Immigration reform’s prominence in global news doesn’t seem to be letting up anytime soon. It’s an especially heated topic in the United States when immigrants aren’t filling such sought-after professions as nuclear engineers and information technology experts. Regardless of one’s position on immigration, however, it’s surely in everyone’s best interest for all immigrants to succeed in their new homes. And one of the most effective paths to success is having a solid support system—ie, a family—in a new land. Lauren Hilgers’s recently-published book, Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown, addresses this topic and couldn’t have come out at a more pertinent time.
Hilgers didn’t set out to write a book about immigration and was more interested—as a Shanghai-based reporter—in protests some years back in Wukan, Guangdong province. Citizens there became aware of land grabs by the local government, which in turn sold the farmers’ land to developers. While still based in Shanghai, Hilgers traveled to Wukan to write an article about the demonstrations and the protesters who dared to stand up to the government. There she met Zhuang Liehong, one of the activist leaders. Online he called himself Patriot Number One. Hilgers not only found enough material for an article; this book materialized from her time in Wukan and later after she repatriated to New York.
When Hilgers had been living in New York for a couple years, she received a phone call from Zhuang Liehong. He and his wife, nicknamed Little Yan, were in Hawaii on a Chinese package tour. The next thing Hilgers knew, they were at her front doorstep. Zhuang and Little Yan left the tour when it reached Las Vegas, explaining to their guide that they wanted to spend a little more time in the US before heading back to China. But the couple didn’t return home and thereby defected to the US, leaving their toddler son, Kaizhi, back in China with his maternal grandparents in Guangxi province. What follows is a brave story of immigration and identity in a new land, namely Flushing, Queens. The democracy movement in China becomes a side story.
In many immigrant families, it’s the wife and mother that becomes the backbone of the family.
Patriot Number One is less a China book than a case study and a reminder that immigration succeeds when one is surrounded by family. Zhuang and Little Yan settled in Flushing after learning about its large Chinese population which reduced the need to speak English, in which neither of them was very proficient. It was also possible to find jobs in Flushing that didn’t require much English, so they could start earning money to bring little Kaizhi to join them in the US. There they found inexpensive accommodations, either one room in a house or an apartment with a shared bathroom, kitchen, and other common living space.
Regardless of the circumstances, immigrants require some sort of a residency visa. Zhuang and Little Yan lucked out in a way. Since Zhuang was involved in the Wukan protests—resulting in the death of one colleague during imprisonment (Zhuang himself was arrested and jailed for a short period of time)—the couple learned after they arrived in the US that they likely qualified to apply for asylum. It seemed the quickest and surest way to stay in the US rather than trying to find a job that would sponsor their work visas, which would be particularly difficult because they didn’t work in hot fields like engineering and IT.
But when it came to uniting their family—namely bringing Kaizhi to America—they weren’t so lucky. While the couple waited for their asylum case to be processed, they were not allowed to leave the US to visit or bring Kaizhi back to New York. And even after their applications were approved, they still couldn’t go fetch Kaizhi. Unfamiliar with US immigration law, Zhuang and Little Yan were surprised when their lawyer informed them it would look bad if they asked for asylum to protect them from injustices in China, only to return there a couple years later.
Things started looking up when some friends told them about another Chinese immigrant’s impending trip back to Southern China for a short visit. Zhuang and Little Yan saw this stranger’s trip an opportunity to reunite with their son. They offered to pay her to bring Kaizhi across the Pacific to New York.
In many immigrant families, it’s the wife and mother that becomes the backbone of the family and Hilgers’s book demonstrates this very clearly. While Zhuang often loafed around a Chinese democracy office in Flushing, shooting the breeze with his friends, Little Yan was the one that toiled long hours in noxious nail salons and exhausting home health care work, cleaning up after an old Cantonese couple. Zhuang, on the other hand, found a welcoming community in Flushing that organized protests online and arranged demonstrations in front of the United Nations. For much of the couple’s early years in New York, Zhuang didn’t bring in any money from his Chinese democracy “work”. Zhuang’s background was ironically what allowed the couple to obtain asylum in the US while Little Yan was the one keeping the family afloat there.
Hilgers goes deeper into this dynamic of hard-working wives and slacker fathers and shows that it was common among the Chinese activists in Flushing: most of the wives supported their husbands. While withholding judgement, Hilgers explained that Zhuang felt that his manhood was at stake when it came to accepting certain jobs. Despite not having the equivalent of a US high-school degree, Zhuang felt he was above manual labor. Little Yan, however, seemed to have little choice. She either worked (and went to a business institute at night to earn a certificate that would give her qualifications to work in a medical office) to make money for her family or they would go without food or shelter. Zhuang later found work in a field occupied by many middle class Americans that kept him busy and earned some money for his family, although Little Yan still brought in most of the couple’s income.
Although the bulk of the book follows the stories of Zhuang, Little Yan, and Kaizhi, Hilgers also introduced friends of the couple, namely Karen Xie, a classmate of Little Yan’s at the Long Island Business Institute who worked during the day as a hotel maid in the Manhattan, a job that wasn’t easy to obtain due to the stiff competition during the application process. Karen met and started to date a Chinese-American man, who took her on trips to areas outside New York City. Hilgers used Karen as an example of a single immigrant who worked hard and built a new family in the US. Compared to Karen, Little Yan and Zhuang had fewer worries because they had a greater support system in each other when they first arrived in the US and later with Kaizhi after he joined them in Flushing.
Mr Tang was another supporting character. An activist in Queens, Tang introduced Zhuang to demonstrations in New York and elsewhere in the US. One of the more memorable protests took place in Mar-a-Lago when Xi Jinping visited Donald Trump. Although these side stories are fascinating and show another slice of immigrant life in Flushing, sometimes they felt like distractions from Zhuang’s and Little Yan’s story.
One or two case studies don’t allow one to draw conclusions about immigration policy, but books like Hilgers’s show the determination and resilience of new immigrants. And like with so many immigrant stories, while the women are often in the background, they are usually the ones holding their families together. It doesn’t take much imagination to understand how differently these immigrant stories would turn out if it weren’t for the unity of the family.