In an unassuming townhouse on a quiet residential street in Rego Park, my mother Wanqin Yu quickly whips up some vegetables in a steel wok. I happen to be home from college for the spring break and my appetite is ravenous. Before I permit myself to eat, however, I have some questions for her. I already know much about my mother’s past as an immigrant, but my goal this evening is to see if I can learn just a bit more. Meanwhile, Wanqin goes about her task with mechanical efficiency: it seems obvious she has done it countless times before. The ceiling lamp bathes the kitchen in a warm, yellow fuzziness, pierced only faintly by the sound of the Long Island Railroad rushing by a few blocks away. Wanqin moved to this neighborhood in late 2011, but that was hardly the first time she decided to relocate.
Born and raised in Shanghai, Wanqin first immigrated to Japan in 1988, accompanying my father as he went to pursue his studies at Tokyo Metropolitan University. She spent 6 years in Japan, during which she married him, before coming alone to New York City, where she would spend about 3 years away from her husband. The contact they had with each other during this time was very limited. “From 1994 to 1997 we communicated mostly on the phone,” she recalled, “It was very very depressing.” In 1999, 2 years after my father joined her in in New York, I entered the picture. In the 18 years since, I have proudly served as their first and only child.
Though she stepped off the plane alone, she did not remain alone for long. “The good thing was my sister’s family was here so they helped me a lot,” she explained. Encouraged by her sister, who had already been working in a New York hospital as an anesthesiologist, Wanqin pursued her own career in the medical field and graduated from nursing school in 2004 before obtaining her Master’s degree in nursing after several more years. Having left behind a job in a Chinese pharmaceutical company, Wanqin feels this career change has had an impact on her personal growth. “Being a nurse has really benefited me and made me very independent. In China, the environment was so that I didn’t have to be this way.” Being brought out of her comfort zone facilitated her shift toward increased self-sufficiency because, as she put it, “If you feel comfortable you won’t want to change anything.”
Despite her best efforts to prepare for what she correctly anticipated would be a turbulent period in her life, Wanqin was nonetheless put on the spot by the challenges of immigration. The United States had its share of surprises for Wanqin as she struggled to adjust to life in a non-Asian country. “You can try to anticipate its harshness,” she said, “but you really can’t do anything, you just have to go through with it.” The difficulty of adjusting to life in the U.S. dwarfed that of immigrating to Japan, primarily because “[i]n Japan, at least we were all Asian so people didn’t view me as a foreigner.” Meanwhile, the resource of blending in with the rest of the “native” population was virtually unavailable to her as an immigrant to New York. Wanqin was not only unable to fully prepare for the adjustment to American society, she was also burdened by the emotional challenge of separating from her husband for her first few years in the U.S., which, for that reason, she deems the most difficult.
Like many immigrants, her primary challenge upon arrival was the language barrier. Having expected this, she came equipped with some basic English, but she quickly found that it was very different from the British English she learned in China. “When I talked to people, I couldn’t understand them,” she said. As a result, she had to spend some time studying English in the U.S. before could begin pursuing a serious professional career in nursing school. However, the communication gaps she encountered were not limited to language. She found that Americans expressed their thoughts very differently from what she was used to. “In Asian culture, people might think directly speaking your mind might not be polite in some situations,” she explains, “…they want to give you a hint in order to indirectly tell you something.” On the other hand, she observed that Americans are much more direct about what they mean, an approach she believes has rubbed off on her over the years. “This [American] way allows for better understanding, what you think you just tell people.”
While fate appeared to have thwarted some of her preparations, she was nonetheless able to account for more concrete necessities. Knowing she would burn through her savings while spending time to get adjusted and work toward her degree, Wanqin made sure to coordinate financially with her husband. “We knew we would spend a lot of savings. So, he went to make some money in Japan to have some savings before I came,” she explained. Furthermore, she was able to take advantage of her relative fluency in Japanese to begin work as a waitress in a Japanese restaurant, thereby partially compensating for the language barrier restricting her from the workforce. “I went to the restaurant every weekend, when I didn’t have class,” she recalls. “I knew all the sushi, the fish names.”
Reflecting holistically on her time in the U.S., Wanqin considers her immigrant experiences rewarding. Without discounting the immense difficulty of mastering a new language in her 30s while juggling her work, school, and family responsibilities, she notes that events generally unfolded according to plan. “We planned to have a child,” she said, “so I was thinking if you could have an education in America, in the future, it would be better for you to be here than in Japan.” Inconspicuously proud of the security she helped construct for her family, she does not hesitate to mention that she and her husband worked very hard in their endeavor to become familiar with their surroundings while obtaining academic accreditation for careers they planned to develop in the U.S.
Wanqin remembers two of her immigrant co-workers at Mount Sinai West, “In the office now I know people from Jamaica, the Philippines, the rest I think are from here.” Their presence stands in contrast with Wanqin’s experience in her nursing school classes, where she remembered being the only foreign-born student in the class. In the United States, the percentage of foreign born nurses has been steadily rising in recent years, from 12.5% in 2005 to 14.6% in 2014. Comparing this alongside the 2016 estimate of immigrants comprising 13% of the U.S. population suggests the already significant role of immigrants in the nursing field may be increasing.
Wanqin insists her immigrant experiences are not particularly interesting, even initially hesitating to be interviewed for this reason. Careful about what she chose to say, she made it clear she was unsure about which parts of her experience to emphasize. When she does finally begin to recount her past, it is a retelling of the concrete elements of her story: the tasks she had to complete, the emotions she felt, the results from her efforts. She gives a strange look when prompted about abstract, admittedly contrived ideas regarding identity and struggles to form a pertinent response. “Let’s skip this question,” she suggests. As someone who can sometimes find himself lost in abstract thoughts, I have always struggled to understand this hesitation. How hard can it be to talk about what New York represents to her?
As I grasp at the next question in his list, Wanqin suddenly counters with a question of her own. She asks me, “As a second-generation immigrant, what kind of differences do you have from your friends who aren’t immigrants, or is there no difference? Do you feel comfortable interacting with them?” Although the answer is immediately obvious to me, I realize this was never an issue I had to spend time contemplating. I had always considered myself every bit as integrated as any of my non-immigrant friends, every bit as American. Not only was I comfortable interacting with them, it hardly ever crossed my mind that they were different in this regard because this particular difference was rarely relevant to our interactions. Maybe this was the source of my mother’s earlier hesitation. I was asking her questions that she never considered because they were not relevant to the tasks that filled her experience: applying for a job, graduating from nursing school, helping her husband get a travel visa. Her gravitation toward the specific practical details of her immigrant experience perhaps reflects the need for decisive action that her immigrant life demanded.
“Almost finish?” she asks with a smile. “Yeah, we’re almost done,” I reply.
Hohn, Marcia D., et al. “Immigrants in Health Care.” s3.amazonaws.com/chssweb/documents/22231/original/health_care_report_FINAL_20160629.pdf.