by Tingting Xu, June 2018
The sea reaches out its longings, and eventually meets the sky on the horizon. If dream walks far enough, it would probably meet happiness in the end.—Angela Chang, from one of her popular Chinese songs
America has often been viewed as the land of opportunity. Hundreds of thousands of people around the world come to the United States and try to seek their fortunes. How can they eventually climb the ladder of success or happiness? To them, time is like a piece of land. A dream is like a seed, waiting for someone to come plant it. Dalu was one of those people who came to America and tried to pursue his own dream here. His dream was simple, making more money and owning a fancy car, a Rolls-Royce, which he saw as a symbol of success. However, while the dream was beautiful, the reality was cruel. While he first arrived in the United States in 1986, he felt disappointed because he faced many challenges like being undocumented in the U.S., working for low wages in restaurants, and struggling with the language barrier. I first met him in September 2016, when I moved into a new house that was bigger than my previous one, in order to prepare for the birth of my child. Thus, he became my new neighbor. When I think back on him, I remember he always wore worn work clothes and a pair of sneakers stained with paint. He was a tall figure with slightly curved shoulder, who seemed to be full of stories. His face was covered with wrinkles, but I could still see that he had probably been a handsome man when he was young. Although Dalu always believed that success (for himself) meant owning a fancy car or having wealth that could be envied by others, he had an epiphany when he suffered from a brain disease that almost took his life; this made him see life as fragile, so he started to focus on the essence of life through reading the Bible and now hopes to create more long-term meaningful achievements by doing volunteer work at his church and spending his holidays traveling with his family.
Dalu was born 1963 in XianZu Town near Chongqing. He said, “My hometown was surrounded by mountains and had picturesque scenery. It was very beautiful, clean, and was surrounded by nature.” He had an elder sister and brother. He was the youngest child. Although Dalu’s family was not rich and his parents planted vegetables and fruit for survival, he had a happy childhood because he could stay with his parents when they were working in the mountains. Dalu said, “They [his parents] had little chance to receive education, so I knew knowledge was important because my mother always told me that you needed to study hard; otherwise you would end up like us [poor].” According to “Education And Poverty, Relationship and Concerns. A Case For Kenya,” a journal article by Maiyo K. Julius, who is a professor at Masinde Muliro University of Science and Technology, “Education is widely accepted as the main exit route from poverty. It is the backbone of growth and development of individuals and the nation” (73). Although pockets of poverty also exist in developed countries, this poverty caused by lacking education is more common in developing countries, particularly in rural areas. Dalu didn’t want to repeat his parents’ lives, so he studied hard and eventually graduated with honors and was assigned to a famous factory in Chongqing province as a manager in 1982. He then worked at this factory for almost four years. One day, his director found him and asked him if he would like to go the United States to work because there was a job vacancy there. He immediately agreed because it was America, a dream country that was represented by his dream car (Rolls-Royce). One day in 1986, Dalu took an airplane, departed from Shenzhen, passed over Hong Kong and Japan, and finally landed at the San Francisco International Airport alone. However, while the dream was beautiful, reality was tough. His job was to install and repair generators for hospitals and other buildings. He faced the challenge of working on the night shift because these machines were usually off at night. This dangerous work (repairing generators) with a poor schedule caused Dalu to feel stressed and tired.
