The Freedom to Dream


The Freedom to Dream

by Anobel Khoushabeh, January 2016

As Max De la Costa began to approach adolescence, the Guatemalan Civil War was raging, resulting in a wide spread of fear, economic turmoil, forced drafting, persecution, and the killing of many people across the country. Without many opportunities left for the future, Max’s parents, Oscar and Lidia De la Costa, decided to leave the country and immigrate to the United States in order to provide a better life for themselves and their two children. During his time in the United States, Max has been exposed to a variety of different experiences that have enabled him to generate his own perspective on the meaning of home and self-identity as a Latino living in the United States.

Growing up in Guatemala, Max was very limited in the extent to which he could prosper as an individual. Even though neither of his parents received decent education, they both understood the fundamental importance of it. His father, Oscar, was a bartender at a community social club and a huge admirer of the American culture and lifestyle. Because Guatemala lacked the proper public school institutions, Max spent a lot of his time as a child playing with friends, and swimming in a variety of different rivers, lakes, creeks, and canals instead of being fully engaged in school. As Max grew older, and the Civil War continued to progress, his father feared that his only son would be drafted into the military and sent to fight a useless and unethical war. The severity of being drafted was a serious fear that lingered above everybody’s heads. When asked about the situation, Max explained that “people were afraid to go to dances, movies, or you could be walking outside in the market and they saw you, and they would just pick you up and put you in a truck and take you.” Fearing for his family, Max’s father left for the United States to help his family make the move, but in the process he was met with an unfortunate injury that left his kneecap broken, forcing him into six months of recovery. As his father was stranded in Guatemala, his mother made the tremendously hard decision to leave behind her son and daughter in order to work in the United States and raise enough money to bring her family north of the border to the States. After spending several years in the United States, Lidia was able to save enough dollars to bring her family over the border. Without much complication, Max and his family spent around two and half weeks crossing Mexico before finally arriving in Los Angeles, California in August of 1988, tucked in the back of a blue F-150 Ford. For Max, leaving home was never a problem because Guatemala never catered to Max, and Max never catered to Guatemala. Without much difficultly for Max, America was now his new home. Finally, after residing in Los Angeles for a while, Max and his family moved up north to the vibrantly diverse city of San Francisco, where he would grow up, assimilate, even greatly admire his new home and self developed identity.

In Guatemala, there are extreme barriers that prevent individuals from upward mobility and social status. Moreover, this lack of opportunities even deprives children of dreaming about a future they desire. Growing up in the United States, we always dreamed as children about whether to be an astronaut, a fireman, or even a super hero; we had the opportunity to dream because we were told that if we put our hearts and minds into something, it could become a reality. For Max, however, growing up in Guatemala could not have been further from this reality. When asked if he had any dreams as a child, Max replied, “As a kid I didn’t have that many dreams because we didn’t have that many aspects of dreams. For most of us, it was to just go to school and have fun, but there were no dreams.” Poverty, a lack of education, and a devastating Civil War growing by the day deprived Max of ever dreaming about a future in which he can see himself on a pedestal. Max never aspired to be anything because the road to his future was already paved without his consent. When reflecting on these social issues in Guatemala, and looking back at that time in his life, Max cannot help but feel a sense of disappointment with his home country. Guatemala was a home that deprived Max of a future, but more importantly, it took away his capability to dream as a child.

The Guatemalan Civil War lasted from 1960-1996, leaving behind decades of devastation and irreversible consequences. According to “Murder, Memory, and the Maya,” by Ashley Kistler, a professor of Latin American Anthropology at the University of Oregon, the Civil War began as a result of the CIA-backed coup that overthrew the democratic government of Guatemalan president Jacobo Arbenz in 1954 (Kistler). Arbenz helped overthrow the “repressive dictator,” Jorge Ubico, who had for years ruled through intimidation and force. In hopes of bringing freedom and equality to the masses, Arbenz implemented an “agrarian reform legislation” that confiscated over four hundred thousand acres of unused agricultural land from the American fruit corporation United Fruit Company. Because of this threat to American investments, the CIA created a coup to overthrow Arbenz, replacing him with General Efrain Rios Montt, who later became personally responsible for the genocide of the Mayan indigenous population that left over 86,000 dead and many more missing (Kistler). The Reagan administration played a critical role in the conflict by implementing a disastrous foreign policy that devastated several nations in Central America. According to “Ronal Reagan: War Criminal,” by Emilio Horner, a political science senior at the California Polytechnic State University, the CIA under the Reagan administration helped smuggle Cocaine to fund the rebel insurgencies that fought for their beneficiaries in Central America (Horner). Horner makes the argument that,

“Post World War II, the United States has subjected millions of people worldwide to a lower quality of life, all because of the devastating impacts of a foreign policy that prefers corporate profit over human dignity. The nation’s ideological pretense of human rights further masks the fact that the United States sponsors state terrorism and a neo-colonial system ruled by fear, while serving the interest of business elites.”

Ironically, the Republicans, who are notorious for their devastating foreign policies that destroy the lives of millions of people around the world, are the loudest opponents of immigration into the United States.

Assimilation and exposure to diversity have allowed Max to see a variety of different cultures and ideas that have helped him shape his own perspective on culture. After his arrival to Newcomer High School in San Francisco in the year of 1991, Max for the first time was exposed to people from all different racial and cultural backgrounds. In Guatemala, Max states, “I never thought that I even had a culture, “ and when describing his experience in the United States he said, “it was just really cool that other cultures existed, and other languages, and people, and faces, features, body, skin color.” For Max, “American culture” means acceptance of other cultures: a unique collaboration of different beliefs that are fabricated together to form a unique belief. American diversity, for many immigrants, is shocking and hard to understand. In this case, however, Max embraced the diversity he witnessed at his new school and through it he has developed an appreciation for diversity and acceptance. By exposing himself to different cultures Max views himself beyond just being a Latino living in America, he is an American of Latino decent with a cultural interpretation that is unique to him.

Cultural differences between American-born and newcomers, immigrants from Central America, for example, are so severe that in many instances they formulate into prejudice, and blunt discrimination. Discrimination has always been a reality for immigrants in the United States; however, it hasn’t always been between from whites onto other ethnicities and races. This is something that many Latino immigrants do not expect or understand when they first arrive in the United States. Because of these repercussions, many will alienate themselves from their own community and culture. For Max, his relationship with the white community has been full of positive experiences; however, his relationship among Latinos has been much more complicated. I asked Max if he was ever exposed to any racial discrimination when he first arrived in the United States, and without surprise his answer was yes. For Max, the discrimination did not come from whites but instead from other Latinos. Without realizing this I asked Max what his perception was on whites, and he responded:

“white people which I didn’t have a problem with, actually I don’t ever remember being discriminated by them. But Latinos were discriminating between Latinos who were born or raised here. Uh, for me because I had a heavy accent, more than now, um, there was this guy who used to call me a wetback, mojito. A Latino himself, he would put his fingers on his tongue, lick them, and then hit his back. That was him letting me know that I’m a wetback.”

This tension between Latinos was very shocking to Max, and because of it his negative perception of his homeland and culture intensified. After witnessing this act of prejudice from his own community, Max eventually pulled himself away from the Latino community and motivated himself to improve his English to assimilate with other races and cultures more thoroughly.

Discrimination within the Latino community is extremely problematic and based on immigration status, language, and social class. According to the Los Angeles Times article by Michael Quintanillna “The Great Divide: They’ve Fled Poverty Even Wars in Their Homelands. Now, Immigrant Children Face Ridicule and Exclusion by Many of Their U.S.-born Latino Classmates,” many newcomer Latinos are subjected to harsh criticism and prejudice by American born Latinos who view themselves as “superior” because they have had the privilege of being born in the United States. The prejudice is at many times focused on indigenous Latinos who have different physical complexions in comparison with whiter toned Latinos. However, the tension also arises from “language barrier coupled with an unfamiliar teen culture (Quintanillna). Ironically, many immigrant children are ridiculed because of their shyness, clothing style, respectfulness to their parents and teachers, and as well as their dedication to academic achievement (Quintanillna). In many schools across the greater Los Angeles area and parts of San Jose California where Latinos are by far the majority, there is serious division between multiple groups such as “the recent lower-income Mexican immigrant; the middle-class Mexican immigrant; the acculturated Chicano kids and the cholo kids, lower-income Mexican Americans” (Quintanillna). This cycle of discrimination within the Latino community is the exact reason why Max felt alienated and eventually separated himself from his culture. Those who were unwilling to accept him as an American only motivated him even more to assimilate and adapt a new sense of identity.

Roman philosopher Gaius Plinius Secundus once said, “home is where the heart it.” The definition of home isn’t one’s birth location; it is where one feels content and safe. For Max, Guatemala might have been where he was born; however, it never felt like home. Many opponents of immigration make the bold argument that newcomers will always feel a sense of attachment to their native country, which prohibits them from ever truly becoming, or feeling American. When hearing Max’s story, this argument is without doubt invalidated. An uncountable number of immigrants feel that the United States is their home, and have a sense of loyalty and patriotism that a native-born might even lack. Especially after witnessing the quality of life in the United States, and being rejected by his own Latino community, Max became hostile towards his own country and in many ways rejected it. After five years of residing in the United States, Max and his family applied for citizenship. During the naturalization interview, Max was asked the critical question: if the United States of America were to ever engage in a military conflict with Guatemala, would Max fight for Guatemala or the United States? His response was dramatic, but completely resonated his feelings at the time towards his home country. Max replied, “In my perspective, you can throw an atom bomb and make a parking out of it. I was uh, very disappointed from where I came from.” It was clear that Max had no intention of ever calling Guatemala home because for him the United States was the home that provided him with the content, security, and opportunities he desired. His heart defined his sense of home, and therefore Max was finally at home.

If home shackles you to confinement, takes away your opportunities and rights, it’s no longer in essence called home. For Max, the United States was a door to many opportunities that he would have never had access to back in Guatemala. From a young age, Max always had a fascination with mechanics and automobiles; however, he never aspired to pursuit this passion because he simply couldn’t. During his time at Newcomer High School, Max enrolled in a trade program that taught him hands on mechanics. From this point on, he knew exactly what he wanted to do, and with this passion at hand he landed himself a job at a mechanic shop on Ocean in San Francisco. Max married, had a child, divorced, and even joined the Marines in 2001. His determination to continue to progress has never ended, and at this moment Max is currently enrolled at City College of San Francisco with his son Alberto to continue taking advantages of the opportunities given to. As the years went by his hostility towards Guatemala gradually decreased as he began to see the world in a much broader perspective, however, for Max Guatemala is still a place of memory, not a place he can call home. I asked him what his feeling was towards his birth country, and he responded back,

“I went back like almost ten years after, um yah, ten years I went back, things had changed. Um, but you know, as they say the more they change the more stay the same. That’s how it is now. There is more Democracy now, the Civil War has ended, but now there is more gang violence, uh more than the Civil War was. There is more Capitalism, freedom. It’s a good place to live in certain places, but uh, it is not some place that I would go die at. Yah, it was home, but it’s not home now.”

The United States had given Max what Guatemala had taken away: it had given him the opportunity to progress himself, to provide himself with a life that was not possible back in his birth county.

The meaning of home and identity are significantly difficult to understand for they vary among every individual. Through his immigration experience, Max has realized that home and culture aren’t confined within boundaries but are elastic and prone to change. Home is where one feels content and safe, and identity is what an individual defines it to be. Being an American Latino is beyond the literal phrase, it is a collaboration of experiences that create a unique identity. Those who spew anti-immigration rhetoric to defend the American identity are mistaken. To be an American is to be you, to be free beyond the borders of race, ethnicity, culture, or religion. This is the fundamental idea that brings millions to our shores. It is this very idea that Max cherishes and implements in his life. For Max, home is where there is opportunity to grow, safety for his family, and the comfort to be oneself regardless of what others label you. Like home, the identity we relate with is one that makes us feel content. If we can learn anything from Max is that people grow, learn, experience, and collaborate ideas to form their own way of life. We all come from different backgrounds, but in the end we are all humans seeking a life of fulfillment and purpose. 

Work Cited

Kistler, S. Ashley. “Murder, memory, and the Maya.” Latin American Research Review. 49.1   (2014): 251+. Academic OneFile. Tue. 15 Dec. 2015.

“Ronald Reagan: War Criminal.” UWIRE Text 27 Oct. 2015: 1. Academic OneFile. Tue. 15    Dec. 2015.

Quintanila, Michael. “The Great Divide: They’ve Fled Poverty Even Wars in Their Homelands. Now, Immigrant Children Face Ridicule and Exclusion by Many of Their U.S.-born Latino Classmates.” Los Angeles Times. 1995. Web. Tue. 15 Dec. 2015.

“De la Costa, Max.” (2015, November 9) Personal Interview.


