Where His Family Is:
by Isabella Chen, September 2017
I met Git while I was volunteering with Project Shine helping coach an ESL class. I worked with him a lot because he has a bit of hearing loss as well as not being able to see out of one eye. I was drawn to Git from the beginning because he is 84 years old but still one of the harder working students in the class. Most Chinese senior citizens I know love to just sit in front of the TV or hang out at Asian coffee shops but I knew that Git was a different kind of “old” person. Git comes off as a delicate old man that is very polite and soft spoken. I enjoy working with Git because I get to use my Cantonese skills and help translate the chapters that he doesn’t understand. We became close because I was helping him get into DSPS (Disabled Students & Services) for over a month, every Monday at 9:30 at the Mission Campus. Git was born in 1933 and speaks Cantonese. This common ground led me to want to get to know him better. He is currently retired and lives in the house that he partially raised his five daughters in in the Outer Mission. Eventually, his daughters bought him and his wife that same house. We both share a passion for helping the community, especially the Chinese American community. As I got to know Git better, I found out that he is also from the same province in China as my dad. I asked Git if he would let me interview him for my Oral History Project and he said yes! Our interview was done at my house on a cold Tuesday in the early afternoon.
Git migrated from Guangzhou, China in the late 70’s. He arrived with his five daughters and his wife. He knew all his life that he was coming to America because it was ingrained in his plans while he was growing up. His father left for America when Git was at a prepubescent age, leaving his mom to raise him while his dad sent money back to support them both. Because it was just the two of them, Git and his mom became really close, opening up his eyes to how important family is to him. Eventually, Git started his career as a teacher in China. He spent over twenty years teaching Chinese calligraphy and origami. Git is a husband and the father of five daughters. Finally in his mid forties, his father’s sponsorship and the paperwork for Git and the rest of his family kicked in and they were ready to come to America. After arriving, Git realized that thriving in America was quite a bit harder than he had anticipated. He faced many life challenges that held him back from his dreams and career, but conquering those challenges has helped him find where his sense of home is.
Git has planned to make America his home for as long as he could remember. His father came to America when Git was very young to make more money for him and his family. Git grew up watching his father provide for them. His dad supported him and his mother. Git tells me, “She didn’t really work and was dependent on him because my dad was in the U.S, sending money back.” Git’s life was planned for him with the dream of his father to bring him and his mom to America. Git eventually founded a home and started his career as a teacher in China, teaching Mandarin, Chinese calligraphy, and origami. He met his wife over in China as well and started a family, having five daughters. Before moving, Git and his wife were in their 40’s with their kids living a comfortable life in their home. One day, they got a letter and it was finally their time to come to America. Git planned to come to America all his life because of the life his dad started in America and the plan to move the rest of his family out there. I asked if Git was worried about coming out here, but he promptly replied, “No, not scared. We knew we were coming to the U.S for a while now so we were mentally prepared for it. My family was not scared either.” By putting his career on hold, Git was able to move to America to please his parents as well as to give his daughters the best opportunities; this move helped him see that family is where his home is regardless of where they are located.
Git was excited to reunite with his dad again, since his dad had left for America when he was really young. Git felt like he had come from a broken home without a father to guide him. Git wanted to give his daughters a better opportunity like his dad had sacrificed his quality of life for n order to provide a better life to him and his mom. Because of the hard work endured by his father, Git had a better opportunity than many people in China by being able to get an education and then eventually become a teacher. Back in China, his family lived comfortably in a three-bedroom apartment but he dreamed of giving his daughters more. Git believed that coming to America would give his daughters new opportunities in education and careers that they deserved. He wanted the best for his five daughters and their families to come. He and his wife dreamed that coming to America meant that they would find jobs and a home right away, mostly because his father had been in America for so long and even ended up owning his own laundry business. Git’s dad migrated to the U.S. because of the Gold Rush. He had heard that there were many opportunities to make more money on the “Golden Mountain,” which lead him to come to San Francisco, CA. As Git’s dad arrived to America, he wound up in the laundry business and worked so hard he eventually owned his own business. Ronald Takaki, a Professor on Ethnic Studies, wrote in his book Strangers of a Different Shore referring to the 1940’s, “61 percent of the Chinese who were in the labor force were manual laborers, almost all of them working in laundries, garment factories, and in restaurants.” He ended up selling his business. “My dad didn’t leave me the business because he never expected me to be able to actually come to America, especially because so many years had gone by.” Git knew at age 46, in the year 1979, that it was finally time to come to America. “I got a call and had to get our paperwork in order right away because it was happening fast.”