He felt stuck because he desired to move back home due to homesickness and his soon-to-be- expiring visa, but the news that his friends had been sent to jail during the special period of economic restructuring in China made him feel scared to return home. Instead, he decided to stay in the U.S. After the Cultural Revolution, a sociopolitical movement in China from 1966 until 1976 which was launched by Mao Zedong, public ownership dominated. All machines, technology, and factories were owned by the government. The government controlled everything. With the passage of time, public ownership was dismantled. Private ownership became dominant around 1990. Many workers were laid off and a lot of factories dissolved. The workers took some equipment and materials from the factories and sold it off, in an attempt to make up for the low government wages. Some leaders who had real power had taken away a large amount of equipment, technology, and skilled employees early, and set up their own companies. Some of these leaders were among the first generation that was able to become rich at that time. However, these people were very rare and extremely lucky. Most of the people who had power or took equipment were punished by the government and went to jail. During this period, the political situation was turbulent. The government began frantically suppressing intellectuals in order to maintain order and eliminating groups who might be a threat to the government’s interests. His friends were involved in these cases and were imprisoned in China. Back in the U.S., Dalu had been working in San Francisco for nearly a year. The factory that had sent him to America had disintegrated due to these events in China. Due to his homesickness, he was willing to return to home, but when he called his mother in China, his mother strongly advised him not to by saying, “Dalu, do not come back anytime soon; it’s too risky. Everything is crazy; Jie and Hong [Dalu’s friends] were captured [sent to jail]. So just stay there [in the U.S.] and come back later.” Dalu not only felt conflicted because he was scared to go back, but also felt nervous due to his visa expiring soon, which forced him to face the challenge of being an undocumented immigrant in the U.S. However, he never regretted his choice to stay in the U.S. He said, “I was lucky because I stayed here [in the U.S.]. If I went back [to China] at that period, I would have been captured [got through in jail].”
Dalu felt disappointed and overwhelmed because of the fact that he could only find lower wage jobs in restaurants due to the language barrier and documentation issues in the U.S., which directly contradicted the belief that he had previously held that he could find a better job and salary here. He had left his previous workplace because he was worried that the immigration office would find him due to the expired visa. In order to survive, he went to a restaurant called Wang Ji, working as a handyman six days a week. The wage was $500 a month, $4.5 per hour. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), passed by the United Nations General Assembly in 1948, upholds the idea that equal rights apply to all people. The Declaration states, “Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work” (Article 23.2). It is clear that $4.5 per hour paying is a violation of his human right to “equal pay for equal work,” given that the minimum wage was $8 per hour. His jobs were to carry things, clean the toilets, wipe glass, cut vegetables, and wash dishes. The restaurant’s working hours were from 9am to 10pm. He had no better option because there would be no income if he didn’t work, and he had to pay his rent. In fact, a large number of newcomers still work at jobs that didn’t utilize their full skill set mainly because of the language barrier. Bolei Liu is a Master’s student in the Department of Sociology at Columbia University. His research interests lie in economic sociology, labor market, and immigration studies. In the article “Getting a Job in Flushing: A Qualitative Study on Chinese Immigrants’ Job-Finding and Job Transitions in an Ethnic Enclave,” Liu listed an example: “Such a guy who has no English proficiency, no legal status, no citizenship, you have no rights to choose your job. Somehow, it is the job that chooses [sic] you” (126). He also pointed out that for any worker, “education is the most significant human capital predictor of earnings and labor market success,” and “specific skills are an important indicator of high-paying jobs” (127). Some researchers also consider that “education to be of great importance for the success in the labor markets “ (127 qtd in Pérez and Muñoz). Therefore, wages are usually influenced by education, English language ability, and U.S. job experience. On the other hand, legal status does not have a much significant influence on the wages of low-income immigrants. Dalu also felt loneliness and helplessness because of his cruel reality. Although he saw plenty of opportunities in the U.S., there were still many uncertainties in his heart due to his documentation issue and the poor income. However, he had no better choice but choosing a way to work excessively to distract from his homesickness and unhappiness.
While he felt loneliness and lacked a sense of belonging in America, one of his coworkers at the restaurant helped him overcome this tough time by bringing him to a church where he could learn English, and it was there that he met his wife. One of his coworkers, Tim, realized his unhappiness. In order to reduce his loneliness and nostalgia, Tim brought him to church. Since then, Dalu felt that he had a new life. He went to church almost every week. He said, “I went to church because I wanted to learn English there.” His English level had some improvement after weeks of regular study. Moreover, through studying and understanding of the Bible, he became aware of the importance of God and gradually came to believe in God’s existence. He said, “I used to believe in Buddhism when I was in China. The idea of Buddhism does nothing, but free people from desire. On the other hand, what Christ advocates are to do good things, to give, to help and extend a hand to more people to enable them to escape from evil.” Therefore, he gradually changed his mind and became a convert to Christianity. In addition, he met his wife in church and they married in 1988. He was able to gain a green card quickly because his wife was a citizen. They had their first baby in 1990, and then another one in 1994. His life became more difficult because of his two sons. He also felt stressed and stuck because he wanted to learn more useful knowledge (English and other work-related skills), but he didn’t have enough time because he had to work to support his family due to their poor economic situation.