Hopeful for Home: From Burma to Myanmar to San Francisco

Hopeful for Home: From Burma to Myanmar to San Francisco
by Darius Bright, May, 2014

Julia is an international student in the United States from Myanmar, a nation previously called Burma, and still called Burma by many people who stand in opposition to its history of military rule. During the interview and this writing, I will primarily refer to the nation as Burma. Burma is located directly south of India, north of Thailand, west of China, and east of the Bay of Bengal. Julia is majoring in business in the United States, and education is her primary purpose for obtaining a student visa to study in the United States, and because of the restrictions on business and trade in Burma, a result of political influence. Burma is a constantly changing nation with frequent internal conflict. However, she is fortunately part of the racial and ethnic majority. Julia remains indecisive about whether she considers staying in the United States or whether she will return to her home country, because Burma is progressing, but slowly, so her indecisiveness comes from her simple life experiences and her optimistic vision of a better Burma, politically, socially, and economically. During my interview with Julia, we discussed her views on Burmese politics, conflicts, and culture.

There have been many changes in Burma, and many political conflicts in a relatively short amount of time. There are expected to be more changes and this gives Julia her hope for a democratic nation and homeland. Since 1989, Burma has officially been recognized as Myanmar. However, the nation is still called Burma by those who oppose the military takeover of the government. The nation that seemingly has two names is called Burma by the people who view Myanmar’s government as illegitimate. In an email conversation after the interview, I asked Julia, “Which name do you prefer,” and she told me that she did “not have a preference.” She said that, because she was born into a recent generation, she isn’t deeply immersed in politics. However, she does think that people who call the nation Burma do so because it was the name chosen by the former communist government. Because of Burma’s location, it has many ethnic groups from its surrounding countries, such as India, Thailand, China, and so forth. The largest religious affiliation is Buddhist, but there is a considerable presence of Islam, Christianity and Hinduism. The Burmese government was once overthrown from within in 1962, in an event known as a coup d’état, often shortened to coup, and defined by the Meriam Webster Dictionary as “a sudden exercise…especially the violent overthrow of an existing government by a small group.” Later, in 1974, there would be an organized government, which would only last until 1988, when a military coup gave the military power over the government, turning it into a military dictatorship. In that same year, anti-government riots broke out in protest for democracy. Troops from the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), which is the name given to the military regime in control, killed over 300 protestors. In the year following the riots, the nation was officially named Myanmar. In a span of twenty-seven years, Burma’s government has gone through three major changes and two significant riots. Because of these rapid changes, there is also hope for significant change in the future.

Concerning Julia’s question of whether or not to return to Burma, its answer appears to rest heavily on the potential future changes that could occur in Burma. Because politics affect everything there, Julia says she would go back “if things get better…They’re trying to get closer to democracy, because Aung\San Suu Ki.” Changes for the better are expected mostly from the success of the National League for Democracy (NLD), which was formed in 1988, and is led by Aung San Suu Kyi, the party’s General Secretary, and the daughter of the father of communist Burma, Aung San. She is also Buddhist and uses non-violent protest to promote democracy and human rights. For that reason as well, she won the Nobel Peace Prize. Julia is hopeful that the change towards democracy will come. It’s reported by Derek Tonkin, in Contemporary Southeast Asia, that the “NLD won 80% of the seats in the parliament and 59% of the national vote, during a multiparty election in 1990.” However, the SLORC would not accept her party’s victory, arrested her, and placed her under house arrest for fifteen years. According to Alison Koistinen, who wrote an article called “Peace Profile: Aung San Suu Kyi” in Peace Review, Aung San Su Kyi was arrested for “endangering the state,” though Julia believes that she can change Burma if given the chance. She says, “She makes many promises but progress moves slowly and people grow impatient.” She also states that if a significant change were to happen, it would be around 2015, but for now she is unsure. After Suu Kyi was released, she announced that she would run in the 2015 election. Julia told me, “She was actually under house arrest recently so like since she came out she is trying to change the policy in Burma. She is trying to put Burma into the part of democracy.” Suu Kyi won the first election and may win again. This tells me that Julia is full of hope for change and that change is dependent in Suu Kyi’s success. And it seems as if she has a tremendous amount of faith in her. When I asked Julia is she would go back to Burma, or if it would be worthwhile to stay here, she replied, “Yeah, because I need to get more experience, more experience here first, maybe I might, or if it goes well, then I will stay here.” Julia is majoring in business and is here because of the restrictions placed on owning a business in Burma. “There’s too much restriction for the business major, because, if you want some company, you need like…until 2015, we wouldn’t actually know how it goes.” She expects to acquire her experience and education here and use what she learns back home, but only if business restrictions are lifted. This is partly dependent on Suu Kyi’s success, because, if the country becomes more democratic, trade and business regulations will become more negotiable. For now, this is why Julia came to the United States and why she considers settling here.

Burma has some visible issues when one looks at the conflicts that arose over the span of twenty-seven years. Julia is fairly young and has no firsthand experience of the conflicts in Burma. She does, however, possess some knowledge about some of the conflicts that are present. One of the most important topics that Julia touched on was the topic of racism. She said that she only know a little bit about the history of racism in the United States. When talking about the United States in Burma, “the focus was mainly on politics.” She continued to say, “Actually, in Burma, we don’t have racism. Everything is equal. So, yeah, we don’t actually think much of it.” In a way, this is surprising because of the different racial and ethnic groups in Burma. Displaying a photo she took at school in Burma, students varied significantly in appearance. Revisiting that statement in an email for clarification, Julia retracted her statement: “It would be wrong to say that there is no racism going on. It’s probably the way and place I grew up. In that, we don’t have to deal with such matters.” While the racial ethnic conflict was virtually non-existent in her life, she does have some knowledge about it. “I guess you can check on ‘Rohingya’ in Burma and you might be able to find conflicts,” she suggested. In an article entitled “The Potential Role of Racial Segregation in Burma,” published in Forced Migration Review, Nathan Willis wrote: “Ethnic discrimination has long fueled violence and displacement within Myanmar [Burma], especially in relation to people of Rohingya ethnicity, who have been fleeing their home in the ‘tens of thousands’ in 2013 alone.” Though Rohingya is not a race, because race describes physical characteristics, ethnic groups under persecution tend to find themselves in the middle of a racial conflict if people of said group look similar. In the same article, Willis writes, “In recognition that no state is immune from racism, legislators need to take seriously the need to enshrine a legislative response.” Buddhist is still primarily Buddhist with around 80% of the people practicing Buddhism. While racism is certainly present in this conflict, because Julia was part if the middle class and the demographic majority, if is very possible that she never witnessed this conflict. When I asked her about a moment that she will never forget, she spoke of simple pleasures: “Well, there’s lots of things. Like, going on a field trip with friends from school, and there are lots of events that I, you know, like I get to go with my family for vacation, but there wasn’t anything particular.” Her response is not something one would expect from a person coming from hardship. Because if this, she doesn’t share the push factors of immigrants who risk their lives crossing the United States border. Most of her life was simple and peaceful.

The way Julia describes her traditions in Burma is very much like the way one would describe the traditional values of a typical American family a couple of decades ago. Even though some aspects of Julia’s experience with her culture seem analogous to those in much of the United States, her nostalgia for her culture serves as a powerful pull factor in her desire to return home. When asked about her traditions, one example she gave was: “Example, a girl have too many boyfriends, it’s not really good for the girl, I mean how the society views the girl. So, like, you know, like, they don’t think good of them. Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter much right now. In the past, it really mattered. For mothers, they’re still under the tradition.” This example is very much like the traditional values that are still present in places around the United States. Many of her experiences with tradition were as simple as this example. She goes on to say, “Because, like, in Burma, it’s like the old age where boys and girls are treated differently, so, like, the girls, they have a lot of restrictions that girls can’t do.” Though the lines drawn by conventional gender roles have been blurred in most parts of the United States, these same traditions are still present and are still being challenged. These social and cultural expectations are analogous to those a couple of decades ago in the United States. Julia even admitted, “It doesn’t really matter now.” This suggests that times are changing and that these somewhat analogous cultural experiences would make adjusting to life in the United States manageable. The only real difference that I found in the cultural traditions of the two countries is that in Burma it would be considered strange to hug among friends. She explains, “No, they don’t hug; they just usually greet.” You know, put on the hand on the shoulder, but no hugs.” Hugging seems to be associated only with romantic relationships.

Julia’s only misgiving about what she has perceived in American culture and tradition is that families seem disconnected. Stronger family values and relationships are two of the main factors that she misses and would go back to Burma for. “I like the system where the family grows up. Since I got here, I sort of feel there are some problems for families here. For that, in Burma it’s really rare for those kinds of problems. Not really rare, but the majority of families are doing well.” The tighter family bonds in Asian families stands in contrast to the bonds in families in the US. This is most likely a result of the collective societies typical in Asia. Julia came to the United States because her career goals revolve around her business major and she says that she “wouldn’t go back to Burma for business.” Even though these restrictions on business and trade are the primary push factor pushing Julia out of her homeland, Julia would rather raise a family back home, which is a significant pull factor.

Burma’s government, economy, and society are in a transitional state. There are hopes that the country will eventually transition to a democratic system with open trade and human rights laws, though these same transitions are why she left in the first place. They affect her educational goals, her career, and those of the whole country. While she considers staying in the States if things do not improve, there is no doubt that she feels a sense of belonging in her homeland and that she will always identify herself as Burmese. Julia believes that a democratic Burma can alleviate many of the nation’s troubles and hoes that Aung San Suu Kyi can bring them there.

Works Cited

Koistinen, Alison. Peace Review. Sept. 2003, p. 349. Academic Search Premier.
Willis, Nathan. “The Potential Role of Racial Discrimination in Myanmar. Forced Migration Review. Feb. 2014. Issue 45, pp. 82-83. Academic Search Premier.

Tonkin, Derek. “The 1990 Elections in Myanmar: Broken Promises or a Failure in Communication.” Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs. Apr. 2007. 29.1. 33-54. Print. Academic Search Premier.

Sample Transcripts

Me: Julia you’re from Burma, correct?

Julia: Correct.

Me: Why did and your family move to the U.S.?

Julia: Actually, it’s just Me and my brother. We came as international students. So like umm, we just came for studying and the education.

Me: Just for the education.

Julia: Yes.

Me: But you would think about moving back?

Julia: Yeah, I guess I would, like after graduation maybe.

Me: Maybe.

Julia: Yeah, because I need to get more experience, more experience here first. Maybe I might or if it goes well then I’ll stay here.

Me: Ok, so um, is there anything here that uh, that you believe that’s worth while staying here for?

Julia: Yeah, probably the, probably, because of the law, because in Burma the (inaudible), yeah because the different… there’s too much restriction for the business major. Because, like, if you want some company you need like…until of 2015 we wouldn’t actually know how it goes; the politics and Burma goes so we’re not really sure. So…

Me: And that’s what your major is, business?

Julia: Yes, [my] major is business.

Me: Ok, what was uh, and you were there from what age?

Julia: I was there from like, before I turned 17. Around 17 years

Me: Is there something you’ll never forget as a child in Burma?

Julia: Well, there’re lots of things, like going on the field trip with friend in school, and there are lots of evens that I, you know, like I get to go with my family for vacation but there wasn’t anything particular. (inaudible)

Me: Ok, and uumm, so you friends, so like were there different groups there where you were treated differently like?

Julia: No.

Me: Because I was reading about the military takeover.

Julia: Oh, right. There is that, like, there like different groups like normal people and there are the military. Right now it’s going sort of well, but in the past there are only two kind of groups normal people and the military and the military gets you know, better how do you say, uh, they get lots of opportunities, chances, in terms of business and stuff while normal people have to try hard. And you know for military you can bribe and stuff. Like it’s easy to get rich for the military.

Me: I see. So they are like the upper class?

Julia: Yeah, sort of like that.

Me: Wow, so any one can be part of the military?

Julia: It depends, yeah, it sort of depends. It’s been for years so, well there is actually, well anyone can be military but it does not mean like, all, everyone in the military gets to be you know, upper class.

Me: Ok.

Julia: It’s for the higher ranked.

Me: And you’ve never had any harsh experiences while you were there or with any of these divisions or…

Julia: No.

Me: I imagined, like any other country, it’s different from the U.S., so is there any particular culture shock you had here?

Julia: Well, the first thing I was shocked, well it’s not actually culture, but ten, no I wasn’t really shocked but then it was something, wasn’t something I was comfortable with first, at first like when you see each other, you greet when you hug right? But in Burma, it wasn’t like that. It’s sort of like hard for me to respond like when people hug but I’m getting used to it.

Me: And these would be friends, right?

Julia: Yeah, these would be friends.

Me: So, even friends in Burma don’t usually hug?

Julia: No, they don’t hug—they just usually greet. You know, pat on the shoulder but no hugs. Except for like, couples.

Me: Is there any cultural reasons for why they don’t hug or…

Julia: Not really, because, uh, especially between you know different genders. Yeah, I mean, the opposite gender. Because like in Burma it’s like since the old age where girls and boys are like treated differently. So like girls, they have lots of restriction that girls can’t do.

Me: And so if they hug a male…

Julia: Because it’s like how society view them.

Me: How does society view them?

Julia: For example, [if] a girl has too many boyfriends, it’s not really good for the girl. I mean how the society view the girl. So like, you know like, they don’t think good of them. Well, I guess it doesn’t really matter right now. In the past it really matters. For mothers, they’re still under the tradition.

Me: Can you tell me a little bit about your closest friends in Burma and your closest friends here?

