BROOKLYN, New York — The sun is just beginning to set in Midwood, and the streets are beginning to grow quiet. Parents are exhausted from a long work week and gather with their children for Sunday dinner before the work week starts up all over again. Among those parents is mother Siu Ching Grace, 56, who will wake up at 6:00 am the next morning for her job as a social worker at Mount Sinai Hospital Brooklyn.
Before she can reheat the congee and chow mein she purchased in Chinatown earlier that day, however, she has a few things to do. She finishes watching the episode of the Chinese drama she’s currently hooked on. Ever since the program was recommended to her by a friend, she hasn’t been able to put her tablet down.
She also responds to a WhatsApp message from her brother Siu Fai, who is thousands of miles away in England. Finally she looks up. “Okay, Dora, how long is this going to take?” “Not that long, Mom. I promise.”
Grace lives in an apartment with her husband, Daniel Norman, 63, and me, her daughter, Dora Fong, 18.
The seventh of nine children, Siu Ching Grace was born in 1961 in Hong Kong. At the time, the birth rate in Hong Kong was 5.21 births per woman, compared to only 3.62 in the United States. As a result, large families were relatively commonplace. My mother’s family was no exception. She explained the impact this had on her childhood: “My parents didn’t pay much attention to me because they were trying to get money to feed all the kids…I grew up with a lot of love, but not many material things.”
But economic struggle wasn’t the only aspect of her life in Hong Kong she wanted to change. She also felt that she didn’t have a lot of “deep interaction or communication with parents and sisters because that’s the Chinese culture…not many one-on-one conversations.” Now, with a family of her own, Grace has many one-on-one conversations with me and with my father.
The work she does now as a social worker gives others what she felt was missing from her upbringing, in some sense. She explained, “I like working with people, I treasure human beings. So I like more of a human touch, it’s more direct, more hands-on, personal, one-on-one.” For over 30 years, she has listened to the stories of patients and their families. She specializes in outpatient care, making sure patients can leave the hospital as seamlessly as possible.
Shortly before leaving Hong Kong, Grace attended Shue Yan University, a small private liberal arts university that didn’t have much prestige, but was all she could test into in Hong Kong’s fiercely competitive higher education climate.
She noted that, “in Chinese culture, you choose your major based on your career prospects…in that same way, I chose social work because I wanted to have a better job. But I got lucky, because I really like social work. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”
While in college, she realized that not only did she not know herself, but she also did not like herself. This was in part because her parents were very critical. She explained, “That’s why in my twenties I had some problems, I had no confidence, I didn’t know what I wanted, I had no interests, and it was pretty hard. So I decided to leave.”
Grace first came to the United States through a social work program with the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa, then interned Washington, D.C., and finally moved to New York because there were more job opportunities here. She also knew a friend in New York from the same social work program.
The School of Social Work at the University of Alabama was established in 1965, and was the first graduate social work program in the state. It has over 7,000 alumni all over the world. My mother and father first met at an alumni reunion. The fact he wasn’t Chinese didn’t prevent my mother from building a family with my father.
Grace’s first apartment was in a basement in Bensonhurst. She described it as dark and windowless. It was all she could afford. She recalled that her first weekends in New York were the loneliest times, because she found herself without the company of her big family for the first time. She joined a church group just because she wanted to eat dinner with the other members after sermons. After six months, she got used to eating by herself and left the group.
Now, we live on the fourth floor of an apartment building, in a predominantly West Indian and Jewish neighborhood. My mother never felt like she had to work at a Chinese organization or live in a Chinese neighborhood to feel comfortable in the city. Perhaps this was because she felt unafraid to venture out and embrace American values.
Grace advises new immigrants to try not to be confined to their own cultures. She explains, “otherwise, people will never understand you, and you will never understand other people.”
Her own efforts to assimilate have complicated her relationship with her family in Hong Kong. She recalled one instance after I was born when she was boarding a bus with me in Hong Kong. She got on, and put down my stroller before paying, and the bus driver stopped the whole bus. She explained, “he was very upset and told me I did not pay…he thought I had tried to cheat him.”
When my mother told her family about the incident, they didn’t side with her. She recalled, “I remember my brother-in-law said, “What do you think? You think you’re in New York? Of course you have to pay first!””
She acknowledged that her relationship with them has had its ups and downs, but remains strong. It was very difficult at the beginning when she was away from her homeland, but still hadn’t developed a sense of belonging in New York. She felt she didn’t belong anywhere.
My mother has accepted the reality that she will never be as close to her Hong Kong family as she would have been had she stayed in Hong Kong. Even though she is physically far from her siblings, she still knows they care about her deeply. She still constantly keeps in contact with them via WhatsApp, and visits them every couple of years.
My mother remembered that, “one time [when] I was leaving Hong Kong…I was crying because I felt like I didn’t belong to my old country anymore. Later, when I finally felt like I belonged here…I didn’t cry. I felt like I was coming home.”
Grace explained, “I identify as Chinese, but I don’t agree with all the Chinese cultural values.” She disagrees with the values that have not helped her in her own life. Grace outlined a few of those values, such as the stigma against taking time to relax as opposed to working all the time, and living for obligation to one’s parents or for responsibility for one’s country instead of living for oneself.
Further straying from these values is more common in children of immigrants, as they identify more strongly with American values than with the values of their parents’ home countries. There are 20 million adult, American-born children living in the United States. Of third generation Latino immigrants, for example, 77% self-identify as Hispanic as opposed to 100% of first-generation Latino immigrants.
The fact that ties to the home country are becoming weaker is somewhat disheartening. But for those who left in order to leave behind some aspects of their home identity, distancing themselves can be triumphant.
My mother doesn’t regret her decision to come to America. Leaving the critical environment at home gave her a chance to build up her self-confidence. Here, she feels more free. She is happier. This is the kind of life she wants for me: confident, free, and happy.
To Siu Ching Grace, New York represents a new life. A good life.
So what does the future hold for my mother, here in New York? When inquired, she sighed, and took a few seconds to think. “I guess it’s a good future,” she replied. “I want to continue to be healthy and happy…and see my child have a child of her own. That’s it.”
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