An Interview with Katie Chiu

Katie Chiu is a second-generation Chinese American. Her grandparents fled China during the communist take-over to Hong Kong, where her parents were born. Katie is in the Macaulay Honors College at Brooklyn College. She represented the freshman class this past year on the Macaulay Student Council.

Life in Hong Kong

My parents talk a lot about how competitive the atmosphere was and still is in Hong Kong. The people there are very serious about education because it was hard to get into school. All public schools are free since the government subsidizes education. However, after I think 11th grade, you must take entrance exams to progress to the 12th and 13th grades, and there really weren’t very many good schools. There were like two schools that were good, because the government paid for and regulated these schools. Private schools were known by all to be substandard because they just couldn’t provide the same level of resources that the government could. My dad reminds me all the time that had he stayed, he would have gotten in.

Hong Kong was an English colony at the time that my parents were living there. So my parents went to Catholic schools that taught English and so they were sort of exposed to English much the way I would say Americans are exposed to foreign languages in school. It was generally accepted that to move up in society you had to know English, because all the high-ranking jobs and political positions were either directly or indirectly controlled by English authority. People in Hong Kong spoke two languages: Cantonese Chinese and English. No one really spoke Mandarin because at the time, people from the mainland didn’t really go south to Hong Kong. My parents never really were in contact with northerners [mainland Chinese] until they arrived to New York.

My parents lived in government subsidized housing when they were in Hong Kong. Basically everyone did. I guess the population was rising fast and they needed space for everyone. I know that there were a series of PSAs at the time about limiting how many kids you have so that you don’t sacrifice too much of your standard of living. It was also always super hot in summer since the government projects didn’t really have air conditioning. My parents would talk about how they loved going with my grandparents to pay rent or go to the library since these places had running air conditioning.

Coming to America

My parents came to America to pursue their educations. And also to leave Hong Kong because there was a fear that the communists would make Hong Kong communist. The stories that went around were very scary. At the time, Hong Kong was just being transitioned back to China, I believe, so people got nervous.

My mother immigrated to New York with her mother, father, sister, and brothers. My father immigrated with his mother, father, sister, and brother. My parents had to find jobs basically immediately. Mom got a job as I think a cashier for some bakery and dad was like a busboy/delivery boy type thing. On their feet all day – and they were going to school at the same time. Everyone had to work since there was no government support system like we have today. My dad still talks about how it was hard when they came because no one really had money, so he was working to pay for the family rent and food, and his education. He would try to save where he could. Eat Twinkies or donuts or mac-n-cheese for his meals because they were cheap. It’s funny because I’ve never eaten mac-n-cheese growing up. My dad says he had his fill of Twinkies and mac-n-cheese. No more for him.

Racism was and is kind of a thing. My dad was called “Chinaman” when he was working. But New York had a Chinese community so it helped them assimilate a little more. Some of my dad’s friends that I’ve met are also Hong-Kong immigrants.

My parents met in college. My mom knew my dad’s sister and I think they were friends for a while, but like, not dating. And a year after they were married, I was born!

Growing Up

My parents tried as hard as they could to give me the most unbiased childhood ever. They tried to give me the freedoms that were barred from them as children. If there was a good thing, everyone in the family partook. Like if there was a vacation being planned, I was always part of it. My parents believe that when my sisters and I grow up, and I guess children in general grow up, we distance ourselves, because we must become independent, so they tried really hard to have us spend family time together. I had elements of both Chinese and American culture in my childhood. Like, we all celebrated Halloween and Thanksgiving, which they did not have in Hong Kong. But I grew up listening to a lot of Hong-Kong soft rock and pop music. And I guess they also stuck with some of the traditions. When people are buried, we visit their graves and burn incense and bring food and stuff. And we still celebrate Chinese New Year…. the moon festival. And that one holiday I cannot remember the name of where you eat rice that is in a triangularly folded lotus leaf. Food is a big thing. I ate… uh, everything really. My parents encouraged me to be open minded about food and life in general.

I am bilingual. I speak English. But I also speak Cantonese at about a 6th grade level. I can read about one page of manga in 10 minutes if it is in traditional Chinese. I do not know simplified because actually I was never taught. I know the rest of the world is simplified, but my family has tried very hard to keep this dying language alive in me and my sisters. I can also write like 2 sentences per 20 seconds. I have started to learn Mandarin on my own for about a year now, and I think that I would be able to survive in Taiwan if you threw me there right now. Cantonese and Mandarin are actually somewhat similar, so if I don’t know how to say something in Mandarin, I can just like twist the pronunciation a little and hope that my audience understands me. [Laughs]

Immigration from America and Being American

I think I can do anything if I need to survive, but if given the choice, I’d rather not. It seems unpleasant. From the stories I’ve heard, it’s not very fun. And the thing is I don’t think there is any place more accepting than the USA. I think that since the USA is really responsible for my upbringing, I owe it my adulthood. If it ever goes down or gets destroyed, I’d like to have the honor of staying behind and helping rebuild it.

I know that in the Chinese community that I am familiar with, a lot of second-generation kids tend to give up their Chinese background in favor of a more “Americanized” one. It’s understandable. I mean, discrimination is alive and well. But I guess I feel about 69% American and 21% from Hong Kong. In the end, America is the place that raised me, not Hong Kong, and even less so China.

I was in elementary school and a substitute teacher looked at me and told me that I was not a real American. And that no one who wasn’t 4th generation or further was even really American. I think what hurts me is that my parents pay taxes and serve our community and haven’t ever taken a cent from the government. Like paid off all their student loans. And my family has fought freaking wars for America and here someone is telling me that I am not American? Who are you to tell me that? I am here, giving up my youth studying my [expletive removed] off and not socializing or playing video games or cosplaying 24/7 to serve my community when I grow up. I mean I love learning and all, but you know it’s hard work. To become someone of use to our society and help out the place that raised me and you have the nerve to tell me I’m not American? Are you even American? Never tell me I’m not American. It’s not your generational privilege that makes you American. It’s what you do for your country.

I just want to end by saying that I don’t think my family has been happier. There is nothing my parents regret doing. Things are really good, and life here is great. I had a great childhood and we live comfortably. So, um, yeah. It’s all good. I hope this was helpful.