Eve (left) is the youngest of five children born to a farmer and a fisherman who lived in a village in Hainan, one of China’s 34 provinces. Her family of 7 lived in extreme poverty for all of her childhood and teenage years. Eve could never have imagined that one day, she would be able to immigrate to the United States, a place she saw as a land of wealth and opportunity.
In 1998, at a high school reunion, Eve’s head teacher asked her if she knew anyone who would be a good match for his son who was currently working overseas in New York. She set out to look for a smart, filial, and kind-hearted classmate, unaware that he had had her in mind as his future daughter-in-law. She was 24 then and a recent graduate from Hainan Normal University. Shortly after the reunion, her head teacher revealed his true intentions and arranged for Eve and his son, who was back in China to visit his parents and relatives, to meet and get to know each other. In January 1999, they got married and ten months later, on October 30, Eve gave birth to their daughter, Xin Xin (欣欣).
As soon as her husband flew back to New York after the birth of their child, he paid someone to help him fill out the USCIS Form I-130, the first step to helping his wife and daughter immigrate to the United States. Because he was only a permanent resident and not a citizen, Eve and her daughter had to wait until visa numbers were available before they could apply for green cards and become lawful permanent residents. The petitions would be filed under the Family Second Preference (F2A) category, which includes spouses and unmarried minor children and has a limited quota of 114,200 a year. Eve was aware that she and her daughter would have to wait three to five years before they could reunite with her husband in the United States.
Her husband flew to China every few months and they often exchanged letters when he was back in New York. When asked if these were love letters, she replied “I wrote ten letters, he replied with one. Your dad is a “闷葫芦 (Pinyin: men hu lu)” [a taciturn person]. Sending him love letters is a waste of time.” In her letters, she often wrote about how their daughter was doing but soon, they began to communicate using the telephone.
Eve had a stable job, as an English teacher at Hainan Overseas Middle School, located not far from her home on the Wenchang Middle School campus. She referred to her job as a “铁饭碗 (Pinyin: tie fan wan)”, which literally translates to an iron rice bowl. It is a Chinese term that refers to a job with guaranteed job security, as well as steady income and benefits. While she worked, her mother-in-law took care of her daughter, walking her around the beautiful Wenchang Middle School campus and spoiling her with toys and beautiful clothing.
When Eve arrived home after a long day of teaching, her toddler was always at the front door to greet her. She played with her daughter upstairs while her mother-in-law made dinner. After dinner, she would teach her daughter pin-yin, the official romanization system for Chinese in China as well as basic Chinese characters.
In 2004, Eve was notified to attend an interview with her then 4-year old daughter at a U.S. consulate in Guangzhou, also known as Canton, in Guangdong province. It was and still is the only consulate in China that processes U.S. immigrant visas. At the end of the interview, she was informed that her visa application was approved; she was later given two sealed immigrant packets and their passports that now included U.S. immigrant visas. In November 2004, Eve and her 5-year old daughter hopped on a plane to New York, expecting to be welcomed by a large, glamorous, well-developed city fifteen hours later.
Her husband was not the only reason why she decided to immigrate to the United States. She also wanted a chance to make money and to give her parents a better life in their twilight years. Her salary as a teacher in China was not high enough to provide for her parents. Her parents had lived in a rural area where they did not pay taxes and as a result, when they turned 65, they did not receive the retirement pensions that their peers living in urban areas did. Eve’s family was also in huge debt due to the medical bills that had piled up over the years; her father was often in the hospital due to diabetes and other heart problems.
Eve also believed that the American education system was superior to the Chinese education system; she wanted to give her daughter the best educational environment possible. The Chinese education system is often criticized for being too brutal and harsh, placing too much emphasis on tests and exams. Western education, on the other hand, incorporates physical education and the arts, giving students a more well-rounded experience.“I must come here for the next generation,” she says.
Eve will never forget the severe pain she felt in her ears when the plane landed that morning. She and her daughter were exhausted after the 15-hour flight and spent a long time going through immigration and searching for their luggage. Her husband picked both of them up from the airport and off they went, to a 4-story house in Park Slope, Brooklyn. As they passed by different neighborhoods in Brooklyn, she was disappointed at what she saw through the glass windows of her husband’s 1999 Nissan Altima. She had had high hopes for this city, imagining it to be new, beautiful, and luxurious but all she saw were small two-story houses and some dilapidated buildings. “I was in pain, cold, sleepy and tired,” she recalls. “I couldn’t find anything to like about New York.”
