What makes immigrant parents like mine worthy of love, respect, and admiration in our country?
It looks so ancient,Everyone looks so young.
Xena: Warrior Princess
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My father immigrated one year after the Immigration Act of 1965, which allowed unfettered Chinese immigration for the first time in over eighty years. My father came by boat, on the USS Elizabeth II: “a big passenger ship, like the Titanic.” He tells me of the berths full of bunk beds, men in one room and women in another. How my gunggung, whose lung cancer had been diagnosed in Hong Kong, lay inert most days, only rising for meals. My popo was constantly seasick.
When they arrived in Honolulu Harbor, he remembers seeing Aloha Tower. My aunt, gunggung’s sister, picked them up from the pier. For three months, his family lived in her small, spare bedroom in the back. She had two bunk beds and one full-size mattress for the six of them to share. My gungung, whose cancer had worsened, was taken to the hospital. “We came in June,” my father says. “He died that September.”
When my father comes to visit me, he wears a crimson polar fleece with “Harvard” emblazoned over his heart. In his thin shell and washed jeans and running sneakers, his choice feels both pragmatic (it’s cold) and proud (he’s an alum), but also preemptive: The jacket, intentional or not, indicates some form of belonging.
In Hawaii, my father had played alongside kids of all kinds: Hawaiian, hapa, Portuguese, Pacific Islander, Filipino, Japanese, Korean. Because of the plantations, immigrants from across Asia settled in the islands, creating an imperfect but inclusive culture of their own. On his first day of medical school, during his first lecture, my father noticed that the students had separated themselves. Black students sat together, Latino students sat together. “Being from Hawaii, I didn’t know where to sit,” he said. “So I sat in the back with the jocks.”
Boston in the ’80s was notoriously racist. In 1989, after my father had decamped for Seattle, Charles Stuart—a white man who had murdered his wife—lied and described the assailant as a black man to the police. The city upended black communities in pursuit of a man to fit his description.
During medical school, my father encountered the police only once. One sunny day, he rode his bike across the Charlestown bridge, onto Commonwealth Avenue, when a patrol car hit him. My father was unhurt, but his bike was badly bent. The officer, who was a black man, apologized. Then he drove my father home and paid to fix his broken tires.
My father’s experiences with racism are mostly limited. Or they’re uneventful. When recalling how the chairman of surgery often confused him with the only other Asian resident at the University of Washington—a Japanese man named Tom—he laughs.
It’s only when he remembers the psychiatrist that his mood changes. The psychiatrist was a white man who was admitted into the hospital late one evening when my father was still a nurse’s aide. He was drunk and surly, and as my father cleaned the blood and vomit from his body, the white man spat, “Your kind will never amount to anything,” into his ear. As my father tells me this, his voice changes, turns tense—like a loosely curled fist, suddenly gripping itself.
In the book The Racial Imaginary,Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine discuss the role of race in creation, as well as the illusion that the stories we tell are somehow untethered to reality, to history, to the slight or dangerous discriminations we inflict on one another daily. “Our imaginations are creatures as limited as we ourselves are,” they write. They explain that our feelings, our thoughts, are not wholly ours—they proceed from the past, germinate and grow, take root in our minds, nourishing the racial imaginary.
By filling my father’s life only with his achievements, I engaged with the racial imaginary. I gave him those “certain predictable performances of race,” as Rankine and Loffreda write, then felt a swelling of pride in him for sustaining that performance. In so doing, I failed to consider any alternatives to his experience, denying him a range of nuance and emotions—like failure, fear, wanting—that all of us share.
But before the “model minority,” Asians were the “yellow peril.” “Fu Manchus.” “Orientals.” “Coolies.” Criminals. Rapists. Terrorists. Animals. Aliens. Staccato stereotypes that feel so familiar today, even if they are applied to East Asians less often than they are to other groups. “The Chinese must go,” chanted the Workingmen’s Party in California. In the 1800s, Asians were viewed as threatening, exotic, degenerate.
For my father, a Chinese immigrant, work was all he had to prove his worth, to demonstrate that he belonged.
By the 1960s, they were viewed as industrious and law-abiding. Quiet and persevering. Some “exemplary,” like my father. This change didn’t occur because white Americans suddenly believed Asians were fully human, deserving of the same rights and freedoms white people enjoyed. Instead, it allowed some to believe that America was a racial democracy, even as the model minority myth was weaponized against other races—especially Black Americans—and used to dismiss their experiences of discrimination. Projecting the model minority stereotype on an entire group of people also undermines their humanity, ascribing rules for individuals to follow; conditions they must clear in order to belong.
“We are all, no matter how little we like it, the bearers of unwanted and often shunned memory, of a history whose infiltrations are at times so stealthy we can pretend otherwise, and at times so loud we can’t hear much of anything else,” write Loffreda and Rankine. In the months since the election—since swastikas have appeared on college campuses, since visitors from many Muslim-majority countries have been banned, since immigrants have been deported and children taken from their parents—I’ve realized how true this is.
As children of immigrants, we’re often forced to wonder: What makes our families worthy of love or respect in our own country? For my father, a Chinese immigrant, work was salvation. Work was the salve. Work was all he had to prove his worth, to demonstrate that he belonged.
Although I love my father for more than his achievements, they are hard to overlook. And I am his daughter. I know so much more than what people see, what some people perceive him to be: alien, overachiever, indistinguishable Asian, chink.
Yet when I look at my father, I remember early Saturday mornings when he’d brush my hair into buns before ballet class. I recall that hot summer day when jellyfish wrapped around my arms and legs like ivy strangling slender branches, and how he rushed my small body home, coating my welting skin with meat tenderizer to soothe the sting. I think of the evenings when he would come home to find me sulking, wooden splinters from our deck burrowed into my toes; how he’d attempt to remove them with tweezers, but I’d scream so loudly that he’d place the sticky side of a Band-Aid over the tiny wound instead. He would wait beside my bed until I fell asleep, and by morning, both splinters and bandages would be gone.
Growing up, my father often took my pulse in place of holding my hand. He never mentioned what he was doing. Instead he simply grabbed hold, wrapping his hand around my wrist, letting his fingers sink into my skin until my pulse, at first hard for him to sense, suddenly fluttered. He once taught me how to find that soft, tender spot where the radial artery beats beneath the skin, undetected until pressed. How to place my fingers away from the tendon that neatly tunnels and divides the forearm into two planes. How to take hold until the silent thrum comes, then count quickly and quietly—1, 2, 3, 4, 5—before releasing.
He still does this, even though I’m grown. He doesn’t ask, but I see it coming—in the car, while we’re walking, waiting in line. It’s a subtle gesture, almost unremarkable. But his grasp holds so much: It cradles an ocean crossing; his father’s death; everything he learned and everything he achieved—the entire messy, surprising story that brought us both here. I feel my father’s hand, how it wraps around my wrist. And together we silently feel the gentle drum, drum, drum of history pulsing between us.
Alexis Cheung is nonfiction writer. Her essays and reporting have appeared in The New York Times, T, New York, The Believer, Los Angeles Review of Books, among other publications. Originally from Hawaii, she currently lives in New York.