From the late 1800’s to mid 1950’s, Chinese immigrants were denied opportunities to work in many occupations for which they were qualified due to anti-Chinese sentiment and laws that reflected this. This led many towards the laundry business. Back then laundry was considered “women’s work.” In fact, there were very few women in the industry due to the 1882 law, which made it unlawful for Chinese immigrants to come in any capacity except as merchants. Chinese men in America took over the opportunity. Everyone needed their laundry washed so no one really opposed the Chinese doing laundry as a way of living or other jobs that no one else really wanted. According to a journal article that was written by Joan S. Wang, “Race, Gender, and Laundry Work: The roles of Chinese Laundrymen and American Woman in the United States,” in 1850-1950, most Chinese men turned to laundry because “…the small amount of start-up capital needed, the eagerness of Chinese workers to be self-employed, and the limited language requirements for the trade.” Many laundry companies had three to five men doing laborious work for long hours. The workplace was hot and steamy and the heavy wet clothing would be brutally heavy to work with. While the work was intensive, the positive outcome was that these immigrants owned their own businesses with limited communication.
As Git’s finally arrived to his new home in America, he felt disappointed and overwhelmed due to the fact that he didn’t feel like he belonged her; he felt that America didn’t feel he belonged either. In China, there was gossip and talk of America being the land of opportunities but in reality it was just stressful. He struggled due to not being able to speak English, which he recalled left him “feeling deaf, mute, and blind.” He informed me that it felt like he had gone from being a scholar and a teacher to feeling handicapped. According to the IMR (International Migration Review), which collects and studies statistics on immigrants, “That the effect of early arrival is much greater for English proficiency than other outcomes and bears significantly on most, not all, attainments.” Git has also told me that when he first arrived, he always worked hard but never felt like he was doing enough. He worked from nine to twelve hours a day, six days a week but still felt discontent. He told me, “…with my job I couldn’t pay rent, back then rent was like $700-800 for a flat. With all the taxes I ended up with a little over $500 only and rent was $700-800 so how can I afford rent? Sometimes I’m like what am I working for?” Git was forced to work at the cleaners because he felt like he had no other sustainable skills. His father used to own a laundry shop but had sold it before Git arrived. His father still managed to have some connections so he reached out to the men he used to work with in the laundry business and provided Git with a few labor jobs. As time went on, Git started working as a laundry man, working from eight in the morning to around six, with an hour break and dinner at five pm. I asked him if he ever had to work overtime and he told me a lot of the time he did work overtime. “In the first year and a half [I didn’t get paid overtime] but then after [a year and a half] I did get paid overtime. As you stay overtime [after the year and a half] they will [would] throw you some money for a few hours here and there.“ Git didn’t see anything wrong in that but I believe it is an abuse in his human rights to take advantage of people that have just moved to America. Article 24 in the UDHR (Universal Declaration of Human Rights), a document about equal human rights, tells us, “Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic holidays with pay.” In reference to the long hours Git worked with his hands, especially when he pulled up the wet load of laundry from the washers, he told me, “the load of laundry was soaked and when you have to pull it up over and over again. My fingers were throbbing, at night I remember trying to fall asleep and my fingers just hurt so badly.” Git never once had regrets of coming out to America. He felt like America was in the plans and he needed to make the best of it.