Julia: Actually, my closest friend here is also Burmese, so like, how do you want me to tell them?

Me: I was wondering if you would just, uh, compare the two like if you had any close friends you have in the US back to your friends back home.

Julia: How we communicate?

Me: How you communicate, um, your different beliefs, um, how you do you interact, values…

Julia: Even my friends from Burma, they, some of them, they actually go here. So different how we view things. Like, the Burmese way of tradition where things are like going out late at night is not really good, for girls. It’s not really good to go out late at night but for here you know, we can just go out. And like friends will come out at night. At first, it was hard for me to do it. And later I get used to it.

Me: How did you feel when you were called out late at night? Was it for like, parties or just to drink?

Julia: Yeah, just to go and drink, because they know I wouldn’t go if it was for party, so it’s just for drinks for now. Maybe for parties later, I guess. Because we don’t actually party in Burma, so.

Me: Do you think that if you decide to go back to Burma you will miss going out late whenever you want?

Julia: Well, sort of. Well, it’s not actually hard. It’s harder for not how society views it, more how our parents restrict us from going out.

Me: To you, what does it mean to be Burmese?

Julia: There are lots of restriction but I sort of like it. In a way, they draw a border for how much a girl can do. But I guess if a US person go to Burma and follow the tradition, I think they would be so restricted and so they wouldn’t be able to follow it because it’s too much restriction you couldn’t do this or that. There are lots of things you can’t do.

Me: What is TV like in Burma? Or, like, when you read a newspapers, the media, what is it like if you were to compare it to what you see here? For me, living in the US, when I turn on the TV, it’s always someone gets murdered, or some bad news, or lots of sex, and you know.

Julia: We have different channels. Well, we can either watch channels that are related yes but also there are local channels. But for local channels it’s mainly how the military’s doing good for the society. So surface, same with the newspaper. They don’t dare write bad things about the military. It’s like for here, they are more open for what’s going on. So Burma, if you write anything bad about the military the guy would get in trouble.

Me: I see, so, when you see any of this going on in the United States, where we talk about, you know, the senator getting in trouble, we point out things , just like basically everything you see. Were you surprised?

Julia: I was sort of expecting it.

Me: Oh, you were expecting it?

Julia: Just like how it’s restricted in Burma, there are also some philosophy how the U.S. can be saying this stuff if it is on the news and stuff so you can sort of imagine how it would go here.

Me: And did you have any feeling or a thought that like before you got here that you can do what you want?

Julia: Yes, sort of, a bit.

Me: Because, that seems to be something a lot of people think. Oh, you go to the U.S you do what you want.

Julia: Well, I guess there are some laws and restriction.

Me: So your country doesn’t have a set curfew for women?

Julia: You mean how we get back home?

Me: There is no law for the curfew?

Julia: No.

Me: Here, they tried to at one point to make a law. I come from Chicago, so I’m not from California. At one point, they tried to make a law there was a law that if anyone under age 17 that if they are out pass a certain time, the police can pick them up and take them to their parents’ house and give them a ticket.

Julia: That’s different.

Me: Yeah, I don’t know if they’re still doing that now but Chicago has really bad crime. A lot of a lot of the crime is done by young people.

Julia: I guess it didn’t go really well.

Me: I don’t think it did but, I left Chicago when it was going on.

Julia: Well, just parents do the curfew.

Me: Was it hard to be a transfer student?

Julia: I was expecting it to be hard but it wasn’t as hard as I think, because I thought maybe, you know, uh, I would have, you know, because this is a community college, so I was expecting since it’s college, I was expecting really, really high education and that I wouldn’t, I wouldn’t understand it. But, then, unexpectedly, I think I understood it well. I think it’s because there are lots of lots of classes that start from the basics, right? I was expecting not to start at the basic and just go to the high level.

Me: I think, what I’m trying to ask you is if it was physically hard to come to school here from Burma. Did you have a program or something to help you get over?

Julia: No. Umm, I think it’s mainly because my brother is here, so he is the one who handles all the stuff. So I just go.

Me: Is he a citizen here?

Julia: No, international student.

Me: So, right now your brother is probably the closest person you have. But is there anyone in your family you’re close to, like your mom or dad uncle aunt?

Julia: Yeah, I’m really close to my family but I don’t meet them.

Me: I mean, like, emotionally. For me, I was always close to my grandmother because she was always there, and she always supported me and made me feel good about myself and stuff like that.

Julia: I guess it would be my mother.

Me: And she pretty much supports what you do?

Julia: Yeah. If she doesn’t like it, she would say it but it’s up to me to decide on it.

Me: How did she feel about you coming here?

Julia: Actually, she support it.

Me: I was wondering if your mom was worried.

Julia: Oh yeah, she super worried but she worried too much she would always say like on Skype we communicate, like be careful and stuff and repeating the whole thing. And even my brother say she is like a recorder saying it over and over again. But then she also knows she can’t do anything so she can’t just come here and stop me. It’s actually hard to get a visa to come here.

Me: You brought up the military, that if you wrote something bad about the military you get in trouble. Do you go to jail?

Julia: Yeah, you either go to jail or sometimes the public does not know what happens.

Me: Oh, I see, like you go like missing, or they can’t find you.

Julia: Well, I think it’s mainly the jail, that person normally goes to jail for writing a small piece of news in the newspapers. I think they get sentenced to like around two digits a year like either 50 years or 30 years, I guess. Because I hear lots of news from the TV, like private news. Private means like the military are not aware of it but there is no locals listen to it. I think they are called like V.O.A.

Me: Wow, you said like 50 years?

Julia: From what I know, there are people, like, actually, there was a riot going on in 1988. I guess then those people that was against the military were put in jail and I guess they’ve been there for like 50 years.

Me: Because of that, do you know how your parents feel about the military or anything? They never talk about it, right?

Julia: Well, they do actually.

Me: So, they talk about how they feel about the military at home?

Julia: Yeah, sort of, they do. Actually, all the time.

Me: But it’s not good it.

Julia: Well, you can talk between families because they normally do. But then as long as long as you don’t do it by action, it don’t really matter.

Me: Oh, so you can say something outside.

Julia: Actually, 90 percent of people say their something outside.

Me: But as long as they don’t write it in the newspaper.

Julia: Newspaper, or like every, you know, everybody actually knows whether they write it in the newspaper or not. As long as they don’t act it out, take actions. Because, you know, like I can’t remember the time, but there was a year when there was a riot again. It was recent. I think in 2005 or 2003, where the military shot lots of people.

Me: The protesters for the riot, they weren’t breaking anything, were they?

Julia: No, they were just, you know, on the street rioting. They were just going against power.

Me: Kind of like here with signs and talking.

Julia: Yeah, it’s like going against power.

Me: You see that a lot here. There was something called the umm…
[baby is crying loudly]

Me: I’m just gonna wait.

Me: So we had something called the Occupy Movement, where people were gathering and protesting the fairness for all the money that rich people make and how poor people get more poor. Were you here during that time?

Julia: No, I just am here like 2012, I guess.

Me: Yeah, that was around this time, so you didn’t see it?

Julia: No, I don’t read that much of the news.

Me: Ok, I was wondering if that made you nervous.

Julia: Well, not really because I was expecting this kind of stuff to happen and government won’t do as much, take that much of action like in Burma.

Me: How do the Burmese in general see the United States in general?

Julia: Freedom of speech, I guess.

Me: That’s it?

Julia: There was a thing about how people be free. It was more how the whole world would describe as democracy.

Me: One thing that people think about the United States is freedom, this freedom that, but did anything about, like, did you guys know anything about the racism or the discrimination that goes on?

Julia: I sort of know it but for general reason most of the adults in there, they normally think more to the how there is freedom because of the different leadership. More politics than racism. They think more about politics in Burma. Actually, in Burma, we don’t have racism; everything is equal. You know, equally likely. So, yeah, we don’t really actually think much of it.

Me: Even here in San Francisco, it was very racist towards Asians or anyone of Asian descent, just basically anyone who is not white. Even during World War 2, where they took the Japanese and put them into internment camps. Back then everyone Asian looked Japanese. Sometimes they would put Chinese and you know everyone there. And that happened only like more than 50 years ago. I was wondering if anyone knows about the things that happened like that.

Julia: Ummm, no.

Me: I figured. So, how do you feel about the military takeover or the politics?

Julia: Well, actually right now the military takeover is over in Burma. They’re trying to get back to like, closer to democracy. Because Aung San Suu Kyi right? You know, the lady in Burma? Aung San Suu Kyi?

Me: Yeah.

Julia: She was actually under house arrest until recently so, like, since she came out, she is trying to change the policy in Burma. She is trying to put Burma into the part of democracy. However, some people, because of the promises she make, promises she make with some people about how she would change the policy and laws, but there are some people who are impatient. They want it really recent.

Me: Like right now.

Julia: Yeah, right now. So, in those cases, I actually really thought like those kind of people should stop the military from Burma. Some people are patient like they understand how long time, like how long it would to take for the actual things to happen. But for some people, they are impatient; they want it to happen right now. Me and my friend would normally say how they see the military better than how Aung San Suu Kyi is doing the things. We just feel like they aren’t understanding.

Questions Answered by Email [Post Interview]

Me: Hi. Thanks for the interview. I will like to ask a few more questions.

Why do you call your country Burma instead of Myanmar?

Do you practice Buddhism here? How do you?

Julia: Burma was the initial name of the country before it changed to Myanmar in 1989.

However, from my experience, most foreigners use ‘Burma’ more than ‘Myanmar’ to describe my country. I would normally get a response where they asked me where ‘Myanmar’ is and would only get it when I rephrase my words to Burma. Since the name was changed in 1989, during the time when I learned my language, it would be written in a way where it would be pronounced “Myanmar” but we still call people in our country “Burmese.” Because “Burma” is the name that was given to our country by the hero and savior of the country, “Aung San,” so some people continue to believe that it is the actual name for the country.

I am a Buddhist so I do practice Buddhism but I am not the orthodox type. I am not familiar with what is in San Francisco so I rarely visit and pay respect at the monastery here. However, I say my prayers every day as a way to respect both Buddha and my family at home. Although we normally have a Buddha statue at home, since I am temporary living in San Francisco, I don’t have that. I believe that what matters is that I pray from my heart and soul and that physical form is not required in order to practice Buddhism.
Hopes this help. If you have further questions, feel free to ask me.

Me: I was wondering if you have a preference for calling you’re county Burma or Myanmar, and if you do, then why?

Julia: I guess I missed answering the actual question. I, myself, do not have any preferences to how I call my country, maybe because I am part of a younger generation who has lesser interest in politics. However, there are still some people who choose to call Burma than Myanmar. The reason I could think of would probably the fact that Burma is given by Aung San (father of the country) and people want to honor the name he had given, especially when the government and the citizens were not on a really good term when the name was changed.

Me: Also, can you describe the place you grew up, like your neighborhood? And the people who live around you? Was it peaceful, lively?

Also, can you tell me more about the statement, “we don’t have racism in Burma”? or did you mean it another way, maybe or is it just for where you live?

Julia: I used to live in an apartment, the bottom floor. What is different from the apartment in Burma and the apartments here is that in Burma, apartments are cheaper and more affordable because of they are not as spacious as single housing. It is fun living in apartments in Burma because without making much effort, neighbors just surround us before we know it. There are also quite a lot of stores and food stands around that neighborhood. There are a lot of festivals in Burma and that is one of the ways that we become close to our neighbors.

However, my family later moved to a single housing neighborhood. Things are not as lively as before. People would only greet when we need face to face. Other than that, everyone is busy with his/her own chores and jobs. It is kind of lonely in that house and sometimes I miss my times in the apartment.

As for the question on racism, it would be wrong to say that there is no racism going on. It is probably the way and place I grew up in that I didn’t have to deal with such matters. In the apartment neighborhood I lived in, we have lots of people of color for our neighbors. And I don’t see any problems between our neighbors and they are also really great people. They would share the sweets they made on their religious festival to everyone in the neighborhood.

The case of racism was not really that bad that it would cause trouble in the past. However, there are hot topics on issues close to racism and discrimination in the past year. It is still going on. I guess you can check on “Rohingya” in Burma and you might be able to find the conflicts happening in Burma. This is the latest topic that would relate to racism in Burma.

Envisioning Home in the Land of the Invader

Envisioning Home in the Land of the Invader
by C.K. Ramsey, May 2014

Inspired by Voice of Witness–a San Francisco non-profit dedicated to the use of oral history to elucidate the personal accounts of human rights abuses suffered by undocumented immigrants living and working on the fringes of American society–this argumentative essay project endeavors to give voice to immigrants and their unique American experiences. Although our class project is inspired by Voice of Witness, we have chosen to expand our pool of witnesses to include not just those who have endured human rights abuses, but anyone with a contemporary immigration narrative they wish to share. Lujain Alobaide is a fellow classmate from Iraq, who has graciously agreed to share his story with me. Lujain is an intelligent young man with progressive views on a range of topics, most of which we touched on in our extensive interview. We discussed everything from his image of home and family in Iraq, his immigration experience, impression of America and its citizens, to politics and homosexuality, as well as religion and race.

