There’s been a lot of discussion about refugees seeking asylum recently. So I have run into quite a few people who feel the need to explain to me that refugees are faking their need for asylum – that they’re just trying to get here for the economic opportunities, that they might be terrorists, and that they’re unskilled foreigners who will take jobs away from American workers. And so on.
I sit and watch them until they run down. Then I say, “You do know that my parents were refugees, right?”
My parents did not arrive destitute, like many other refugees. But they were fleeing the Chinese civil war, the beginning of Mao’s dictatorship, and they would almost certainly have been executed had they stayed. (My father’s older brother, in fact, was arrested and “committed suicide” while in police custody. My grandfather immediately sent his two remaining sons to the U.S., fearing they too might be murdered.)
The only reason my parents survived, and that I exist at all, is that sixty years ago, the US was willing to take in people fleeing violence, war, or repressive regimes in their home countries. I am alive because, when my parents came, the U.S was willing to grant asylum to those who needed it.
But this is about more than just me, or my family. It’s about my entire community.
I grew up in the Washington, DC area. Most of my classmates were white, but there was also a thriving Chinese-American community. So I grew up with a lot of Chinese-American friends. Virtually none of our parents spoke English as their first language. (Though they were pretty much all fluent in English: My mom sounded a lot more like Manhattan than Shanghai. And her score on the SAT-V practice test when I suggested she take one blew most American-born high school seniors’ scores away.)
My Chinese-American classmates’ parents weren’t native English speakers for the same reason mine weren’t: Every single one of their parents had fled China during the Communist revolution. We were all children of refugees.
So if the US hadn’t accepted refugees seeking asylum, not only would my entire family have died, but the families of every Chinese American kid that I knew would also have died. The weekend Chinese school that we all hated going to would have been completely empty. All the teachers would have been murdered, and the kids would never have been born.
So when I hear people talk about turning away refugees who ask for asylum, that’s what I think of: The entire Chinese American community I grew up with, wiped out. Every last one of us.
And I think it would have been a huge loss to the US, too. We kids were more or less indistinguishable from other middle class American kids (except maybe that our parents pushed us more). Like other middle-class American kids, most of us went to college and into various professional careers. My family was composed of scientists and academics – my dad is a well known astrophysicist (with his own Wikipedia page!), my mom was an X-ray crystallographer, one uncle was a well known international law professor and another a top-notch engineer. China is poorer for having lost my parents and the other Chinese parents in my community. America is richer for having them.
War doesn’t care who it uproots – in fact, it’s the brave and resourceful, and the people who had the skills and education to save enough money to flee, who are most likely to be able to escape. These are the people you want to have.
Current political discourse focuses on the refugees who are arriving today. Many people think of today’s refugees as desperate people from foreign countries, a land where many people (or even the government) are hostile to America. They see that today’s refugees come from radically different cultures, speak different languages, and may not speak even one word of English.
And yes. That’s true. All of it.
But it’s unfair to look at people only in the moment they cross the border. Or even to judge them by what they were in their home countries: Business owners, doctors, auto mechanics – whatever they were before war wiped out their past.
You have to look at them in the future, too. I can tell you that my parents, and my Chinese-American friends’ parents, passed through Ellis Island looking not too different from today’s asylum seekers – citizens of a hostile country, from a totally different culture, with few assets, speaking minimal English. And I can tell you what they became. They became scientists and law professors and engineers. They started businesses, worked as nurses, became real estate agents, became office managers. They became parents. And they became me and almost all the other Chinese-American kids of my generation.
If you are dealing with someone my age who is of Chinese ancestry, the odds are very good that they’re the children of Chinese refugees. They might be your doctor, your waiter, your coworker, your boss. They might be software engineers, nurses, or vintners (that’s my brother!). They speak English like they were born here (because they were!), and they’re fluent in American culture, because they were born here, grew up here, and know no other country.
To see the future of today’s refugees, look at my past. Because I am the daughter of two refugees, and I can tell you exactly what I am, and what we are. We’re Americans.