As Git started to accept that America was his home, where his family and responsibilities were now, and that he needed to adapt more, he began to socialize and joined social clubs that would take him to places around San Francisco, as well as to teach immigrants how to adapt and fit into America. On top of going on outings, he also watched movies and learned English at the club meetings. Git and his wife actually met some of their friends there. The clubs were a safe place for the immigrants to look for resources as well as talking to others that are going though and feeling the same way Git was feeling when he moved to the U.S.. Oxford Academic has a journal called Social Forces, which talks about the importance of immigrants being social and meeting other immigrants that share similar feelings. In one of their articles, they state, “These networks provide group-based resources that assist immigrants in making headway in their new society.” Git was telling me that as you work and interact with the same people, “people end up talking about you, but you just have to deal with it.” In the beginning he said that adapting to the culture was really hard. He felt like many people took advantage of him including swindlers on the street. Git confided in me:
“One time a regular looking Chinese man came up to me and told me he needed to cash his check. The check was for $30 but the man told me he need the money now and that he would take $20 for the $30 check. I believed at the time it was a good deal for the both of us so I gave him the $20. The next day, I went in to cash the check and the check bounced. I tried to do a good deed and make some money but it turned out I was taken advantage of.”
Git took it as a learning experience to not trust anyone but instead to be more aware. Twenty dollars was a lot of money, especially back then, and Git felt very ashamed that he had been tricked. He never saw the man again. After that Git felt like he needed to acclimate more to his surroundings and be more aware of the people around him.
Git finally felt like he was at home being able to watch his daughters graduate college and start their own families as a result of how hard he and his wife had worked. Git’s dream had always been to teach and learn but he had his dreams cut short due to having his life planned for him by his father, for his kids and his family. Git finally got to teach and go to school again after working so hard six days a week, nine to twelve hours a day for over twenty years. In the middle of my interview, Git actually pulled out a book that he proudly showed me. It was a book that was made for him by this family whose two brothers, six and thirteen, he used to teach origami to. Git showed me pictures of his daughter graduating from college as well as him teaching kids origami.
There were also pictures of him teaching calligraphy to older folks. He told me that he had started teaching origami because, “Someone introduced us in my community center. They told me that their kids loves origami so the couple brings them to the community center for class with me.” Then he showed me another picture that he is also very proud of, “This picture is at the retirement center of me teaching calligraphy.” He was so proud and looked so happy explaining what he had done for the Chinese American community in San Francisco. Git never moved out of SF after he settled here. He moved from Chinatown to the Outer Mission but that’s the extent of the change in his living situation.
He told me that he just really likes the San Francisco weather and that home is where his kids are. He said that he sacrificed a lot for his daughters and there was no point of him living anywhere else; as long as he is close to his family, he is home. He also felt like the San Francisco community has done a lot for him and he wants to be able to be a bigger part of it, as well as finally doing what he loves best, learning and teaching. Git currently spends his days going to the community center to eat lunch and attended class.
Git found his definition of home by being where his family is. Git grew up seeing the sacrifice his father made to America without a second thought of what he himself was giving up for his family. Back in China, Git used to be a teacher but when he finally arrived here he had to be a laborer and work as a washer and dryer at a laundry company. Git put his dream and his own priorities on hold for his father’s dream of moving him and his mother to America. As Git arrived he quickly realized that being in a new country was harder than he ever imagined. Not only did he not know the language, but he couldn’t continue pursue his career while working six days a week. Git agreed to move to the U.S. as a young boy because his father had moved to America first in hopes of finding a better life for him and his mom. Even though his paperwork to come America took so long and Git ended up starting family in China and a career in China, he was always prepared to leave his career and his home in China when the paperwork was finally ready. Home is usually where someone feels the safest, and since Git’s family was so important to him that he has always felt at home with them near by, knowing that he is doing everything he can to provide for them. Some people might say that Git is his own person, he can make his own choices, and didn’t have to leave China, or follow anyone’s dreams but his own, but he had to get away because of the one child rule and he wanted a better opportunity for his daughters. Git felt he was home in China with his mother but has always known that America is also home because his father was living there already. When it was finally time for Git to move to the U.S., he brought his wife and five daughters to move with him. No matter how much Git suffered, he always felt like America was the right direction for him, especially after being able to provide for his daughters, please his father, and to be at home, which is where his family is.
