Our Family’s Immigrant Story

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(My great-grandparents on their wedding day)

“So, are you Chinese or Indonesian?” one of my children asked me today. I paused a long time.

My kids are Amer-Asian. They live in a nice town and go to amazing private schools. A branch of their mother’s family came over on the Mayflower. I’m not sure if they’re ready to hear the full story about my family, but I hope that one day they’ll read this post.

Our family story? It’s about hunger, discrimination, and grit.


On my father’s side, my great-great-grandfather left the Fujian province of China to seek work. His father died when he was in his teens, and as the oldest child, he had to provide for his mother and siblings. He went to Indonesia. There, he sold pots/pans door-to-door and sent money home.

A great-grandfather did well in business. He eventually bought a good chunk of land, which became providential. When Japan invaded and occupied Indonesia, times were really tough (the Japanese soldiers thought they were the superior race and treated other Asians accordingly–here’s a summary of the Nanking Massacre as an example).

My Dad said that his family survived World War II by episodically selling pieces of land. “We were lucky,” he said. “We had enough to eat.”

My mother’s family didn’t do as well. They were tobacco farmers and had a big house in a rural town. When she was about five years old, the Indonesian Army took over the house. They were given a few hours to pack what they could and leave. All their wealth was tied up in the crops, and so, they walked away from it all.

My mother, her parents and six siblings lived in a one-room dwelling with one light bulb. No indoor plumbing.

My mother didn’t eat three meals a day as a child. Her parents were gone for long periods of time for work, and so, an older sister took care of my mother. For dinner, they sometimes foraged for wild greens along the river.

My mother and all of her siblings died young. My dad suspects it was because of the lingering effects of malnutrition.

My grandfather would borrow money from relatives to make ends meet, fully knowing that he couldn’t pay them back.  They knew it, too, and so, my grandfather felt great shame. Thankfully, he did this so that he could send all of his children to college, including the daughters, which was rare back then. My mom often mentioned one of his sayings: “They can always take away your money, but they can’t take away your brain–so, do well in school.”

This was the same grandfather, who used to come over every day to hold me and walk around with me. It was he who gave me my Chinese name, Chong Yu. He told my mother that I had “good luck” born with me.

Our family faced a big challenge in Indonesia: discrimination. If you’re of Chinese origin, times were tough. There was a lot of discrimination and violence. Most career paths were off the table, and so, Chinese people pursued business, usually small-scale shops.

During race riots, Chinese-owned homes and businesses were often set on fire. When Chinese women were assaulted and violated, the police could care less. I remember visiting Indonesia as a child and a kid on the block wanting to fight me because of my race. I could go on.

In 1965, the discrimination was systematized: Chinese schools were closed, Chinese names were banned, and it was against the law to display Chinese characters. Even if you were born in Indonesia, your government I.D. card listed you as “foreigner”. It wasn’t as bad as apartheid in South Africa or as horrific as the Holocaust in Europe.

But, there were death squads.

You see, there had been a purported attempted Communist coup and some thought “the Chinese” were behind it all.  The government hunted down any suspected Communists and many Chinese were killed.  Some people think up to 1 million were put to death. Others think 2.5 million.

My friend Bill Levin alerted me to the Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing,” which interviews death squad members, who, to this day, feel great about the mass murders and rapes. One person killed 1,000 people. Here’s the trailer (or, click here):

Amidst all this mayhem, my father wanted to be a physician, but there were very strict race quotas. Most slots in medical school were reserved for ethnic Indonesians. You had to take a special exam to qualify for the handful of slots allowed for ethnic Chinese. My dad didn’t make it the first time. He did the second time.

Even then, he could only be a generalist; if you were ethnic Chinese and wanted to specialize in a field like surgery, pediatrics, oncology, etc., you were out of luck.

In 1965, the U.S. overturned its race-based immigration system. My dad wanted to study pediatrics. So, he became a resident at an understaffed inner-city hospital in Brooklyn, and we moved to the U.S. when I was a toddler. We came with a few suitcases and $1,500 that an uncle gave to my parents. A tough part of Brooklyn that, to this day, isn’t gentrified.

