Imagine this: You live where you were born and raised for almost 30 years. You have a comfortable life with your wife, your child and your parents in your own house. You heard your neighbor hopped on the boat to America to start a business there. You hear about the American Dream: A place that you could make more money and where you could give your family a better life. You want to go, but people say how it is risky to give up your properties for a place far from home. You don’t know the language. You could lose everything.
Would you take the risk?
Although this scenario sounds like a movie plot, it was reality for many Chinese immigrants who were the first in their family to settle in America. Boston’s Chinatown has been a Chinese enclave for more than 100 years, but it wasn’t until the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was dismantled in the 1950s that the city’s Chinese population grew. Today, Chinese communities are active in downtown Chinatown, Malden and Quincy.
Jilin Chang, who immigrated to Malden from Fujian in the 1990s, explained, “In 1950 when the Chinese Civil War finally ended, people in the southern coastal provinces such as Fujian and Guangdong wanted to move to America to pursue what we called ‘American dreams. One day, people started to say that if we move to America and try to stay long enough until we get the green card, we can lead a better life. That’s why I decided to come.”
Knowing English is crucial to surviving in the United States. But not all Chinese immigrants know English before settling here. Chang arrived alone in America, first sharing an apartment with several men and working in a restaurant.
“Almost 80 percent of Chinese immigrants came from a peasant background at the time. People thought that at least working in a restaurant was better than growing crops back home,” Chang said.
Immigrants from comfortable circumstances also ended up working in low-paying jobs because of their limited speaking ability in English.
In China, Ray Luo’s life was comfortable. His parents owned a business, and he never worried about finances. When he was 18, his parents moved to Boston.
“My mother worked as a housekeeper; she never did any work like that before, and I was surprised that she could actually do that job,” Luo said. “My dad never worked before besides becoming his own boss, and he worked at a supermarket.”
For both Chang and Luo’s parents, English was a challenge. Their education barely taught them any English. People with limited English ability had to find jobs or housing through Chinese agencies or relatives, and were often stuck in service jobs until retirement.
Mira Jin, an adult-education consultant at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, said, “Before we started to provide adult education in BCNC, it was really hard for Chinese immigrants to learn proper English without any support. I’ve seen a lot of students who have been living here for over 40 years, but still can’t complete government papers like tax forms.”
Jin remembered a student who emigrated from China at age 55 to join his family. She thought he wanted to learn English as a hobby. After two years, the student found a job at a local candy factory. “Although it was a job that didn’t require a lot of skills, the transformation he went through really made us feel like we helped them to adapt to society,” she said.
Chinese Parents, American Kids
It is easy to understand people who came from a peasant background wanting a better life. But what about those from a comfortable background, such as the Ruo family? What made them leave their stable life for a tougher path?
The answer is education.
Grace Su, who works in family services at BCNC, said that most Chinese families came because of the American Dream. For them, it not only symbolize a better life for their family but also a better education for their children.
Rebecca Lee was born in Hong Kong and moved to Quincy at age two. Both her parents were teachers in Hong Kong and well educated. They realized America could provide better education for their daughter, so they emigrated in the 1990s. However, Lee’s parents started working in a restaurant because of their limited English proficiency. Lee grew up receiving American education while being raised with traditional Chinese values.
For Lee, her parents spoke Cantonese at home while she spoke English at school. Not only were there cultural conflicts at home, but Lee was also forced to become independent at a young age. “Since my parents didn’t know the language, they couldn’t communicate with the teacher, so they couldn’t really provide academic supports,” Lee said..
“I am pretty much an American. I learned English as my first language and American culture as well since I was little,” said Lee. “But my parents didn’t know anything about Halloween or Christmas, so I had to figure that out by myself.”
As a staff member at BCNC, Su has seen emotionally related health issues play out firsthand among adult Chinese immigrants. Some suffer from anxiety, severe cognitive impairment and mood disorders.
Heather May, a psychology professor at Emerson College, said social-emotional issues stem from the Chinese community’s collectivist culture. “They sort of have a feeling that they cannot just speak up and have that accepted as a big-enough issue to talk with someone about it,” she said.
After living in the United States for almost 30 years, Chang retired after putting all his children through college. He has no regrets about leaving China.
“All the toughness was worth exchanging for my children’s future. It really gives them a great opportunity to escape from having the same life as me,” said Chang, “For me, it is priceless.”
This article was written with support from the Gerontological Society of America, Journalists Network on Generations and The Commonwealth Fund.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Diverse Elders Coalition.