Monday, December 5, 2016

Irene Wong: Home on the Other Side of the Shore

Irene Wong: Home on the Other Side of the Shore

I interviewed my mom, Irene Wong. Since she was raised in a communist country, she was taught not to make unfavorable comments about the Chinese government out of fear of punishment. She was a bit hesitant to participate in this interview, but decided to go through with it anyway.


In the video segment above, my mom shares with us that she was born in 1959 in Guangzhou, China. Both of her parents worked in medicine: her mother in Western and her father in Chinese medicine.

My mom describes her life growing up in China as being very simple with much less options and opportunities than American citizens have. Since she (along with many others) did not have mtoys or a television, her daily routines would typically include spending her days in school, helping around the house, or enjoying time with friends.
Irene Wong: Teenage years
However, since she was born in a communist country, there were strict regulations on how much money each family could spend per month on food, clothing and even everyday objects due to their country’s over population (leading to China’s one-child policy later introduced in 1979). There were rations on everything; countless families did not have enough to eat and many children went hungry.

At the time, China had a law that required high school graduates at the age of 16 to live and work in farm villages to learn the trade. My mom was assigned to a farm village many, many miles away from her home. She was only able to visit her family once a year due to the distance and the lack of financial funds. During this time, she lived in a communal home with other students among the villagers. At the young age of 16, she had to learn to live independently without any guidance or even a familiar face. This requirement lasted 3 years. After working on the farm, she was sent to work in factories (another government requirement).

Irene Wong (left) at 17 years old with a high school friend (right) from the farming villages. 


My mom wanted to leave China to start a new life in the U.S. for more opportunities and options in life and for her future children. She knew that if she came to the U.S., she would be able to help her family immigrate as well and to provide a better future for her loved ones. She also felt a tinge of excitement at the thought of seeing a different part of the world and experiencing a foreign culture.

At the age of 25, she was presented with an opportunity to start a new life in the U.S., the moment felt bittersweet. She had mixed emotions of being frightened of the unknown and excitement from her newfound sense of hope. She knows she’ll miss her family and beloved friends who she must leave behind, but she is determined to succeed.      


Before arriving to the U.S., my mom pictured it to be absolutely beautiful with tall buildings and skyscrapers and life in America to be very comfortable. After all, everyone back home swore that if you make it to America, you’d be filthy rich.

Once she arrived to San Francisco in 1984 with her new husband, she quickly realized life wound not be so easy. Much like her younger farming days, she found herself once again alone in a foreign environment, but she was ready to take on the challenge. Since she did not speak any English, she was confined to minimal job opportunities in Chinatown, many of which were in unfavorable working environments with very low wages. Finding a job was challenging because of the high demand and tough competition with so many other Chinese immigrants.

Irene Wong visiting Hollywood, LA 

During this time, she would spend her days at work, and then buy groceries to cook dinner and do other chores or errands, and on top of it all, she would attend a night class with other Chinese immigrants to learn English. She knew that if she learned to communicate better with other Americans, she would feel more confident leaving the comfortable, convenient bubble of Chinatown which reminds her so much of home, and she would be able to expand her job opportunities and life experiences. After all, this is her new home now, and she must adapt to survive but more so to thrive.

Mom (Irene Wong) & Me

Finally, she landed a job at a high-end restaurant in Downtown and my father worked in construction. She and my dad had to work long hours living paycheck by paycheck. Their first home in a foreign country was simply one room in a small building with communal kitchens and bathrooms in Chinatown. As the years passed, our little family grew: first my brother, then my sister, and finally me (later with our pups Max and Taro). Although she didn’t have much money, she would enjoy taking the kids to the movies for a treat. After years of saving money, she and my dad were able to move into a two-bedroom apartment at the edge of Chinatown (the brick building right next to the Stockton St. Tunnel). Later, she and my dad were able to save more money and felt confident enough to move out of Chinatown and to put a down payment on a house, and place of their very own.


Although she’d love for her children to pass on the Chinese customs and traditions to future generations, she admits that life in America has made her adapt to the American lifestyle, especially since Chinese customs and holidays are not officially recognized or celebrated in America.

Sister (Flora) , Dad, Mom (Irene Wong), & Me on vacation in Hawaii in 2015.
Not pictured: Brother (Henry)
She often reminiscences of the delicious food back in China and would love to go visit her hometown and reconnect with old friends, but she doesn’t see herself moving back there. She enjoys the life she’s built here and cherishes the friendships she’s formed. She believes that she is living not just the “American Dream,” but living the life that that little girl working on the farm envisioned and dreamed of for herself.

Max (RIP)

No comments:

Post a Comment