Our goal was to move back to Indonesia, and we did for a bit when I was in second grade. But, my mother’s health failed, and so, we moved back to the U.S. for her medical care.

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I grew up with these stories. They became part of my mental fabric. I worked hard at school and went to Yale and Harvard Business School. I’m a chronic saver. I’m prone to be a workaholic. I have a soft spot for young children in need (more here). I love backing entrepreneurs, the Davids going after the Goliaths.

Friday is Chinese New Year. I’ll be thinking of my ancestors and the twists and turns that have happened across many generations. There are so many family stories about grit to ponder.

I hope one day I can meet my great-great-grandfather and thank him. “You’ve got descendants in the U.S.A.,” I want to tell him. “They have enough to eat. They are safe. They are educated. Thank you for all you did for us!”

I love this country. I became a naturalized citizen at the age of 10. So, I’m a convert. I’m one of the few people in my town who puts up an American flag. I put it up Memorial Day and take it down Veterans’ Day. I feel very grateful.

So, am I Chinese or Indonesian? In the end, I guess I’m just an American.

2 thoughts on “Our Family’s Immigrant Story

  1. Jo, again, thanks for posting a very thoughtful, touching piece. Query: did you edit this after you originally posted? I first read this in an RSS feed, and it was about 70% of what I see above. I came directly to this page to read it again, and noticed the additional material.

    If I may, I’d like to share a slightly similar story, because I was asked the same question by my then 8-year old older daughter.

    My parents are from mainland China (Nanjing), and fled to Taiwan as children when the communists took over in 1949. My paternal grandfather was an architect and favorite of Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. Eleven surving children (plus a few stillborn), though my grandparents “gave” a daughter (#9) to friends who could not have children. Lost it all when they fled, and my father and his 9 siblings grew up in poverty before his father regained some footing.

    My maternal grandfather was a senator in the Guomingdang, and retained some wealth, but was also implicated in some political scandals in the 60s. He was sentenced to time in a political, country-club prison. Turns out that he had multiple families too, with at least one second wife (that I know of).

    Anyway, my parents immigrated to the US when I was 5 and my sister was 2. I was something of a prodigy as a young, young kid (though probably not by Chinese standards). Reading and writing adult literature in Mandarin by age 4. I was also doing multiplication by that age, though, again, I suspect that this is the norm in schools in Taiwan. When we arrived, I was tossed into the deep end of the pool – my mom took me to the NJ public school and dropped me off — and me without any knowledge of how to speak, read or write English. We moved to CT at age 7, and I went to a public school for two days before my parents realized I would learn nothing, and put me into Parochial school. I didn’t even know what Christianity was, not to mention Catholicism. Due to my ignorance, I got spanked by a nun (THAT will leave an impression), and learned what ostracism was when, during required attendance at mass, everyone else would go up for communion, and I’d sit by my lonesome in the pew. Then they promoted me from 3rd to 5th grade, so I lost the few friends I’d made, and found myself the youngest person in class (for the rest of my life).

    Although both had college degrees, my parents ended up opening a Chinese restaurant. Relatively upscale for Danbury, CT, it did well and we became solidly middle-class.

    I could go on, but the point is that I truly see myself as being an American today, and thankful — as I think only immigrants can truly appreciate — for the wonderful opportunities we had here. Yet too I am proud of my Chinese side, and do my best to share that with our girls (my wife is Scotch-Irish American).

    Again, your post was a lot of food for thought for me this week, and thanks for sharing!

    1. Dennis, thank you for such a moving and thoughtful comment. It is amazing what you and your family have had to endure. So glad that you’re sharing your Chinese heritage with your children and wife. I’m in the same situation, in that my wife is American. My children may not be that Chinese in culture, but I see in them some family values that have permeated them: hard work, desire to please, respect for elders, etc.

      Yes, I did add more to the blog post after a friend alerted me to the “Act of Killing” movie. I actually streamed the movie over the weekend and it’s a bit of a shocking movie. Very, very well done.

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