I was at the grocery store this Sunday morning when it opened. I’ve done this on many Sundays over the years. The store is quiet, and many of the workers are still stocking the shelves. I’ve become friendly with a few of them, since there’s time to chat amidst the quiet activity.
One of them is an immigrant from Malaysia. He grew up in a small village. The Malay and Indonesian languages are 90% the same, and so, we often chat. He shared with me today, with great pride, that his son just started at Noble & Greenough, an awesome school, and received a full scholarship.
He says that he tells his children to work hard, that he doesn’t want them to end up stocking shelves at a grocery store. He says that he brought them back to his Malaysian village a few years ago, to show them his roots.
I’ve done something like that.
Some years ago, during spring break, our family spent time in NYC. On the way home, we went to Brooklyn, where my parents, my sister and I lived, after first arriving in the Bronx, after we emigrated. It was then, and still is now, a rough part of town.
We drove by our old apartment building (see photo up top). We drove slowly along the streets, adjacent to the sidewalks on which my sister and I used to walk to and from school. We then went to Mass at a run-down Catholic church where I received my First Communion. Next to the church is Holy Cross School, the low-key parochial grade school my sister and I attended. It’s basically a really old building surrounded by asphalt:
“Wow, Dad,” one of my children said. “I can’t believe you grew up in this neighborhood.” Our nice suburb is a long way from Brooklyn. My kids’ schools are a long way from Holy Cross School.
Honestly, the seven years we spent in Brooklyn were pretty tough. My mother was very unhappy, caring for children on her own while not speaking the language and while my father worked long hours. My sister remembers a fair amount of racism from other kids, which I thankfully don’t recall. We had little money. There was a profound sense that we didn’t “fit in.”
Moreover, it was while at Brooklyn that my mother started to experience some very serious health issues, almost dying quite a few times. Those years comprise a crucible period for our family. I still feel deep sadness when I recall those years, even as I type this.
But, it made us stronger and gave us opportunity. Staying in Indonesia would have been worse, given the persistent and often violent discrimination against people of ethnic Chinese descent (more here).
Thankfully, we moved out of Brooklyn to California. Later, for me, Yale College. I’m so grateful to my alma mater, for it changed my life. I’m so grateful to some high school teachers, who encouraged me to think broadly about college. They let me dream of opportunities I never knew were within reach. My college-app process was pretty basic. I applied to colleges sight-unseen. Thankfully, it all worked out.
It has been a long way from Brooklyn.