After starting a family, Dalu shouldered the responsibility of supporting their lives; he started work like a maniac. Although the manic work, which had exceptionally long hours, could improve the quality of his family’s lives, he ignored that what his children needed most was a warm, emotionally engaged and a supportive father, not just money. He chose to go to a construction company because he thought that his skills related to installing hydropower could come in handy there. Through a friend’s introduction, Dalu entered into a construction company and began to work in wall painting, “because I thought wall painting was the easiest to learn.” At that time, he could earn 40 dollars a day. Then he did woodworking, plumbing, and all kinds of construction work. One year later, when he had completely mastered all the decoration techniques, he left the decoration company and started his own business. In 1991, someone introduced him to a project. “My first business was to help people paint the exterior of their houses. I was both the boss and the worker. I got up early, took the bus, and went to the employer’s home. Every day I worked until dark, sometimes even midnight. It was hard to describe the tiredness I felt, but I also was very excited because in ten day’s work I could earn $1,200 which was several times what I made at the restaurant,” he said. In the article “Gendered Processes of Adaptation: Understanding Parent-Child Relations in Chinese Immigrant Families,” by Desirée B. Qin, who is an Associate Professor at Harvard University, she studies the mental health of high achieving Asian American students and the cultural differences in parenting including “tiger mothers.” Dr. Qin proved that work stress and adaptation difficulties had a “significant impact on the parents’ relationship with their children,” and “children were also likely to be directly influenced by the bad tempers of unhappy or stressed-out parents, particularly fathers” (467). So the physical and psychological absence of a father (Dalu) in his sons’ lives might have led to his sons’ unhappiness. These children needed Dalu’s guidance and support as they navigated their way in a completely new cultural environment. Moreover, in order to make more money, he usually worked until midnight for the next whole year. He learned English on the weekend because he planned to take the license. “I took the exam twice and finally got my license,” he said. He added, “those years were my most glorious period [he earned a lot of money and gained the license].” After a few years hard work, he bought a car (even though it was not his dream Rolls-Royce), and took out a loan to purchase a house. It seemed like his dream had become a reality. However, as a father, Dalu, should have accompanied his sons while they grow up happily and guide their development, but due to his absence in his sons’ lives, the relationship between him and his sons became weaker. Moreover, the high-intensity work and stress posed a danger to his health.
Dalu not only had to adjust to a new cultural, linguistic, social and economic system, but he also had to overcome some unexpected obstacles like health issues, which might have been caused by his previously stressful life experiences. His first major incident occurred at about 6 o’clock one morning in 1998. He still clearly remembers the sudden head pain, which triggered vomiting. His wife was extremely scared and unable to deal with this situation. His neighbor was exercising in the yard. The neighbor, seeing his poor condition, immediately called 911. Soon, Dalu was admitted to the hospital. After first-aid measures, he was out of danger. The doctor had detected that he had a congenital vascular malformation (in his forebrain) and must be operated immediately. “When I woke up after about 14-hour surgery, I saw a doctor smiling at me. I knew that I was saved,” he said. In the next ten days of hospitalization, he often stood by the bedside and watched out the window, the people walking around, the vehicles shuttling, the trees rustling. “I felt as if they did not have any relationship with me. It seemed that I stayed in another world,” Dalu recalled. In the journal article “Health Disparities Among Immigrant and Non-immigrant Elders: The Association of Acculturation and Education,” by Terry Y. Lum, a Professor at The University of Hong Kong, he investigated the association of immigrant status among older people with their physical and mental health outcomes, health services utilization, and health insurance coverage. Lum concludes that “As immigrants, they are likely to have experienced various levels of stress throughout their lives. An accumulation of stressful life experiences may lead to poor physical and mental health” (743). Immigrating was a stressful life event for Dalu; it began when he left his native country (China) to move to the United States. When Dalu arrived in the U.S., he had to face a lifetime of adjustment and acculturation and deal with the large amount of stress that came with it.
