for those working with refugees, migrants, and asylum seekers.

to volunteers, social workers, legal professionals, case workers, and any & all folks whose career it is to advocate for asylum seekers, unaccompanied minors, refugees, and migrants coming to the US:

You deserve more than the resources given to you to do the impossible.

I worked for what seemed like a long time, but in the grand scheme of things, was not a long time, in refugee services. In my young adult life, refugee resettlement and non-profit work is the only “real” professional expertise I hold. I speak from my own experience and this perspective may not be shared by all in the refugee/migrant/asylum seeker services space.

In my time working for a Southern California-based non-profit (founded and run by refugee womxn), I thought being a martyr was being a good employee and a good person. I thought that because I myself was never a refugee and my family were never refugees (although fleeing political persecution, separating from family members, and seeking economic security is still traumatic af), I had to sacrifice more and somehow prove that my being present in the workplace was worthwhile. I spent nearly every moment thinking about if I was doing work that would be perceived as (or was in actuality) taking advantage of refugees and asylum seekers. I was ashamed of my Western upbringing and comparative lack of hardship because of being born and raised in the United States. I felt guilty for being a beneficiary of wars and political conflict that destroyed the lives of the very people I was now charged with assisting. I found it, and still find it, incredibly unfair that the very randomness of the country and family you are born into will dictate so much of your life.

The guilt was overwhelming. That guilt translated to self-deprecation and a lack of self-worth. I worked hours on end to prove that my being so young and in charge of so much was not a mistake. If you have never felt out of place or unworthy of your accomplishments, I suggest you teach English and Job Training Workshops as a 21 year-old to people your parents’ age who were doctors, teachers, nurses, and legit professionals in their home countries. I will never forget the look on one of my ESL student’s face when he asked me how old I was and he told me he used to be a nurse in Afghanistan, but struggled in California to find any kind of job in the medical field. It absolutely crushed me.

And so, I did everything I could to try and be of service to the detriment of my own mental and physical health. It just seemed like that’s what needed to be done.

It is hard to explain the kinds of emotional and physical labor to people who have never worked with a refugee. My parents thought I was sacrificing too much. My friends didn’t understand why I would work such long hours and also volunteer on my days off. They told me to take breaks, to stop caring so much.

The thing is, when you’re immersed in the world of refugee issues, it seems like everything you do is too little, too late. And so, you work double-time. You sacrifice more and more of yourself: of your time, of your energy, and what little emotional capacity you might have left.

And still, it feels like what you’re doing is not enough–is never enough. The hours I put in wasn’t just to help someone learn English or teach soccer or whatever activity I was tasked with that day. I thought that it was my duty to take the pain and suffering of families and feel it all for them so that they never have to. I thought that taking on the burden was doing the work, but that is only part and parcel.

In my experience, the refugees and migrants I know never wanted me to take on their burden. They wanted to be heard and listened to, to feel like their anguish was not being consumed for some sort of satanic pleasure, to know that their lives meant more than the little social services they were being provided with.

For those on the frontlines, for the ones who do everything in their power to reunite migrant families and give them some sort of happy ending, there are no words that can explain the kind of work you do. The work you are doing now is nothing like what I had to do. But, I know what it’s like to drown out despair with cheap wine and carbs, to spend seemingly useless hours on government case files while wishing you had more time to spend more moments with program participants, to have a barely livable salary and still donate your extra $$ and time to the refugees and immigrants you meet.

I know it that it must feel like that is necessary. And still, I need you to know that it is also necessary for you to be at your best. There is no one else in this country that can do what you do. We each have our own unique set of strengths that are necessary for us to give these families some kind of justice. It sounds silly, but I know you skip meals, forego bathroom breaks, and spend all of your free time worrying & figuring out contingency plans.

Don’t.

When I worked the longest days and ate the least, I was at my very worst. I did the least amount for the folks I cared about. I thought I was being helpful. Instead, I became resentful and angry with the system, with the people around me, and with myself. I couldn’t stand up for my needs or for the refugees who depended on me to advocate for their rights.
For those protesting, trying to visit families in detention, spending time calling their representatives, and more, I know that you might not be thanked in the way you deserve. I am here to say that I am grateful to you. As a product of immigrant families, as a former refugee services worker, as someone whose friends are victims of war and persecution, I am grateful to you.

At the other end of the spectrum, I know that sometimes, you are thanked too much and feel guilty for even getting praise.
My advice?

