In the 90s, before Taylor Swift brought all-day brunches to Williamsburg-Brooklyn, our family ran a tiny takeout shop on Marcy Avenue. We were sandwiched between a KFC and a discount sneaker outlet. It had all the familiar features of a dicey urban neighborhood that realtors stayed away from. Sirens were a norm. Shootings were a norm. Robberies were a norm. And it wasn’t an accident that we ended up there.
Like every new group of migrants seeking opportunities in America, many Fujianese found themselves in the middle of a country torn by racism and inequality. What was unique about our experience was that discrimination often stemmed from groups of earlier Chinese migrants. Some went as far as petitioning for recently arrived Fujianese to undergo extra scrutiny from the immigration officials. Most were driven by fear of new migrants who undercut wages and vehemently marked their territory across old Chinatown. This is an unfortunate and cyclical issue with America’s relationship with newcomers. For my dad (and thousands of other Fujianese), it means having to look into the deep corners of America’s forgotten streets, often in neighborhoods stigmatized by crime and poverty.
The same year I arrived here, my dad found what would be his jumpstart into entrepreneurship. At the corner of Marcy and Broadway, he worked seven days a week manning the shop. Over the course of eight years, he carved out a niche for himself. We also integrated with the community. My mom would often take us shopping in the adjacent discount outlet where she befriended the Ecuadorian landlady and her husband. For the first five years of my stay here, that’s where I got all my Jordans.
This city of dreams can also be a city of disillusion. Several times I’d follow my uncle while he picked up supplies for the restaurant. We’d drive through hundred million dollar condos catering to the billionaires of the world. Not two miles north, we’d also drive through homeless shelters catering to the hungry. A tell tale sign is the prevalence of bulletproof shields in every establishment. My parents had elected to remove the inch-thick glass off our counter. That empty groove where the shield sat symbolizes the true investment that migrants make when they move here. To my dad, building trust with the community was key to building a living and a shield would just get in the way. The stories of struggling immigrants coexisting together in these rough edges of urban America is all too common and rarely shared, but complicated nonetheless.
I returned one Friday evening from school and my grandparents rushed me out of our 13-story apartment. They’d told me that something terrible had happened. Yes – my parents are equally esoteric in a panic but you know it’s serious when they hailed a cab instead of waiting for the train. As we arrived, I see the flashing light from the ambulance and paramedics sauntering about. Now I’m panicking. I’m panicking at the stupidity of removing the shield while everyone else had it up. As we walked closer, I saw a lady panting heavily by the paramedic and my parents eagerly asking me to translate, pointing to the styrofoam box of rice:
“There is nothing inedible in here!” They shouted at me. “Explain this to them.”
Confused but relieved, I tried to figure out what had happened from the paramedics. I learned that a customer (the lady on the ambulance) had gotten sick. She found a piece of star anise in her rice and was adamant that we’ve tried to poison her, threatening to get the health inspectors involved. In what might have been the greatest cultural misunderstanding of my upbringing, I chuckled at the claim and soon the commotion died off. My dad was on edge for the entire following week.
There’s a popular rumor that during Nixon’s 1972 visit to China, he received 200 grams of an incredibly rare tea (Da Hong Pao) from the Chinese Premier. Nixon snubbed at the gift, insulted at the small quantity of tea. The premier proceeded to explain that this type of tea was so rare and difficult to harvest that it took a group of farmers six months to accumulate the mere 200 grams sitting in front of him. I can’t vouch for the veracity of the story, but similar stories are told across all Fujianese American families. The reality is that if it wasn’t for migrants, forgotten American communities would remain forgotten, the economy wouldn’t thrive through cultural diversity and ingenuity, no one would be willing to clean up after your sick grandparents, or cook for you at a minimum wage. The drive for a slice of the American dream is what tolerates millions of migrants living on the fringes. What’s even more important is that one day the fringes will eventually become the center. At which point, you in your full American glory will have to decide if you should give your fellow migrants a shot at the American dream too.