My immigration story.
LIN JIANG | MARCH 2022 | PROFILE
Recently, I've been unsure about whether or not now is the right time to tell my story. Our world is filled with so much injustice that it feels strange to talk about anything else. Compared to the way Ukrainians are suffering and the increasing violence towards Asians and other minorities in the U.S., my personal story feels insignificant. But as Sam Sifton from the NY Times so eloquently stated recently, “The point is to celebrate humanity even when others seek to destroy it.” We must seek to understand each other – finding comfort in our similarities and joy in our differences.
So with that, I’ve decided to share the story of my childhood and immigration into the United States in hopes that it contributes to the extraordinary wealth of stories of people crossing cultural divides to find a better life. Because despite the region or circumstances in which we were born, humanity is universal – we are so much more alike than we are different.
My childhood is likely relatable for many that grew up in China. I was raised in a loving yet strict household, in the province of Shandong. In my home, there was no television allowed, and my time spent with friends was very limited – studying was always the priority. My parents’ love shone through in unexpected ways. When I first started learning English, my mom would memorize all of the words, repeating them back to me with such care. When I hurt my eye in an accident, she cried more than I did. Every time we went to the farmers market, my dad would buy all of the foods I was subconsciously drawn to.
My mom was an incredibly creative, talented cook. I grew up, wide eyed, watching her modernize traditional dishes. She managed to add more color and nutrition to everything she touched. Cooking became something incredibly fun to me, it was like an art form.
Emphasis on Education.
However, I was discouraged from cooking – or anything else for that matter – and instead, expected to study. In middle school, I was asked to give up my hobbies in order to prepare for future exams. My district was an especially competitive one when it came to exams, which made it extremely difficult to get into universities. When I was 15, my parents sent me to a rural boarding school, known for its authoritarian approach as well as its academic rigor. A typical day went as follows:
Wake at 5am and head to class for a study session. The morning hours were spent memorizing textbooks – we would all read things out loud, and the whole building would shake from the noise. This was followed by a full day of classes, in classrooms that looked like this. The day wrapped up with quiet study sessions until 10pm, when we returned to our dorms to study more.
Competition dominated my adolescence for as long as I can remember. I entered high school as number 1,900 in a class of 2,400+ students. By the time I graduated, I was in the top four.
I did very little except study – I believed that having good grades and getting into top schools would lead to success in my career, granting me access to bigger cities and opportunities abroad. For me, studying correlated directly to happiness. I was exhausted, but I was addicted to it. It was similar to the eating disorder I had at the same time – I knew deep down that it was unhealthy, but the results brought me intense satisfaction.
I never gave much thought into what I actually wanted with my life – I was more or less guided by what felt like the next big achievement. After graduating high school, I got into a very special translation program at Beijing International Studies University. With only 13 kids, it was the best department at the school. We were expected to be French, English, and Chinese interpreters. I began to feel overwhelmed as I realized my language skills had a ceiling – speaking new languages didn’t come naturally to me. This was the first time that throwing myself completely into studying couldn’t help me. I began to deteriorate – I was studying twice as hard as anyone else, but still falling behind.
The American Dream.
I took a step back and tried to think logically. Simply studying the language wasn’t working for me, so how else could I approach this issue? The answer came to me in the form of the shiny golden promise that was the United States.
Growing up, the United States was this faraway dreamland. So many things seemed to happen here, but it seemed unreachable and surreal. My friends and I always spoke of the “America Dream” with such delight, encouraged by American-made TV shows, clips of commercials and internet memes we came across.
During winter break of my freshman year, I traveled to the United States – my goal was to put myself in an environment in which I was to rely only on English for communication. I stayed in a shared room Airbnb with a host in Manhattan. My host was an artist, directing off-broadway musicals, and she invited me to her shows as her special guest. I also volunteered in the city, at local soup kitchens and the like. I was fully immersed in the language and culture of New York City – it was such a rich experience.
Soon, my mind was full of the English language as well as something else – doubt. Would I ever find happiness if I committed to translation, a subject that I didn’t feel impassioned by? The answer was no. Before I had even left America, I dropped out of my translation program, intent on returning to the United States indefinitely. And that whim has led me to 9 years spent in the U.S. I was accepted into University of New Hampshire and got a good job before graduation. Three years flew by – I applied for my MBA and started Yishi. I consider America to be my home now. It’s where my friends are – my entire adult life has been spent here.
But I feel a pang in my heart when I think about my childhood and family in China. There are so many things that I miss about it. I miss the food: the farmers markets in which my parents so lovingly chose my favorite foods, the dumplings my mom made. The KFC right by my elementary school that my parents would take me to if I received good grades. I miss my community and the people I left behind when I started my life here in the United States.
And this is a common experience for many Asian Americans, or really anyone who has left their home country. There are growing pains and cultural barriers to overcome, but at the heart of it, we are all the same. We are all in search of our own semblance of happiness.So I ask one thing of everyone – get to know your neighbor. Ask them about their experiences, and relish in your differences. Perhaps our world will become a little kinder and a little more understanding if we open ourselves up to the people within it.