Recently my son was telling me about the “American Paradox,” a term coined by author Carlos Bulosan referring to the American Dream. According to Bulosan, America can truly be a dream, but at the same time it can be a nightmare. The dream is how this so-called “Land of Opportunity” can be so kind, while the nightmare is how this land can be so cruel. The path that I have traveled, my coming to the United States and building a life here, has encompassed both the extreme kindness and the extreme cruelty of this country. In this recollection of events, I want to describe what pushed me to the United States, what pulled me here, and my own experience of the paradox: the kindness and cruelty that I experienced as a new immigrant. Although America can be cruel, it can also be kind, and it is this notion of kindness that spreads throughout the world and gives America the reputation of the “Land of Opportunity.”
At this point it may be appropriate to give a little background of myself. I was born in China on January first, nineteen-fifty-one, shortly before I migrated with my family to Hong Kong fearing the rise of communism in China. In nineteen sixty-eight, I migrated to the United States under a student visa, eventually ending up in the Mission District in San Francisco. There I still live, and work, too. My current profession is a parent liaison at Hawthorne Elementary School located in the middle of the Mission. My husband passed away last year, my daughter is in her third high school year, and my son is a sophomore at the University of California with an undeclared major. Recently we were finally able to fulfill our dream of owning a new house. Moving in was hectic at first, but once we settled down, life was quite pleasant. There is not more that we could ask for. As you can see, we are a good example of the American dream. My family did not, however, achieve the dream easily as we had expected to. We struggled for a long time before we could finally settle down. So what made us decide to immigrate? That question brings me to the reasons why we migrated to the United States.
There were many reasons why we migrated to the United States. The main push factor was communism. We fled to Hong Kong because of the Cultural Revolution in China. Many, many people left China because of fear from communism. I read about a Betty Chu who emigrated from China because of communism. She “saw how people were beginning to live in fear,” and was “worried about the rising political repression of the Cultural Revolution in China.” In addition, a number of people my family knew were executed for what the government termed as “disloyalty.” Friends were accused of being “spies” and sentenced to extended prison terms. Although no one in my family was picked out for such punishment, we were afraid that we would be next. So one night we brought whatever belongings we could with us and took the train to Hong Kong. While in Hong Kong, however, the fear of communism remained with me. Although I was not old enough to witness the horror of the revolution, I could still remember my parents describing to me the tears rolling down the prisoners’ eyes as they were being dragged away to their deaths. Knowing that Hong Kong would eventually become a communist territory in 1997, I wanted to leave. I did not want to be a part of a communist society. Like many others, the thought of living in such a society was a push factor in my decision to migrate to the United States, but it was not the only factor. The United States also had pull factors that attracted me to its shores.
The pull factor that attracted me to the United States was education. In Hong Kong, newspapers published articles about how proficient and easy to get into American schools were. Everybody talked about going to the United States to attend school. In Hong Kong, there was not much of a chance of attending a university, since at that time only two universities existed and it was difficult to get accepted into them. Another immigrant, Wing Ng, reiterates: “In Hong Kong it is difficult to go to college, too. Only two universities.” My husband, John Young, also migrated to the United States for education. So you can see, back then it was the trend to have an education here. It was the idea of being accepted into any university, let alone an American university, meaning a good education that would make it easier to find a job and make more money, which appealed to immigrants like myself. Thus, education was not only a pull factor for me, but also for many others. After being pulled here, however, we faced many difficulties. One of these difficulties was prejudice.