Take the praise, and let it keep motivating you. We need you now more than ever. When I was given thanks by refugee families and individuals, by my boss, by government officials, I felt happy, then was immediately hit in the gut with a gnawing feeling of unworthiness. I felt completely inadequate because I thought there was always more to be done. Of course, there always is more to be done. But, we cannot do things alone, nor can we pretend that our work isn’t worthy of accolades. You chose a path that is difficult, to say the least. It’s imperative that you recognize people are grateful to you and that you do deserve their gratitude. When my mind was clear, that feeling of gratitude motivated me beyond any paycheck.

Looking forward, there are a lot of reasons to feel hopeless. There are a lot of reasons to become depressed and disillusioned with what our country was and continues to become. Our nation’s history shows us that we do not have a great track record of treating racial, ethnic, and religious minorities with any kind of compassion or “equality”. And yet, I still firmly believe we have the capacity to change that. Maybe it’s naïveté, or maybe it’s just that I have witnessed a lot of win’s in the time I worked in California. The losses, of course, still eat away at me. There are people whose cases I worked, and I have no idea what has become of them. I think about them and their families with relative frequency. In my experience, I’ve had more losses than wins. But, maybe that’s why the wins are always so magical.

In this political moment, it doesn’t feel like there will be a win anytime soon. But, I have hope that there will be. Organizations like the ones you work for, people like the ones you work with, migrants like the ones you advocate for–they are stronger than we all think. Maybe it’s that I still believe in revolution, in social movements, in the power of the people. But, I know that what you do is not useless, is not impossible.

I am so proud to live in a time where you exist. What you do today and tomorrow matters. It matters for yourself and for every migrant family being impacted by this administration’s inhumane immigration policies.

Take care of yourselves and of each other. Know what your rights are. In this moment, we are all targets. It was a different political time when I was in refugee services, but so many things scared me in my work. In the darkest hours, I leaned on my boss. She became my rock in this work. Find someone to lean on. We are living in complicated and increasingly scary times.

Throughout the past several years and reflecting on these past weeks, I have found that one thing is for certain:

we are all we have.

in solidarity and love,
Christina

[photo banner from No Walls No Borders]

a conversation between sides

you ask
how sacrifice
builds.

you ask
how loss
strengthens.

you ask
how broken
people
mend other
broken people.

keep asking,
and i will show you

my mother
and her pharmacy degree
tucked away in a home office.

my father
and how he leads in a room
where my grandfather’s voice still
rings.

my yinyin and yeye
and plastic flowers
we put near gravestones.

my popo
and how she refuses
to leave the house
my mom bought for her.

you ask
how is this a dream.

keep asking,
and i will show you

photo albums, army trunks, mahjong tiles.

keep asking,
and i will show you

rain-damaged letters, ink-stained newspapers, calligraphy brushes.

keep asking,
and i will show you

rice flour, reused pie tins, boiling water.

you ask
isn’t this America?

keep asking,
and i will say
this is the America i know.

keep asking,
and i will say
this is the life we have made.

keep asking
and i will want to show you
to the door.

instead i ask,
what does your America look like?
how different does your love look?
what does your America have that i cannot find in mine?

my mother

my mother never stops working;
even in retirement,
she’s never retired.

sometimes tired,
she doesn’t hide it;
let’s me know it now.

tired like she never had bound feet,
but had to bind her dreams;
had to trade pushing pens and paper to pushing pills,
tired.

tired like she raised a family
out of breath and bones and brains,
tired.

tired like watching your children leave the nest,
and trying not to worry about the rest
of our lives,
tired.

my mother,
tired,
but alive.

alive like ginger and ginseng,
homemade remedies I used to cringe at,
but now long for,
alive.

alive like the trembling quake of her snore
that reverberates down hallways
through ear drums,
and keeps me awake,
alive.

alive like no man could ever hurt me the way
my mom and dad love me,
alive.

alive like they tried to stomp us out,
to make our exclusion legal,
and keep our arms empty,
alive.

my mother,
never stops working;
loves and lives
as if every hour she does
she is paid in full;
is tired,
but living and alive and loved.

my mother.

toastmasters

in fifth grade she stumbled in;
met blonde-haired,
blue-eyed
America.

traded calligraphic characters,
ink and brush,
for foreign-sounding syllables,
exchanging L’s and R’s
like she could trade her accent for respect.

changed her name to something more
pronounceable.
didn’t know that
her name wasn’t the only foreign thing about her.

fast forward years and lives and loves later.

she still stumbles,
catches herself,
but questions nothing.

she is told to make speeches,
writes the sentences herself,
recites words from memory;

asks for my help,
but she does not need it.

she knows
she does not need to sound perfect
to have something to say.

a new national anthem

when anyone says, “immigrants built America”
I am reluctant to comment

Because “immigrant” implies choice
implies well-calculated decisions for better lives on greener pastures
implies we were not forced from homes, or enslaved, or lied to

It says our trails were made of everything but tears
states that we were always whole and not ¾
reminds me our railroads weren’t hammered by jade hearts
tells me we have no right to mourn or question or be anything but grateful

We don’t say that there were no more options
that poverty forced families to fragment
like disposable chopsticks my grandmother still never throws away

that our culture and history is diluted
disingenuous
categorically flawed by its very nature

because immigrants didn’t build this country
we stole it.