Myers, Dowell, Xin Gao, and Amon Emeka. “The Gradient of Immigrant Age‐at‐Arrival Effects on Socioeconomic Outcomes in the U.S.” International Migration Review. Blackwell Publishing Inc, 02 Mar. 2009. Web. 3 May 2017.
Sanders, Jimy, Victor Nee, and Scott Sernau. “Asian Immigrants’ Reliance on Social Ties in a Multiethnic Labor Market.” Social Forces. Oxford University Press, 01 Sept. 2002. Web. 3 May 2017.
Takaki, Ronald T. Strangers from a different shore: a history of Asian Americans. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1998. Print.
“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” United Nations. United Nations, n.d. Web. 7 May 2017.
Wang, Joan S. “Race, Gender, and Laundry Work: The Roles of Chinese Laundrymen and American Women in the United States, 1850-1950.” University of Illinois Press on behalf of the Immigration & Ethnic History Society, n.d. Web. 3 May 2017.
Sample Transcription: Git Lee
I: So I want to ask you where you were born?
K: Huh what?
I: Where you were born.
K: Ah, in China, Canton.
I: Oh ya! My dad was also born there, So what year were you born?
K: In 33’ year
I: Ah ok, Can you explain Canton to me, maybe tell me a little more like the weather?
K: What? What?
I: How in Canton including the weather; is it hot, cold, is it a city or the suburbs? Um, Is there lots of vegetation/ farming?
K: Its is small, Guangzhou is a big city, the others are much smaller cities.
I: Are there a lot of plants?
K: Yes there was, especially farmlands there is a lot vegetations
I: ah ok, Do you any siblings?
K: Its just myself
I: wow oh my gosh, What is your favorite place in Canton?
K:(names a park) small park in Canton,
I: oh nice, i’ve never been, How many people live did you live with?
K: It use to be just my mom and I, my dad’s family was here in the US already
I: How did your house look like?
K: It was rented like how I did when I moved here (US) – with three rooms
I: What did your mom do for work?
K: She didn’t really work and was depended on him because my dad was in the U.S, sending money back,
I: so how much schooling did you have in China?
K: I went to school for awhile. I went to school for about 10 years in Canton
I: So what do you miss the most?
K: wha well, (laughs) nothing really to miss
I: i forgot to ask you what your chinese name is
K: My name is (Chinese name)
I: what is your last name?
I: what is your english name?
K: Kit lee
I: how old were you when you arrived to America?
K: In my 40’s, i don’t really remember exactly
I: so where did you meet your wife?
K: I met her in mainland china
I: oh so you moved out here together, how old was she when she moved out here?
K: also in her 40’s
I: What about your daughters? You have 5?
K: ya they were in their teens and younger like 8 or 10
I: did your mom move with you?
K: yes but she moved out to the US first then we followed but as we finally arrived she ended up passing away before we made it out here. She passed away for a few months before we made it out here.
I: oh wow. So how long was she here for until you and your family made it out here?
K: probably a few years
I: did you have to go through angel island?
K: i’ve been there but was not required to pass through, we were allowed to arrive here already
I: Was it hard for you to move to America? To acquire citizenship?
K: no it wasn’t, I had applied for my green card and identification before I arrived
I: Were you scared to move here- to lose all your friends? Was your family scared?
K: no, not scared, we knew we were coming to the US so we were prepared. My family was not scared either.
I: Did you have any dreams or aspirations before coming to america?
K: it was hard when we first arrived, we were not used to it, we thought it was going to easy but when we actually arrived reality kicked in and back then rent was still around 700 and we thought it was really expensive. We rented a whole floor for my family and I
I: How big was it?
K: it was comfortable, we had a big living room at washington st and the cross street of something by chinatown
I: How did you find it?
