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I interviewed my mother, Yin Yee Chan about her family history and her journey to America. She left Hong Kong when she was 18 years old in November of 1981. Her parents feared a communism take over when the British relinquished control of Hong Kong. In autobiographical format, this is her story.
My parents had an arranged marriage. They were both born in Canton, China. At 16 years old they were married and soon had three kids. I was not born yet. Life was hard when my parents were young. My father was a farmer and my mother helped around the land. Money was hard to make and what little my parents made was taxed and taken by the government. My parents hated the communist government and hated being poor. They hated having no freedom and were drawn to the freedoms and democracy Hong Kong was enjoying. In fear of the government in China and the lack of opportunity, my father smuggled himself into Hong Kong to try and secure a better future for my mom, my brothers and sisters, and the siblings like myself who were not born yet. My father got a job which didn’t pay all to well but it was better than what he was making as a farmer in China. He saved his money and was able to pay a smuggler to smuggle my mother and siblings into Hong Kong.
When my mother arrived at Hong Kong she helped my dad open a tailoring business. My father worked 12 hour days, work was long and hard but his business was fairly successful and he made enough money to support his growing family. My parents moved into a small condo where my parents would continue to have a total of 9 children. Life was alright. We all crammed into a 3 bedroom condo and worked together as a family. All of my sisters and brothers went to school. I was lucky enough to attend an English speaking school where I learned English as a second language as I was growing up.
Although life was alright, things were about to change drastically. My parents were openly concerned with the upcoming 1997 relinquish of power when Britain would give Hong Kong back to China. After running away from communism once, my parents were ready to do it again. At the time, we had an aunt and uncle living in the United States who had come through Angel Island. When I was about 17 years old they came to Hong Kong and asked my parents if they were interested in trying to immigrate to the United States with their help petitioning. My parents, believing that opportunity, education and life as they knew it would end in 1997, took my auntie and uncle’s offer and immigrated to the United States.
When we first came to the United States we had to live with my Auntie for about two months. We crammed into a 2 bedroom apartment with my Auntie until we found another place. My mom found a job at a sewing factory in Chinatown where she was making at the most $20 a day. My dad found a job at a tailors shop in Chinatown where he did alterations. He was paid on commission for each garment altered and made only $30-40 a day. Living conditions weren’t very great and I had to get a job to support myself through school. All of my sisters did the same. We had to work to support the family. Unfortunately, because of the Chinese culture, my brothers got support for school but us females had to fend for ourselves. I had some resentment towards my parents for it, but I still loved them and I knew it was just their old-school way of thinking.
Things were very rough for a while. I would cry sometimes because of how difficult of a time I had adapting to the new country. While I learned English in Hong Kong, it wasn’t nearly enough to get by in the United States. I had a hard time understanding what was going on around me and communicating with people because of my language barrier. I then spent the next 6 months learning English at San Francisco Community College just to get up to speed. School was rough. The teaching style was very different. In Hong Kong the teachers come to you and you stay in a single classroom. I was overwhelmed trying to find classrooms. The pace at the community college was a lot slower. Everything in Hong Kong is “on the move”, so to speak, and I was not use to the slower pace. Everything in the United States felt like it was too slow of a pace. I felt like people walked to slow, things took to long and school was slow. I felt like people were wasting time.
After I moved out of my Aunties place we found a two bedroom apartment close to North Point in the city. We lived there for about two years. I remember one night when we were living there my brother was coming home. After getting off of the Cable Car and passing the projects on Taylor street he was cornered by three young black teenagers who beat him senseless and robbed him of $5 dollars. My brother ended up seriously hurt and he had to be taken to the hospital. This happened less than 6 months in the United States. It was a horrible experience and we were all scared to go out at night in the area.
Two years later my parents sold the condo they had in Hong Kong. They used that money to put a large down payment onto a house in the Sunset district of San Francisco. We started living there and things started to turn around. We still had to work because our parents wouldn’t support us. I wanted to get a good job and go to school but it wouldn’t be easy. With so many siblings I had to do everything myself and still give money to my parents. I wanted to go through a hotel and restaurant program but I had to work three part time jobs to do it. I worked in the counseling office at school, a travel agency on the weekends, and as a cashier at a restaurant two days a week the entire time I was in college. Because of working 3 three jobs it took me 5 years to finish my 2 year associates degree. Still, I made it through and a short while later i found myself a job as a front desk clerk at a hotel. It was my first real job I ever held and it was extremely intimidating. I had always been quiet and shy and I had to learn how to work the front desk and the hospitality industry. I learned as time went by and I worked at the front desk for ten years. I later moved to the reservations department and more recently I got promoted into the human resources department.
While working at the front desk I got married when I was 26. I had a son when I was 28 years old. I’ve been working for the same hotel for 25 years now. I’m excited to put my son through college and give him an education and I’m excited for his future.
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