‘That First Night in America, I Couldn’t Sleep’

‘That First Night in America, I Couldn’t Sleep’

‘That First Night in America, I Couldn’t Sleep’

After growing up in China, a young woman tries to find her place in Oakland.


The borders of our world not only cut across international boundaries; they also increasingly stretch deeply into the interior of nations—into our homes, cities, communities, courts, and everyday interactions. Citizenship status, visa status, vulnerability to deportation—these are just a few of the dividing lines increasingly separating our country into different communities with starkly different options for how or if its members become full participants in our national experiment.

As immigrants in the United States, both documented and not, are increasingly under attack—stripped of their status, arrested, and deported—it’s critical that their stories are heard across these borders. Migrant Voices is an oral testimony project from The Nation exploring, and listening to, a variety of immigrant voices: from recent arrivals to asylum seekers making their case in the courts, from the undocumented keeping under the radar to the DACAmented on the front lines—people from all over the world who have fled or left their homes and are looking to find, or keep, their place in America.

This is the eighth installment of this series—follow the series here.

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Nancy, or Jie Ying, slurped through the thick straw of her passion fruit boba tea in an Oakland Chinatown teashop and described how, before settling down herself, she wants to buy her parents a house. She’s only 22, is currently studying statistics at Berkeley City College—while applying to transfer to University of California schools—and has only been in the United States for four and a half years. Nancy also works at the college as well as does the shopping and generally manages the logistics of her family home. After slurping the rest of her tea and fist-bumping her cousin working behind the counter at the boba shop, T4—which also sells popcorn chicken, pork noodles, and ramen—Nancy took me on a tour through Oakland Chinatown to her apartment building. Her dad was smoking outside on the sidewalk. She handed him some cash she had withdrawn from an ATM, and we strolled to Lake Merritt.

The large tidal lagoon ringed by parks and paths in downtown Oakland is where Nancy likes to walk with her mom after dinners and “talk about everything.” Family figures largely in Nancy’s life. “It’s Chinese culture,” she said. “Even if you don’t like your family. They are your family.”

Family, too, is how Nancy and her parents made it to the US. After a 13-year wait and sponsorship from her dad’s sister, their paperwork went through and they received green cards to immigrate to the United States. These family-based visas are by far the most common way for an immigrant to make it to the US. So, not surprisingly, they have come under threat from the Trump administration. In 2017 748,746 people received family-based lawful permanent US residence. Under new guidelines issued by the Trump administration, those numbers may plunge, especially for Asian and Latin American families. Six of the top 10 countries on the family-visa waiting list are in Asia, including the Philippines, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, China, and Vietnam. (And the latest restrictions on travel in response to the Coronavirus pandemic from China, Iran, and the countries of the European Union’s Schengen Area are restricting movement even further.) Under current guidelines, no single country can account for more than 7 percent of all family-based visas.

These pointed anti-Asian immigration restriction policies are nothing new. Asian immigrants have been the target of racist anti-immigrant ire for almost a century and a half, and some of the first federal immigration laws were written specifically to keep Chinese women out of the country. The Page Act of 1875 effectively prohibited the entry of Chinese women, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred Chinese immigration for 10 years and paved the way for other exclusionary quotas that remained on the books until 1965. The new public charge rule, which gives wide discretion to US Citizenship and Immigration Services, allows immigration officers to exclude people they believe may be likely to use public welfare benefits. The modern public charge rule was first codified in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, but reaches back to the 19th century as a way to filter out unwanted migrants. Though many immigrants do use some public services, they are mostly prohibited from receiving any benefits for the first five years they are in the country, and according to a 2018 study, they are also less likely to use those benefits than native-born citizens. Giving USCIS broad discretion could shrink the total number of family-based visas, what Trump often denigrates as “chain-migration” (which is how his own in-laws reportedly received their green cards) by as much as 69 percent. That’s all to say that Nancy, and many others like her, may have slipped in before yet another door is pulled shut by the Trump administration.

Nancy wore a black zipped rainjacket on the day I met her, even as the California sun bore down on us. Before the boba tea, Nancy and I met at a coffee shop in downtown Oakland. The writer Lauren Markham joined us to help break the ice. Markham, the author of The Far Away Brothers, works as a school administrator at Oakland International High School where Nancy graduated three years ago, and where Nancy continues to help translate for parent-teacher conferences.

