I never got the opportunity to meet my paternal grandfather, who passed away before my parents even met.
I’m guessing working 15-hours days, 365 days a year running his own Chinese restaurant and being a leader in the Chinese community in Boise, Idaho, led to his early demise due to a heart condition. But thanks to my amazing Aunt Katy, unofficial bard of the Fong clan, I’ve been able to piece together some events of a life lived in full.
My grandfather came to the United States from China at the age of 15 when all of his siblings died due to illness in the small village in which they lived. He didn’t want to leave his home, but his father (my great grandfather) — knowing it might be his son’s only chance at survival — demanded he come to a new land filled with opportunity.
In other words, my grandfather legally immigrated to the United States from a place that, at the time at least, wasn’t particularly nice. That particular fact is relevant in that it seems as though that’s been a hot-button topic for some politicians of late. There are some politicians who seem pretty concerned about the infrastructure of the countries from which immigrants to this country are coming. Some have even been accused of using a pejorative, and profane, term to describe some of these countries.
My grandfather came to this country not knowing the language and not having any family on which to rely. He truly was a stranger in a strange land. At the age of 15, he was placed in a remedial third-grade class. He did not let this deter him. He would follow around Caucasians in Boise with a dictionary, asking them to help him translate words from Chinese into English. He wanted to learn. He wanted to be a part of this country. He wanted to build a better life for himself and his future family.
When I think back to when I was 15 years old, and my greatest accomplishment was my score in Super Mario Brothers, I can’t help but be amazed.
Through hard work and a perseverance I can’t even begin to comprehend (thanks in large part to his hard work and the hard work of his children, I never had to) he became a leader in the Boise community. He built his restaurant into one of the best in the metropolitan area. He saved every penny he earned, in part by living and raising his family in the back of the restaurant and eating what his customers did not.
He also became a well-respected part of the community. As he learned English, he began serving as a translator within the burgeoning Chinese community in Boise. Perhaps because he had to earn his citizenship — as opposed to it being a birthright — he loved and cherished being an American citizen. His freedom was something he never once took for granted — and he raised his children to be the same way.
My father served in the United States Army and was vociferously proud of this fact until the day he died. My Auny Katy won the Veterans of Foreign Wars national essay contest with an eloquent submission on what freedom meant to her and used the scholarship money to pay for college. First responders knew they would never have to pay for a meal if they ate in my grandfather’s restaurant.
For all he accomplished in his own short life, however, my grandfather Harry’s top priority was making sure his children would continue to make even better lives for themselves.
All nine of his children (including my father) became successful beyond his wildest dreams. All nine of them would graduate from high school in America, something he never did. Some went on to attend college, some dutifully served the United States of America in multiple branches the military, some entered the work force, some became titans in industry — all were respected members of their community. And, in what I’m sure would make my grandfather most proud of all, they gave him successful grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
This is not just my grandfather’s story, however. His story is one of millions of American stories of immigrants who have come to this country from less-than desirable circumstances and made something, not only for themselves, but for future generations. America was built up and made great by immigrants from all corners of the globe who came from countries and situations that could best be described as pitholes.
I guess my point is this: It doesn’t matter from where you come. It’s about what you accomplish when you get there.
The whole concept of the “American Dream” we profess to hold so dear isn’t about people who were born into the lap of luxury and continue to grow their empire. It’s about people who come from nothing and work hard to improve the quality of life for themselves and their children.
They are the ones who can truly make America great again.
Reach David Fong at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter @thefong