel me in, even if not so gently, were ones that had fully embraced the challenges of my existence.

My parents raised me on a father’s graduate student stipend and a mother’s minimum wage from waiting tables and cleaning homes. Like most parents, they wanted more for their children than they ever had for themselves. And as immigrants, they pushed me—steadied me—as I inched my way along a tightrope suspended between the cultural norms of my family’s past and an American dream that stretched beyond them. I think they always knew that with every step of my journey, I would be covering a certain distance that could not be walked back. It’s a distance spanning a chasm not of love, but of cultural and generational transformation—paid for in recurring increments of assimilation. Yet even before I could understand it, my parents were pushing me down this path, intentionally nudging me further away from the life and culture they had come to embody. Perhaps they thought that by doing so, I could become more American.

Both my parents were part of a generation that lived through China’s Cultural Revolution and then competed in ruthless entry exams to gain acceptance to college after Chinese universities re-opened in the 1970s. My dad would tell me stories of filling a metal basin full of ice water, sitting in it to stay awake, and studying for China’s college entrance exams late into the night after all his farm chores were finished. My mom earned her degree in mechanical engineering before coming to the U.S. and working odd jobs to support my dad through graduate school. It was a desperate determination that drove them to America in pursuit of a brighter future. A determination to provide better for themselves, but more so for their children.

By any measure, I had a very happy childhood. My parents were amazingly resourceful in finding me opportunities to exercise my curiosity, to explore freely the world around me without much in the way of want. Even though they must have often felt out of place, they worked to make sure my brother and I had a home in America—that we would belong. And that we would not inherit the perception of being foreign that they often shouldered. It must be a harsh realization for parents—to find that so much of the rich cultural inheritance they hoped to someday leave behind would either be lost in translation or intentionally scrapped. Yet they did their best to adjust, improvising as they went, to create an American home from an adapted Chinese framework.

One weekend when I was in first grade, my parents came home from the grocery store and told me they were changing my name.

What do you think of “Jay?”

Um, It’s okay, I guess.

So it was decided. Until then, my name was Jie, which was pronounced “GEE-ye,” but often mispronounced to rhyme with “lie.” Jie is the phonetic translation (or Pinyin) for my name in Chinese: 捷—which means victory, or triumph. My parents must have figured Jay could yield some amount of American integration through its monosyllabic convenience. It was friendly phonetics at the expense of meaning and origin—a cross-cultural contract chartered with the knowledge that when a child’s future is in play, any price is a bargain. So I started writing Jay on all my school assignments. And for a while, it felt like a doppelgänger was completing my work. Then after some time and without knowing it, I was Jay. I am Jay.

I was Jie. Now, only my mom still calls me that.

I speak Mandarin at home with my parents. My mom always insisted on it more than my dad. During three separate times in my life, I have also learned to read and write in Chinese. But this I managed to consistently unlearn with alarming alacrity. Twice in elementary school, my mom guided me through a set of textbooks she had brought with her from China. After repeatedly allowing my Chinese to atrophy through disuse, I was sent to the pros: Chinese school. So in middle school I learned yet again to write essays and pass vocabulary exams. Unfortunately, my early adolescent apathy knew no bounds and after a couple years, my mom realized I had no real interest. She conceded the fight, I withdrew from Chinese school, and I forgot how to read and write one last time. Well, at least you can speak a bit, she would say.

Years later, I happened upon my mom looking through the cards and letters she had kept from my late grandparents. My father had beautiful handwriting, she admired as she flipped over one of his letters, the characters flowing across a thin sheet of paper. While the penmanship stood out to my untrained eye, the words sat silently on the page. You know, I didn’t see your grandpa for 8 years after we came to America. And then I only saw him the one time we visited China before he died. I offered her a smile and a gentle nod, trying to show that I somehow understood. She patted me on the shoulder and put the letters away.

me-kid

Sometimes the cultural split between my parents and I remained a subtle, and mutually understood phenomenon. Other times, however, it seemed to be driven open by a violent wedge of our own actions. I was certainly not immune to the adolescent angst that plagues many teenagers and I often fought with my parents during high school. One of our worst episodes came after my dad learned that I was attending a homecoming dance during a period in which I was also studying for the PSAT. As he questioned how seriously I was taking my future, and insisted that I stay home, tempers began to flare. I remember sitting on the stairs just above our living space and feeling my heart circulating an audible fire through my head. As my dad shouted from an office chair below me, I barked back that he could ruin his own life, but to spare me his workaholic brand of misery. I affirmed that my only goal was to be nothing like him, PSAT be damned.

