My family was lucky enough to have made it here, but arriving at America’s shores is only half the battle. The true challenge lies in constantly having to negotiate between different cultural identities and norms, navigating the narrow straits of what is considered socially acceptable in your new society, finding your footing on unfamiliar terrain while stumbling in the dark. This was surely my experience immigrating to the United States as a seven-year-old boy, at least initially, as I had to do the difficult job of adjusting to a new life in the New World. In the year 2000, my parents made the difficult decision to immigrate to the U.S. in order to offer their children the best education in the world. As a child of seven, I had little say in the matter, but naturally I was terribly nervous, if not petrified, by the prospect of immigrating to a brand new country I knew little about. My callow vision of America was more or less limited to the blurry image of a continent brimming with fast food, movie stars, and blondes speaking an unintelligible tongue.
Despite my trepidation, I began my first day of school in America armed with the proverb, “Suffering in youth is more valuable than gold.” I guess it is a Chinese version of the Nietzschean cliché “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Immigrant life may not have killed my parents, but it did its best, I often felt. Linguistic barriers led to countless failed attempts at finding a decent job which would not exacerbate my father’s chronic health conditions. My parents’ inability to speak English contributed not only to social isolation and discomfort, but to false starts in their attempt to find work. My father started course work in community college, which did not produce the job he had been promised by unscrupulous middlemen, and my mother’s attempts to earn a nursing license were thwarted by misinformation. Throughout all these challenges, my parents remained steadfast in their goal to sacrifice whatever was necessary to ensure a safe home for their children and the best public education this country had to offer.
Knowing all this, I could not share with them my apprehension of leaving all that I knew and moving to a land both strange and frightening or the personal challenges I faced adjusting to life here. When I first arrived, I experienced what I can only describe as social purgatory. Now, I chuckle as I imagine the gawky, “all arms and legs” kid I was. Today I am unsure what I am. Korean by descent and blood, Chinese by birth and nationality, American by culture and ideology, my heart is a melting pot of distinct but related identities. It is confusing at times to be sure, and often I long for the seemingly healthy simplicity of my friends who are born and raised in a nation-state and feel on a visceral level like they belong to it. They need not hesitate when asked “what are you?” or “where are you from?” Neither do they need to reconcile often diametrically opposed cultural values that all fight to mold who they are and who they want to be. Still I relish the struggle for knowing oneself and my many roots, of doing the hard work of piecing together what I choose to be.
Words cannot express my gratitude for the extraordinary opportunities America has entrusted in me and my family. But I cannot help but think about those who weren’t so lucky, who weren’t as fortunate as we were. Social conservative pundits like to say that this country was built on “legal immigrants,” but they seem to forget that during the time of our founding fathers, there were not “illegal immigrants.” Borders were open and America was the land of opportunities it made itself to be for anyone seeking to make a new life for themselves, a land of lofty ideals are now tragically lost in the pages of history. I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but some days I feel like we should give the Statue of Liberty back to France. What use is it to display a symbol of our immigrant heritage when the words inscribed on its pedestal ring true for only some people some of the time? My grandparents are Christians in a country where they can only attend certain state-sanctioned churches, where members of the multinational church I attend in L.A. have been imprisoned for years for practicing Christianity in a church not approved by the state. Do they not count in the “huddled masses yearning to breathe free” that the Statue of Liberty was erected to welcome? I hope one day the United States of America will be able to overcome its identity crisis by standing up as the universal champion of freedom for all who seek its shores its birth certificate makes it out to be instead of the xenophobic scapegoating fearmonger that many of its alarmist leaders have become. Then, and only then, can we proudly sing the sonnet of Emma Lazarus engraved on the bronze plaque of the Statue of Liberty, and sing it true:
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!