Lujain’s romanticized image of life in Iraq is most likely rooted in the fact that he was a very young child when he lived there, unaware of the privileges his family may have enjoyed considering that they, and the country’s former leader–Saddam Hussein–are Sunnis and occupied the nexuses of power in the nation. I doubt that Shias and Kurds would share his view of Iraq during the era of Hussein. His view on LGBT rights is quite liberal–he supports equal rights for LGBT Americans–but his opinion of homosexuality is surely entrenched in Islamic philosophy that is emphatic in its connection to nurture rather than nature as the source of behavior. But it is his belief that discrimination based on skin color is non-existent among Muslims that was most surprising. He states emphatically that Islamic instruction has settled the issue of racism within the Muslim faith, but there is no escaping history’s impact on the present. All the major religions have histories of racism, and those histories of race and religion contribute to our current attitudes toward people of color, whether you are Christian or Muslim, Black or White. With these topics aside, I have chosen for the purpose of this essay to focus on how the experiences of his young life have changed his concept of home and family, concluding that his journey from Iraq to America has expanded said concept from one vested in multi-generational unity and security in his former homeland, to one that includes a new reality of home and family in his new homeland, while he struggles to extricate himself from the grips of familial discord.

Born in Iraq during the reign of Saddam Hussein, before the American invasion in 2003, Lujain enjoyed a middle-class life of comfort and security with his mother and two brothers, in a house owned by his grandfather, along with two uncles, an aunt, and their children. His parents were divorced, and his father lived in the United Arab Emirates, where he worked as a civil engineer. Forced to flee Iraq to escape escalating sectarian and ethnic violence unleashed by the American invasion of 2003, he and his family found themselves living in the United Arab Emirates with the man he felt abandoned them. Lujain would be pressed to create a new definition of home in a new land, with a father he didn’t know.

A huge smile stretches across his face as the warmth of happy memories of close family ties and a carefree life flood the room when Lujain talks about growing up in Iraq. Although his parents are divorced and he has very little contact with his father, he still looks back on this time with fondness: “I mean this time you could say that even though I don’t really remember what really happens, but it definitely, probably was the best time of my life…I know we had like a really big happy family…” He lived in a large multi-generational home built by his grandfather, with his mother, two brothers, and a host of cousins, aunts, and uncles that filled the space left vacant by his father’s absence. He speaks fondly about school, and a life without “concerns,” although his memory may be impacted by his age at the time. Tisha Ornstein and Lixia Yang, Professor and Associate Professor, respectively, of Psychology at Ryerson University, suggest in their article “The Effect of Emotion-Focused Orientation at Retrieval on Emotional Memory in Young and Older Adults,” that “…the emotion-focused orientation instruction at free recall strengthened the emotional enhancement effect, particularly the positivity bias, in young adults,” meaning that, if we hear positive things about a particular time or place–even if we were too young to truly remember events ourselves–we will create positive associations with that time or place. I believe the necessity of positive memories is paramount to Lujain’s positive associations with national identity and concepts of home and family.

To focus on what he remembers as positive from his childhood assists him in contending with the painful absence of his father, a subject that surfaces immediately in our discussion: h states, “…even though there was a part of me, you know—I don’t have a dad, I don’t talk to him, don’t speak to him—he almost like from my point of view, he almost never cared,” suggesting to me that, even though this may have been a happy time in his life, the absence of his father impacts his memories of this time perhaps more than he realizes. He has to remember this time as happy so as not to deal with the vacuum his father’s absence created. According to Dennis Balcom in his article “Absent Fathers: Effects on Abandoned Sons,” appearing in The Journal of Men’s Studies, “Paradoxically, abandoned sons often have intense feelings related to their fathers…The son’s reaction leads him to reject the importance of his father,” which explains the dismissive tone in Lujain’s voice when talking about his dad. “Until the son acknowledges his unfulfilled needs and longing for his father, he can remain in turmoil about himself…” While I didn’t notice any indication of inner turmoil, this could be due to the role his uncles played in his life. Assuming the place left vacant by his father—“they are like my real fathers, more than my own”—their presence was no doubt valuable in his nurturing, and in the creation of a strong sense of self. Reminiscing about the place where family unity and a life without violence and ethnic unrest still existed inadvertently exposed a wound left untreated by the absence of a parent, an absence that, when juxtaposed against the presence of his uncles, feeds his concept of family in Iraq.

The smile is gone; the warm happy memories have turned into cold recriminations against the liberators who promised freedom, but instead deprived him of the home and family he had come to cherish and rely on. Life in Iraq after the American invasion had descended into violence and chaos: “It was really bad…one of the things that I remember…there was a, you know, they bombed a car…they put a bomb there, and it exploded…a lot of people get killed, and it was really nearby my house…it was really scary…” According to Lujain, the American invasion unleashed sectarian violence and threats of invasion from Iran, Iraq’s closest and most feared neighbor, which Saddam Hussein, through fear and intimidation, managed to keep at bay, a point confirmed by Savera Someshwar, Managing Editor of, in her article “Iraqi society has been extremely polarized.” “What started as a US-led coalition invasion to topple Saddam Hussein turned into one of the most brutal sectarian conflicts the modern world has seen…a terrible communal bloodbath that is still continuing,” not to liberate and free the people from the clutches of a dictator, but instead to gain control of the country’s vast oil reserves, “more like colonialism stuff,” he said. He also believes, like many Iraqis, that it was the responsibility of the Iraqi people to depose Saddam Hussein and liberate their own country. He railed against the devastation done to his country by the so-called liberators: “…you just made things worse for me, the United States intervention made my life just miserable. What kind of freedom is that, freedom by killing people, by bombing them?” Home for Lujain and his fellow Iraqis had become a minefield of terror and violence, ripping apart families, destabilizing the security and economy of the nation, pitting religious factions against one another, and destroying the home of his memories, thanks to the benevolence of their liberators, the U.S. government.

Life became so unbearable in Iraq that the family fled and was forced to turn to the father that had abandoned them for assistance. “He called my dad and talked to him, and my dad finally have some emotion I guess, and he said, ‘OK I’m going to come to Jordan and I want to see you guys.’” Lujain was visibly upset by the memory of having to ask the man he felt rejected him for help. If there was anyone else the family could have contacted for help, his face told me, they would have. So, against his better judgment, he and his family went to Jordan, and eventually moved to the United Arab Emirates with a man he didn’t even recognize when he saw him on the street: “I knew who he was only because when I was sitting there I heard like his name, they were shouting his name, so I was like OK that’s him.” It had been years since the last time he’d seen his father; he was still a very young child – four or five years old – when his parents divorced and was now twelve years old, having not seen his father in all that time. “Preparing the abandoned son to engage the absent father begins with clarifying the son’s unspoken wishes. What did he always want to say…ask…share with his father?” (Balcom 6). There wasn’t time for any of this for Lujain or the family, and the reunion turned out to be disaster. “It’s kind of like they really devastating each other’s lives, their really making their lives miserable, and my life…” A year into the reunion, his parents’ relationship began to go downhill, and, according to Lujain, it was his father’s inability to come to terms with abandoning his family, that most likely lead to his parents’ divorce in the first place. Whichever is the case, life in the United Arab Emirates was fraught with contention and Lujain found himself ensconced within the dynamics of a family that were as chaotic as the nation he was forced to flee. Could he create home under these conditions?

After an antagonistic five years together, the Alobaide family decided to immigrate to America, a decision precipitated by the financial crisis of 2008, which limited employment opportunities for the father. The immigration process proved humiliating for Lujain: “…it’s kind of funny and insulting at the same time. She would like as you a question like; when you go to the United States, would you form a terrorist group and bomb people?” With Saddam Hussein deposed, Shia and Kurdish communities that had suffered violent human rights abuses at the hands of Hussein’s Ba’athist government targeted Sunnis, whom they associated with Saddam. But Lujain points out that not all Sunnis liked or supported Saddam, nor was he a man motivated by faith: “Saddam was pretty much a secular guy, he never cared about Islam or any religion, if he had done so he wouldn’t have been the dictator he had became.” Unfortunately, the opportunity to discover that they shared a universal distaste for their former leader was lost, and differences were inflamed by an occupying nation’s desire to colonize the region and exploit its natural resources. The nation’s oil reserves were the targets of daily attacks by Iranian-sponsored terrorist groups, whose sole purpose was to further destabilize the country and gain control of the nation’s economy, in competition with the occupying force. Law and order were non-existent; looting and kidnapping were on the rise, and the country responsible for unleashing this reign of terror on their homeland was now asking them if they would be a threat to this nation. In an interview with John Malkin of Voices For Creative Nonviolence, Iraqi national Walid Waleed talked about what he and his fellow Iraqis have experienced since the invasion in 2003: “On 9th March 2003 my cousin was injured…an American soldier shot her…” Waleed’s cousin was wearing an Arabic dishdasha–a long sleeved collarless garment–which was black, the same color Saddam Hussein’s fighters wore. The soldier couldn’t tell the difference because, according to Waleed, he “…he didn’t have the knowledge to see the fashion of women in an Arabic country.” Throughout the interview, Waleed goes on to describe the difficulty of living without the everyday conveniences most westerners take for granted: “security, electricity, fuel (gasoline, kerosene, cooking gas), jobs, education, medical care, and to get back our houses, which had been looted by Almahdy army, the correct spelling is al-Mahdi. Although Lujain and I had a good laugh about the ridiculous question asked by the immigration interviewer, it was obvious to us both that there was nothing funny about it considering what his country was enduring. The family was approved to immigrate to America, and Lujain would once again have to expand his concept of home and family to include a new homeland, and a new set of obstacles his family would face there.

A new beginning in America would include a new perception of the American people. “I had a lot of hatred towards Americans…I was like, those people who killed my people.” Understandably, Lujain’s view of American was negative considering what the American invasion did to his country. One of his relatives was jailed in Abu Ghraib prison, and witnessed many of the abuses suffered at the hands of American military personnel: “…they would be creative in the ways they tortured people,” he states. His bitterness rose to the surface when discussing the perceptions he believes Americans have of his people “terrorist,” “ignorant,” and “uneducated.” Susan Akram, writing for the Arab Studies Quarterly, suggests that “The demonization of Arabs and Muslims in America began well before the terrible tragedy of September 11, 2001,” and has been used to justify America’s neo-colonialist Middle East foreign policy, the vilification of Palestinians to justify support of the Israeli governments theft of Palestinian homeland, and US military interest in securing the natural resources–oil–of Arab countries to be exact. Moving to America has changed Lujain’s opinion of the American people. He no longer believes that all Americans hold negative stereotypes about Iraqis and want to hurt them: “…it’s not like those people really want to kill you, or just hate you for no reason…you can have a discussion with them.” He says he now understands that people often rely on stereotypes rather than knowledge of different cultures before forming opinions about particular groups. His concept of home and family has expanded to include America and her people.

Like most Americans, Lujain’s view of his new government and its political system is still in the love-hate stage. “We…definitely…have democracy, at least if you compare it to…other countries, but I think there is the United States foreign policy that is the problem.” He believes the American people don’t pay enough attention to what is going on in other countries, and don’t always consider the impact our policies have on people around the world. He may be partially correct—most Americans don’t know much about our nation’s foreign policy—but it’s a mistake on his part to believe that people from other countries know any more about their nation’s foreign policy. I’ve often found that immigrants from other countries that I have spoken with are misinformed about foreign policy decisions made by this nation and theirs. But our foreign policy isn’t the only thing he has an issue with; he doesn’t understand why the richest, most powerful nation in the world would have such a dismal educational system or homelessness: “…and the…shock that I got is how does a country like the United States, that do not have a universal health care…” He pointed out that even in Iraq everyone had access to health care, guaranteed free education from elementary school to college, and there was no such thing as homelessness, until after the American invasion. It would have been great if I could have defended America on these issues, but I couldn’t. Lujain was carving out a home for himself in a country that afforded him the ability to speak his mind on any subject, rather than the fear of doing so in his former homeland.

While he has grown to accept and embrace his new homeland–flaws and all–his nuclear family is still at odds with one another. When I suggested that the transition to this country had been tough on his family, he agreed: “Oh, definitely, and what make it difficult in my case is my parents, they hate each other.” He claims that both his parents want to play the “victim role,” most likely exacerbated by the fact that his father isn’t working: “…when you come from a foreign country they don’t recognize your bachelor degree, unless you go through some kind of process,” a man, who can’t support his family, and doesn’t always feel like a man. His brother is struggling to find his niche; he’s worked in maintenance, in a hotel, driven a taxi. “Now he’s trying to find a security position, he keeps changing. He has a lot of problems, and he’s actually created a lot of problems for the family as well.” We didn’t discuss his brother much, but perhaps he isn’t having as easy a time adjusting to life in America as Lujain. It would be interesting to hear his point of view on America, and how he feels about living here. What is clear is the almost non-existent relationship between Lujain and his father. They barely speak to one another except for the occasional “hi and sometimes goodnight.” Consequently, Lujain spends most of his time, as much as he can, away from home. “The only reason I would go home is if I just want a place to sleep,” he stated. “Marital conflict can cause adjustment issues, complicate conflict resolution styles and alter emotional security,” according to Melody Causewell, of Life in America has provided Lujain with opportunities he did not have in Iraq, opened his mind to different people and cultures, and has impacted his concept of home both positively and negatively.