As a minority, prejudice met me wherever I went. One of the places where I found it most was at school. In nineteen sixty-nine, I started school at the California State University at Hayward and majored in history. Being one of few yellow-skinned students there, I saw prejudice quite often. One experience that I remember vividly was during the administration of a final examination. The professor was an old white man, grumpy most of the time, and not friendly at all. I had thought that he would give us questions to write down and then we would have time to write out the answers. Instead, after reciting all the questions, the professor announced that the test was over. I was horrified! I tried to answer the questions as fast as I could, but it was no use. I couldn’t even completely answer the first question. I had failed the test. After class ended, I went to the professor and explained to him that I failed the test because the directions were unclear, and that I wanted a retest. Coldly, the professor attacked me: “I don’t care if you failed this test. You chinks don’t belong here anyway. Why should you bother with obtaining a degree?” Holding back tears, I walked out of his office, my hands shaking. I did not want to cry in front of the professor, so I ran into the restroom and cried and cried and cried. I had never experienced such a painful attack before. As I was crying, another professor, a Dr. Betty McDonald, walked into the restroom. I will never forget Dr. McDonald. She comforted me and explained to me that she would try and get a retest for me. I was grateful, and happy that I would not have to fail the class. After my son told me about the “American Paradox,” this particular event occurred to me. The paradox was that one professor wanted me to leave while another wanted me to stay. It was how I felt wanted and unwanted at the same time. How could one professor be so cruel, and how could another be so kind? Only through a paradox can this idea where prejudice and kindness juxtapose be explained.
Another way in which I experienced this paradox was through my search for housing in the United States. When I first arrived here, I stayed with my girlfriend’s sister Dorothy, but I did not want to stay with her long because she had a family and I felt like I was in her way. I did not, however, want to leave either. I had seen how Dorothy’s neighbors treated her, how they stared at her with hatred in their eyes. When she first moved in, people spray-painted her house with racist remarks such as “We don’t want chinks” and “No chinamans here.” I was afraid that I would have to face the same ordeal when I moved out. Nonetheless, I went in search of an apartment. Unfortunately, my intuition was correct and I indeed faced blatant racism. Because back then I could not speak English well, many landlords took advantage of me by making me pay more rent, falsely accusing me of damaging their property, or both. I remember one white landlord who always referred to me as “China.” I hated being called China, because it made me feel cheap. I felt that he perceived me as a Chinese prostitute with China for a pet name. I let him know that my name was JC, but when I did so he stopped talking, stared at me with a simultaneously hating and surprised look, and continued as if I had said nothing. Every time he came to collect the rent, he’d say, “China, do you have my rent?” and “You have to pay for these scratches on the wall you made, China.” I had not made the scratches; they had already been there, and he knew it. If I was a white person I would not have to pay for someone else’s damage on the property, but since I was a single Chinese lady with no one to back me up he took advantage of me. Throughout my time in university, I moved from apartment to apartment, unhappy with all of them, until finally I met an elderly female landlord by the name of Rosa. Rosa is another one of those kind people whom I will never forget. She charged me a low rent and treated me as she treated everyone else. On my first visit to the apartment, Rosa gave me a tour of everything and explained to me what everything was. I had never seen a fireplace before so when I saw it, I wondered why there was a hole in the wall. It didn’t look practical. So I asked Rosa and she patiently explained to me that a fireplace allows a fire to be lit indoors because a pipe allows the smoke from the fire to escape. It may sound silly, but I was amazed that you could light a big fire indoors. I ended up staying at Rosa’s apartment for the rest of my university years, and needless to say I was utterly satisfied and grateful to have such a kind, open-minded landlord in Rosa. Once again, the idea of the paradox stands out: even though the prejudice from one landlord tried to push me out of society, my encounter with Rosa made me feel that America welcomed me and wanted me to stay.
