The American Dream

In his Pulitzer Prize winning memoir, Stay True, Hua Hsu writes (p.15):

Opium Wars devastated southeastern China, right around the time when cheap labor was needed in the American West. In the 1840s and 1850s, shiploads of Chinese men left the war-torn Guangdong province for the U.S., lured by promises of work. They laid railroad tracks, mined gold, and went wherever they were needed. Yet this was the limit of their mobility. Sequestered in the cities’ most run-down districts by byzantine legal codes and social pressure-and without the means (and sometimes desire) to return home-they began building self-sustained Chinatowns to feed, protect, and care for one another. By the 1880s, the American economy no longer needed cheap foreign labor, resulting in exclusionary policies that limited Chinese immigration for decades.

These dynamics of push and pull were still in play when the Immigration Act of 1965 relaxed restrictions on entry from Asia, at least for people who might have something concrete to contribute to American society. There was a perception among policy makers that America was losing the science and innovation side of the cold war, so the country welcomed grad students like my parents. And who knew what the future held in Taiwan? In the New World, things seemed in a constant ascent. My parents weren’t drawn to the United States by any specific dream, just a chance for something different. Even then, they understood that American life is unbounded promise and hypocrisy, faith and greed, new spectrums of joy and self-doubt, freedom enabled by enslavement. All of these things at once.