Lujain’s concept of home has expanded from one vested in multi-generational unity and security in his former homeland, to include the reality of a new life in America with all the freedom and privileges citizenship affords him, while caught within parental discord. Unlike Iraq, America offers Lujain options that can allow him to change his family dynamic. He can encourage his parents, and his entire family to get counseling, or as a last result, he can convince his mother to divorce his father. Whichever decision they make, they are not alone, many American families experience conflict as a result of infidelity, economic instability, battles over how to raise the children, or for many other reasons. Fortunately for Lujain, his family can come through these difficult times and survive. He can never relive his memories of family life in Iraq, but he and his family can conceive and create a new American family to rival those memories.

Works Cited

“Lujain Alobaide.” Personal interview. 21 Mar. 2014.

Akram, Susan M. “The Aftermath of September 11, 2001: The Targeting of Arabs and

Muslims in America.” Arab Studies Quarterly 24.2/3 (2002): 1-61. Ethnic NewsWatch. Web. 16 May 2014. <;.

Balcom, Dennis A. “Absent Fathers: Effects on Abandoned Sons.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 6.N3 (1998): 1-25. Gale. Web. 25 Apr. 2014. <;.

Causewell, Melody. “The Psychological Effects of Marital Conflicts on Adolescents.” LIVESTRONG.COM. LIVESTRONG.COM, 18 June 2013. Web. 14 May 2014.

Malkin, John. “Life in Iraq: An Interview – February 2008.” Voices for Creative Nonviolence. Voices for Creative Nonviolence, Feb. 2008. Web. 16 May 2014.

Someshwar, Savera R. “Iraqi Society Has Been Extremely Polarized.” India Abroad 38.25 (2008): 1-2. ProQuest. Web. 27 Apr. 2014. <;.

Ornstein, Tisha J., and Lixia Yang. “The Effect of Emotion-Focused Orientation at Retrieval on Emotional Memory in Young and Older Adults.” EBSCO. Apr. 2011. Web. 20 May 2014.

Lujain’s Transcript

C.K. Ramsey: We know you were born in Iraq, What was your life like there?

Lujain Alobaide: First I can tell you my life before and after maybe the war if you would be interested in that.

CR: Which war, do you mean the American invasion?

LA: In 2003, yea so basically even before the war, I mean technically my parents were technically divorced. I was living with my aunt, my uncle I have two uncles, my aunt, and my grandpa they all have like their kids and my family. I have like two other brothers and my mom, we were all living in the same house it was a really big house. Like I don’t know eight rooms or something like eight bedrooms, yea it was really big, it was my grandfather’s house because, as I told you my parents were technically divorced, and my father was in the United Arab of Emirates. During that time I think they were divorced in somewhere in 1998, and I was really young I was somewhere like four years old. I mean this time you could say that even though I don’t really remember what really happens, but it definitely probably was the best time of my like because you know I was a kid, and you know I know we had like a really big happy family you could say. Like you know with my uncles aunts and stuff I was technically really happy you know, go to school there were no concerns and stuff even though there was a part of me you know, I don’t have a dad I don’t talk to him, don’t speak to him, he almost like from my point of view, he almost never cared because he just came, like the second time I ever saw him after they divorced was after seven years, no it was actually even more, yea cause the second time I saw him was in 2006 and it was not in Iraq anyway, we’ll back, we’ll come back to that I guess, so he after they like, after they divorced they technically came, I mean he technically came once before he traveled you know, he just came and bring some candies, I remember and then after that I never seen him. He maybe he, I mean my brother, my oldest brother, he sometime call him like maybe and we talk like once in each six months over the phone and less than one minute so there is like a really big gap that still affects us until today

CR: Yea growing up without a dad is tough. So you say your brother talks to him every six months?

LA: Yea, I also like, I like probably when I grow up more when I was maybe 11 or 12 actually. I probably talk to him like really maybe 1 minute or so.

CR: What did your father do for a living?

LA: He’s civil engineer.

CR: Did your mom work?

LA: My mom during that time no.

CR: Your family in Iraq, you say you had a big house so would you say you lived a middle-class lifestyle?

LA: Uh you could say that, because it was actually my grandfather who built it, and my aunt, I mean you can see we were definitely dependent on my uncles, they are more like they are like they are really my fathers, they are like my real fathers more than my own you can say even though I living with my actual dad right now, which we can talk about later its really complicated.

CR: Do families in Iraq tend to live together in multi-generational households?

LA: They do that as long as you know it’s a big house and there’s no problems, you know sometimes when the kids they got married they go out they buy new house, but usually if you are talking about in terms of middle-class or working-class I mean like maybe it’s just my point of view, like maybe especially like before, maybe 90 percent of the people they had their own house, it was really to see a person who is renting or is homeless there is no such a thing.

CR: No such thing as homelessness?

LA: No not before the war that’s for sure.

CR: What was the environment like was it urban like San Francisco, or rural?

LA: It was definitely mixed but in terms of my life we lived in the capital, which was more like, you can’t really say like San Francisco, San Francisco is really much more modern than Bagdad. During that time I lived near by the airport which was good before the war, but during the war and after, it was really big problem because there was almost the major battles happened there, it was kind of just normal place there were no mall or fancy buildings no.

CR: What about school, were they like American schools or were they traditional religious schools?

LA: I wouldn’t say really religious, but the education system there is fundamentally different than here, that is definitely for sure, ah the school before the war it was good but it was kind of like, they really glorify the president of the country you know, that kind of dictatorship like in every page of the book like when you open the book there is a page that has the picture of Saddam Hussein who was the president of Iraq at the time, as you probably know, and perhaps some excerpts of things that he said some quotes and stuff.

CR: What did you think of Saddam Hussein?

LA: Well that’s a good question, but you really have to know that as a person, I mean he’s definitely a dictatorship you know there’s no argument about that, but if you compare the country in his era and afterwards it would definitely, even the people who hate him they would definitely tell you that when we were in his era there was life much better than now, at least we have some kind of security and stability, now we could anything could happen a bomb or something could kill a lot of people now there is a lot of blood.

CR: Although you may not have liked him, you felt safer when he was in power and there was a better standard of living?

LA: Definitely.

CR: Are you a Sunni, or?

LA: I am a Sunni.

CR: What are the different factions?

LA: Well there is the Sunni and there is the Shia and there is the Curds but the Curds are kind of centered in the north area.

CR: What’s the difference?

LA: Well its basically they’re all Muslims the Sunni and the Shia, it’s really an old you know a kind of stupid argument I would call it because there’s no actual arguments there’s just this has been created you know for when you want to have make a civil war or something they will play on this, the difference between them. When the prophet Mohammed, of the Muslims, when he died there has to be like a successor for him, and during that time there were like four men they called the righteous successors, ah there was their names are Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Ali ibu Abi Talib, they came after the prophet they succeeded him. The Shia believe that his son-in-law, Ali should be the first successor after him because they believe that the Caliph, you know the one that succeeded the prophet should be from the household of the prophet not anyone else, while the Sunni’s believe that the one who should succeed the prophet could be anyone but he had to meet the certain eligibilities, he doesn’t have to be within the household of the prophet, but again this really did not came into place until maybe 500 hundred or more years after the prophet had died so it’s kind of like even ridiculous how things are being now.

CR: So it’s kind of like Christianity in that when Jesus died we got Jews, Catholics, Baptist, and whatever, with everyone saying we’re the real ones, and someone else saying, no we’re the real ones, that kind of thing?

LA: Yea, exactly.

CR: Why did you come to America?

LA: Well we came to it’s kind of like we’re really jumping around cause I mean first of all before we came to America I have to tell you about it.

CR: OK, tell me.

LA: Well after the war you know it was really difficult because there was all kind of civil war all kind of you know people get killed there was a lot incidents that happen to me and my family and to my uncles.

CR: Are these things the Americans did, or because of the American invasion?

LA: It’s definitely because of the American invasion because when they invade the country there was no kind of sovereignty, there was not like one person, there was no specific group that is taking control. There was like Iran our neighbor, you know the country Iran, they was like controlling some areas, there was like Americans, there was like all kind of those players. It was really bad, I mean after 2006 there was a civil war which we had never had before as long as I remember, the first time I knew what Sunni and Shia mean was in 2006 when that happened, ah there was a lot of incidents. One of the things that I remember, we were building a new room in my grandfather’s house and there was a you know they bombed a car, you know they put a lot of bombs there and it exploded somehow, and I don’t know how they remote control maybe, somehow a lot of people get killed and it was really nearby my house, and so I was walking like, I was on a ladder and I was just climbing up and that happens. I almost fell down, it was really scary, and then they did some nasty things. One of the nasty things they did at that time, and people when you see people getting killed and stuff you do, you know what do you do, you call the ambulance and you get help and stuff, so people would be like really crowded right so they do really nasty thing they would put another bomb another car and they would also bomb it so when people was like you know get really packed and crowded they would bomb the second one.

CR: How did the Iraqi people view the Americans, did they see us as people coming to help, or did they see it as an invasion, people there to do more harm than good?

LA: Well you’re talking about just my opinion or the Iraqi people?

CR: Either one, your opinion or things you may have heard about how people felt about the Americans.

LA: Well I would say that the majority of the people know that the United States wanted to invade Iraq, not to free us definitely it was more like maybe oil purpose you know more like colonialism stuff you know, it was not about freeing people. I could really give you a rational answer for that, if you compare the status of the country before and after the invasion, you compare that and you will know definitely that the, I would call it the occupation or the invasion, it was not to free people definitely and a lot of people thought that too. On the other hand they also wanted to get rid of Saddam Hussein, so there was this and that. I think like there should have been a kind of like revolution to make that guy step down without you know a phony intervention.

CR: You felt it was the responsibility of the Iraqi people to get him out and we should have just minded our business?

LA: Yea definitely, definitely, I mean definitely because I mean you just made things worse for me, the United States intervention made my life just miserable. I was happy, I was just living there and everything was, I hadn’t had any concerns before even though I had problems with my dad that wasn’t a big problem, it was OK you know, I’m not going to be homeless, I’m going to have food to eat you know, education was free even in the university it was all free I mean you just came in and you try to free me. What kind of freedom is that, freedom by killing people, by bombing them?

CR: When you came to America and you heard how people in this country talked about the invasion did you think we just didn’t get it, did you think the we didn’t know the truth that maybe our government didn’t tell us the truth about the reasons we went over there, or that we just didn’t care?

LA: Well to be honest, I felt like some people are really kind of really ignorant about the issue. Cause some people, they don’t even know where Iraq is located, their like oh really your from Iraq, and some others they really sympathized and apologized, and you know it was really nice you know, to see that at least some people they have sympathy, but in my opinion it was like a lot of people, as Americans they are really more concerned about, you know, their lives, their matters. Which is really understandable because they just want to make a living, and they don’t really have a lot of time to watch the news, which is already corrupted, they just want to get some food, get their child a good education. I didn’t feel like people had time to seek this kind of knowledge about wars and stuff, you have no idea. Remember the reason why they invaded, the actual reason they announced in the media. They say that Iraq had a massive amount of weapons of mass destruction, yea and it was never found, and they say Iraq was linked to al Qaeda, which they totally hate each other. I mean if you really think about it, how many people died in 9/11? Three thousand five thousand, ok, do you have any idea how many Iraqis or Pakistanis died in those wars? No let’s just talk about Iraq, maybe it’s like at least two-hundred thousand, that’s just those who died, and millions have been flown out of the country like refugee, and I just come here too as a refugee status.

CR: After experiencing that in Iraq, what was I like to come to this country, the country that invaded your country, and turned your life upside down?

LA: Well it’s a kind a like you don’t really have another choice, well if you stayed in Iraq you most likely will be killed there or something. Because my uncles, they went out of Iraq because they had someone threaten them, they left an envelope and they put one bullet in it, and they said that if you don’t pay us this amount of money we are going to kill you, or kidnap you know. They could do a lot of stuff, and there was a lot of thing actually happening during that time, so they are not lying to you, they would really do that. That’s why my uncles went, but the reason why I went, well before I came here I went to the United Arab Emirates, and how did that happen was, basically my older brother, he wanted to go out of Iraq because when he grow up as a teenager he didn’t feel comfortable in my grandfather’s house, because you know there, it’s kind of like my uncles kids, he have like two daughters, and it’s like another guy who’s also a teenager, and it’s not likable, I don’t know I thinks that’s the reason he wanted to go. In a teenage.

CR: Is this a custom thing, where men of a certain age, shouldn’t be around girls of a certain age?

LA: I think so, yea. I mean, I think my uncle didn’t like my brother being there at that time. I think so. I mean that’s what I get from what happened, like he never told him, you need to go, no never, and they were actually planning to give us a separate apartment, that was the plan, and then it changed. He called my dad, and talked to him, and my dad finally have, some emotion I guess, and he said ok I’m going to come to Jordan and I want to see you guys. And then we went there, we went there with my auntie, like my brothers sister, which I almost never knew before, and we went on a trip, by car, we drove to Jordon, and here’s the funny thing, we went to a place and we stayed with my father’s sister. Before he came my brother was going to the mall, and my brother was walking in that neighborhood, and then my father came, and my father, he shout at him and say hey, I don’t remember what he said I’m not sure, but like my brother didn’t recognize him, he was like who’s this guy, and he just went on.