K: through an acquaintance
I: did you have a lot of friend?
K: no, just met people through work
I: how did you find work?
K: my father use to own a clothes washing joint and by the time we arrived he already sold his shares and the shop. The men he sold his share to older men or men that have money or is somebody so my dad introduced us and told me to go work for them
I: Does your dad live nears you?
K: not really, he lives on Stockton st & Vallejo st in an SRO
I: did you only live in sf?
I: did you live any other homes? Did you move a lot?
K: in 87’ we moved
I: So the house you are living at now, is it being rented or do you own it?
K: The kids ended up buying it, because they grew up
I: So did you have the same job as a laundry man your whole career?
K: Yes the whole time, I washed clothes
I: When did you retire?
K: I retired at 62..haha
I: what did your wife do? Did she do laundry with you?
K: No she worked at a garment factory, sewing clothes
I: So wow, you had so much schooling but you just washed clothes in America?
K: ya just laundry, when i retired I started teaching here and there, started out doing calligraphy and then ended up teaching kids how to do origami
I: How did the laundry job work? Was it just one person working? Did you wash and dry?
K: Yes it was one person, I washed and dried. It was all me.
I: ooooo ahhh (he shows me a book with pictures of him and kids folding origami)
K: here are some pictures of people folding and here are some people writing calligraphy
I: oh wow ooooomg wowww.
K: this is my daughter and I.
I: wowwwww she’s so pretty
I: when did you learn how to do origami? Did you learn it here?
K: here and back in China, the kids are my students that i teach origami to
I: is this your daughter’s graduation
K: yes college. That kid is only 6 in there and he’s really good at folding
I: wow they made a book for you? That so nice
K: yes their father does real estate
I: how did you find you? Was it at school? (he’s my student in an esl class)
K: Someone introduced us in my community center. They told me that their kids loves origami so the couple brings them to the community center for class. The drive them and drop them off. These are brothers. This picture is at the retirement center of me teaching calligraphy
I: So laundry, is that how you met friends, at work?
K: we when i had to work there would be someone else working near me so we would end up talking and getting to know each other
I: So when did you start english
K: I was learning here and there
I: Well your english is pretty good already
K: Laughs** is just spelling that I’m bad at. My memory is bad
I: Noooooo. Even the professor says that your english is good but you just can’t hear. The professor has told me that he wants us to got DSPS because your english is really good but you just can’t hear.
K: hmm. ok
I: soooo do you still keep in touch with any of your friends?
K: ya some of them?
I: who do you know the longest? Do you still keep in touch?
K: This one dude that lives in Oakland. We write letters to each other here and there
I: wow writing letters. So why did you live in sf for so long? Why not move to oakland?
K: well I lived here for so long? Why bother moving? You just get comfortable
I: well I guess all your activities are here and you have so much. So speaking of activities, what did you to pass time when you first moved here?
K: when i first move here I joined this club “asian progressive club” is in Chinatown, (in some famous building across some bank) on the fifth floor. When i first moved here I would go every sunday to meet people and look for activities to do, and ways to explore this new place we moved to
I: What kinda activities?
K: we went to the museums, sometimes we went to the movies, sometimes there would be parties, we went to angel island also
I: was this for everyone? Not just for retired people?
K: No its a club for everyone. You just have to be a member to go to the events. They also brought just to picnic.
I: How many people went?
K: There was about twenty something people
I: What are origami? Did you do that at the club?
K: No that was something I did when i retired. After work I was be so extremely tired so how can I do origami after?
I: In china what did you do?
K: I taught writing
I: did it make you sad that you didn’t teach anymore? To have to go from your your brains to using your body for labor?
K: Yes of course. I missed china and teaching
I: wow so when you moved here everything was different
K: ya so different
I: I can’t even imagine
I: umm so emm when you first moved here did you see your dad alot?
K: yes i saw him everyday actually
I: how old were you when he moved to america?
K: I was very young when he moved here
I: So you haven’t see him for a long time, like twenty something years? Wait over 20 yrs like 30ish years?