I went to homecoming the next day.

The day after that, my mom sat me down and offered an apology I did not deserve. You see, she deliberated on each word, we never had the opportunity to attend a dance, to wear a flower, to pin a boutonniere. But we would never want you to miss out, Jie. Then after a quiet pause she said she always knew I would be nothing like them. She had long ago accepted this. And so had my dad. But I had to understand something as well. That my father worked tirelessly to afford me this opportunity—to be nothing like him. He’s not perfect, Jay. But you can never say those things you said. Not to him. He loves you too much.

My parents will never speak English without a Chinese accent. They learned the words to the American pledge of allegiance when they first became U.S. citizens—but have since forgotten most of them. And they have never attended a high school dance. Yet, they made doubly sure that I could do all of these things, all while decidedly defining what being American means to me. It is not a color, a flag, or a feeling. It’s our home, broken and beautiful. The same one in which we learned to run and jump and explore. Where in moments of weakness, we can cut down those with whom we share our lives. But where we can also learn to embrace the challenges provided by our diverse histories.

I used to view my family’s story as one of Chinese immigrants who came to America. But in the setting of our current political landscape, I feel the need to reframe this narrative. My family is American. We are immigrants with a proud Chinese heritage. And we are not guests. My parents showed me that we can embody these two identities boldly and completely—that one does not detract from the other—and that neither should ever require an apology.

22 replies on “So Proudly We Hailed

    1. Thanks Khen! I think the immigrant story is one that clearly pervades America, but is somehow still considered “less” American, unlike being captain of the football team, or being the the prom queen. In many ways, being Asian is still so often viewed as “less” and “other” American, and this is something we are looking to face head on as a group of contributors to MillennialAsian

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    1. Haha, favorite physician writer seems a title I’m utterly unworthy of. How about favorite friend writer? Perhaps much more reasonable, although I know you have some brilliant friends. ❤ always good hearing from you, Jo!

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  1. Jay, this is an inspiring and beautifully written message. You are fortunate to have parents who have worked so hard to give you opportunities they didn’t have. You are rightly proud of them, and should also be proud of yourself, for combining two cultures with respect and strength. I am happy to know this part of your story and hope to meet your parents one day.
    Doug Wood

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  2. Jay (Jie)—

    Thank you for sharing. Well written and insightful as well. For better or worse, the underlying questions that you raise about “American-ness” have resurfaced with a dark tone in the past year—in the US and around the world. Xenophobia seems to be at its zenith since from when I can remember. In the midst of this “fear of the other”, your story and that of your parents strike me as quintessentially American (as you basically point out).

    The struggle, the dual identity, the very question of which culture and society best define you, seems to part of what being American is. These are lessons we learned in grade school, and yet they are still debated on a national stage—”America as a mixing pot, not a melting pot”, “Nationalism vs. patriotism”, the US struggle for independence, America as a safe haven for the oppressed—the list goes on and on and includes the writing from our Founding Fathers and national leaders throughout the entirety of this country’s existence.

    You said in your last paragraph: “I feel the need to reframe this narrative. My family is American.” I agree, you and your parents and your family have proven it. Perhaps the American-born, those whose views and desires weren’t tested in the same way (that includes me) are the ones who should be writing about proving their American-ness?

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    1. If everyone had to critically re-examine their American-ness and what that meant… wouldn’t that be something? You do wonder how much of the overarching nationalism is perhaps a product of a cold war era that fueled a need for certain propaganda in order to ready hearts for war. What would be the effect if the darker and more fair history of America was taught? I have a friend from Germany who when he arrived here was stunned by how nationalistic we were as a society. Of course, he comes from a country that is all too aware of the dangers of unbridled nationalism. But America has positioned itself in good ways and bad as a world superpower, through a history that is littered with amazing achievements and terrible acts. This re-examination of patriotism is definitely an interesting conversation, and I hope we aren’t forced to have it during some revived cold (or hot) war.