After Dalu’s illness, he began to focus on issues of the spirit; he finally realized that hard work could create more income, but could not guarantee the sense of well-being because all things (including a person’s life) are fragile and impermanent. After the surgery, he almost lost his ability to move. “I took a small step, and another small step, moving like a zombie,” he said as he stood up and imitated his old unnatural waking patterns. “It was too hard at that time. I couldn’t sleep at night because my wound wasn’t completely healed. I was just staring at the ceiling and felt extremely sad because of thinking about my children and wife,” he recalled. He thought that if he could not recover his lost mobility, it would mean that he would lose the ability to work. “Seeing two poor children (his sons), inspired me to force myself to walk every day. Walk slowly for one street today, then walk one more street the day after tomorrow,” he said. For his family’s future, he was motivated to continue to practice walking every day. Although the physical inconvenience would occasionally make him depressed and upset, he never gave up because of the responsibility as a father he shouldered. After two months, he finally gained the ability to move freely. He felt excited and seemed to be reborn because he knew that he had overcome the obstacle that the disease had brought him. When he stayed at home, he would read the Bible. He suddenly awakened when he saw this verse “For the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal” (Corinthians 4:18). Dalu started to understand that life and happiness were more important than wealth and success (for himself). Joele Kim writes in his article “Living in God’s Grace: 8 Weeks in Romans 12-15” that “Paul is urging believers not to imitate the patterns and priorities of their current [temporary] society, but to embrace the renewal and transformation of God’s eternal kingdom. As recipients of God’s mercy, they are to change how they live” (54). Kim also asks, “What steps can you take to reset your mind to focus on eternal things?” He answers this by listing: “First, Paul instructs his readers to pursue a love that’s sincere. The concept of love permeates all of Romans. God shows his love for us by sending his Son to die (5:5), and he promises that nothing can separate us from his love (8:35, 39)” (54). (Kim totally listened eight steps in his article; here I just chose the first step). Actually, after his illness, he changed the way he lived. He learned to love his sons like God loves us. He also realized that money was not the most important. He said, “At that time, I thought that if I died, I would have no chance to stay with my family. How could they (his wife and sons) survive if I died?” He started to give true love for his family, and spent more time being together with his sons, bringing them to church, traveling on holidays, picking them up and dropping them off at school. He also believed that God could give him the courage to face any challenge from life. Through his continuous prayers and efforts, his health condition became better and better. Now he lives happily with his family, and sees America as his home.
While Min Dalu originally tried to pursue wealth and a career, he realized that money and wealth were not the most important things after he experienced a deadly brain disease; the words of God made him start to focus on how to love others, such as helping people in need and spending more time with his family. Some would argue that success can provide people with enough material resources and improve their confidence. On the other hand, many people have epiphanies after they have suffered from major illness. These illnesses can help people realize that material and wealth can easily depart. The words of God further prove that only spirit and inner joy are eternal. Success is a goal that if not achieved means the absence of happiness; true happiness is an inner peace that cannot be taken away. Thank God, Dalu understands the truth and eventually meets happiness.
Julius, Maiyo K; Bawane, Jyoti. “Education And Poverty, Relationship and Concerns. A Case For Kenya.” Problems of Education in the 21st Century. 2011, Vol. 32, p72-85.14p. 9 Charts, 1 Graph.
Kim, Joele. “Living in God’ s Grace: 8 Weeks in Romans 12-15.” Bible Study Magazine. Sep/Oct2017, Vol. 9 Issue 6, p53-56. 4p.
Liu, Bolei. “Getting a Job in Flushing: A Qualitative Study on Chinese Immigrants’ Job-Finding and Job Transitions in an Ethnic Enclave.” Qualitative Sociology Review, Apr2017, Vol. 13, Issue 2, p122-145. 24p.
