I had a happy childhood in Singapore, where I grew up eating rock candy and condensed milk and jumping rope. My mother spoke five languages and worked for IBM. My father was an entrepreneur. But in the midst of a turbulent Asian economic downturn, my family faced foreclosure and the possibility that my parents might not be able to provide for us. So my father looked for a new job and during his interview, the employer promised that the job he was offering would generate stable income, a green card, and a safe stay in the United States for our family. Therefore, while being a line chef does not necessarily coincide with the usual narrative of the American Dream, we saw our dad's job offer as a second chance and were ushered into a new chapter of our lives.
My father left six months ahead of my mother, brother, and I, and two days before my 14th birthday. We settled in a crowded but cozy one bedroom apartment in Baltimore, Maryland. We saw snow for the first time in our lives during the wintertime as my brother and I started school, while my father remained the sole breadwinner of the family. He worked 18-hour shifts at the restaurant and was paid less than $6 per hour for the harsh and grueling physical work he had to endure.
Aside from my dad's struggle with wages and long working hours, everything was going well. My brother and I were excelling and the administration at my high school was impressed with me. Two months after enrollment, I was one of the students recommended for an upward bound program that provided free tuition for high school students to accelerate their college career by earning credits during high school. I enrolled as the only freshman among juniors and seniors of my school.
However, my guidance counselor told me that they needed my parents to fill out paperwork as a requirement to continue to receive the subsidy for the program. When I brought home the paperwork, my parents were unable to provide information in relation to immigration status. When my father asked his employer about his green card application, a condition that was promised as a part of his "safe stay" in America, his employer denied the agreement and threatened to inform the authorities of our expired stay in the country and leveraged it against his requests for fairer workplace conditions. Fearing the exaggerated consequences that his employer was describing such as criminal detention and deportation, especially for my young brother and I, my father told me to withdraw my participation with upward bound and to keep my head down. That was my rude awakening that I was an undocumented immigrant.
While this incident remains hurtful and haunting, I did not let it deter me. But none of it was easy. The journey to college graduation was bumpy and I faced many challenges when it came to financially sustaining myself through college. Due to my status, I was unable to qualify for need-based financial aid and was ineligible for work study. I had no way of subsidizing my tuition and had to pay almost $10,000 per year for tuition out of pocket. The seemingly insurmountable roadblocks made the American Dream seem like an abstract ideal that had nothing to do with the realities of my day-to-day life. Oftentimes I felt alienated from my peers because they simply could not understand the unique struggles that came with being undocumented. Sometimes I felt like a good work ethic was not enough. Many times, I questioned my place in this society and whether there were other people who could identify with my story. I was constantly searching for a community -- a community that understands what it means to be Asian, young, and undocumented, a community where I could belong.
This need for a community led me to join RAISE and become part of the immigration reform movement. Here, I have witnessed incredible tenacity, strength, and unrelenting resilience in the yearning for justice and equality. Then I finally understood -- that the core of the American Dream exceeds the cliché of pulling oneself up by the bootstrap; it requires that we forge a multi-faceted community that reaches out to those in need.
With immigration reform, many like me will be able to achieve our dream of integration, mobility, and safety, not just for DREAMers like myself, but also for people like my father, who was exploited by his employer because of his status. I intend to actively share my story to encourage more of us to take care of one another, to bridge individual histories and transform them into a collective future.
This blog post is part of a series by Raise Our Story, a project for sharing the uniquely beautiful stories of undocumented immigrants who arrived in the United States as children. The series has been collected by RAISE, the first pan-Asian group of undocumented young adults on the East Coast, to bring about comprehensive immigration reform. On May 20, RAISE will be presenting #UndocuAsians, a new film and theater performance by undocumented Asian American youth.
Follow Hong Mei Pang on Twitter: www.twitter.com/@RaiseOurStory