During the winter of early 1956, a group of members from the El Dorado County Federal Church (a Methodist church) visited our house in Placerville, California to welcome our family as recent immigrants to the U.S. and new attendees of their church. The outside temperature was in the 20’s or 30’s. The inside temperature was in the low 50’s, because we did not have a furnace in our house at that time and the house was poorly insulated. Not being accustomed to such a cold house, our church visitors stayed for only a few minutes. This article recollects selected incidents from a life involving two cultures and two countries.
How did our family end up in Placerville, California, a small town between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe with a population of about 3,000? Placerville was formerly known as Hangtown because it was so lawless during the gold rush days of the 19th century that lawbreakers were first hanged singly and then in pairs. In the center of town today, there is still a replica of the hanging tree. If it weren’t for my father continuing to exchange Christmas cards with his former dormitory roommate at Brown University, we would have settled in Providence, Rhode Island when we immigrated from Hong Kong to the U.S. in October 1955.
In 1921 when he was almost 15, my father came to the U.S. as a merchant’s son to study (my grandfather was working in the restaurant business in Providence, Rhode Island, and perhaps other places in the East Coast). In 1926 after finishing junior high and high school in Providence, he enrolled at Brown University majoring in civil engineering. His dormitory roommate was Harold S. Prescott, who also majored in civil engineering. They were together for only one year, because after his freshman year, my father transferred to MIT for his last three years of college. It is interesting to note that the reason that my father transferred to MIT was because at that time Brown required passing a swimming test for graduation, and my father couldn’t swim (at least that was the semi-humorous reason mentioned in our family folklore).
In 1949, six years before our immigration to the U.S., our family moved from Canton, Kwangtung Province , China to Hong Kong just before the Chinese Communist Party took control of all of China. Thinking of the future educational opportunities for their five children, my parents decided to apply for immigration to the U.S. when the U.S. passed the Refugee Relief Act of 1953. It is important to point out that for about 100 years starting around the middle of the 19th century, the U.S. passed a series of extremely discriminatory laws against the Chinese which among other things barred Chinese from owning land or property, marrying whites, working in the public sector, testifying against whites in court. In addition, Congress in 1882 passed the Chinese Exclusion Act, the only federal law ever enacted to deny immigration based exclusively on race or nationality. This law was not repealed until 1943, after China became an ally of the U.S. during WWII.
Part of the immigration application requirement under the Refugee Relief Act was that the refugee needed to have a sponsor in the U.S. who could guarantee a job to the applicant. Our sponsor was a distant cousin who offered a job to my father in his restaurant in Providence. It wasn’t until about two-three weeks before our boat left Hong Kong for the 18-day trip to San Francisco that my father received a letter from Mr. Harold Prescott, his former Brown University roommate, who offered him a civil engineering job in his small civil engineering firm in Placerville. Who knows how my and my siblings’ lives would have turned out if we had settled in Providence in 1955.
Our move from Hong Kong to the U.S. was our fifth major move during the previous 19 years, with the first four moves due to war and the last move due to seeking better educational opportunities:
- 1936: From Canton to Hong Kong due to civil unrest around Canton and the expectation that Japan would invade the rest of China
- 1942: From Hong Kong to Toyshan (also spelled as Taishan, a village about 100 miles southwest of Canton not under the occupation of Japan) after Japan invaded and occupied Hong Kong
- 1945: From Toyshan to Canton after WWII ended
- 1949: From Canton to Hong Kong just before the Chinese Communist Party gained control of all of China
- 1955: From Hong Kong to the U.S. for better educational opportunities for my siblings and me
Each move was a major upheaval and we lost a lot with each move, especially the moves due to war. When we first moved to Placerville, we lived in a small, run-down house with the rent of $35 per month. Besides that the house initially did not have a furnace, there were multiple leaks from the ceilings. I remembered that we once counted and the number of leaks was over 30. We would place an empty can on the floor under each leaking point on the roof. Besides the leaks on the roof, there were also all kinds of cracks on the outside walls, where slugs and other bugs and insects could easily enter the house. During the winter, often early in the morning, the kitchen water faucet would be frozen, because the water pipe feeding it was on the outside of the house (plumbing in that house at that time apparently allowed the water to expand along the pipe and the frozen water didn’t break the pipe). When that happened, we just had to wait till the rising sun shining on the outside water pipe to warm up and unfreeze the ice in the pipe before we would have water in the kitchen sink.
