While many of their children and grandchildren have flourished in the United States, Chinese immigrants who came as adults and are now seniors live with regrets and an ineffable longing for the country they left behind.
“Every Chinese immigrant has a wound in their heart,” said Koey Zhou, community programs coordinator at Chinatown YMCA. “Especially those middle-aged and older immigrants. They spent most of their lives in China and went through a hard time there. Then they had to suffer again when they came to America.”
Take 69-year-old Zhaobin Zhang, who speaks wistfully about his life before immigration, when he lived in his parents’ ancestral home in the heart of Guangzhou, the largest city in southern China. Zhang worked at the state-run shipyard in Guangzhou, a position admired for its stable income and association with the government.
Since the U.S. loosened its restrictions on Chinese immigration in 1965, the U.S. Chinese immigrant population has been on a steady upswing, growing nearly sevenfold since 1980 and replacing Mexico as the top country of origin in 2018.
“They said America was heaven,” said Zhang. “I bought it. Now I deeply regret the decision.”
Zhaobin Zhang’s now-ex-wife came to the United States first and, at the age of 51, he followed with a spousal visa in 2003. For more than a decade after coming to the United States, he packaged goods for a trading company in San Francisco. Eventually, he and his wife divorced. Now he lives alone in a $700 rental apartment on Silver Avenue. His monthly pension is just above $700.
Despite living in the United States for nearly 20 years, Zhang still speaks hardly a word of English and uses Cantonese, the dialect of Guangzhou, for almost all of his daily communication. The language barrier isolates him, but also remains a source of pride. In the middle of our conversation, an immigrant from Guangxi spoke a few Cantonese sentences to us. After she left, Zhang whispered to me, “Only the dialect spoken in Guangzhou is the real Cantonese!”
Furong Zhou’s early career was less glamorous than Zhang’s. Before moving to the United States, he spent 14 years working for Zhuhai’s local government in the engine room of a cargo ship. Despite the noise, he enjoyed his weekly trip on the 300-ton blue-painted ship along the Pearl River estuary with the chickens, ducks, cows and sheep aboard. The trips also meant he could bring his family high-quality daily necessities from Hong Kong and Macau.
“The worst decision in my life is coming to America,” he said. For 28 years, his life was confined to a small meat and vegetable market in San Francisco’s Chinatown. Every day he repeated the same cycle: Go to work, come home for a shower and go to bed at midnight. Then he slept for a few hours, got up, ate breakfast and returned to the market again at 6:30 a.m.
Retirement hasn’t been much better. “People don’t have time to talk to me around here. Everyone has their own business,” said Zhou. Nowadays, he also worries about the anti-Chinese sentiments and the recent attacks on Chinese immigrants.
Bonny Li, the Active Older Adults program coordinator at the Chinatown YMCA, said Zhou’s situation is typical of those who still work. Most middle-aged and elderly Chinese immigrants work more than 10 hours a day.
Zhou believes if he were still in China, he could spend his days playing Chinese chess, walking along the Pearl River, and chatting with old friends. At night, he wouldn’t have to hide at home for fear of being attacked; he could go out at will to a barbecue at a food stall, or go square dancing with his wife. But for now, he is alone and his wife is working as a cleaner at the San Francisco International Airport.
What annoys Zhou most is that he missed out on the four decades of soaring property prices in China that followed Deng Xiaoping’s 1978 opening of China to the world. On the phone with friends back home, he was surprised to learn that some of the men he once worked with on the freighter are now living on rental income: “Five or six people bought a whole street of storefronts in my hometown,” he said. “They’re getting tens of thousands a month out of the rent!”
Three decades later, looking back on his choice to leave China, Zhou said flatly, “I didn’t want to come.”
Why doesn’t he return? “All my family members are here,” he said.
Bonny Li said Zhou is not alone. Most seniors, even when they’re unhappy, stay because of their children. “It might be hard for us to understand, but the older generation of Chinese believe that they should contribute everything to their children and grandchildren,” she said. “They want to work as much as possible to improve the lives of their children, and when they retire, they want to help raise their grandchildren.”
Li said there are other reasons as well. “Their relationships are already in America, and their houses in China have long been sold.” But more important is a mindset: “Chinese people are used to accepting reality,” said Li. “‘No matter what life is like, that’s how it is.’”
Or, as Bill Zhen said, “It’s all over now. There’s no going back.”
Zhen, who worked as an electrician, leading a team of four or five apprentices in Guangzhou, came to the United States shortly after the end of the Cultural Revolution.“China was in political turmoil. I was told America was good,” said Zhen.
What he didn’t know was that in 1982, when he and his siblings were packing to move to the United States, China’s darkest moment had already passed and the country was entering into four decades of rapid growth.
To date, all Zhen’s relatives have come to the United States, but their connection to the country remains tenuous. One Saturday in November, the whole family gathered to celebrate Zhen’s mother’s 100th birthday in San Francisco’s Chinatown. “Mom is the rock of our family. As long as she is alive, our family will stay together,” Zhen said. “If she passes away, our family will definitely fall apart.”
Until the pandemic, Zhen continued to return to China every year or two to travel and stock up on cheap clothes, shoes and socks. But he said that he now returns to China as a tourist, mainly for the sake of nostalgia.
Zhen is 71 years old this year. Since his retirement in 2012, his life has been reduced to his one-bedroom apartment on 16th Street. But that’s not all he has in mind for the future. “My roots are in the mainland, and I still hope I can go back in the end,” said Zhen.
And what if he can’t go back? “Well, when I die, burn me up and toss the ashes. They’ll make decent fertilizer.”