* * *

Nancy, 22 Years Old

Actually just my English name is Nancy. My real name is Jie Ying. J-I-E… “I” as in image, or ice cream. Y-I-N-G. You can call me by either name. It doesn’t matter. I’m 22. Just turned 22. I’m from Zhaoqing, China. It’s a small town. Four million people, but for me, I call it a town. Once, when I told my teacher that New York was too crowded, that there were too many people there for me, she said, Aren’t you Chinese? I was a little bit offended, but I wasn’t really. There are a lot of stereotypes of Chinese people. Too many people have asked me if I eat dog. I’m like, No! Never. I have felt discrimination here. But I’m also just a sensitive person.

My first language was Cantonese. And we learned Mandarin in school. I’m still learning English now. I know a little bit of Spanish. I picked my English name randomly. I was talking to an ABC [American-born Chinese] at the school, and she asked me if I had an English name yet, and I said no, and she said I should pick one, so I randomly picked Nancy. From a book, just randomly picked it. I remember my friends told me that Nancy is an old Caucasian name. A name for an old lady. [She laughs.]

Zhaoqing, my hometown, is close to Guangzhou, and a couple hours from Hong Kong. I used to go to Hong Kong often, because my relatives live there. I first came to the US in July of 2015. I came over with my parents. I’m an only child. You know the one-child policy? That’s me. We had a connecting flight to Beijing, and then straight here. We are legal. We have green cards. My dad’s relatives live in New York, in South Carolina, and one of my cousins lives here in Oakland.

My parents first applied for our green cards in 2002. My dad had family here. His little sister has citizenship, so that’s how she was able to apply for us to come. Immigration is kind of complicated. She sponsored all of us. I was only able to come because I was under 21. If I was older, I couldn’t have. You need to wait for four and a half years to apply for citizenship. You can’t get it until five years, but you can start applying earlier. I’m going to apply right away.

Before I came, when I thought of America, I thought of freedom, English. I thought it would be wonderful because I can meet diverse cultures. Everything I was thinking about the US, before I came, was that it was going to be pretty beautiful.

We were, I would say, middle class in China. It was a little cozy back there, but my parents thought it would be more beautiful here. But they’d given up hope after not hearing about their green card application for so long. They were waiting five years, and then another five years, and they were still waiting. We didn’t think we’d be able to come to the US. So we didn’t even hope for it anymore, and then, in January 2015 we got the documents in the mail. We were pretty surprised. Oh my God. I was pretty excited. I wanted to escape the bullying.

We came because my family wanted me to have more education, more opportunities. They heard that the United States had a better education system. They wanted another lifestyle. I was also suffering from bullies in high school back in China. Some of my friends bullied me. They have little groups you know, the girls. The girls would talk gossip, and sometimes I wouldn’t like to join with them on the gossip things, because it’s like spitting back at the people, is how I see it, and they didn’t like me because I didn’t want to sit with them and gossip. It was pretty uncomfortable. I kept going to school, but I couldn’t focus on school. I mean, bully things happen everywhere. I just felt like I needed to change and find another life.

The first day in the US, my cousin’s mom took us around Chinatown. To show us the grocery stores, the laundry, how to get around, how to use the map. Those little things. I was 17 at the time. I had one suitcase, that was all I could bring. I checked the weather in Oakland before coming, because that was our future city. I also asked my cousin. She told me I might need a sweater at night. And I brought a dictionary. [Laughs] If I wanted anything else, I had to ask my mom. She is the one who corrects things like that, and helps us pack. She’s in charge. We had three suitcases, and some backpacks. That was everything we brought. That was our limit.

When we first got to San Francisco, I really had trouble with English. I was learning a little back in China, but just for writing. That first night in America, I couldn’t sleep. I think it was because of jetlag, and because I was thinking so much about my future. Yeah, I was pretty nervous! Anxious. Because you never know how your future is going to be. You’re going to be in a strange place. You’re going to struggle with English. You have to talk to someone who you’ve never ever met. You have to go to school. I felt a little bit lost.

We came to the US in July. My parents were trying to find a school for me right away, but in July and August they’re still on summer break. So after a couple weeks, my mom went to register me in school, but since I was 17 at the time, they rejected me. And I kept asking why. It’s not fair. I was still 17. I hadn’t finished high school in China. I wanted to go to high school. I wasn’t an adult yet. I didn’t want to go to adult school. So my mom kept complaining. So I got into Oakland International High School. And that was the best school for me, because there were a lot of international students. A lot of them don’t know anything about English. I started in late August. I was pretty nervous. I remember one girl who could speak Cantonese. I met that girl and she was helping translate my words to the principal. She was telling me what class I was going to take, and how to get to the classrooms, because I knew nothing.

