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#growingupchinese Chinese American Dream Part 3
The Chinese American Dream is a series of stories that have been shared with me for public distribution. We share the story of a young man growing up in rural China, and his journey to the United States. The stories are told as if he were speaking to you as the events take place. These are all true stories to the best of my knowledge, only the names have been changed to protect the subject’s privacy.
When I was turning about 12 years old or so, my family decided that we would move to the United States of America! Wow, I couldn’t believe we were going to the United States! Everything was going to change now! I didn’t know exactly how, but I knew that we were going into the big time! America, wow, the land of opportunity! I couldn’t wait!
Well, that thought changed relatively quickly, back in those days, Chinatown sucked! It was filthy, dangerous, and definitely not the place you’d want to be. When we first came here, we stayed at my grandma’s place. Grandpa had passed before we came. There were seven of us staying in one of the bedrooms in the railroad style apartment. This is not to be mistaken with us staying in a one-bedroom apartment, no; we were staying in one bedroom, within my grandma’s apartment. Can you imagine how insane it was to have seven people living in one bedroom? However, we are in America. Things always improve here. Right?
It was nearly two years later. My mother spent countless hours working in a sweatshop, and my father; the accountant by trade spent hour upon hour sweating as a cook in a Chinese restaurant. Finally, through their hard work and efforts, my parents scraped up enough cash for us to get a small place of our own in Chinatown. We still shared rooms, but it was so much more comfortable. We were still very poor, make no mistake about that! All of our furniture was made up of items that my father found discarded on the street. Looking back on those days, I give my father and my mother tons of credit! It was hard, but they made things work for the family. I can still remember how my dad managed to make bunk beds for us out of these wooden boards which to this day, I have no idea where he got them from. My dad has always been the type of man who just made things work.
We lived in peace at our new humble home for a while. As I got older, I started working a job to help the family and save some money. Like most of us, old-school Chinese people do; I managed to save a bit of money. It was well hidden within the house. We were never big fans of banks. Especially back then when we only had very little property to our names.
Things were going great, then out of nowhere, with the speed of lighting; disaster struck! One of our neighbors allegedly started a huge fire in the building. I say allegedly because you never know which fires were real. Some were set off on purpose as part of insurance scams. You know how back in those days the buildings would light up like matches! Does the term “the Bronx is burning” mean anything to you? Well, this night, Chinatown was burning. It was terrible! I had to wake everyone up in the family and get them out of the house.
Thankfully, I could get everyone out safely, but now it was about time I left, and I couldn’t even see my hands in front of my face. The smoke filling the hallway was black, thick, and nearly swallowed me whole. Will I survive this, or is this the end of my American dream? God knows I almost didn’t make it, Missy; I was coming to see you this night. Somehow I managed to crawl my way out of the building before it was entirely consumed by the flames. We were all very lucky to make it out of there alive.
Aside from the mortal danger that this fire created for my family, it totally consumed the few items that we owned. Everything that we had was destroyed in the fire that night. Remember that I mentioned keeping the money I had saved up at home? Well, I had managed to save a few thousand dollars, which for a young man, back in those earlier days, was a fortune. It was all gone, just like that, all gone. We were all devastated, everything we worked for was gone.
We ended up living in the shelters for sometime while the government helped us find a new place to reside. Back then those shelters seemed absolutely amazing. We had plenty of space; we even had more than one bathroom! Even some of my childhood friends from school and the old block used to come over to hang out because of how much space we had there. Looking back in hindsight though, I now realize that the place was completely drug infested, occupied by hookers, and just downright nasty.
Eventually, the authorities could find us a place. We ended up living in the Chinatown projects. The projects, believe it or not were actually a step up from our first place and those wretched shelters. Of course growing up in the LES (Lower East Side) back in the 80s was not the same as it is today. Not by a long shot! Back then there were so many gangs, drugs, hookers, and just plain or criminals everywhere in the area. You really had to know how to navigate those streets, otherwise you could end up in some serious trouble. Though I had encounters here and there with the Chinatown gangsters, overall I managed to steer clear of any grave trouble.
I focused my energies on getting an education, and worked very hard so that the next generation in my family would never have to suffer the hardships that we did growing up. For years, I studied, and eventually after graduating, I landed a great job. I continued to live at home with my family until the day that me and my long-time girlfriend were married. Once married we bought a house together, and as the story goes, we lived happily ever after.
This was how it all began; this was all I knew my young life. Today, my children are the same age that I was when this journey into my Chinese American dream began. They carry hand-held devices that are far more powerful and advanced than any television projector the town’s people had. The technological leaps and advances that we have made since then are mind blowing and amazing. It just fascinates me to think that only a few decades later, we are where we are today.
I’m happy to report that my children, wife, and family are all doing well. As I said in the beginning, things have to be better, right? This has been, my Chinese American dream.
Growing Up Bronx