It started with him. The third brother, with two older, two younger, and one older sister. His parents, farmers in Taiwan that spent all their days in the rice fields. They raised pigs too. Their pigs ate predominately sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes were cheap. And so their entire family ate lots of sweet potatoes too. Meat was expensive, so an ordinary meal may be a pot of soup with sweet potatoes and shreds of pork. The six kids fought with chopsticks in the pot over the thin slices of pork mixed in with big chunks of sweet potatoes and greens.
When he was older, he really loved school. But electricity was a luxury they couldn’t afford. So in the evening, when it was pitch black and the lanterns had burned out, he would drag his table out to the sole street light and study until he fell asleep at the rickety four-legged makeshift desk.
Later on, he tested into medical school, the hardest field to test into. But money wasn’t fluid, and his parents couldn’t afford to let him go. He found a full-ride out of the country to study mechanical engineering in America.
America. A far away dream for so many. And here he was. The fourth child of six, from a farming family in Taiwan, making his way to America.
He spent every waking moment working on his English. The language in which he would obtain his PhD in mechanical engineering. He would write and defend his dissertation in a language he only learned in his 20’s.
It started with her. The second daughter of a wealthy family. She and her sister and five brothers lived in a nice home with their parents and a live-in helper who made their meals and cleaned their home and watched after the kids. Her mother owned the local convenience store and spent seven days a week there. Her father, a government official, spent his days at work. They lived a life of luxury. Affording to buy and eat entire apples, a luxury only the rich could afford. When she was of age, she had many suitors. But she was not interested. She pursued music and became a music teacher. She loved to sing.
Then she met him. A poor son of a farming family. He was moving to America. A country one only planned for in their dreams. She didn’t speak the language. She couldn’t teach music in America. But they had fallen in love. Her parents strongly opposed and would not provide her a cent for her departure.
So, they married. No extravagant wedding. And with two suitcases in hand, they came to America. They had the stipend offered to a graduate student, and lived in a studio apartment. She found odd jobs that didn’t require her to be yet fluent in the language. She welded together computer parts and collected and sold seashells she found on the beach to local distributors.
This was a foreign land, and the first time it snowed, she didn’t know anyone else, so she called her husband with tears in her eyes. She’d never seen anything like it.
She had never heard of a sandwich, but this is what Americans packed for lunch. She took two slices of bread, and found canned peaches and sliced pickles and packed this lovingly for her husband. He ate this every day for a year without complaint.
After he graduated, he had his PhD in mechanical engineering. But landing a job after graduating, was difficult. He had been bright and graduated with ease. But on the other side, was the real world. Was it his thick accent that kept people from wanting to hire him? The color of his skin? His lack of fluidity in American culture? He ultimately found a job in a field he was not prepared for—computer programming. It didn’t pay much, but it was a good job. He was smart and learned quickly.
After graduate housing, they found a place to live. It was more of a large shed like building, with a makeshift kitchen and bathroom. Just one large space. Their landlord lived on the property’s house. And when they were late paying their rent, because it was difficult to make ends meet, she would turn off their electricity.
In this home, they had their first son. It was difficult to provide for him. And when she went to the local store to buy milk and came short the cost of the milk, she was turned away. She felt desperate and humiliated and her heart ached for her hungry son. She cried with him.
He had his first friend over and was beyond ecstatic to have a playmate. After their play date, his friend said he wasn’t allowed to come back to their house because it was too small and they made foods that smelled weird. She understood that their poverty and Taiwanese meals were not welcomed into this American dream. Her heart again ached for her broken-hearted son who just wanted to belong and be accepted.
Some days he came home in tears because someone would say he had slanted Chinese eyes and that his lunch was gross and they wished he would sit alone and eat his yucky Chinese food.
Over time, they saved and made extra money however they could. It was hard to get hired—was it because she was still viewed as a foreigner? She was determined to find her American dream for her kids. Seven years later, they had their second son. Three years after that, they had their daughter.
Along the way, there have been hurdles. Though fluent, there have always been backhanded comments and racist remarks made about their spoken English. The hardware store cashier that has exasperatedly said to him, “WHAT? I can’t understand a word you are saying.” The man at the store, that has glared at her speaking in her native language to her children. “Speak English”, he spat at her. This has been part of their American life that has been less than the dream they planned, but it is part of these lives they have had to come to expect and handle.
There are always questions along the way. The disrespect and blatant acts of disgust absorbed, as to keep their kids safe. It has braided its way into how they conduct themselves and react, or choose not to react to racist comments and behaviors.
They have taught their children to stick together, be one another’s best friends, and try harder, be kinder, be better always, because you have more to overcome than your fellow Americans. Never take for granted anything you are given. It must be earned. Always be cautious because while we are legal citizens, not everyone perceives it that way, so tread lightly as if you were standing on someone else’s land at all times.
So this family of five put their heads down and worked as hard as they could. They learned to speak English. They went to American schools and found American jobs. They made American friends and paved their own American way. Both sons became lawyers and settled with their wives and kids. Their daughter became a doctor and settled with her husband and their kids.
They have become interwoven with the community that surrounds them. They are as American as the next. But the racism is there. In backhanded comments and sideway glances at best. They are aware and know they must always be.
But their story is beautiful. How it began. How it struggled. How it evolved.
To those that hear my father’s accent and judge him. To those that hear my mother speaking loudly to me in Taiwanese. Think before you hate. My parents have overcome to provide for me and my brothers this American life they dreamed of for us. I couldn’t be more proud of how we got to where we are. And I couldn’t be more proud to say, with all our history in tow, my parents, my brothers, our families—we belong here. Just like you.