CR: You hadn’t seen him in so long. Did you know who he was?

LA: I knew who he was only because when I was sitting there I heard like his name, they were shouting his name, so I was like ok that’s him.

CR: It must have been tough growing up without a dad, huh?

LA: Yea definitely, but it was even tougher to live with him, I would say, because what is happening now, technically it’s not, well here’s the thing, when he comes and then after that my uncle’s family they all fled and they just went out of Iraq, and they all came to live in Jordan, my father got reunited with my mom, which in my point of view, that should never, ever had happened you know. If I were like maybe at this age, or two years, or maybe one years ago, I would never, I would never, allow this to happen. It’s kind of like they really devastating each other’s lives, their really making their lives miserable, and my life, you know. We went to the United Arab Emirates with him and my mom, we stayed there for like five years before we came to the United States, well the reason why we left the United Arab Emirates is because after the financial crisis of 2008, there was a big change in the construction business, so you know the projects were really slowing down, and there was like a lot of financial problems in his job, so my uncle during that time, he decided he would apply to an organization called the international organization for immigration, so he applied, and he helped us and somehow, and we applied through him, I guess, and we had our first interview. We flew from the United Arab Emirates to Jordan, we had like several interviews, they like ask you about your life, they asked you if you give them the permission to, you know, look for every single detail about your life, and we give them that permission, you know, just by security purposes I guess, and there a funny thing that, during one of the interviews, they were like, there were three interviews, the first two you meet with like Jordanian’s, they are like, they are associated with the organization, but the third one, you have to like meet with the American representative or something, and this (he laughs), is really funny. She would ask, it’s kind of funny and insulting at the same time, she would like ask you a question, like when you go to the United States, would you form a terrorist group and bomb people? (I laugh) I’m serious, she would really ask you that, and you know, it was kind of ridiculous.

CR: Like if someone were going to do, you would really tell them, right?

LA: You know, I mean are you serious? Why are you even asking such a question?

CR: That’s crazy. So, when you first arrived in America, where did you go?

LA: Well, when I first arrived, my uncle came before us, so he set up an apartment, and we went to Daly City. We lived there like for one year almost, and then we went to Pacifica, which is where I reside now. There’s a lot of things going on also, like my parent’s, when we came here, we’ve been here like almost three years, or two, and maybe seven or eight months, out of this time, say maybe two or three months, they have not been talking to each other, they are almost like divorced, but we live in the same place, and they just communicate through me and my brother, which I find is really despicable, they just make our life, you know difficult.

CR: You’ve only been in America like eight months?

LA: No, like two years and eight months.

CR: Oh, two years and eight months. Your English is really great, I’m sure that’s something that people say all the time right? But it is. I know people born and raised here, who can’t speak English.

CR: When I first came, I didn’t really like speak any English, the only words I really knew was like, hi, how are you, good afternoon, you know, that’s it, but I went to high school in Daly City, Westmore, and I really study my ass, and I really like, I really wanted to learn, it was definitely a big shock, it kinda like you were in Mars, and you came to the Earth, like everything was different.

CR: Do you think the schools are better here, or better in Iraq?

LA: No, it’s better definitely here.

CR: Americans complain about the school system here.

LA: Well comparatively.

CR: Do you think we’re spoiled?

LA: Spoiled?

CR: Do you think we’re spoiled?

LA: What do you mean, in what sense?

CR: Do you think we don’t appreciate the educational system we have here?

LA: Well no, I don’t think you guys are spoiled, because there is a lot of bad things, I mean there is bad things, but on the other hand there is also some advantages, maybe like Americans complain, about maybe that, I don’t know. What do you guys complain about?

CR: Everything, Americans complain about everything, we’re a spoiled people, we’re used to having a lot?

LA: I think the problem is that, like with the American system it’s more kind of private, there is a lot of money issues going on, I think that as a county the United States should like, even at the University level, that should be free, you’re like almost the greatest nation on earth right now, so how come you have people who are homeless, or you have people who don’t have access to education, well compared to the poor underdeveloped, I don’t know, like the third world countries like mine.

CR: Yea, that’s the debate that some people are having right now. I think America should have free education for everyone, but I think there are reasons why we don’t. I mean America has a long history of colonialism and racism and discrimination on a lot of different levels, and just think that we simply don’t want to educate all of our people.

LA: I see, which is I think luckily in my country, I would say that actually, as far as like racial, or skin color is concerned, there was like almost no such a thing, like because I think Islam has like banished, or what is the word to say, like abolished that idea of racial…

CR: Do mean Saddam?

LA: No, I’m saying about Islam, yea the prophet like, when you know like one hundred four thousand years ago, like one his famous saying is that there is no difference between you know, like red, black, white, whatever color, or ethnicity that person has, it’s only about how righteous, how spiritual, or good you are to people.

CR: Do you have black people in Iraq?

LA: There is in the southern Iraq, there’s not a lot you know but it’s actually like this, in the southern area of Iraq, most of the people are darker skin, but in Basra, that province that I was talking to you about, they are very dark skinned, but like who cares. We didn’t have such a, you know, I’ve never thought about a difference between a person as a color of skin, it doesn’t mean anything to me.

CR: Do you have an American dream?

LA: Well definitely, I mean I have a big hopes about America, you know just like what we’re reading right now, everyone thinks that America, this the country of opportunities, a county where you can make money, a country of prosperity, you know all this stuff.

CR: Do you have a particular dream for yourself? Like, how old are you now?

LA: 20.

CR: 20? You’re a baby. (We both laugh), do you think, in thirty years, this is what I would like to be, this how I would like to be living?

LA: Well, I mean my dream is really like to have a really stable job, not like any job, I’m really interested in innovation and those kinds of things. I really wish that someday I could make my own discovery or something.

CR: So are you talking high tech innovation, or scientific innovation?

LA: Probably a little more with scientific innovation, rather than high tech innovations.

CR: You want to find a cure for cancer? (We laugh)

LA: Well not in biological stuff, I’m more like into physics maybe.

CR: Now that you’ve been here a while, do you still feel the same way about America, as when you first arrived?

LA: No definitely, when I was there (Iraq), I had a lot of hatred towards Americans because I was like those people, even though I came, I was like those people who killed my people, killed distant relatives, one of my relatives was like jailed in, I’m sure you heard about that Abu Ghraib scandal, and one of them was there, and he saw all kinds of torture, and they would do things you know, they would be creative in the ways how they tortured people, and America called my people terrorist, ignorant, uneducated, you know all those kind of stereotypes, so definitely, I didn’t like Americans before, but when I came here, I understand what really Americans mean. When you are there you understand that Americans are white, that’s really the perception over there, but when I came here, especially in California, no it’s not like that at all, you got all those kinds of people, from different backgrounds, there have different cultures, and they don’t even know where Iraq is, or they don’t really, they’re just trying to live their lives. They’re really nice people you know, it’s not like those people really want to kill you, or just hate you for no reason and, if you talk to them some people will understand, you can have a discussion with them, it’s not like, I think in terms of like western and eastern culture there’s definitely stereotypes going on, they kind of like flash back on each other, like Arabs would say Americas are corrupted, they see all the girls are naked, and then that’s kind of bullshit, and other’s would say your ignorant and you don’t respect your women, you know.

CR: Yea, there are misconceptions on both sides. It reminds me of this story of a group of American women I saw on a T.V. show somewhere, who thought they were supporting Arab women, complaining that Arab women shouldn’t be forced to wear the burka’s, and how Arab societies were oppressive toward women. Then a couple of Arab women in the audience stood up and asked what the women were talking about. We’re not forced to wear burka’s, it’s a part of our religion, and it’s what we choose to do. The point being, we don’t know each other, we only have stereotypes to rely on.

LA: Well since you brought that in, as you know, I’m a Muslim, but my mom, she doesn’t wear a hijab, but as a Muslim, I really wish that someday she will be convinced, and she will wear it, because I mean the idea behind that is really not that, as a Muslim we believe that women should be dressed modestly, and therefore should be she should be treated for her own personality and not for like her looks.

CR: But do you believe that it’s her choice?

LA: Definitely, I mean who knows, at the end God will judge her, it doesn’t mean, I would not say that this is good woman because she wearing modestly, and she’s half naked she’s a bad person, no definitely.

CR: Not even a stripper? (we laugh)

LA: Even a stripper you know, she might have some kind of experience in her life that forced her to be a stripper, you know maybe she lived in poverty, which is really, and that’s the peoples problem, I mean like, we are too judging on people without understanding their situation, or what caused them to do that.

CR: What do you think about our government?

LA: The American government?

CR: Yea, our government? It’s your government now also.

LA: Well, like in terms of parties you mean?

CR: It doesn’t have to be about the political parties, I think they’re both the same anyway?

LA: We have definitely like, we have democracy, at least if you compare it to like other countries, but I think there is the United States foreign policy that is the problem, and there is a lot of problems inside, like you got the education system problems, I mean we just mentioned that some people don’t have access to education, you have homeless people, and the really shock that I got is how does a country like the United States, that do not have a universal health care, I mean seriously, if someone doesn’t have money, he can just die or something because he doesn’t have money to pay.

CR: So were you surprised at the push-back against Obama-Care?

LA: Well technically, this push is really, there is a people, they are only concerned about money, they don’t care about people, they know they have enough money to pay insurance, so they don’t care about other people, if they will have the opportunity to purchase insurance or not, that’s the kind of thing I don’t like about Republicans in general, I mean I shouldn’t say Republicans, all of them no, but those ideas of, I think they are really being selfish, in terms of, they have money so they really don’t care about people, they are just pro-business, they just want to make a profit out of people agony, they take worker’s rights, there is a lot of things, the minimum wage, and all these kinds of issues.

CR: Do you like the idea that in America, if you don’t agree with a position, you can speak-out about it?

LA: I mean that’s definitely a really good thing, I mean if you were in Iraq in Saddam Hussein era, if you talk or said the wrong things about him they would definitely get you.

CR: Would they take you for a ride?

LA: Take you for a ride, yea, a long ride. Definitely freedom of speech is really important, but I think it’s also kind of limited in somehow. You can’t really say anything you want, and there is also some kind of implicit stereotypes, like when you want to apply for a job or something there is always some kind of racism, or some sort of discrimination going on.

CR: There’s the official America, then there’s the real America.

LA: Yea, exactly.

CR: Do you think you’ve suffered any discrimination in America? Particularly if people find out your Iraqi, because just looking at you, you look like the average white guy.

LA: I’m looking like the average white guy?

CR: Yea, when I saw you in class, I never thought you were middle-eastern, I thought like the suburbs. But when people find out your Iraqi, do you think you have discriminated against you?

LA: Well sometimes yes, sometimes no. I mean sometimes you, they, I don’t know why they have that idea you came from the desert, you are on a camel. Some people have those kinds of ideas, on the other hand there are people who really sympathize with me, they would apologize you know we are sorry. Then from that I really understand that those people they are really nice, they are not the same, there are some really good people, which is true for every race and every country.

CR: What do you think of us, the American people?

LA: It’s interesting that it’s kind of like multiple countries in one country. You got the White community, you got the Black community, you got the Latino community, then you got the Asian community. There’s all those kind of things, and each one has their own culture and stuff. I think like the Whites in general, they’re really afraid or something. There’s like something going on with them in terms of the changing demographic in the United States. They fear, I don’t know, I guess they fear change.

CR: They fear minority status.

LA: Yea I think so, definitely. I think that’s an on-going issue, that kind of racial thing. I don’t think it will ever end.

CR: Many people thought Obama’s election meant the end of racism. Shit, the tea party said hell no, and they just went after him with everything they had.

LA: There is a lot of things like, they will do everything just to disagree with him. Like even if they agree on something, they will disagree just because, you know.

CR: A lot of Obama’s policies were originally Republican policies. If you look at his policies, he’s not really a Democrat he’s really a liberal Republican.

LA: I don’t this idea of just two parties. I think there should be like an independent, or like a third party.

CR: We do have Independent’s, but most independents tend to vote along one party line or another, usually with the Democrats.

LA: Yea, well they don’t have a party, that’s what I’m saying.

CR: Let’s get back to this. Do you still have family and friends back in Iraq?

LA: I have some friends.

CR: Do you stay in touch with them?

LA: Yes I do. I mean in terms of family, I have like some on my father’s side, some uncles and aunties, but I don’t have any family relationship with them. We never spoke, we never talk. We’re kind of like strangers to each other, but in terms of my friends, I have some friends there that I went to elementary school with, and we try to keep in touch. One of them, I thought he was killed, but happily, and surprisingly, I found him, he actually found me on Facebook.

CR: What does he think about you being here?