I: So what does he like to do? Like activities?
K: i’m not too sure but I know he likes to go get coffee with his brothers/ friends
I: oh my grandpa use to do that a lot. He use to sit around and get coffee for hours and hours. When I was younger I use to wonder why he would sit there for so long? I grew up around Oakland so I know that Chinatown more. So did you have any expectations when arriving to America? Did you think it was going to be easy?
K: I thought it was very hard to sustain a living in America since i’ve arrived. I felt like I was deaf, mute, and blind. Deaf because I don’t understand the language english , mute because I cannot speak and blind because I can’t read
I: Didn’t you learn english in Canton though?
K: I learned a little but knew mainly just some alphabets and some words here and there but mainly the three, blind, deaf and mute
I: you use to teach so did you think that this job (in america) is harder that your life back in China? You taught for so long and then it was all taken away from you with you feeling mute, blind and deaf.
I: so back then, what was your schedule like? What time did you start work?
K: i would start at 8 in the morning and end work at 8 or 9. Many time around 8 or 9
I: wow ohhh like 12-13 hrs a day
K: they would give me an hour to take lunch. You can rest and take a breath
I: then you would do laundry. Wow ehhh ugh. You did it for around 20 year?
K: yes haha
I: What do you think of America?
K: Well I think SF had really nice weather. Everyone is really nice, very giving
I: but that’s it?
K: well back then my job wouldn’t pay me enough to pay rent
I: you and your wife didn’t make enough to pay rent?
K: I mean by myself with my job i couldn’t pay rent, back then rent was like $700/800 for a flat. With all the taxes I ended up with like $500 something only and rent was $7/800 so how can i afford rent? Something i’m like what am i working for?
I: wow you worked so much and couldn’t even afford to pay rent? But what about your wife? With her job can you both afford rent then?
K: well with her job of course we can afford rent
I: What about your daughters? Where were they born at?
K: They were all born in China, well with normally we just worked till 6ish. We would have lunch from 12-1 then eat dinner at 5
I: Then after dinner would you have to start working again?
K: Usually not but sometimes when we have big jobs then we would have to
I: If you stayed longer would you get overtime money?
K: In the beginning I didn’t but then i would get it as I worked there longer
I: In the beginning like you mean the first few months?
K: Like in the first year and a half but then after I would get paid overtime. As you stay more overtime they will throw you some money for a few hours here and there
I: did you think anyone was racist towards you or prejudice ?
K: i’ve always worked in shops with chinese people so there was never any of that. We are all Chinese so what’s there to be prejudice against.
I: what about where you live?
K: no not really?
I: have you been out of sf?
K: I’ve been to vegas, lake tahoe, reno
I: have you been to the snow?
K: ive seen snow but never ski or anything
I: are both you and wife retired?
I: was your wife ok with coming to America? Did she like it?
K: I don’t know her thoughts
I: Why did you stay in SF? Why didn’t you move somewhere with more space like Oakland?
K: there is no point of moving. Then I would have to look for a new place and its too much.
I: Is your house big?
K: Its comfortable
I: So where do you live now?
K: In the outer mission
I: so is it close to school at the ocean campus
K: ya its close, I live at geneva
I: there is a lot of Chinese people there, So why don’t you live in Chinatown?
K: I’ve lived (CT) there before, since they bought a house there, we ended up moving
I: did you like living in Chinatown?
K: well of course, there is a lot of chinese people there and its easier to get around and acquire what i need. And grocery shopping is close by
I: What about the rats there? There is so many rats?
K: haha ya there are some mice there.
I: You said you use to rent?
K: Ya back then there use to be many places for rent. Back then 750 was considered a lot to rent a flat. Back then around 300/400 you can rent a whole appartment. Everything above 500 was considered very expensive. That was like over 20$ years ago
I: so back then you can rent a whole 3 bedroom for around 300$? Thats crazy!!!
K: haha ya.
I: So you use to work in sf chinatown also? Did you feel like there was a lot of gossip?