Updated: Mar 26
“In China, you take care of your family. In America, you take care of your dream.”
In the 1930s, the idea of achieving the American dream was a popular fantasy of many foreigners. Many left their home country in hopes of a chance of attaining a better life, often having to leave behind their language, culture, and even family. On April 20th, 1947, at the age of 20, my grandfather left his impoverished village in Taishan, Guangdong to pursue his dreams of obtaining American freedom. Leaving behind the only world he ever knew, he boarded the USS Admiral W.S. Benson with a one-way ticket to America and a picture of his mother he promised to remember.
At 92 years old, my grandfather still had the small photograph of his mother, which he kept on his bedside table. Staring into his mother’s stoic eyes, he’d often feel guilty for never returning to his home county to see her again.
As an American, my grandfather had worked his way up, starting at a laundromat in Boston, to eventually opening his own Chinese restaurant in Florida. At his restaurant, he happened to hire a young, flirtatious Italian woman he would build a family of seven girls and four boys with, completing his American dream. Devoting his life to running a Chinese restaurant so that his eleven children could enjoy the American dream he began, my grandfather never had the chance to go back to China to see his mother before she died. My mom recalls seeing him burn fake money, lamenting her passing— it was the only thing he could do to honor what she had done for him.
Being one of the many female products of the One Child Policy, I understood the importance a Chinese son held, but it wasn't until now that I put two and two together... My grandfather was burdened by guilt not only because of his failure to visit his mother, but because his position as an American father removed him from his role as a Chinese son.
In the traditional Chinese religions and philosophies, Buddhism, Confucianism, and Daoism, hsiao (filial piety) is the responsibility to respect, obey, and take care of one’s parents as they grow older. Additionally, Chinese sons are born with the destiny to one day take responsibility for their family.
Reaping the benefits of his American Chinese restaurant, my grandfather always used what he had to give to those in need. Never denying a knock at the restaurant’s back door, he'd serve beggars a hot meal, suppressing the hunger he had once felt. Remembering his home, he’d send money to the remaining family in Taishan. For a while, he attempted to bring one of his nieces to America, but ultimately failed.
From a distance, he continued his role as a Chinese son, but there was only so much he could do.
The line that divides cultures is not an easy one to cross. Sacrifices are made on both sides, distinguishing an individual’s dream from that of tradition. My grandfather was burdened by the guilt that the weight of tradition had invoked. While he relished being surrounded by the immense American family he had created, he remorsefully looked to the east. The harsh reality of my grandfather’s story is one of millions of immigrants and refugees who had also chosen to leave their home in pursuit of a better life. Coming to America, you cannot dig a hole to China. A dream that lies thousands of miles away requires a trade to complete. A sacrificial exchange that could result in happiness and freedom, but also guilt and abdication. However, the dream you pursue echoes for generations, providing opportunities and foundations for future dreamers to come. Immigrants make sacrifices so that their children don’t have to…
In America, you take care of your dream so your family can prosper from it.
Editor(s): Rachel C., Erika Y., Joyce P.