Lemons Into Lemonade



Dear Dreamers,


You don’t know me and I don’t know you. In fact I don’t know any dreamer personally. Yet I do feel for you. Here’s why.


I am the granddaughter of an illegal immigrant. My parents – children of immigrants – are respected members of our community. They are doctors, nurses, dentists, teachers, and business people. They have paid their dues to society much like what you are doing right now.


Now I’m not going to lie to you. Although my Gung Gung arrived as an illegal the rest of my family, for the most part, were born and raised in the U.S.A. I am here legally so I have no idea what it is like to have to hide in the shadows and be treated as a second class citizen.


But I do have an idea of what it’s like to live in a foreign country and I do know what it’s like to return to your roots.


I was born and raised in Hawaii. But in the summer of 1995 I moved to China to learn Mandarin and to learn something about my ancestral country. My father said, “You are Chinese. You should learn something about your ancestral homeland.” And with that I was off to China where I lived for fourteen years.


I also have distant relatives in China. I have cousins on my paternal side who are at least one generation removed. And yes, there are cultural and language barriers. Although they do speak Mandarin their mother tongue is Cantonese which I do not speak. Yet every time I visit they are overjoyed to see me and they cook up a nine course meal.


It is the first and last visit however that I want to share with you my story. My father wanted his American family to meet and re-connect with relatives in Hong Kong and China. He made the effort to get to know his cousins in Hong Kong who, in turn, took him back to his parents’ village in Kaiping. My Dad, in turn, brought his two brothers along and told the rest of us about our family in China.


So when I told Dad that I wanted to go to Kaiping he gave me the name of a customs official who, although not related, shared our family name Tan and who knew our relatives. This man brought me to the village which was, back then, on the outskirts of Kaiping. The village was surrounded by open farmland. Across the street from Gung Gung’s farm house was a gas station.


My relatives lived in Gung Gung’s house. This brick home was purchased through funds Gung Gung wired to his father so that Gung Gung’s brother had a place to live. Inside the home were two multi-purpose rooms, a family room, a kitchen, and a bathroom/shower unit. It was dimly lit and had just one light bulb hanging in the living room. And it smelled musty.


Outside were mostly fields of crops. What they were growing I do not recall. But they also had chickens running around their alley. One was slaughtered for my benefit.


I could see why Gung Gung left his hometown. One of my Kaiping cousins who is ten years younger than me, had only a junior high school education and she had to leave school to support her family as a seamstress. At one point she worked at a sweatshop in Macao to make ends meet.


That was in 1998.


Fast forward to 2016. Dad has since passed. But before passing he told me that he wanted his ashes spread on the Tanjiang River in Kaiping. On the way to the village the customs official pointed the river out to me as we drove over it.


On this recent trip my sisters, my brother-in-law, my niece, and my nephew went with me. We stopped in Hong Kong first where our Hong Kong relatives met us and took us over the border to Kaiping. It was a glorious reunion despite the sad occasion. My niece and nephew got to meet their Chinese cousin, a skinny energetic nine year old girl who kept running up and down stairs.


And speaking of stairs their home  has definitely changed and for the better. They still had Gung Gung’s original dwelling. But behind it they built a relatively new multi-storied home outfitted with better lighting and a modern bathroom.


As far as the rest of the village is concerned the city of Kaiping has just completely surrounded the village. The gas station is gone but at least Gung Gung’s musty old house was preserved so that my sisters and their families could see what life was like for Gung Gung.


Of course we came to carry out our Dad’s wishes, which is what we did. But after spreading his ashes we had to host a banquet, an affair our Hong Kong and Kaiping relatives organized. Thanks to Dad we had at least eighty people who came to pay their respects. We had no idea we had that many relatives and contacts in China.


The rest of the week we spent playing tourist and getting to know our roots with our relatives. We visited the Diaolou Towers and Movie Village. We celebrated my nephew’s birthday twice; once in Kaiping and once in Hong Kong. For weeks after we returned home all my nephew and niece could talk about was their trip to China, their first international trip.


So Dreamers, returning to your ancestral country is not all bad if you choose to go back on your own. If you do follow this path(and avoid deportation)take the time to ask your parents to set you up with friends or family members in your birth country. Take it as a learning experience. Granted you may be there longer that just a week so ask if they can help find housing and jobs for you. One of my Hong Kong cousins, a school administrator, says he also has connections to schools in China. If I ever wanted to return to China to teach I can contact him. Work your family connections because they will have your best interests at heart. The president has given you a lemon. I’m giving you a recipe to help you turn that lemon into lemonade.


And know that you will have people back in the U.S.A fighting on your behalf for your right to be fully fledged United States citizens.


Carefully Taught


Like many of you I’ve had to do some soul searching this week and keep my inner racist attitudes in check. I asked myself why do people hate other people? Why do people hate who they fear? The words that keep singing in my mind are the words of the musical team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein in their song from South Pacific “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught”.


As a girl born and raised in Hawaii I was never exposed to the bigotry some of my relatives faced on the mainland U.S.A. I was taught by my parents to give generously to those less fortunate. I was taught to speak kindly of others and not “talk stink” behind someone’s back. I was taught to forgive those who have offended me.


I have been carefully taught.


I was taught how to handle chopsticks and a fork. I was taught that slurping your food in western culture is bad manners but slurping in Asia is a sign to the chef that their food is delicious. I was taught to eat chicken feet and fish heads, delicacies in Cantonese cooking, as well as hamburgers and hot dogs.


I have been carefully taught.


I have been taught to accept and love people for who they are. I’ve been taught to respect people of different faiths and physical abilities. I’ve been taught to speak up for what is right and condemn what is wrong.


I have been carefully taught.


But whether I have actually learned and applied what I have been taught is another story.


So I ask you dear reader. Have you been carefully taught? If so, have you applied what you have been carefully taught?


Just food for thought.

A Living Wage Chinese Style

The following is a letter I sent to Hawaii Senators Maizie Hirono and Brian Schatz:

Dear Senators:

I am a Big Island resident who use to live in China as an English teacher. Every time I hear people talk about universal coverage in THIS country I laugh because they always equate universal with socialism or communism.

Here’s what I had in China and why for the longest time I’d repeatedly return to that country. The first four years I worked as an ESL teacher I was paid 2000 yuan a month. That was enough for me to live on provided that I don’t travel too much. Then in 2000 my income increased to 6000 yuan. I’m now able to travel and spend more, pay for rent if I lived off campus, and get Chinese medical insurance. My last three years I was there I got 7000. In other words my income increased as the cost of living got higher and inflation. I was paid well enough that I didn’t need another job. I did all this on a single job. Why can’t that be done in this country? China does not have universal health coverage. It’s optional for employers. Those that do have it either pay it themselves or pay their teachers enough so that they can pay for their own insurance.

Why can’t we do that here in this country?


Jada Rufo