This past weekend, I visited Angel Island with the rest of your family. After a brief car ride, a windy boat ride, and a hot and uphill walk, we arrived at two opened metal gates. The sloped pavement went all the way down to the Pacific Ocean. We meandered our way down (to be fair, Mom told us to wear pants and we were suffering). At the very bottom, a bell stood where the old dock used to stand.
This spot, we were told, was often the first place that many immigrants stood after travelling for weeks to get to America. After arriving, they were sorted by classes and races. Those of European descent often had a quick interview before being sent to San Francisco while the multitudes of Asians were sent to crowded rooms where they would stay before being interrogated extensively. As we explored the building where they were kept, the guide pointed out writing. The first came from the immigrants kept there in the early 1900s. He also pointed out how some writing was in pencil which came from the German and Japanese POWs from World War 2.
First a little history: There were many immigrants of Asian descent prior to the 1900s. But the law only let their children, born on US soil, to gain citizenship. Luckily, the 1906 San Francisco earthquake destroyed records and let many immigrants claim citizenship and bring over their own children as well as “paper children”. These were those who were only children by name and would pay to be immigrate. This is one reason why interrogations were made to be so hard.
Now these interrogations were not simply to make sure that “decent” immigrants were allowed to go to the US. They were made to trip up and give officials a reason to turn away immigrants. One person working on the base, asked his own son the same questions he had asked a 12 year old boy that day. His son didn’t pass the interview. Typical questions included: “What is your grandfather’s name?” as well as “How many windows are in your house?”. The first one, most could pass. The second, I don’t even think I could.
While walking around the island, it only felt stable to also reflect on similarities in my own life. Being a 2&3 generation Asian, I seem to straddle the line of American and Asian. I could never get comfortable calling myself simply Asian or American, because it would be disregarding and disrespecting a large part of my life. I’ve learned to love hamburgers and milkshakes as well as Tofu Fa and pork buns. I’ve come to appreciate Asian folk tales (don’t eat too many buns and then drink a lot of water) as well as the American culture. I would have to say that I am more American than Asian just because I have lived in the US my entire life and never even visited mainland China.
I’ve also experienced the difficulties that come with being anything besides of European descent. My high school swim team is primarily Asian and I’ve felt the struggle of trying to be seen as an individual rather than simply part of a group. I’ve definitely been greeted with some weird looks when entering a classroom that is not the highest lane.
My issues are nothing compared to the conditions that these immigrants had to endure, but they help to remind me that there is still work to be done.
I hope your second year at college is off to a good start, I’ve got plenty of homework to keep me busy!