Surrounded by an abundance of Cantonese-style roast meats and lomein, as well as the standard American Thanksgiving fare of turkey and cranberry sauce, I stare up at a wall lined with portraits of Chinese men in military uniforms and squadron hats. The room is decorated with award plaques, photos of soldiers, and the American flag. While Grandpa shoots the breeze with hordes of other Chinese grandpas who wear fedoras and speak Dick Tracy style (like the black-and-white Hollywood movies--in old timer's slang and accents), Grandma chats gaily with the other wives in sing-song Toishanese (a dialect of Cantonese). Within that one room, there's a men's language, and a women's language; an "English world" and "Chinese world." I don't get why grandpas speak English and grandmas speak Chinese, why there's a linguistic divide along gender lines in my grandparents' generation. This is my life growing up in New York's Chinatown in the 1980s.
The Thanksgiving and Christmas parties my grandparents took me to were at the American Legion on Canal Street, which Chinese American vets set up in Chinatown after World War II.
I was fascinated with my Chinese grandpa being super American--in his speech, his mannerisms, and dress. In his retirement years, we watched Gilligan's Island, Ponderosa, and The A-Team together. He sang "As Time Goes By," about how a kiss is just a kiss and a sigh is just a sigh, while my ever-unhappy, volatile grandmother who speaks only Chinese could never enter this world of romance, which required English as a gateway. I had no idea how my grandparents, absolutely opposite in personalities, came together. I imagined my grandpa had always been the loving romantic I knew, and that my grandma had been once, too, but hardened with age.
When I was eight, I interviewed Grandpa for a school project on Ellis Island and immigration. He looked straight ahead, avoiding my eyes, when he answered my questions.
"I was born in 1920. I had a mother and grandma. I never met my father. He was in America working on railroads, to make money to send home. We stopped hearing from him one day, don't know what happened. We needed money, so my mother and grandma sold our land to buy fake papers for me to come to the U.S."
I learned that China was plagued with famine and crumbling government infrastructure, that many families in Toishan (a prefecture of Canton) pegged their hopes on little boys to support families, since only sons of Chinese who were already U.S. citizens were allowed to enter the U.S. The Chinese Exclusion Acts, which allowed only 105 Chinese into the U.S. per year until 1965, gave rise to a black market for fraudulent documents stating father-son relationships.
"I came to America by ship in 1933 when I was 13 years old," Grandpa told me. "When I got to New York, the man who was my 'paper father' tried to swindle me and leave me at Ellis Island. I called the Moy Family Association. They rescued me. Next, I went to Rhode Island, where my cousins owned a laundry. I worked there and went to high school. I was the only Chinese. When I graduated, World War II broke out and I joined the army."
When I asked my grandpa, "what was the happiest moment of your life?" I thought he'd surprise me with a romantic story about how he met my grandmother, but he didn't. "My happiest days?" he said, "it was with the boys, in the army."
"When did you first feel like a real American?" I asked.
"In the Army. I was an airplane mechanic for the Flying Tigers. There were over 1,000 of us, Chinese Americans, with the 14th Air Force. We traveled through the Himalayas, India, and Africa to China."
Grandpa sang me army songs, and taught me to march like a soldier; his pride in being American was intense. It made me wonder if nationality would ever imprint itself onto my identity so strongly. At 13, I asked him to tell me his story one more time. He died that year.
Every Memorial Day, hundreds of Chinese American veterans from the American Legion Lt. B.L. Kimlau Post march in their colorful, decorated uniforms down Mott Street. I met several veterans--two of them were 24, a year younger than me at the time, and just back from Iraq. A man in his 40s with a wife and baby was leaving in a week to be an infantryman there. They reminded me of Grandpa, and it astounded me to see that many Chinese Americans in military service.
I began a project. I interviewed Chinese American vets from World War II to our current wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Across generations, the stories had a common thread.
For many vets, military experience was the only channel to enter or advance within mainstream society. And, it became apparent just how much U.S. policies--especially policies on immigration--shape societies and communities, and deeply affect families and lives personally.
Within my own family, my grandfather met and married my grandmother in China right after the war. When I was old enough to understand, my grandmother told me she never forgave her family for giving her away so young, at 16, in an arranged marriage. (Not the Casablanca romance I thought suited my grandfather's personality.) After the wedding, Grandpa returned to New York alone, worked in restaurants, and sent earnings back. It took 12 years before my grandmother and father could gain entry into the U.S. Dad was 12 when he first met grandpa.
Some veterans I spoke to were able to bring wives over immediately after the war through the Chinese Alien Wives of American Citizens Act and the War Brides Act. Others, like my grandfather, had to wait years.
My grandmother, after raising a son without a husband in China for over a decade, has lived in the U.S. for more than 50 years and worked in garment factories for 40. She still barely speaks English, and was never able to enter the American space that my grandfather was able to. Her anger at the cruelties of life haunted me as a child, and as an adult to this day.
My family's history isn't unique; it was a pattern and landscape for much of the Chinatown community. Story after story, it became apparent how arbitrary it is that some ethnicities, races, and family members are allowed into America to be "real Americans" while others are not.
It took four generations in America before my entire nuclear family could live on one continent, where my parents could watch their children grow under their own care. The pain suffered by previous generations takes a long time to erase. The realization that it's history and not fate--a result of politics and prejudice that not any one person can prevent or evade--makes it somewhat easier to bear. Yet I cannot help but wonder: When does this end? What groups of hyphenated Americans are in line to go through the same anguish?