#ImmigrationStoryIn5Words: The Ones We Left Behind

By Nick Lee

Nick Lee’s grandparents, William (Wei Lim) Lee and Pui Jen Lee, as pictured in their 1946 immigration papers. (Photo courtesy of Nick Lee)

In Chinese culture, the first-born child is often treasured and valued above all else. This child is supposed to help serve as a role-model and care for the other siblings, in many instances almost as a third parent. That is why it is strange that my father was never told about his eldest sister until he was well into adulthood. Every family has secrets, but in this case, this was one too painful for my grandfather to reveal for many years.

Though my grandfather lived almost his entire adult life in Canada and the United States, he returned to the village where he was born in 1930 to get married. It was there where he fathered a child with my grandmother, before returning to the United States to help provide for his new family. At that time, Chinese were excluded from entering the United States because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, so there was no possibility of any legal means of living in the United States or even bringing over my grandmother with him.

My grandmother raised their child on her own while living with my grandfather’s family; an arrangement that was by all accounts disliked by all parties involved. She was a guest in her own home, and her only connection to the family, my grandfather, was far away in America with only occasional letters and money making their way back to her.

The only way my grandfather became a citizen and was allowed to bring my grandmother to the United States was by serving his country in WWII. It would not be until 1946, some 16 years after they were first married, that my grandparents were finally reunited in America. During that long period of separation, my grandparents’ treasured first-born child had died, forever robbing my grandfather of the opportunity to ever hold his daughter and causing enough pain to be something that was never discussed even with his other children. I can only assume that my grandparents suffered deeply in private, without ever being able to process their emotional anguish together over losing their child.

I share this story because it represents the true cost of what bad immigration policies lead to. Families are split up and the loved ones that immigrant families need most in times of tragedy are often hundreds or thousands of miles away. The sad irony of this story is that in the 21st century sans-Chinese Exclusion Act, it takes just as long or even longer for a spouse from China to reunite with their family than it did for my grandparents in the first half of the 20th century. On average it takes between 17 and 20 years for families to be made whole again because of the incredible backlog of immigrant visas.

Without a doubt, stories like my family’s are still happening today. When we think about our immigrant stories, we can’t think of only those who are already here, we must also think about those still left behind.

For Immigrant Heritage Month, National Council of Asian Pacific Americans is highlighting Asian American immigration stories with an #ImmigrationStoryIn5Words campaign on Twitter. Anyone is welcome to participate, tweet and blog.

Nick Lee is the Communications Associate for OCA — Asian Pacific American Advocates. OCA co-chairs NCAPA’s immigration committee.

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