Although things may seem bleak at the moment, we can take refuge in acknowledging the strength that comes from our immigrant roots.
As the COVID-19
pandemic continues, people are dying, unemployment rates have skyrocketed, and the Asian community has been used as a scapegoat for anger and hatred. The reality is, everyone is experiencing this crisis, needless to say in different intensities, however, it is completely and utterly out of our control. And that right there, is what feels so universally uncomfortable.
Amid these unprecedented times, it is easy to feel powerless and to get lost in all of the uncertainty, but hope can always be found by looking into the past. The immigrant story is a beautiful one full of overcoming hardship. All of those stories that younger generations see in history books and movies were real-life experiences for the generations before them.
At this time, it is more relevant than ever to note the famous Isaac Newton quote which goes: “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”
Andrew Chau, the co-founder of the popular boba chain Boba Guys, recently went on the May Lee podcast
, powered by NextShark, and spoke up about his immigrant roots. Chau is the son of a Taiwanese mother and a Chinese father. His father was a freedom swimmer from Guangdong who escaped communist China by swimming 10 hours to the shores of Hong Kong.
In the 1960s, mainland China faced one of its deadliest, and until recently, secretive times in its history. The Great Chinese Famine, infamous as one of the greatest man-made disasters in history, killed up to 45 million people, according to The Guardian.
For about a decade, China’s Cultural Revolution, a radical movement led by Mao Zedong, crippled the economy, led to massive displacement, violent class struggles, unleashed chaos, irreparable damage, and violence to the people of China. Mao is known today as the biggest mass murderer in history, killing more people than Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin, according to The Washington Post.
During this time, Chinese refugees, such as Chau’s father, swam the long and potentially deadly journey from the fraught shores of mainland China to the harbors of Hong Kong seeking the prospect of freedom.
After arriving in Hong Kong, Chau’s father left for the United States, “leaving his family behind for a decade.” Eventually, Chau’s father was able to sponsor his other family members to go to the U.S., and today, they are all here because of him.
Chau grew up poor and his father was a bus driver. He was the eldest grandchild on both sides of his family so he had to learn how to do everything himself. No one ever taught him how to apply for college, and today, he is the founder of one of the biggest names in the multi-billion dollar boba business. Not only has he opened 16 Boba Guys stores nationwide, but he is also known as a leader in the Asian American community, helping to spearhead the tackling of AAPI related issues by speaking up online and bridging cultures through his business. He has also recently co-authored “The Boba Book”, a beautiful cookbook and guide to the cultural phenomenon of boba.
On the May Lee podcast, he spoke up about the importance of Asian American representation, saying that Asians who aspire to become leaders need to “punch up”, adding that “you don’t knock on the ceiling in the ivory tower and say ‘hey, let me in’, you essentially have to change the power dynamics.” He goes on to say that “you can’t control what happens to you, nobody can. I am known to be pretty tough love. I don’t believe in the victim mentality.”
Recently, due to the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic, he has had to lay off 400 of his employees. In addressing this, he spoke up about how important it is to have a strong mindset — a mindset that his roots have allowed him to cultivate. “I know what it’s like to have nothing, and this is not even close.”
From about 1954 to 1975, the Vietnam War ravished the country, leaving about three million people dead, according to History.com
. What began as a conflict between communist North Vietnam and South Vietnam aligned with the United States, ended about two decades later when Vietnam reunified under communist control.
Viet Thanh Nguyen, a USC professor, and an acclaimed author who won a Pulitzer Prize for his NYT Best Selling novel, “The Sympathizer”, is a refugee. In 1975, afraid of communism, he and his parents were among some of the lucky few who managed to flee Southern Vietnam during the Vietnam War. They ended up in Fort Indiantown Gap, in Pennsylvania, one of the four refugee camps at the time.
At the age of four, he was taken away from his parents because, in order to leave the camp, you needed a sponsor. “One sponsor took my parents, one sponsor took my ten-year-old brother, and one sponsor took four-year-old me,”
he told The Nation.
Today, Nguyen speaks up about the strength of refugees. “People who are refugees, almost uniformly, have suffered terribly in trying to escape the country they were fleeing from and trying to get to the country they are trying to go to,” he told The Nation. He vocalizes issues that he has observed such as how refugees are both invisible and hypervisible in America. They are invisible in the sense that America doesn’t care to know about their existence, but they become hypervisible when they become a problem. “And so we fluctuate from never being seen and only being seen as the problem,” he added.
Many who come from immigrant households may find that it is easy to relate to one another. This is because there is solidarity found in the immigrant experience. Whether you were a Chinese freedom swimmer escaping political unrest in China, a Vietnamese refugee escaping war, a Filipino immigrant escaping poverty, or a North Korean defector, there are certain beliefs and mindsets inherent to the experience of immigrating to a new country that is passed on to the next generation.
For many of these people, successfully immigrating to a new country is only half the battle. Once they are actually in the new country, they have to assimilate, learn the language, find jobs to stay afloat, fight discrimination, and overcome battles that people who were born in the U.S. did not have to fight. When everyone is home at the dinner table with their families, immigrants are still hard at work, trying to put food on the dinner table. It is through these experiences, that values such as working hard, being resilient, and being resourceful have over time, become central cultural values that strengthen the Asian community as a whole.
Our ancestor’s stories are the silver-lining during these difficult times. We can find our strength through their stories because we share the same blood as them. We must recognize that we are here today, because of what they overcame in their lifetimes. So, let this be a message of hope: whether it is poverty, war, social upheaval, violence, or hunger, immigrants are the strongest among us. In fact, they are our strength. Without them, we are nothing, and with them, we can overcome anything — even a global pandemic.