And made refugees,
and slaves,
and victims,
into citizens

Chinese Amer-I-can’t Deal With This Question Anymore

I have been having issues as of late with the idea of ethnic and national identity. I have always considered myself Chinese American, or Asian American in broader contexts. I still think those labels define me adequately, and yet there is something very unnerving about the ways in which others react to my identity.

The most common question I get, right after “so, what ethnicity are you?”* is the dreaded, “You speak Chinese, right?”

I always smile a pained, forced smile and shake my head no.

That question is one of the most irritating, ostracizing questions I get. And I’ll tell you why.

That question constantly reminds me that I am out of place—that my fragmented identity is, in fact, a reality; that I am neither fully Chinese nor fully American; that no part of me belongs anywhere.

When a person asks me if I speak Chinese, they already assume they know the answer. They know how the conversation will go. They think I will say “yes”, that my parents or I immigrated to America fairly recently (within the past twenty years), and that I speak it at home. Maybe I’ll make a joke about a Chinese curse word or my parents’ inability to clearly enunciate the “l” sound. We’ll laugh and move on with our conversation.

But, the thing is, that is not how the conversation goes because that narrative is not my family’s or my own.

Assuming I speak Chinese automatically otherizes me in the eyes of the asker. If I speak Chinese, it makes sense to them. It’s as if they’re saying, “Oh, so you speak Chinese. You’re not really American—you’re Chinese.” And, if I speak honestly and say that I do not speak Chinese, at home or anywhere else, the immediate follow-up by the asker is when my parents immigrated to the United States. My own history and life is not the topic of conversation. My being born in America suddenly has no bearing on if I’m considered American or not.

My issue with this is not isolated or a standalone situation. America, a cultural melting pot (though now I think people are using the metaphor of some kind of mixed salad), has produced a generation, my generation, of people that are excluded from specific cultural contexts. The problem with being Chinese, but not Chinese enough; American, but not American enough, is a universal in the immigrant and descendants of immigrant community. You would think that after twenty-two years of living, I’d have come to terms with this state of limbo—of navigating between cultures and contexts. But, no matter how old you get, I think cultural identity is something you will always struggle with.

Further, aside from this personal struggle with identity, the question of native languages connotes the issue of belonging, which has historical proportions. Chinese immigrants were by no means welcomed with open arms. The denigration of the Chinese through dehumanization and exploitation of labor should not be taken lightly. Surviving in such an unwelcoming environment meant working as hard and as fast at becoming “American”. It meant blending in. And blending in meant speaking English and being as close to your white counter parts in dress, language, and mannerisms as possible.   It was the only way to escape the bullying and harassment that came with being a Chinese immigrant (or any immigrant, really).

It is why my father doesn’t speak Chinese fluently, and why my brother and I never learned. It is why growing up, I naively conveyed confusion and slight embarrassment that my mother’s mother never learned English after over forty years in the United States. It is why not one of her ten grandchildren can have legitimate conversations with her and why she still laughs at me when I struggle to convey affection in broken Cantonese. It is true irony when you uproot your family to find a better life, only to realize that that life includes ten grandchildren you can never communicate with.

In short, it matters a great deal to me that I cannot speak Chinese because it is a symbol and a symptom of the oppression of my ancestors, of the collateral damage we all have from being children of immigrants.

It is also a constant reminder that in my life, no matter how hard I try, I will never be Chinese enough or American enough to even the most well trained eye.

So, the next time you ask a question about speaking my mother tongue as some form of introduction by saying, “It’s curiosity. It’s just a simple question meant to spark conversation.” I will not smile and nod. I will be sure to tell you otherwise.


* I could dedicate an entire collection of blogs on this. The worst part about the “what ethnicity are you?” question is when people try to guess before you answer by running down the list of every single type of Asian ethnicity they can think of. And when you finally confirm one, they say, “I knew it!”

How on earth was it so glaringly obvious to you if you had to guess a number of different countries before you landed on the right one? It’s not that hard either—China is the biggest Eastern Asian country there is. You do not win a prize for boiling my ethnic and cultural identity down to a super fun guessing game.