LA: (rye laugh), well if you’re talking about him specifically, he’s kind of OK with that because he kind of understands why I came here, but if you’re talking about what people in general think about someone who is in America that’s a different story. They will, it’s kind of like those fallacies you know, like you’re living in the heaven, all the money, you got the big house on the beach. Their implication is they see a lot of movies, and they think that really is what America really is like, everyone is living a happy life, this tone of optimism. Yea, when they disagree with you on something it’s like, ah now your being an American ha. Like they tease you, oh now you’re an American now, they’ve spoiled you’re mind, now your corrupted.

CR: Would you like your friends back in Iraq to come to America?

LA: Well, I know like some of them they wanted to come because there are like all kinds of problems you can imagine, in Iraq, like for example, when I was there electricity is like one of them in terms of like utilities, the government is really; the only word I can think of is bad word, I want to say the government is fucked up.

CR: Oh, you can say that, it’s an American thing.

LA: Interestingly, I wouldn’t say that if I was speaking Arabic, I don’t know, I guess it’s the American part of me.

CR: You see we’ve corrupted you just like your friends said.

LA: It’s not true.

CR: Was it like that before the war – before the invasion – in terms of like, did you have the basic necessities in life, did you have electricity and all that stuff?

LA: Uh, in terms of electricity, it was much better than after the war. There was no water shortage, there was no like gas – which we have a lot of oil, and after the war people stand in line like for a day just to get gas.

CR: Is it still like that?

LA: No it’s better, but I think the worst time was like 2006 to 2008. It was terrible, it was like all kinds of problems. It was civil war, people killing each other, there were a lot of things going on.

CR: Do you work here?

LA: Now, no.

CR: Have you worked here?

LA: I worked like, really not a long time, maybe two month or three, with a self-employed, but he’s an Iraqi too so. I haven’t experience working for American supervisors. My brothers work, my father he doesn’t work because his, you know when you come from a foreign country they don’t recognize your bachelor degree, unless you go through some kind of process.

CR: Yea I’ve heard about that, but your brothers work here?

LA: Yeah.

CR: What kind of work do they do?

LA: Well, one of them he’s currently working also with a guy, he mainly do like construction, not construction, maintenance in buildings, they like fix lights, they paint, I guess they do a lot of this. Its manual job you could say. The other one he used to work as a break-faster, like in a hotel.

CR: A break-faster?

LA: You know the guys who they serve breakfast.

CR: Oh he’s a cook?

LA: No he doesn’t cook.

CR: He’s a waiter?

LA: Kind of like a waiter, but you can’t really say a waiter. It’s like, I remember his position it’s something like a break-faster.

CR: Breakfast?

LA: It’s not breakfast, I know what is a breakfast, but.

CR: I don’t know what that is – I guess you have to be rich to stay in those kinds of fancy hotels. The hotels I stay in have buffets.

LA: Yea they do, but what he told me about the hotel he was in was really not a good one and he quit the job actually, and he’s now he works in cliff-car or something. It’s like he’s a taxi, but he not an official taxi car, and now he’s trying to find a security position, he keeps changing. He has a lot of problems, and he actually created a lot of problems for the family as well, anyway.

CR: I guess the transition to this country has been tough on your family?

LA: Oh definitely, and what make it difficult in my case is my parents, they hate each other. They both want to play the victim role I guess. I mean he always like talk about things, I think he’s really, he plays the role of like he’s always right, he’s the one who has the right principles and ethics, he’s right and we’re all wrong, so if you disagree with him then you’re kind of the bad guy. I think in his earlier life he was totally the opposite person, he was like, I don’t know how do you say that in a good way. He was like in his marriage he drank, he goes with girls and all those things, and now even though I don’t do the things he do, and he still try to be strict, which is disgusting, I mean seriously, you’re talking about me, and don’t you remember what you were doing when you were my age and even when you were married.

CR: With the pressure your under, with the family and stuff, what do you do to release, do you talk to somebody, or get away with friends?

LA: Well, I spend most of my time just not going home. The only reason I would go home is if I just want a place to sleep.

CR: What do you do?

LA: You know for example, like I am in school now, I would just like do my homework. Usually if I would just go to a library or something and finish my homework, or do anything that keeps me away not to go home. Maybe I go to my uncle house, or you know, just not go home. And on the same side, he would always like, and my dad he would say, especially like we would have a celebration or something, and me and my mom would go my uncles house, he would say see you are corrupted, you are bad, you always leave me alone, but on the same hand, what do you want me to do? I can’t stay with you, you always argue and it’s not like you’re talking like we are a family. We’re not a family, we say we are, but we’re not, we’re just people living together, that’s all.

CR: Do you have any friends here?

LA: You mean American friends?

CR: Any kind of friends, outside of your family, outside of your siblings?

LA: I don’t think so, no. You mean like a close friend? No, which is really kind of sad, cause I used to have a lot of friends in Iraq and the United Arab Emirates, and I used to hang out with a lot of people, and when you see me you see like fifteen people with me but now I’m alone.

CR: I’m sorry to hear that, you should make some friends, you’re a nice guy, and I think that everybody can use friends.

LA: I think that the structure of like here is they just really want you to work, they kind of like make the system work this way that you go to school, then you go to work, then you go home, then you do this, then you do that. You don’t real have, it’s an individualistic society. It’s definitely that. You have a lot of individualism involved, there’s not a lot of social life here.

CR: Do you identify as Iraqi, or American or both?

LA: I’d say both, cause America has changed some ideas in me, I’ve grown as a person. I think I’ve been more open minded to accept different cultures, and different people, and different thoughts. I mean maybe one of them is the gay issue maybe, if you think like in terms of, if you ask any middle-east person – by the way I hate this term because it’s so misleading term.

CR: Middle-eastern?

LA: Yea, because the term was technically made by Britain when she was like,

CR: invading everybody,

LA: exactly, the term is like Great Britain is the center of the world, and those other countries are the middle-eastern in comparison to where Britain was, in the center. It is definitely geographically wrong, and because if you’re talking about geographically, you would only be talking about Afghanistan and other countries and nothing to do with location. Middle-eastern means all of them are Muslims, which is wrong, and that all of them are Arabs, which is wrong too.

CR: Europe and America get a lot of shit wrong. Would you ever return to Iraq for a visit, or to stay?

LA: If you’re saying like, you know, in maybe the coming ten years or so, I don’t think so because there is a lot of instability, and really the 2006 civil war has bisected the community, there is like a huge, huge corruption in the government, people are just like, they don’t really have like, they are not the same as,

CR: It’s not the same as when you were growing up there.

LA: no, but if things got better, I would definitely like to visit. My uncle, he went to Iraq like two years ago, and he took some pictures of some, you know, the house we were living in, and I like cried man. It’s like really sad, the neighborhood is just all different, the people; he said that even the peoples personalities have been changed. I don’t know.

CR: I think that happens in war, when people have suffered trauma. I can imagine living in Iraq, having a somewhat peaceful life, even if I didn’t like the dictator. I mean I didn’t like Bush, I think he was a dictator too, and then all of a sudden there’s war, and people I know die, bombs are being dropped on me, I would probably never be the same after that.

LA: Definitely, I think a lot has changed, and as I was telling you, I think I’ve changed, and I kind of accept people more.

CR: Well I guess this concludes our interview, and I really appreciate you doing this for me.

LA: No problem (very American).


The Fallen Leaves: Yang’s Journey


The Fallen Leaves: Yang’s Journey

by Anh Nguyen, December 201

There is a saying in Chinese that is roughly translated as “the fallen leaves find their ways to the root,” and which educates people to eventually stay true to their culture and origins. Charlene Yang, a Chinese immigrant in America, lives her life according to this saying. About twenty years ago, Yang moved to America with her parents, sister, and brother. Yang came from a poor province in Guangdong, where she vividly remembers the heat of summer. Like many people living in China at that time, Yang found it hard to acquire enough food and clothing. Yang was working while going to school with a salary of 80 cents a day. Her school not only allowed underage students to work, but also even provided work for students and permitted three days off a week to work in the fields. Seeing that her life could not get better if she had stayed in China, Yang decided to leave for America with her family when she was 23 years old. Her life was not easy when she first came here as she did not speak English, and everything was much more expensive than she had thought. Yang started to lean English by going to a night school while working in a clothing factory every day. When her family became more stable and more accustomed to the American life, she went to Macau to marry her husband, after which he also moved to America with her. Then, she became pregnant with her first daughter, and so their lives in the US began to be stable. Now Yang is blessed with a stable job in a hotel and a happy family with two daughters and a son.

Looking back at her decision to move to America, Yang thinks it was the best thing she could ever have done, to secure an easy and happy life for her children. Our interview takes place in Yang’s living room, which is full of Chinese ornaments and some small decorations with American flags. The background sound of her husband watching an American football game via Chinese telecast, and her children discussing things in both Chinese and English can still be heard through the recording. Yang speaks with a soft voice, and, sometimes, when the cheers of her family watching the game cuts her story off, she quietly stops talking to give a gentle and satisfied smile towards her family. When asked about her identity, Yang becomes confused because she thinks it has an obvious answer: she is Chinese. Although she cannot give any reason why, Yang insists that her family, which consists of three children who have never been to China, is a Chinese family through and through. After close examination, I realized that Yang is neither totally Chinese nor totally American, and is clinging to her Chinese origin as a coping mechanism in her American life. By blindly sticking to her Chinese culture, Yang is actually confused about her cultural identity as she tries to assimilate her origin, dream, and future to forcefully realize the American dream and make America her home, and it is only then that she realizes that she neither belongs to America nor China, which is actually a manifestation of the “underground” racism towards Asians in the United States.

Yang’s story is one of the few cases in which the American dream actually comes true, but she has not relied on sheer luck, but rather her enormous, effort to realize her dream. With a soft smile, Yang expresses how content she is with her life now. Yang is happy with her job with stable earnings and many employees’ benefits that she never had in China. Comparing her new life with her life in China, Yang is also happy when she thinks her children’s potential futures are much better than they would ever be if she had stayed in China. Yang came to American to seek a better life, and she found it. But Yang’s case is actually the odd happy case of realizing the American dreams among the poorer and unprepared immigrants in the US. Liso, an undocumented immigrant in the US, shared her view of the American dream through the book Underground America, which consists of many immigrants’ stories exposing the unthinkable hardship and abuses they have to face in America: “you find dollars lying in the grass, every leaf on the tree is a dollar” (80). However, when Liso moved to America, she realized that her life was worse off than it would had been, had she stayed in Africa, and that many Americans suffer great poverty, contrary to common belief in her country. Liso and Yang’s stories are so different that one might think they live in totally different countries or different times because Yang’s America is the land full of hopes and promises, while Liso’s is the complete opposite. Putting aside the fact that Liso was in a more complicated situation, both legally and mentally, one might think that Yang is genuinely lucky to have her life as it is now. Yang did not rely on luck, but rather her effort and attitude to make her dreams come true. When she first came to America, Yang had to adjust to the American culture, which was completely new and different to her. Because everything here was so expensive, Yang remembers she was so afraid of paying for anything that she spent two days walking nonstop to find a cheap place to stay. In addition, Yang left behind her friends to live in a country whose language she did not even speak. Therefore, Yang was also facing hardship when she moved to America. However, Yang did not let her dream slip away just because of those troubles. She tried her utmost to learn English and to save up money while keeping a positive attitude about her situation. Because she believed in herself and her accomplishments, she kept altering the hardship into challenges for her to change herself. Therefore, Yang realized her American dream by keeping a realistic view of the US and continuously challenges herself.

Yang identifies not only herself but also her children, who have never been to China, as Chinese, a behavior that is an example of one of four mainstream coping mechanisms of immigrants. Cultural identity of first and second-generation immigrants like Yang and her children is an interesting subject to study because they tend to be caught between two reasons to debate over their identity: adapting and deserting. In their study “Cultural identity and psychological adjustment of adolescent Chinese immigrants in New Zealand,” Mei Lin Eyou, Vivienne Adair, and Robyn Dixon classify second generation Chinese immigrants in New Zealand into four groups according to their attitudes towards China and New Zealand’s cultures. The study of over 400 adolescent Chinese immigrants shows that “162 (44.4%) of the participants were classified as integrated, 133 (36.4%) as separated, 20 (5.5%) as assimilated, and 50 (13.7%) as marginalized” (536). If, according to Yang’s first answer that she thinks of herself as Chinese, she falls in the 36.4% group of separated immigrants, who find themselves strongly connected to their original culture, although, after being questioned about her answer, she changes her answer to half American, half Chinese, which means she wants to appear more as an integrated immigrant, who mainly identifies herself with the mainstream cultural identity. Her lack of resolve suggests that Yang is probably confused about her cultural identity. Her confusion is the result of her struggle to live her American dream while holding onto her Chinese origin. As a result of her inner debate, she chooses to cling to her Chinese origin as a simple way to cope with her dream of living in America, the future of American life for her children, and her cultural origin.

