"I Come from a Family that is Considered 'White' "
by Kristen Lee

        My great grandfather was only eight years old when he came to America.  His family and many other Chinese families were all looking for a better life in “America, the land of the Free.”  It was the late 1800’s when the Joe family first arrived in America on a boat from Canton, China.  They were docked in Mobile, Alabama’s harbor. My great grandmother came over when she and my great grandfather had an arranged marriage.  He went back and got her in China and brought her to America.  Like many immigrants, my great grandparents had to deal with the language barrier; they didn’t know how to speak any English.  They were constantly discriminated against because they looked and spoke differently than the Americans.  They were the first Chinese family to ever settle in Alabama.  My great grandparents also had difficulty adjusting because they didn’t have the company of their friends to speak Chinese too.  They were 10,000 miles away from their native land.  But they were willing to go through all of this for a better life.  My great grandparents were poor but very giving.  When my great grand father first came to America he was not able to purchase land because he was Asian.  When my great grandfather had any money he gave it to my great grandmother to buy a dress, but she would hold on to it because she never knew when the next time they would have money.

            My great grandparents opened up the first Chinese restaurant ever in Alabama.  It was called “Joy Young’s.”  It is not open any more, but people who have lived in Alabama for many years still remember the restaurant.  One of my grandparent’s greatest hardships was during the great depression.  There were so many individuals, who lost their jobs and had no food, but my great grand father was very generous.  Although he didn’t have a lot of money, he was able to feed what he had to those who were hungry.  Because my great grandfather was so kind his great deed never went unappreciated.  After the depression his new friends brought him more business.  A lot of his friends became doctors and lawyers after the depression, so if he ever needed an appointment he probably wouldn’t have had to pay.  His group of friends helped him out in any way that they could.  There was a time when the KKK came into his restaurant and wanted to drive my family out of business, but thanks to the people of Birmingham, they would not let it happen.  It brought the community closer together.  My great grand parents and grand parents are in the archive book of Alabama.  My great grandfather was the first non-Anglo Saxon protestant to be buried in Alabama’s cemetery. 

            My grandfather worked as a young boy at the restaurant.  While he was working he went to school to learn English and the American way.  He had to walk everywhere, and literally the “10 miles” to school because they were so poor.  He fought in World War II and because he showed that he was loyal to the United States he was then able to purchase land.  During World War II my great grand father had to wear a sign that said he was Chinese not Japanese.  My grandparents also had an arranged marriage.  She was a house wife and people of the Methodist church helped her learn English and the American way.  She had five children. 

            My mother was born in November 1947, right after World War II.  She was born and raised in Birmingham, Alabama and had never really met with discrimination.  On her birth certificate she is considered white.  In the south at that time you were either black or white.  She never had to go to segregated schools.  She never went to school with any African Americans until she went to college.  She went to University of Alabama where there were only eight African Americans out of thirty thousand students at the time.  This was at time right after the president of the school began letting in African American students.  Discrimination “supposedly” ended.  As a child she learned how to read and write Chinese and also knew English fluently.  My mom then moved to California when she was 18 to try to make it on her own.  She was sheltered for so long that she had to try to live without the help of her family.  She became a buyer for Macy’s and May Company.  My mom met my dad in 1981, who is also Chinese.  My dad is third generation American Chinese, therefore doesn’t speak and ounce of Chinese and neither does my grandmother.  I assume that on my dad’s side that my great great grandparents worked on the railroads.  

            I was born in 1984 where I grew up in an all African American neighborhood in Southern California, specifically Altadena.  I went to private school for eight years.  Then we moved to La Canada (a city literally five minutes away from my old house) a suburban town consisting of Caucasians and Koreans.  We moved to La Canada because private school was getting to expensive, so we decided to move to La Canada where the public school was a blue ribbon school and was at the same level or better than the private school I went to before.  I grew up in a sheltered environment when I moved to La Canada I didn’t know anything outside of my town.  Everyone considers it the bubble.  I’m very Americanized.  I’ve never learned any Chinese.  Here I’m at San Francisco State slowly becoming more aware of my heritage and where I came from.