Angel Island

Transversing San Francisco Bay to Angel Island in 2019

I am many things.  I have a fun-loving side, and I find myself drawn to the peace, beauty and thrill of the ocean—particularly when there’s a fast boat involved and I get to drive it.  I’m an attorney, who swore to uphold the rule of law when I was admitted to the bar years ago.  I’m a taxpayer.  I’m a consumer of U.S. goods and services.  I’m a mother.  And I’m a daughter.  

My father’s family has lived in the United States for generations, having immigrated here from Western Europe hundreds of years ago.  My father’s mother—my “Grandma”—was a Midwestern Christian girl.  She grew up in St. Joseph, Missouri.  Her father died when she was young.  She and her mother struggled through the Great Depression and, fortunately, landed on their feet in New York City when an affluent uncle took them in.  Her story mirrors Annie’s—complete with the fiery red hair.  

My mother’s mother—my “Ni-ni”—was an immigrant.  In fact, she was a refugee.  She traveled here from Beijing with my mother and two uncles on a U.S. military ship.  World War II was drawing to a close, but Mao Zedong’s anti-intellectual communist creed was taking hold in China.  Eventually, their family home was confiscated by the government, and an uncle, who had decided to stay behind, was branded an outspoken “intellectual.”  He was shipped off to a “labor camp” for speaking out against the government.   No trial.  No due process.  And it wasn’t a camp.  My uncle was forced to perform hard labor in the remote countryside and to kneel on broken glass. Fortunately, the rest of my family had seen the writing on the wall.  They fled in the nick of time. 

The passage to America was difficult.  My grandmother did not have my sea legs, and her seasickness was, no doubt, compounded by the stress of having to abandon everything familiar to live on the other side of the world, where she didn’t speak the language or know anyone.  She couldn’t hold down food or water during the entire two-week journey, and the ship’s doctor cautioned my nine-year-old mother that her own mother might die at sea.  Fortunately, my Ni-ni survived the journey.  As the ship entered calmer waters, passing under the Golden Gate Bridge, relief washed over the family.

Recently, I found myself in San Francisco, where I visited Angel Island, the West Coast equivalent of Ellis Island in New York.  After the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed into law in 1882, Angel Island became a detention center, where Chinese immigrants spent weeks to years waiting while U.S. officials interrogated them and determined their fates.

The Angel Island barracks, where U.S. immigration agents detained and interrogated Chinese immigrants

The barracks were crowded and filthy—a stark contrast to the gorgeous vistas of the bay, visible just beyond the barracks’ high fences.  Detainees etched poems of sorrow into the walls.  Outside, anti-Chinese sentiment raged.  The parallels to 2019 were obvious—to me at least—and chilling.  The targets have changed.  The message has not.      

An exclusion-act era anti-immigrant political cartoon

I can thank my Grandma for the red highlights that tint my hair every summer.  I can thank my Ni-ni for my round face and petite frame.  I thank both my grandmothers for my tenacity and resolve.   

It pains me to watch our country tearing itself apart.  I’m white.  I’m a person of color.  My family has been in the U.S. for generations.  My family has only just arrived.  I love both sides of my family, and they love me back.  All of us are in this mess together, and we all have worth.  If only we could lift each other up, instead of tearing each other down.