My father’s civil engineer job in Placerville paid a salary of $400 per month. Although not very much, it would have been sufficient to support our whole family. Mr. Prescott was a good civil engineer and a kind and generous man, but he was not a good businessman, resulting in frequent cash flow problems for his civil engineering firm. Therefore, often he was not able to pay on time his employees’ (as well as his own) salary. The worst situation was the time when my father was owed 11 weeks of back pay. Since we had no savings to sustain us through those difficult times, we had to find other means to support us. For example, my mother, who had never worked in her life, worked at various odd jobs. My second older brother who was a junior in high school at that time and who was old enough to not be required to continue in high school, stopped attending school and went to work as a busboy in a restaurant in Sacramento. Fortunately, he was fired after three days, because he was under 21 and wasn’t legally allowed to handle liquor which was part of the job requirement of a busboy at that restaurant. So he returned and continued his education, which later led to a master degree in civil engineering from the University of California at Berkeley. Again, who knows what my brother’s life would be like had he not been fired from that busboy job in 1956.
There were several incidents that occurred in my high school and immediate post-high-school days that could be considered to be culture shocks for me. When I was a senior, a friend and I were helpers at one of our high school dances. My friend would sneak inside his winter coat several cans of beer. When no one was watching, he would take an illegal sip from one of his beer cans. I didn’t think he did it because he really liked the beer. It was probably the satisfaction and the macho image from doing something that was prohibited. Having come from a traditional Chinese family and society, I was surprised that many American youths would just ignore family, school, and society’s rules.
Excessive beer drinking was another phenomenon I observed when I worked as a surveyor at the U.S. Forest Service during summer jobs after my high school graduation and after my college freshman year. Our job was to do surveying to prepare for constructing new logging roads in the El Dorado National Forest east of Placerville. Our surveying crews (totaling 10-15 young men) would go out on Monday morning, live in trailers at campsites near our work locations, and return home on Friday afternoon. Often after dinner, many of these surveyors would drink many cans of beer until they fell asleep drunk. The next morning, we would see many of their sleeping bags hanging outside on the drying ropes, because they urinated in their sleeping bags during sleep. Again, it was a cultural shock to see many young men would engage in such seemingly frivolous, time-wasting, and unhealthy acts.
During these years, I also had my first observations of acts of discrimination in the U.S. In my first two-to-three years of high school, there was no black student in our high school. Sometime in my junior year, a young black boy attended our high school. Often for no reason whatsoever, other students would call him names or knock off the books in his arm. There wasn’t much that this young black boy could do at that time except to absorb and ignore the offensive acts. Taking any other action would just result in more frequent and even more serious abuses from the aggressors. Reporting it to school officials perhaps would have led to some minor comments from the school to the aggressors telling them not to do it again, but it was unlikely that the school would take any serious reprimand action unless the discriminating acts resulted in serious bodily harms. Recall that this was the period around 1959-61, just at the beginning of the American civil rights movement, when the American society still thought that Black Americans were second class citizens and could be treated as such. It was quite surprising and shocking to me to observe such wanton acts of discrimination.
Another incident involved our surveying team during the summer of 1962 when we had a foreign college student from Iran working on our team. His colleagues would make fun of him by calling him names like “camel jockey” and doing nasty things such as putting a snake in his sleeping bag. Again, at that time it seemed normal and acceptable for these young men to be doing such nasty things to other human beings, and there wasn’t anything that this Iranian student could do except to roll with the punches.
I should mention that during my high school days, I was not discriminated against as a Chinese, although later in life I did experience discrimination. That and other incidents will be discussed in one or more future articles in this theme of “Tale of Two Cultures and Two Countries.”
I want to end this article by noting that our experience as immigrants was not necessarily unique. The motivation for immigration is often due to seeking better educational and career opportunities for the children of the immigrants, with a lot of sacrifices by the parents.
 The city of Canton is now known as Guangzhou, and the province of Kwangtung is now known as Guangdong.