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Immigrants’ great expectations

Elma Borbe was just 8 years old when she left the Philippines to live in America. She remembers arriving at Boston’s Logan Airport feeling terribly excited about what lay ahead for her.
In the Philippines, “everything made in the U.S.A. we were goo-goo-ga-ga for. Everything was the best. It was where the opportunities were,” said Borbe, now in her 30s and living in the Seattle area.

The young Borbe relished being able to bite into her own juicy apple and watching the popular TV shows of the time, including “Gilligan’s Island.”

The feeling of abundance had never been so real to her. But it was shattered, literally, when eggs and hockey pucks came flying through the window of her family’s home. Someone didn’t want them there.

The experience taught her one of her first lessons about America — that it isn’t as perfect as it appears to be.

Almost every immigrant has a tale about what he or she thought America would be like, and how different the reality was when they arrived. Immigrants, and perhaps people of color in general, are acutely aware that the perceptions of America do not always match up with the reality.

In honor of the Fourth of July, a time when Americans celebrate their freedoms, the Northwest Asian Weekly spoke to a few Asian immigrants about these perceptions and realities.

A desire for freedom

“I thought everyone would be friendly, that it was a land of equal opportunity for everyone, land of plenty, where everyone was doing relatively well,” said Maureen Tanumihardja, who came to the U.S. from Singapore in 1998 to attend college.

Like many other immigrants, her feelings towards the U.S. were positive. She was sure her life would only get better by being in America.

And by and large it has. Tanumihardja, who is studying to be a nurse practitioner at Seattle University, appreciates the educational opportunities she wouldn’t otherwise have back in Singapore, and she enjoys the vibrant arts scene.

“There are definitely more freedoms here than I had at home,” she acknowledged. In Singapore, the government cracks down on political dissent. Still, America surprises Tanumihardja sometimes, especially when it comes to social inequalities.

Issues like racial and gender discrimination and homelessness, for example, pervade all parts of the country, even in this day and age.

One immigrant from Hong Kong pointed out similar concerns regarding this “polarized country,” as he called it.

America “has some of the smartest people in the world and yet so many are so uneducated and naïve that they don’t know even simple stuff,” said John Cheng, who lives in Issaquah. “I was also surprised that America has a high crime rate, especially the number of sex offenders.”

A few immigrants said they didn’t know much about America before arriving, like Linh Thach, an ethnic Khmer who used to live in South Vietnam.

In 1981, several years after the end of the Vietnam War, Thach, who was once a law student, escaped to Cambodia after learning the communist government was after him. He spent eight years in a Thai refugee camp before being granted entry into America. “I didn’t prepare to go to the United States. I just prepared to escape Vietnam and escape the dangers of my life. I didn’t know I would go to the United States,” said Thach, who now works as the Asian community liaison for the Seattle police chief.

In the case of Y.L. Liu, of Issaquah, all she knew was that she had to leave Hong Kong. “I knew I could have freedom in America. After seeing the Tiananmen Square massacre in China, I decided to leave Hong Kong, knowing that Hong Kong would be returned to China one day,” she said.

Better than the alternative

Liu said she left primarily because she wanted a better life for her children, a sentiment echoed by many immigrants. Liu said, “My son was not doing well in his studies. Hong Kong provides too many temptations. It isn’t a good environment for kids to grow up in. Coming here gave him a second chance. He is doing well now.”

With pride, Thach said his son graduated from pharmacy school recently, while his daughter is set to graduate soon, also from pharmacy school.

Borbe, whose family home had been vandalized by eggs and hockey pucks, said despite the intimidation, Boston “was the best place to live, to have an education. … You could take violin lessons, participate in (sports) teams. … At least in the Boston public school system, back when they had money, you could take lessons or do other things (at no cost) to augment your education.”

The higher incomes, of course, are another draw for immigrants.

Thach laughed when he tells the story of his first paycheck, which came only two weeks after finding his first job in America. “It was $200 before taxes. I showed it to everyone! Just one check — $200! In Thailand, I never had money. I felt like I went to heaven,” Thach chuckled.

He never would have had the same opportunities as an ethnic minority in Vietnam as he does in the U.S.

Obstacles, not barriers

Still, all of them said it’s not easy living in America.

“It’s hard to feel comfortable as an immigrant,” said Tanumihardja, referring to the current political climate in which some politicians and pundits are quick to blame immigrants for the country’s problems.

Borbe said it’s difficult for immigrants and people of color to become lawmakers or to even have a seat at any decision-making table.

“When you look at Congress or the state level, you see it’s all populated by white males,” she pointed out. You need money to get elected and to make campaign contributions, she explained, and you need a lot of connections. “Without those two things, it doesn’t matter if you’re capable or not.”

“What’s unfortunate,” she sighed, “is we still tend to make assumptions about color, … that it’s tied to our ability. You have to work really hard to prove yourself as a minority, to be heard.”
No one, however, said they regretted becoming Americans.

“There’s always the potential for great improvement, for everyone,” said Tanumihardja.

Carol N. Vu can be reached at carol@nwasianweekly.com.

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