Ashley* is a strong woman with a soft-spoken voice. She is moral and independent, and she pauses before she responds to you so as to choose her words carefully. Upon interviewing Ashley, it became increasingly apparent that it is her strong character, namely her optimism and perseverance, along with her Christian faith, that helped her lead a fulfilling life when she moved to New York.
Ashley was born in China, but she moved to St. Louis in Missouri with her grandparents when she was 13. She reflects that it was easier for her in China because she was familiar with the language, the people, and the general area. Accordingly, moving to St. Louis took some getting used to. Ashley recalls that there were not a lot of Asian people in St. Louis around 1986. 1990 Census data shows a measly .31% population of Asian or Pacific Islanders in the city. She remarks, “me [Ashley] and one other girl were the only Chinese people in the whole school.” Furthermore, Ashley had moved to St. Louis with only about two or three years of basic English classes under her belt. Considering that American students that have “gained proficiency” in Spanish can barely utter “Estoy bien” without stuttering, I think that it is completely understandable that school in St. Louis was difficult for Ashley at first. Fortunately, a Taiwanese girl who was fluent in both English and Mandarin also attended the school. She was assigned to accompany Ashley to every class, and this greatly helped Ashley in her studies. Eventually, though, Ashley decided that she wanted to continue her education at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) to study fashion merchandising. She decided to move from St. Louis to NYC to study at FIT, but this time she would be traveling alone.
Ashley’s first impressions of New York were not entirely positive. She appreciated that New York was diverse, and that there were a lot more Chinese people in New York than St. Louis, and she also liked that there was more good Chinese food available to her. In fact, 12.21% of the population in Queens County consisted of Asian or Pacific Islanders during 1990, which was significantly higher than the Asian population observed in St. Louis Missouri. However, Ashley did not know anyone in New York: “I sort of didn’t like it at first because I didn’t have any friends.” Additionally, Ashley’s first living space in New York was a cramped apartment in Flushing, Queens, a neighborhood with a relatively high percentage of Asian Americans, and a high population density in general. She was roommates with some of her “friends’ friends”, and her apartment was very crowded. “Three of us shared one bedroom,” she tells us, “and on the same floor five people shared one kitchen”. She says it was difficult for her to get used to, especially because she had so much more space in her parents’ home in St. Louis. The most difficult challenge for Ashley, however, was having to pay her living expenses while attending college: “I did not have to do that in my parent’s house. It was difficult because I had to go to college and pay tuition, rent, food…I had to attend college part-time, 9-5 work, rush to school 6-9 pm classes. Every day I was tired.” Despite this, Ashley was not depressed or discontent with her life. She concedes that it was not ideal, and that she likes Bayside better, but that she did not mind living in a small apartment. “As long as I make a living that’s okay,” she remarked.
As you would expect, Ashley did not have much free time, but she would still try to go out with friends when she could. Karaoke was a common recreational activity for her, and it also happened to be where she met her future husband, Michael*. When Ashley and Michael began dating, he started taking Ashley to church every so often. Ashley had been nonreligious at the time, but she quickly formed a very strong connection with Christianity and the Christian community she found there. Ashley transitioned to Christianity at the age of 19. She tells us, “I think it was my most memorable moment because I found God. I became much more comfortable in New York after I made more friends and started going to church every weekend.”
Many scholars find that religion tends to help immigrants transition to living in a new country, whether it’s through providing them with social and spiritual solace, a familiar community, or access to various programs that help immigrant members adapt. Ashley went to fellowships and youth events, as well as English classes that the Church provided. Going to church also gave her access to a community where she was supported by people with similar beliefs. The other members were nice to her, and she felt that the friendships she would make with the other members of the Church were stronger than those she made at school. She found comfort in the Church and the fact that she would always have her faith to fall back on: “Knowing that God was watching over me gave me fulfillment in what I have and who I am.”
It is very apparent that religion has been an anchor for Ashley throughout much of her life. When Ashley was 24 years old, she was working for Cathy Daniels Clothing Production, but her boss was not respecting the people that worked there, and this drove Ashley to quit her job. Two weeks after quitting her job, however, Ashley realized she was pregnant. Ashley and Michael had been married for about one year by that point, and when Ashley realized she was pregnant she felt happy, but anxious. She was worried about not being employed at the time, and understandably so. Fortunately, her religious conviction helped her maintain a positive, and arguably brave, attitude: “I had faith and I waited. I just went to find another job and God provided me with a job two months later.” Ashley attributes a lot of her happiness or good fortune to her faith, but I would also like to take a moment to point out her perseverance. Ashley was still going to school at this time, and even with the news of a baby on the way, she never considered dropping out. Incredulously, she managed to juggle having a job and going to college part-time, along with being pregnant, and that is no small feat.
Currently, Ashley runs a Christian senior center. Because running a senior center is so different from fashion merchandising, I asked Ashley if she regrets getting her fashion merchandising degree, but she assured me otherwise. She works me through her reasoning: “I still continued to go to school even if it’s difficult, even if I am tired after work, but it took me like six years to complete an associate’s degree because I changed my major…but even if it takes me six years I still did it…I’m happy about it, and I’m proud of myself, actually. I had my daughter at that time already so I had to take care of the child and go to work. I still went to school. It’s difficult but I endured it and achieved my dream. I don’t make excuses for myself I just continue…” Ashley did not stay in fashion merchandising because she realized that she was not passionate about it. Still, she does not let that detract from her accomplishments, and she is justifiably proud of persevering and getting her degree, despite the stressors in her life.
I asked Ashley why she decided to run a senior center for Christians. She explained to me that she had worked for one previously, but she did not have a good experience working there. Firstly, she was not paid much for her work. Moreover, she felt that the owners were very greedy and did not care much for the seniors. She was especially bothered by this because it was supposed to be Christian based, and she felt that they were not operating according to Christian principles. As a result, Ashley decided to open up a better Christian Senior Center, in which she “actually get[s] to help the seniors,” and she seems to be very happy with her job.
Overall, Ashley seems content with her decisions and the way her life has turned out. She loves her family and her job, and she likes living in New York. She enjoys the food and the variety of “places to go and things to see,” as well as the opportunities to “understand…and respect other cultures”. She is happy living in New York and if she could offer advice to newcomers, she would suggest that they “be positive, adapt to the situation, and find the thing that they like to do, like Church…and find good people that will help you.” I think it is also worth noting that Ashley has kept her religion close to her heart. In fact, she has been attending the same church for approximately ten years and, and is now a deacon there. Along with being a mother, running a senior center, and having to help organize and run church events, Ashley is also currently pursuing a bachelor’s degree in Bible studies. Her life is as busy as ever, but her faith and tenacity are unshakable.
*the actual names of the interviewee and related characters are not disclosed because she would like to keep everything anonymous.
Bar, J. Kogarah Grace Chinese Christian Church. Wikimedia Commons, New York, 23
Hirschman, Charles. “The role of religion in the origins and adaptation of immigrant
groups in the United States.” International Migration Review 38.3 (2004): 1206- 1233.
Sableman, Paul. Starbucks and Chinese ish in Flushing Queens. Flickr, New York, 2 May
“US Demography 1790 to Present.” Social Explorer.