 Although Yang tries the easy way out regarding her cultural identity, she is actually still in a much more complicated and lost situation as she tries to identify herself. Yang is actually neither integrated nor separated because her lifestyle is not similar to either the stereotypical American or Chinese. Consciously or not, Yang surrounds herself with Chinese people and avoids contact with Americans. In additions, she celebrates both American and Chinese holidays, which may make her seem like integrated immigrants who are equally affected by their original and new cultures. However, Yang acts according to the stereotypes of Americans more for the appearance of it than celebrating the actual reasons for the holidays. Thus, Yang is, indeed, trying to identify herself with both the Chinese and the American. In consequence, Yang is neither American nor Chinese, and the more she tries to act like either of these two, the more she does not belong to either of the two groups. Incidentally, Yang’s behavior clearly exemplifies the coping mechanism of a marginalized immigrant, who is alienated from both cultures. On the one hand, Yang acts like a Chinese person because she was educated to do so from childhood, so this lifestyle stays as a habit. On the other hand, Yang tries to be American because she is affected by the expectation of her family and friends about someone living in the US. Therefore, while trying to act according to different and contradicting expectations of her, Yang actually loses sight of who she is and who she wants to become. Thus, Yang’s final answer to the question about her cultural identity, which is simply “I don’t know,” greatly exemplifies her complex exile from both the cultures that she is trying to assimilate with.

Yang’s choice to stick with the Chinese culture is actually inevitable because it is a decision predetermined by American society. As explained earlier, as Yang is caught between the dilemma of blending in with the American lifestyle and retaining her Chinese upbringing, she has two choices of cultural identity, American and Chinese. However, in reality, Yang has no other choice but to stick to her Chinese roots, and to understand her forced choice, we have to understand the history of Chinese and Asian immigrants in the US. In The Wealth Inequality Reader, edited by Dollar & Sense United for a Fair Economy, Meizhu Lui assesses the racial wealth gap of American-born Asians and white Americans to find out that “American-born Asians have moved into professional positions, and the median income of Asians is now higher than that of whites. However, glass ceilings still persist…Asians are still defined by race and branded as perpetual foreigners” (50). This situation is true if we go back in history of Asian immigrants. Asians came to the United States at the same time as the Irish. However, when the early Naturalization Act of 1790 recognized the Irish as citizens, Asians were left behind in the race to be legally admitted. Then comes the Civil Rights Movement, and once again Asians are simply forgotten. Now, while there is less discrimination between the black and the white, at least by law, Asians are neither black nor white. In addition, laws were passed to alienate Asian immigrants like the Foreign Miners Tax, the Chinese Exclusion Acts, and Alien Land Act, so Asians have mostly existed quietly in secluded areas that Americans do not penetrate. In accordance, Yang represents just a small fraction of the Chinese society existing inside America, but as a dispensable external part. As a result, Yang has no other choice but to identify herself as Chinese and not American because it is the decision that society expects her to make due to her Asian race.

In other words, Yang’s choice to associate herself with Chinese people is the manifestation of the “implied racism” towards Asian Americans in the United States. Racism towards Asians is “implied” because it has never been historically and officially admitted. Asians were lucky to not be considered among the slave race, but were never among the rulers either. Even nowadays, many Asians in San Francisco solemnly live in Chinatown, Japan-town, or Korean-town. Society simply accepts the idea of naming some place Asian-town and Asian-market. Imagine saying black town! And even more confusing, if people are named because of their skin colors, shouldn’t they say yellow instead of Asians? Everything points out to the conclusion that racism towards Asians is “implied,” and it is so deeply rooted that it becomes natural and unquestioned. Living in a society that accepts and facilitates this kind of “implied racism,” Yang’ choice, once again, is the final outcome of most Asians living in the United States, and this will be the choice many more Asians immigrants will have to make if they want to live “harmoniously” here. The solution to this implied racism is even more complicated than racism towards black people because, while black-racism is openly recognized, Asian-racism is inexplicit. As a consequence, public movements are unlikely to solve Asian-racism. Educated Americans are proposing two ways to eliminate racism towards black people, which persist despite all the movements, that we either erase history or change the future. However, these methods will not provide any solution for racism towards Asians, as long as Asians themselves do not admit they are being discriminated against. So, the first step towards eliminating racism is recognizing it, but, again, this is the choice of Asians. Hopefully, Asian immigrants like Yang will no longer suffer from any kind of racism and have more control over their choices of identity.

Living in the culturally diverse United States, Yang chooses to identify herself as Chinese, despite living here for a longer portion of her life because she is confused by her dreams, expectation and origin, so she chooses to act Chinese out of sheer habit. However, Yang is neither Chinese nor American, so she is eventually exiled from both cultures and even loses sight of who she want to be. Yang’s situation shows the problem that many Asians immigrants, and immigrants in general, have to face. Immigrants are often caught in the dilemma of either changing their ideologies to adapt to the new culture or staying true to their former cultures. In any case, the decision will vary with the person’s personality, ability to adapt, and ability to understand him or herself. However, as an Asian immigrant in the United States, Yang has to suffer the implied racism that white immigrants do not have to face. And because Asian-racism is inexplicit, Yang is unconsciously, yet undoubtedly, influenced by it. Thus, the decision to cling to Chinese culture is not Yang’s choice but the result of the drives from society. In other words, Yang chooses to identify herself as Chinese is the usual behavior of a stereotyped Asian immigrant who society construct. Yang’s actual cultural identity is a wonderful mixture of the American free and exciting lifestyle and the reserved and refined Chinese doctrine. If only she could realize this, she would not be so lost and would be able to make peace with her dreams and her burden to carry on with the Chinese lifestyle.

Works Cited

Lui, Meizhu. The Wealth Inequality Reader. Dollar & Sense United for a Fair                       Economy. Oakland: Dollar & Sense, 2004. Print.

Eyou, Mei Lin, Adair Vivienne, and Dixon Robyn. Cultural identity and psychological adjustment of adolescent Chinese immigrants in New Zealand. Auckland: Elsevier, 2000. Print.

Underground America: Narratives of Undocumented Lives. Ed Peter Orner. Voice of Witness. San Francisco: McSweeney’s Books, 2008. Print.

Interview Transcript

Under the dimly light of Yang’s living room, we started our conversation. Far off to our right, Yan’s husband and children were watching an American soccer game in a Chinese news channel. The sound of the broadcast came out to be a chaos mixture of Cantonese and English; I was surprised to know how they could even make out what was going on. Yang offered me a glass of warm water with some lemon slice. We were sitting in the same sofa, so I moved to one far edge and urn to her, to give us some space, and mainly to look at her.

       Where were you born?

       I was born in China. I was 23 when I came here.

       Did you always want to come to the US?

       Yeah. I came here with my parents. They came here when I was 21. I was separated from them for 2 years.

Yang’s eyes seemed distanced as she thought of her parents. She turned from me to briefly look at her husband. As she fixed her eyes on the wooden coffer at the end of the room, which seemed to contain every little ornaments and mementos one could keep, I went on with my questions.

       Can you tell me about your first day in the US? Why did you decided to come here?

       I had always thought that everything was better here. Now China is better, but it is still better here. I heard that business is good now.

Yang turned to look at me directly when she said that, with sparkled eyes, and her hands trying to draw the cross line with China on the one side and American on the other.

       Can you tell me a little about your life in China?

       I lived in Guangdong. All I remember is that it was very hot there. We worked all day, and there was not enough food to eat.

Her eyes scrunched as she talked about her old life in China. It was as if she was trying to fresh some long forgotten memories.

       What did you do in China? What was your job?

       I mixed rice for one or two years. I was sixteen when I started working. It was when I was still studying. I worked 7 days a week. There was no holiday. It was so hot. I worked from 5am to 2pm every day. After working on the field, I went back to my house to take a shower, take a rest, and then went back to work again. I was paid 80 cents for one day. The work was not the same every day, and it was not hard work, only too long. Sometimes it took 10 hours a day, sometimes 12. Although we never stopped working, we were very poor.

Yang repeated the last sentences more than twice. She told her story in broken sentences. Sometimes she would stop and try to think of an English word for what she wanted to say. While struggling to express her at times. Yang was eager to tell her story. Yang could not remember the world “field,” so she drew it out in a piece of napkin for me. As we looked it up in the Internet, she commented on how Internet is “so good, so easy,” and how quick witted I was to think of using the online dictionary.

       How often do you contact with the people back in China?

       Not very often. My husband’s brother is in China. We talk on the phone sometimes, but not often. They say it is very good now. They make more money, and there is more food now. Everything has changed since I left, which was about 30 years ago.

       Can you tell me more about your school in China?

       I did not like school in China. If we did not do homework, they would punish us by hitting our hands. I was so scared of the teacher. The school’s system was not good in China then. The president’s policy was not good. We did not study at all. We did not go to school 4 days a week; students were supposed to work during those days. The school gave us work like cooking to feed the pigs.

We had to stopped and looked up the “pigs” word again. Yang apologized for her limited use of English, and made up for it by using body language and hand gestures. She held out one hand and hit it with the other when she told me about her being hit in school. Yang did not use the word “president,” she use a Chinese word for it. I didn’t know how the word looked like and how to put it in English character. But one thing for sure, I knew it meant “President” in Chinese because I had always heard my Chinese friends using that word. What a wonder that even my Chinese friends, who were influenced in English, still used the Chinese word when they talked about their Leader.

       Do you want to go back to China some day?

       No, I like it here. I only go back to China for vacation.

       Can you tell me a bit about your journey to the US?

       I spent 3 days coming here. I came here with my brother and younger sister. We walked for 2 days. We did not take the bus to save money. Everything was so expensive here. My parents, my brother, and I worked for a textile company. I worked there for about a while, and then I worked for an electronic company for 9 years. Now I am working for a hotel. The pay is good, and they offer employees’ benefits there, so I like my job now. My mom worked in a restaurant. The money was good, but it was hard job. We wanted to save money to buy a house. We Chinese like to have a house. We do not like moving or renting houses. If you borrow money to buy a house, after 20 years, you have that house. But if you rent your place, even after 20 years, 30 years, you still do not have any place.

It took Yang more than 20 minutes to talk about her life when she first came to the US. Yang puzzled when I asked where she first worked as she did not understand the word “company.” After a while, she muttered some Chinese word and began to catch the meaning of my questions and continued on.

       How did you meet your husband?

I pointed to her husband, who was sitting with her children 3 feet from us watching TV. They broke out some cry; maybe the game had reached its climax. The only light in the room was glittering above their head, where the TV stand was. Yang turned to her husband, and her face brightened.

       I had known him in China before I came here. He is a good man. One year after I came here, I went back to Macau to marry him, and then we came here. Now you cannot do that any longer.

       Why did you decide to come here?

       I was thinking for the future. Everything was better here. Now I have my family and my children here with me. We are very lucky to be living here.

       Do you miss China?

       A little bit. I only miss my friends. I do not like anything else in China. Now in China, the food is not good because there are lots of chemical in the food. It is not like that here. I do not have to worry about food here. The government here has policies to protect people. US’s government is better. The salary is better in China now. Government job’s pays about 5000 to 6000 thousands Chinese dollars. Although you can make more money in China, you cannot spend your money however you want to.

       How did you find life in the US?

       I did not speak English when I came here. I had to learn from A B C. I worked in the morning and went to school at night. Every day, I went to school from 6 to 8:30pm. It was very hard. After my husband came here, I had my daughter, so I stopped going to school. I learnt English by listening to the radio.

Then Yang told me again about her life in China: how she had worked all day long with below minimum pay, and how unfriendly the weather had been.

       Do you think of yourself as Chinese or American?

       I am Chinese, of course. I am still Chinese. I say “we Chinese” all the time.

Yang laughed out when I asked if she was Chinese or American, as if it had been some silly question with obvious answer. But when I turned the question around and asked what type of passport she used, to which the answer was American passport, she cached on my intention. Yang adverted her eyes and shaked her head, muttering to her self: “But I am Chinese.” As I pestered her what made she think so, Yang smiled gently.

       What about you then? Are you Vietnamese or American?

I was surprised that she asked me that, but nevertheless, I affirmed her.

       I am Vietnamese of course. I was born in Vietnam, raised in Vietnam, and I have a Vietnamese passport. I came to the US for less than a year. How can I be American?

       But what if you were me? What would you say?

       Then maybe half and half.

Her eyes glittered.

       Ok, half and half then. I am half American, half Chinese. But I am Chinese.

Realizing I could not get more than this answer, I changed the subject.

       What about your children? Do you raise them according to the Chinese tradition?

       They are Chinese.

       But they are born here, and they never lived in Chinese, they are still Chinese?

       They are Chinese. Their father, mother, grandparents are Chinese, and so they are Chinese. I tell them they are Chinese. Sometimes I think about China. I was born there, so I am Chinese. Although I like it here better, and I do not plan to go back to China ever, I am still Chinese.

       Do they speak Cantonese?

       I tried to teach my daughter. I even sent her to Chinese school, but she did not like it. She said “Mommy, I don’t want to learn Chinese. It is too hard.”

Yang laughed heartily looking at her daughter at the other end of the room. Her children were talking to each other in fluent English.

– What do you think of the one child policy in China?

– It must have been long time ago. Now, the government allows you to have a choice. If the first child is a girl, you can have another try to have a boy. But now everything is expensive, so people only want to have one child. So many people have abortion to have one boy only.

Then Yang went on to talk about how lucky she was to live in San Francisco. Our conversation died off as the clock stroked 10pm. Yang got up to prepare for her job the next day at the hotel before she went to bed.