In Oakland International High School, people are pretty nice. Even though they don’t speak my language, they were trying to help me. Our community is international. A lot of girls struggle, they come from all over, they are refugees, they have wars in their country. They struggle with many things. I felt like I found a home right here. It was a feeling… even though we don’t speak one language, we can feel how we struggle for that. We fight for that, for each other. It’s kind of like we know each other, how we struggle. I think it’s empathy.

I remember in math class, we were doing just the basics, like intermediate algebra, like two-times-three-X or something, and I remember one girl, her name was Olga, she didn’t know how to do it. She was from Guatemala. And she asked me for some help, and I explained to her how to do the multiplication. I explained to her how to do a finger trick. [She demonstrates the Chinese method of finger counting—counting up to ten on one hand.] Math is like a universal language, the numbers are the same, but when you’re trying to solve a problem, or understand the concept, you need to know English. You need to know the terminology.

I don’t speak Spanish, and I barely understood English, and so we kind of used, like body movements, and yeah, we became friends. I went to high school there for two years. I felt good, awesome. I didn’t get bullied at all. I learned a lot. The teachers, first, I would say they are very patient. And like half of the teachers speak Spanish, like Miss Lauren. The majority of the students speak Spanish. I got my high school diploma after two years, in 2017. I applied to community college in 12th grade. I go to Berkeley City College, but sometimes I take classes at different colleges, I’ve gone there almost three years, and I’m applying to transfer now.

The move to the US changed my dad a lot. He used to be an architect. And it’s been really hard for him here. He now works in a window factory, six days a week, long hours. He started drinking. My mom was a teacher, she’s still a teacher. My mom had to go back to China for a little bit, so now it’s just me and my dad. We live in a small apartment, and there are a lot of people in the building. Like twenty people. It’s like a house, but separated into apartments. We have a small kitchen. Everybody that lives there is Chinese. I have classes Monday through Friday, and I also have a night class on Tuesday and Thursday, and I work, so I barely see my dad. When I get home sometimes he’s already asleep.

China is always seen as the enemy to the US, so what can we do? I remember talking to my teacher, and I said that the US government is always involved in other countries. And she thought I was brainwashed, just because I didn’t think the US should be the world police. But it was a nice talk. I wasn’t offended.

I feel that I don’t have a lot in common with my old friends in China anymore. We don’t have things to talk about. I can talk more comfortably with people here. I have more in common with them. I associate with this lifestyle, with the feelings. I like the way I am right now. I don’t want to change. In China, people can’t be as honest. Here, you can actually tell people things. You can work to improve things.

It’s pretty serious in China. Do you know Winnie? The little bear. Winnie the Pooh. And you know who the president of China is, right? Xi Jinping. He banned Winnie in China because people say he looks like Winnie the Pooh. And he does! They don’t have freedoms there. That’s why the government blocked Facebook and Instagram. Google and YouTube, too. I use Google a lot.

It’s hard to say what’s going on in Hong Kong now. They’re just trying to find their freedoms. They’re doing nothing wrong. I agree with what they’re doing, trying to find their freedoms. I’m nervous though. China doesn’t want to let them be special. They’re against that. And there are probably different governments involved. Like England. And the US—always. I just feel like, to protest is a right, but the different governments want things as well. The US government, the English government, the Chinese government. I think we should let the people do what they want to do. Leave them alone. Hong Kong is a pretty special place. We have a democracy in Hong Kong, and we don’t have that in the mainland.

I would define myself as an introvert. I don’t really like parties. Because of the language, I think, and because it’s just who I am. Americans see Chinese people in a certain way. People make judgments. What I say, what I would like to say to Americans, is that you have to use your heart to see us. That’s what I’d like to say to people in the US. You should get to know immigrants. Not just Chinese people, everyone. Some people will always pursue the American dream, and so we shouldn’t stop people from doing that. I would say Trump is totally wrong. He’s trying to stop families bringing other families. That will never end. People will fight for it. Reunion, family reunion, is very important.

This is the eighth installment in this series—follow the series here.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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