Oftentimes I did not want to stay in the United States because of violence and intimidation. At times I could feel the anti-Asian sentiment in the air while walking down the street. In 1974, I was the target of a purse snatching that I believe was not a random attack. The attack was specifically directed towards me because I was Chinese. I was walking home from the supermarket when a man ran towards me and grabbed my purse. I held on to my purse and the man, not expecting any resistance, yelled, “Let go, you Chinese bitch!” Not letting go of my purse, I swung my bag of groceries at him and knocked him unconscious. When the police came, they told me that the man had suffered a broken nose, and that they needed to take me into the station for questioning. I was confused as to why they needed me to go with them, but I went along. When we walked into the station, the man with the broken nose started explaining to the police that I had assaulted him! In my broken English, I frantically tried to explain to the officer that it was the man who had tried to snatch my purse and that I was only defending myself. Unfortunately for me, the officer was a racist as well and would not listen. He put me into jail overnight and in the morning, another officer came. I explained to him what had happened and he was kind enough to apologize to and release me. He even offered to buy me breakfast, but I decided I wanted nothing more to do with the police. I had wanted to pursue the matter further but, knowing that it would be a hopeless fight, I just went home and cried. At that moment I really wanted to go back home to Hong Kong. I thought that it would be better to face a communist society instead of a racist one. Then I thought of all the people who had helped me: Betty McDonald, Rosa, Dorothy, and the officer at the station. It was strange how America could do me so much wrong and at the same time do me so much good. Even though I had thought of leaving, the good experiences that I had in America convinced me to stay. It is this thought that a country could make a person want to leave and stay at the same time that comprises the paradox.
Though I experienced the paradox many years ago, I still witness people experiencing the paradox today. My present job as a parent liaison at Hawthorne Elementary School in San Francisco gives me the opportunity to assist many new immigrants from Hong Kong and China. To a lot of these parents, America is still the “land of opportunity.” They feel that if they come to the United States they can find a better life for themselves and their family. Unfortunately for most of these parents, this has not been true. I can think of one family right now that fits the argument perfectly. It is the family of my friend Yi Sing Tam. Yi Sing gave birth to two sons in China and migrated to the United States 10 years ago. To Yi Sing and her husband, the United States appeared to be the “land of opportunity.” They dreamt of coming here and owning their own restaurant, gaining citizenship, and giving their sons a good education . They wanted to provide medical treatment for their younger son, Andy, who is mentally disadvantaged. Upon arriving here, the couple invested in a restaurant and business went well. They even found doctors that could improve Andy’s condition. They seemed to be living the American dream. Then all of a sudden, business stopped. The location of the restaurant, in the heart of the Mission district in San Francisco, was also in the heart of gang territory. After a series of shootings, people stopped going out, and naturally less patrons frequented the restaurant. The Tams had to sell their restaurant. Now Yi Sing and her husband have to work two jobs, 12 hours a day, in order to support their family. Andy no longer receives treatment for his disorder. Again, the same question arises: how can America be so kind and so cruel at the same time? To the Tams, America has shown them not only opportunity, but bitterness and pain. They believe, however, that if they work hard and save their money, then can make it again. The Tams hope that their bitter life can turn sweet again as quickly as it had turned bitter in the first place. They still have hope in this country they call the “land of opportunity,” this country where the lives of many immigrants like the Tams reflect a paradox.
It is the “American paradox,” the idea that a country can be so cruel and at the same time be so kind, that gives America its reputation as the “land of opportunity.” Although people do not understand the paradox before they arrive in the United States, they realize it after they reach this country. I have understood this paradox, that just because the United States is known as the “land of opportunity,” I should not just come in expecting an easy journey in reaching the American dream. I was, however, once an unknowing immigrant myself. Pushed here by communism, pulled here by America’s appeal, I tasted the most pungent bitterness, and yet I also tasted the most delightful sweetness. Through my ordeal with my professor at school, from searching for a home, from almost being robbed, and from my friend Kwan Sing’s experiences, I have seen both sad times and happy times. When you ask yourself that same question again, “How can America be so cruel, and yet so kind?” remember that life in America for an immigrant constitutes a paradox. Even though a paradoxical question cannot be answered, you can create your own answer. I made my own answer – I experienced hardship and now I have a piece of the American dream. It is this notion of reaching your own answer to the paradox, of being able to be a part of the American dream, that portrays America as the “land of opportunity” to all the potential immigrants throughout the world.