Her husband’s home was even more miserable and disappointing. The 4-story multi-family complex in Park Slope was shared by more than 15 people. The property was owned by the Hainan Association and only single Hainanese immigrants or couples could live there; no families were allowed. The rent was only $100 a month for a room smaller than a typical single dorm room along with a shared bathroom and kitchen. The staircase and floors made an “yi yi ang ang” sound and the lights flickered in the hallway. The association had given Eve’s husband a week to find a new home for his family since he was no longer living by himself.
Eve’s husband went back to work the next day since he was the breadwinner of the family. Eve did not know her way around New York and so, every day that week, she and her daughter sat for hours on the second floor of the nearby Barnes and Noble, reading picture books. She described her first week in New York as “度日如年 (Pinyin: du ri ru nian)”, a Chinese idiom that means “a day drags past like a year” or “time crawls when one is wretched.”
The family’s housing problem was solved when another recent immigrant found a four-bedroom apartment in Dyker Heights and asked if Eve’s family would like to share the rent. Dyker Heights is a neighborhood in southwestern Brooklyn, known today for its extravagant lights and decorations during the holidays.
What attracted Eve to the apartment was its convenient location. The apartment was only a few blocks away from a library, supermarkets, clinics with doctors who spoke Chinese, and an elementary school with a good ESL program for her daughter. She accepted the offer and the two families agreed to split the apartment in half; both families would get 2 bedrooms each and share the bathroom, kitchen and living room. The other family had 7 people, with three children who were around the same age as Eve’s daughter. The two families experienced both good and bad times living together.
“When there are a lot of people under the same roof, it’s very lively and it makes you less lonely. However, everyone’s lifestyles are different and it was difficult to adapt to each other. Conflicts were inevitable.”
Eve described a conflict that arose involving the single bathroom that was shared among 10 people; she has had digestion problems since childhood and was often in the bathroom for a very long time and as a result, the other family got extremely upset. It was one of the major reasons why Eve and her husband decided to move out into a one bedroom apartment down the block a few months later.
During her first few months in America, Eve was a full-time housewife. At 8 am, you could hear the bubbling of white congee and the sizzling of her stir fry on the gas stove. She would help her daughter get ready and walk her to PS 176, The Mary White Ovington School, only a few blocks away. After waving bye to her daughter and the school aides at the front door, she would walk to the Chinese American Planning Council on 8th Ave and 50th Street to learn common English expressions. As soon as her class ended, she walked through the crowds of Brooklyn Chinatown to pick her daughter up from school; they would then walk to McKinley Library to borrow books before heading to Great Wall supermarket next door to buy groceries for that night’s dinner. She recalled experiencing a culture shock when she walked through an American supermarket for the first time. In the supermarkets in China, there were fresh fish, right out of the ocean, with glistening scales and lively eyes. Vegetables were sold immediately after they were cut and so, the leaves were always green and beautiful. When she shopped at Great Wall supermarket for the first time, Eve wasn’t used to the frozen fish with droopy eyes or frozen vegetables that looked sticky and thought these items were about to spoil.
Typical seafood market in Wenchang, Hainan
This was not the life that Eve wanted; she knew she could not be a housewife forever for she needed to provide for her 70-year-old parents back in China. Her landlord, who later becomes her best friend, Ling, introduced her to the principal of an afterschool program at a church. With her broken English, she was somehow able to teach 2nd and 3rd graders how to do their homework and a little bit of Chinese.
A few months later, Eve found a job at the City Insurance Agency on the outskirts of Brooklyn Chinatown. Because it was a far walk from home and the nearest train station, the family invested in a bicycle and she biked to and from work every day. While working, she didn’t have time to pick up her daughter from school and so, Xin Xin was sent to an afterschool program nearby for a few hundred dollars a month.
Her coworkers at the insurance agency often bullied newcomers. It was especially bad for Eve because she didn’t know Cantonese or English.
“When they were in a good mood, they taught you in Mandarin but when they were in a bad mood, they taught you in English and Cantonese.”
Eve, however, understands why, mentioning the Chinese saying, “教会了徒弟, 饿死了师傅” (Pinyin: jiao hui le tu di, e si le shi fu), which translates to “When students master the knowledge, the teacher will lose his or her job.”
Eve will never forget the day she ran out of the insurance agency in tears. It was a busy morning in the workplace and she was filling out some forms for a client. All of a sudden, her boss, Betty, comes in and screams at her in front of all of her clients and coworkers. Her tears couldn’t stop falling and she felt very wronged. She didn’t know what she had done wrong and grabbed her bag and left. “That day was the most distressful day of my life, ” Eve recalled.
Despite having multiple bad moments during her first year in New York, Eve feels that overall, this period of time was a good experience.
“Every step a person takes is part of a process of endurance and growing up. No matter how miserable that year had been, it will help with my perseverance.I suffered the most that year but I got through it. If I got through that suffering, I can get through anything.”