Lum, TY; Vanderaa, JP. “Health Disparities Among Immigrant and Non-immigrant Elders: The Association of Acculturation and Education.” Journal of Immigrant & Minority Health, Oct2010; 12(5): 743-753. 11p.
Qin, Desirée. “Gendered Processes of Adaptation: Understanding Parent–Child Relations in Chinese Immigrant Families.” Sex Roles. Apr2009, Vol. 60 Issue 7-8, p467-481. 15p.
“Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” News Center. UN, n.d. Web. 07 Sept. 2016.
Interviewer：Author myself (I)
Interviewee: My neighbor Dalu (D)
Interview Setting: March 21, 2018 at 7:30 pm
I: First, eh, Are you ready?
D: Just ask. Ai~
I: Can you tell me your name, your age, and where were you born?
D: Name? (laugh) I was born in 1963. My hometown was Dazu town, it was a mountain city near Chongqing.
I: What was it like?
D: It was very beautiful, clean, and nature. My hometown was surrounded by mountains and had picturesque scenery.
I: What is your unforgettable memory of your childhood, can you describe it?
D: Unforgettable memory, woo~ that’s so long ago. Let me think…Oh, there were quite a few air-raid shelters in the mountains near my home. I often played inside with my classmates after school. About 1940, the construction of air-raid shelters were built. They were formally completed in the mid-1950s. We called them “Maodong” (bomb shelters). At that time, I often ventured with a group of children. Everyone drilled into an abandoned cave. It also naturally brought us a sense of mystery, a feeling of adventure and a little bit of criminality. We were so excited when we run across these air-shelters. It was really dark, we felt that we explored in another world.
I: Can you tell something about your parents? And what were your parents like?
D: My parents? Ai~ They were not easy. My parents worked so hard for raising us, they had little chance to study (receive an education). My family was poor. My parents plant vegetables and fruit for sale and earn money. This was the only way to support my family. But I still felt happy. I had a lot of time to stay together with them (my parents) when they were working. When I grow up, I often helped them [work] in the field.
I: What were the happiest moments of your childhood?
D: It should be the “Spring Festival” (Chinese New Year). We were really poor in the past, we really looked forward to the “new year”. So we can eat a lot of food we couldn’t eat in normal times.
I: What are your best memories of your school?
D: School? The school was a just simple single-story house in the town. The playground was made of stone and clay. When we run on it, there was a lot of dust flying, very dirty. The clothes and shoes were full of dust.
I: Do you have any siblings?
D: I had~. I had an elder sister and brother, and I was the youngest one (child).
I: Can you tell me something about them?
D: They? Just ok. I have already not seen them for a long time. They were all in China now. I rarely go back China. You know, Em, it was not easy, go back (China), then return (to the U.S.). If I went back, just stayed for a month.
I: How long have you come to the U.S.?
D: It has been 33 years since I came to the United States. In 1986, I departed from Shenzhen, passed through Hong Kong and Japan, and finally reached San Francisco. A lot of people envied me at that time because they knew that people who came to the United States were very capable. People who could come to the U.S. was very rare. Finally, people who could stay in the United States were even less.
I: Why did you come to the United States？
D: This was a complex topic. Hard to say. This would be related to some political issues. You knew, Em, this process was not easy. I came to San Francisco in 1986. My job was to install generators for factories and hospitals. I did not use a computer, and there were few people who could use computers, at that time. But I knew the people who worked in the generator companies. “They had drawings [of the generators]” he said. So I tried to ask them to print out drawings for me. When I came across repairing problems, I would ask them for help and slowly I became familiar with them. After that, they printed out all the relevant drawings of the generator for me. I saw them very clearly and learned how to install them. I was happy to see each size of the screw and the specific location of the installation. I had worked in the factory for almost 1 year. I hoped to go back to home. But I am bad luck, or shouldn’t say bad luck. It was right after the Cultural Revolution (I came to the U.S, all machines, technology, and factories were controlled (owned) by the government. At this time public ownership was dismantled. Later, private ownership (become dominant around 1991. Many workers were laid off and a lot of factories closed. Some people took away the equipment, technology, and skilled people (employees) and set up their own companies. Those people were first group (very rare) who become rich at that time. These people were very lucky. When I prepared to return to the home. I called my mother. My mother told me, that “Da, do not come back recently, too risky. All (everything was) crazy, your friends [Jie and Hong] was captured [into jail]. So just stay there [in the U.S.] and back later. I am lucky because I stay here [in the U.S.]. If I go back [China] at that period, I must have been captured [sent to jail]”.
