Illustration by Molly Oleson.


This is Mission Local’s third article on the senior Chinese immigrants we meet in the Alabama Street food line. Click here to read the first one and here for the second one.

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.”

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REPORTER. Yujie Zhou is our newest reporter and came on as an intern after graduating from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. She is a full-time staff reporter as part of the Report for America program that helps put young journalists in newsrooms. Before falling in love with the Mission, Yujie covered New York City, studied politics through the “street clashes” in Hong Kong, and earned a wine-tasting certificate in two days. She’s proud to be a bilingual journalist. Follow her on Twitter @Yujie_ZZ.

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  1. I came to America from Hong Kong at 29 years old to seek a better life. After working 36 years, I retired to a comfortable life. America privided me the opportunity to build a career and family which I might not be able to do at my previous homeland. I am glad to make the choice while I also provide help to new immigrants to fulfill their dreams. My ancestors move from Mainland China to HKG 3 hundred years ago, I continue on their steps to explore better life at another continent. No gut no glory.

  2. They came here to find heaven? And now that they see it isn’t heaven are they looking for heaven somewhere else? It’s up to someone else to deal with the messy business of politics, they just wanted the rewards of heaven.

  3. This is common to all immigrants, everyone gets nostalgic of their home, reminiscing about they’re happy youth, it’s completely natural, especially when they are very far away and always more so when they get older. Sadly, if the mist of nostalgia gets cleared we see that quaint little village they remember is now under a block of high rises apartment buildings and their childhood friends are old sick or dead. Such is life.

  4. It seems inconceivable to me that anyone would migrate to a new country and not pick up the language. My great grandparents arrived in steerage at Ellis Island in the 1890s fleeing incipient antisemitic pogroms in Poland, adults at the time, living in tenements on the Lower East Side if Manhattan.

    After working all day, they took ESL classes at night and within 5 years were conversant in English, all of this before the terms “social” and “services” were used together in a sentence.

    Immigration boosters like to say that immigration brings the best and brightest to the US. Clearly this is an overstatement.

    1. It seems inconceivable to _me_ that anyone could read this profile and come out with such a blinkered, ungenerous conclusion as marcos’s above. Not to mention the bad history in that swipe against “social services”: New York had a “League of Social Service” in 1899, so it’s fair to say the term must have been around some time before that. And certainly government involvement in public welfare goes back to 1800 and earlier.

  5. I’m loving this series and getting insight into a group of neighbors I don’t know much about despite living here for 20+ years. Empathy and compassion are much easier when you know the story. Thank you!

  6. Very true. Most of us immigrants from S.E.Asia to Europe regrets what we’ve done in our younger days. Regretting is but not helping out, got to face the truth. Live out rest of the days till you disintegrate to ashes. Looking onto the bright side of life, gathering on with old friends ,talking of the better days of old and try to stay on the positive aspects of the future. But be it good or otherwise ,face it and be strong , lets meet again in the afterlife,not to make the silly mistake again?

    1. Every immigrant goes through this broken-heartedness sadly. The second generation is sandwiched between the old home and new country and a little awkwardly finding their bearings. The third generation is fully assimilated. No one tells you this when you are embarking out of your home to come here, though. I feel for the Chinese who come here because they are embraced in China as in they have cultural belonging and cameraderie (and so much history); they have roots and they have language and such strong culture (even food!) It’s a sacrifice to be sure when they come here. We’re really lucky to have Chinese in the USA because they are hardworking, make good friends and are loyal too. Bless them and their families as Americans.