She refers to herself now as a “打不死的蟑螂 (Pinyin: da bu si de zhang lang)” which literally means “a cockroach that cannot be beaten to death.” It’s a Chinese phrase that is used to describe a person who has willpower, strength, and perseverance.
When asked if anyone helped her adjust to life here during her first year in New York, she replied, “People around you will help you more or less. It is impossible for a person to grow in a foreign city by themselves.” She described her boss, Betty, as having both a wicked side and a lovely side. She is thankful that Betty taught her how to deal with relationships in America. In Chinese society, having “guanxi” or social networks and powerful connections was a big deal. “If you lacked the skills or abilities but had guanxi, you will still be able to do well and live a good life. If another person had the skills or abilities but did not have guanxi, he or she won’t even have the chance to prove themselves worthy,” Eve explained.
In China, Eve did not have a lot of guanxi. To build these connections, you needed money to treat people to dinner, tea sessions and more. With Eve’s low salary of 300 yuan (50 American dollars) a month, she could barely provide for her family, let alone have money to build and maintain these connections. Betty taught her that in America, having guanxi wasn’t necessary. “She told me that even if you don’t have connections or anyone helping you, you won’t be particularly lost because everyone else is also on their own, using their own skills and abilities to earn an income.“
Although life is hard here, Eve does not regret coming to New York. Her experiences here have shaped her personality and who she is today. When she first got here, she was extremely introverted. During parties, it was difficult for her to join people’s social circles.
“I didn’t say hello to people because I was afraid that people wouldn’t respond. I really wanted to make friends but I didn’t speak because I was scared of rejection. ”
After living in New York for a while, Eve became very confident and was no longer afraid to interact with other people. She no longer worried about how others viewed her. “I’m not relying on other people and they’re not relying on me. Everyone is at the same level and if we like each other, then we can become friends. If we don’t then whatever; they go about their lives, I go about mine.”
Eve also thinks that the challenges and obstacles she has encountered in New York has made her life more exciting and changed her for the better. Back in Hainan, Eve’s job as an English teacher was very stable but she was doing the same thing all the time. She used the Chinese idiom “一潭死水 (Pinyin: yi tan si shui)”, which literally translates to “stagnant water” to describe the dull and inactive life she had in China. Here in New York, however, she encounters many different challenges and obstacles on a daily basis. Although overcoming these challenges is often difficult, Eve sees them as opportunities for improvement.
After living here for 14 years, Eve still has not found her community. She often struggles with her identity; is she Chinese or is she American?
“ Sometimes it seems like I belong to America… but not really. Sometimes I feel like I belong to China… but not really either.”
To Eve, life in China has changed drastically. She can no longer chat with her high school or college classmates because the current events they talk about are no longer relevant to her. When asked if she has thought about moving back, she replied, “I can’t even cross a road there. It would be hard to adjust.” Eve is referring to how drivers rarely follow traffic rules in China, making something as simple as crossing the street dangerous for pedestrians. She also mentions that she has not lived there for more than ten years and has no guanxi there; without these connections, she wouldn’t be able to live a happy and successful life. Eve hopes that in the future, after she retires and no longer needs guanxi, she will be able to move back. She pictures a stress-free life in a village in Hainan, growing fruits and vegetables in her yard and going out to have tea with her classmates once in a while.
After leaving City Insurance Agency, Eve continued to work in Brooklyn Chinatown, jumping from company to company as a health insurance representative. In 2013, she and her husband finally saved up enough money to pay the down payment for a co-op in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. In 2015, she became interested in the life insurance industry and became an agent of New York Life. You can often find her sitting at a table outside of Feilong supermarket in Brooklyn Chinatown, occasionally approaching passerbys and asking if they would be interested in retirement plans or life insurance packages.
- Fang, Angela. “Chinese Education System VS. U.S Education System.” Chinese Learning Tips, blog.tutorming.com/expats/chinese-education-system-vs-us-education-system.
- “Iron Rice Bowl(Tie Fan Wan).” Why Does Japan Strive for Permanent UNSC Member Status? CCTV News – CCTV.com English, english.cntv.cn/program/documentary/20120428/115069.shtml.
- MDBG English to Chinese Dictionary, www.mdbg.net/chinese/dictionary?dss=1&wdqchi=%E5%BA%A6%E6%97%A5%E5%A6%82%E5%B9%B4&wdrst=1.
- “Petition for Alien Relative.” USCIS, www.uscis.gov/i-130.
- “Prepare Your Green Card through Marriage!” US Immigration News, www.us-immigration.com/Green-Card-Through-Marriage.html.