I: Can you talk about something about the church?
D: Church? I went to church [mainly] in order to learn English. My English was poor when I just arrived here (the U.S.). One of my friends brought him to church. Then when I had time I would go to church. I used to believe in Buddhism when I was in China. The idea of Buddhism is doing nothing, just let people free themselves (desire). Differently, what Christ advocates are to do good things, to give, to help more people escape from evil. So I started to accept Christianity.
I: I remembered you told me you have worked in restaurants, what did you do there?
D: first job was working as a handyman, six days a week. I did whatever I could do, from carrying things, cleaning the toilets, wiping the glass, cutting vegetables, or washing dishes. You know, I was no paper because my visa was expired. I was also scared to return to China, so I only could do this (very low wage job) in order to survive.
I: How much can you earn? And how many hours do you work?
D: I could earn about $500 a month, almost 5 dollars per hour. I worked from 9 am to 10 pm. The restaurant served lunch and dinner.
I: How did you meet your wife?
D: I met her in church, she was a Christian.
I: Was she a citizen or (had) a green card?
D: She was a citizen.
I: When did you married and had your first child?
D: Em, I married in 1989. I had my first baby in 1991, then another one in 1994. It was too difficult after having two young children. I wanted to learn more knowledge (English and skills), but I had no enough time because I had to work, otherwise, there would be no income.
I: Why did you choose to do decoration housework?
D: Because I was familiar with this aspect. I started to work on the wall painting because I think wall painting is the easiest to learn. At that time, I could earn 40 dollars a day. Then I learned to do woodworking, plumbing, and all construction work. I left the decoration company and did myself (made his own business). My first business is to help people paint the exterior of the house in 1991, I remembered. I was both a boss and a worker. I got up early, took the bus, and went to the employer’s home. I remembered that I always worked until dark, sometimes even midnight. It was hard to describe that tiredness, but I earned $1,200 which was several times of a restaurant paying. I still learned English on the weekend because I wanted to take the license, it was important to me. When I took the exam, I also hired an interpreter to help. I took the exam twice and finally got my license.
I: You said that you almost died. What happened to you?
D: It was about 6 o’clock, very early, I remembered that was (happened) in 1998. I clearly remembered that a sudden head pain occurred, then I began vomiting. My wife felt was scared and didn’t know what to do at that time. My neighbor exercised in the yard. He immediately called 911. Soon, I was admitted to the hospital. I was out of danger after first-aid measures. A doctor told me that I had a congenital vascular malformation (in my forebrain) and must be operated immediately. Otherwise, he I would have danger. After about 14 hours’ surgery, I waked up and saw a doctor smiled at me. I know [that] I was saved. When I was in hospitalization, I often stood by the bedside and watched out the window. I saw the people walking around, the vehicles shuttling, the trees rustling. I feel as if they do not have any relationship with me. It seems that I stay in another world.
I: What did you think when this happened to you? I mean did you scare or upset?
D: Scared! After the surgery, I almost lost the ability to move. I took a small step, a small step, moving like a zombie (as he stood up and walked to imitate the way unnaturally). It is too hard at that time. I can not sleep at night because the surgical wound of the brain wasn’t completely healed (painful). I am just staring at the ceiling and feel extremely sad because of thinking about my children and wife. I thought that if I could not recover or lost my mobility. It meant a disaster for me because it also meant that I would lose the ability to work. Seeing these poor children (his sons), so I force myself to walk every day. Walk slowly for one street today, then walk one more street the day after tomorrow. For his family’s future, he fulfilled with motivation and continued to practice walking every day. For two months, I basically could have moved freely. Like I saw a hope. Thank God, I was recovered.