Me, Amy Tan & Millions of Others: Children of Immigrants

Me, Amy Tan & Millions of Others: Children of Immigrants

Amy Tan and Her Brother

Melting pot. Founded by immigrants. Liberty and justice for all. Sometimes words lose their meaning when repeated over and over again. Hymns, songs become rote. We hardly know what we’re saying or singing IF we grew up hearing those words. It’s the proverbial TAKING SOMETHING FOR GRANTED. Not so for recent immigrants who still might cry hearing the National Anthem or when they finally attend the ceremony to become an American citizen.

I attended one once–as the godmother of a child adopted from Ecuador. Every new citizen there was emotional. Had I taken my citizenship for granted? Yes.  Whether it’s our ability to speak English or rely on our last name or the color of our skin–many of us who have assumed our PLACE in the USA often have little thought as to how WE have been so blessed. TIME TO CHANGE THAT!!

WAKING UP…FAMILY HISTORY, KNOW HOW GOVERNMENT WORKS 

My husband researches family history on Ancestry.com. I admire how he reads articles and finds past relatives, connects with others who share a tangential relationship so that slowly his family history and mine have grown and many questions about WHY WE ARE HERE answered.

But I’ll also settle for a few basic explanations:

  • I’m a U.S. citizen because three generations back, my great-grandparents from both my mother and my father’s side, traveled on some crowded ship with their few possessions to claim a place here in the U.S.
  • I appreciate and understand how fortunate I am, because as a sophomore in college I took a GOVERNMENT class, a requisite taught by my professor Ann B. Matasar PhD. The class woke me up to my good fortune. Homework included studying Supreme Court decisions like BROWN VERSUS THE BOARD OF EDUCATION.
  • We also had to read a daily newspaper–the Chicago Tribune. Dr. Matasar was vehement and rightly so: “If you are going to live in this country, then you have to take up a from of citizenship and know what is going on–what your rights are and if they are being trampled on.”
  • YES. BRAVO. You cannot live in a country like the United States and not understand how it acts and works day to day. I never lost the habit.

AMY TAN: NOVELIST (The Good Luck Club), AMERICAN CITIZEN

A first generation Chinese American, writer Amy Tan grew up in Northern California. Her father was a Baptist minister, guided by the principles of his Christian faith. Her mother was guided by the old ways, by the vicariousness of curses and luck. Thus Tan states in her latest publication, a memoir, Where the Past Begins, that she is a product of the contradictions in her upbringing. Both her father and brother died when Tan was in her teens.

Tan: Who we become has so much to do with the experiences we had, and how we survived. My strong need to find a purpose in life probably comes from my father. It was not a question of who he was, but who am I? What are the qualities that he had, that he provided for me, and what didn’t he provide? What am I still looking for? What am I still rebelling against?

When your father dies when you are fifteen, the “you” who you were at that age is still there. I wanted to think about how I saw my father from those rebel teen years until now, as someone who is well beyond the years he lived.

AMY TAN ASKS WHY AMERICANS VOTED AS THEY DID 

My father was, to me, a model of great values: an honest person, a kind person. We grew up not knowing that my parents had an immigrant status. I just remember them getting their citizenship and crying in jubilation. It was a moment of great relief: the danger of them losing their life here was over. 

“You don’t know how lucky you are to be here, what we had to do so you could be here” — that was always my father’s message, and I didn’t know what it was based on. There were illusions to great sacrifices made on our behalf. I didn’t know what kind of life they’d had in China or why they left.

THEN THE ELECTION HAPPENED…

But everything about the election called into question everything for me. I was so disillusioned that it was essential to look at everything and say: How could this have been? Who were the kind of people who would’ve voted for this person? 

What if my father were alive — is this the man he would have voted for, and why? It was not to demonize voters so much as I simply couldn’t understand how this attitude could have become the defining one for our country for the next four years — one I considered before the election, and which has borne out post-election, to be a very racist, white supremacist agenda.

In a recent interview, Tan states unequivocally that she now looks at community differently. She wants to find commonality with people.

I’m more grateful when I find [those] people — I don’t even have to ask them what their politics are, you can just tell by the kind of things they care about. If they are concerned for poor people, and immigrants, and people with uncertain status, you know where they stand.

WHAT ABOUT THE WORD LIBERAL?

“Liberal” is not a nasty word. I wish “liberal” could be changed to “compassionate,” meaning we share responsibility; we share pain; we share in our flaws; we share in the ways we’re destroying the environment but want to make amends. It has more to do with recognition of a lot of the good things in people, and appreciating that those qualities are there — in more people than not.

THOUGHTS FROM TAN ON IMMIGRATION

In a way, I think it’s good my parents didn’t tell us kids that our life here was in jeopardy. We were born here, so we were American citizens, but if our parents were forced to leave, we of course would have had to go with them. I see this today in people I know who are undocumented—I asked a good friend of ours the other day, “What does your six-year-old child know?” She said, “He doesn’t know. He’ll say, ‘Why can Uncle So-and-so go to Mexico and we can’t?’” And she says, “We can’t for now, but maybe later.” Meanwhile, they’re hoping they don’t get deported. If they were, what a shock that would be to that child.

ANOTHER WAY TO SAY IT

We are an immigrant nation. Yet there are many in this country who forget their origins, who gin up on the fact that their ancestry stretches farther back than others. Possibly they have forgotten the true meaning of the Declaration of Independence or they have never read the Constitution. Their idea of owning property and contributing to the national welfare only applies to certain people.

Researching their roots like my husband does just might help. Knowing what others endured to provide us a PLACE HERE is profound. So are the words of our founding fathers. It’s a sad fact that recent immigrants to our country know more about the rule of law, the Constitution and the true meaning of the words in the Pledge of Allegiance than those who hunger to kick them out, take their citizenship from them.

Can you trace your ancestry back to a country, a year, a place? Whether you can or not, each one of us must honor fellow citizens. It’s trite but true, we are all in this together. 

Thanks to AMY TAN and NPR for the Photo of Amy and her brother.