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    1. Thanks, and great to hear from you Alice! As you alluded to, I think that many immigrant families share a common experience that isn’t always captured in media. And as a result, many immigrant children grow up consciously and subconsciously feeling “less” American. It took me a while to even recognize this, much less confront it. And clearly, I still grapple with it. But we’re hoping MillennialAsian can provide a forum in which these narratives and discussions can be on the forefront. I recall that you write as well? If you are interested, we are definitely looking for guest editorials/columns– and a fun peer review process aimed at making all parties better writers! Hit me up if you are interested =)

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  3. “It’s a distance spanning a chasm not of love, but of cultural and generational transformation—paid for in recurring increments of assimilation.”

    Snaps.

    This piece is beautiful Jay. Always appreciated your writing. The prom anecdote made me tear up a bit. Thanks for sharing such an important narrative.

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  4. Rad narrative, Jay. Although your main point was about the immigrant experience, your writing also provoked thoughts about parenting. I was struck by the irony of your parents giving you opportunities that would help build a strong future but would also inevitably lead you to be “nothing like [them]” in some respects. That is really selfless love. I’m going to soak on that for a while.

    I also agree with what Matt Bartek said – that your parents’ story is quintessentially American. From my own little bubble, it seems strange that the immigrant experience could ever be considered un- or less- American, but I guess there are still some ignorant people out there who feel that way, odd as it might be. I have been fortunate to be close to people like you, my mom, Minky, Anjan, Aryan, Vishal, Kush, Khai, etc – all the children of immigrants who have blessed my life. To me it just seems normal!

    I have the utmost respect for people like your parents who have made such dramatic changes in their lives, moving to a country with a different culture and language, not knowing exactly how it would turn out but willing to take the leap and determined to succeed. Gosh, I had a hard enough time moving from California to Texas! I’m a wuss compared to them!

    Your writing style is also totally awesome. It was very enjoyable to read. Good job, man.

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    1. Man, thanks for the incredibly thoughtful feedback. When you rattled off that list of some of our friends, it kind of stopped me in my tracks because 1) I had to count my blessings in realizing how many amazing people I’ve gotten to know 2) Holy Shit, the breadth of histories we encompass. Nowhere in the world can you grow up like that, except in America, right? I know we often (rightfully so) are critical of unbridled American exceptionalism, but if there is one thing that makes us exceptional it’s this diversity of thought and experience.

      And you hit the nail on the head. It has taken me too long to realize the painful irony of first generation immigrants being pulled apart in by very social “successes” they had come to America to achieve. But hopefully the realization activates people to lend their voices to this dialogue. Always cherish your support, brother.

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  5. Jay,
    What a wonderful piece! Thank you for opening your life and for sharing your feelings with us…and while many feel that this is a story about immigration, (comments above) I see it as a story of love. The incredible and unique love that parents have for their children expressed by your mother’s acknowledgement that she and your father “understand you will never be like them”. I think this is because they believe that the more you act and the more speak like those who surround you, the better you will “assimilate” and the more doors will be opened to you. They are prepared to give up the dream of their life (passing on their culture to you) if that gets on the way to your happiness. That is their love for you.
    Well, as an immigrant myself, I have a proposition to make. You said your mom has “accepted” now that you will not speak Mandarin again. I invite you to disappoint her (again). I invite you to re-learn Mandarin (it is deeply buried somewhere in your brain, but it is there, I guarantee it) and, more importantly, I invite you to learn and embrace Chinese culture and surprise your parents (and yourself, and your friends). You will not be less of an American if you do that, you will, instead, be a richer human being, one that can communicate with another billion people not only because you can express yourself in their language and not only because you can understand the words they speak, but because you can glean from what they say the “why” the “purpose” and the “meaning” as only someone who understands their culture can do. This will make you a better physician, a better surgeon, a better writer and a better person. And…I think it will bring joy and pride (yes, pride) to a pair of well deserving parents.

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  6. Thanks for sharing this amazing reflection Jay. A couple thoughts I had in response: (1) I think it’s a blessing that you have a mom with the empathy and wisdom to help you navigate through some of the growing pains of being Asian-American; someone who is able to validate your desires and feelings while also educating you about the culture that supports you but you also find yourself at odds with (as exemplified by her interactions with you the day after homecoming). (2) I’m inspired by how you’ve moved beyond the angst of being at cultural odds with your parents (an area I admittedly still find myself in at times) and put a considerable amount of time, energy, and research into understanding the history, values, and drives of your parents. I imagine having that information is invaluable for not only grounding your identity but also understanding and loving your parents at a deeper level.

    Thanks again for sharing your story. I’ll be thinking about the last paragraph for awhile.

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