We never talked about it. The word "undocumented" was nerve-wracking, confusing, and -- as it's been argued in my grandfather's circumstances -- not exactly true. Growing up, my sister and I were told many stories about our family history, but we had also been taught a moderately conservative stance when it came to immigration, about the "right" way to do things and the hard word that comes with that journey.
Which is why when, during a visit to California in April, I sat down with my mother to talk about this in-depth, she didn't use the word -- at least, not at first. Let me explain.
My grandfather was an orphan, adopted in China by a couple who had no children, but yearned for a son to carry on their name and business one day. Everyone who knew my grandfather said he was smart, the kind of person who was curious about everything. He would take apart clocks and radios to figure out how they worked, and then would put them back together again in perfect condition. He obtained a degree and was a teacher, then eventually was set-up with my grandmother (who did not have much of an education and had spent her childhood taking care of her younger siblings during the war) and the two got married and started a family.
When the Communists came, my grandparents fled for Hong Kong, where my great-grandfather's death had left behind a building with tenants that my grandfather could oversee. My mother and her four siblings were raised in Hong Kong as Communism overtook the mainland, but even Hong Kong was flooded with instability and political chaos. At the start of the '60s, there began a lot of talk in the news about Martin Luther King and the fight for equality happening on the other side of the world: mei gok, the "golden land," America. That, paired with this promise of a good education incomparable to anywhere else in the world, became a beacon that my grandparents' eyes were drawn to. But before they could get there, my grandfather first wanted to see the world -- an opportunity that came when his best friend decided he wanted to visit South America. (And, by my research, a decision many Chinese were making at the time.)
The two left Hong Kong in 1962 on six month travel visas. There isn't much information about where they went and what they did, except for a few photos we have stamped with "Bogotá, Colombia." Eventually, they made it to Brazil, where my grandfather's best friend fell in love and decided to get married. With a travel visa about to expire, my grandfather decided this might be his only chance to see if America's streets really were paved with gold.
It was supposed to be temporary. But sometime after arriving in America, his visa expired and he made the decision to stay. If he were alive today, I'd ask him every detail, but I can only assume the fear of realizing his visa was up, coupled with the fear of what would happen if he were caught, kept him from stepping forward. And when faced with the choice of returning to Hong Kong or staying in America, his best chance at pursuing a future for his family was a no-brainer.
He made connections in Los Angeles with a distant relative who had a restaurant in Chinatown. They offered him a job in the kitchen, though my grandfather had never put on an apron. In Hong Kong, he was the one who collected rent from bakers and cooks, but the chef in the Chinatown restaurant instructed him to take off his tailored suit and get to work. He taught my grandfather how to cook Chinese food that appealed to the American palette.
He worked under the table for nine months before another relative offered him a work visa and a restaurant job in Compton. It took nearly three years of rolling up his sleeves, living in a single room, and sending money back home when he could for him to get his legal residency. At the end of 1966, he petitioned to bring the rest of the family over.
It took nearly half a year for the petition to go through. As the paperwork was being processed, the fear of Communism spreading into Hong Kong created urgency. Riots began everywhere in response to British rule. My mother recalls 1 p.m. curfews leading up to the day they were to board the plane to move to California.
The family was reunited in May 1967, but the American Dream was still far off. My grandfather moved from restaurant to restaurant, underpaid but in demand. My grandmother took a job at a sewing factory where she made a penny for every pocket she fixed to clothing. My grandfather eventually went back to Hong Kong to sell the building that was still in his family's name, and with the money, opened his own restaurant in Bellflower -- a restaurant that was run and kept alive by the whole family until it closed in 1975, the same year they officially became U.S. citizens.
My grandfather continued to work around Chinatown for a couple of years, until one day my great-uncles decided they wanted to go to Las Vegas, where the pay and benefits were good and customers were often wealthy. Chinese restaurants were becoming increasingly popular on The Strip, but it was difficult to find Chinese chefs. Someone like my grandfather, they said, would do well.
So, in 1978, he went. People loved him because he didn't argue in the kitchen, mainly because his English wasn't very good. But he was fast at chopping vegetables and filling orders. On the days he didn't work, he drove back to Los Angeles to be with the family (except for the couple of years after my mother and her siblings were all adults, and my grandmother went to Vegas to work as a hotel maid).
But during his time in Vegas, there were plenty of strikes -- and although he knew little English, my grandfather knew enough to never cross a picket line. He was a hard worker, but he also had his morals and loyalty to his friends. When the strikes ended, they'd all return to work and, nearly a decade after first arriving in Vegas, he eventually ended up at Caesar's Palace. The restaurant no longer exists, though my great-uncle recalls the name being simply "Chinese Kitchen." Though he was often offered a head chef position, my grandfather always refused because of his poor English skills. He settled for being #2 instead.
After another strike in the early ‘90s, he decided the politics were too much and it was time to call it quits. He retired in 1992; later that year, he had a heart attack.
At the age of 65, I wonder if he'd felt he achieved the American Dream. I wonder what else he hoped to achieve, and what he wanted his family to achieve too. I wonder if he could ever have imagined his granddaughter would search for the details of his story, pursuing the search in 2016 to Vegas and to Caesar's Palace, where she would also be speaking on panels at this year's Asian American Journalists Association's national convention.
"Wow, that's quite a history," I said to my mother at one point during our talk. "But...he still didn't have the ‘right' papers at first, right?"
I was partially goading her. We have always agreed my grandfather worked very hard and was a good person, and my mother is the kindest, most patient, and most compassionate person I know -- a reflection of the person my grandfather was. Deep down, I knew she believed that being undocumented didn't mean hard work wasn't also part of the package, but somehow the rhetoric shouted from television screens and debate stages made her think twice about what the word really meant.
A few weeks later, I was at work back in New York when she called me. She had some details to add -- dates and names that she'd left out before -- and wanted me to know she'd thought about our earlier conversation: "He was undocumented when he came into the country," she said firmly.
To pair the language with the feelings we've always had in our hearts...it felt like an enormous step forward in the journey we're still on.
Traci G. Lee is a writer, producer, and professional coffee shop lurker. She is the granddaughter of an orphan, of laborers, and of immigrants in search of a land with streets paved with gold.