Monday, July 27, 2009

From Fujian Province to Ripon: A Chinese Family's Story

Haiyan Zheng grew up in a village of a few hundred people in rural Fujian Province in southeastern China – “Where it never snows!” she says laughingly. She lived with her grandparents, while her parents and younger brother lived in a larger city. Her father worked as a builder, remodeling and decorating houses, and sending back remittances to support Haiyan. “It is common in China for families to do this,” she explains.

In 1999, Haiyan graduated from high school. She expected to go to college and become a rural school teacher. However, relatives in the U.S. invited her to visit, and applied for a tourist visa for her. “I could not have gotten one without their help,” she says.

While visiting family in New York City, she went to a restaurant where she met a young man named Dan Wang. “Friends set us up” is how she puts it. Dan had been in the U.S. since he was sixteen, when his family emigrated, and he had studied to become a cook since he was fourteen. Over the next five months they became acquainted, and after six months in the U.S. Haiyan returned to China. She and Dan stayed in touch by phone, and eventually decided to get married. Haiyan returned to the States in 2001, they married, and two years later Haiyan was able to obtain a green card allowing her to work.

In 2002 their first child, Jason, was born, followed a few years later by Nicole, now 15 months old. The couple opened their first restaurant in Chicago. However, since Dan’s older brother and parents lived in Appleton, they decided to look in the Fox Valley for a site closer to their family. Thus they landed in Ripon, opening what is now China 1 Restaurant on Highway 23 in 2005.

“My husband barely speaks English,” explains Haiyan, “so my older brother-in-law helped us a lot. He got all the documents and permits and helped us get the place remodeled. As far as the food goes, we knew about that already. That was the easy part.”

The couple financed the investment entirely with their own savings from the sale of their restaurant in Chicago and wages earned before that. They looked into getting a bank loan, “But it seemed inconvenient” explains Haiyan. “Complicated and like a lot of paperwork.” In addition, their landlord gave them only four months to remodel the restaurant, and it appeared that it would have taken longer than that to obtain a loan.

They experienced an enthusiastic reception among their Ripon customers right away. “Working people like to come here – it’s fast, tasty and reasonably priced,” says Haiyan. “I see a lot of regulars – and I already know what they want as soon as they walk in the door! We set up the buffet because so many people requested it. We put out our most popular dishes.”

Haiyan’s oldest son, Jason, started Kindergarten this year at Barlow Park Elementary School. Haiyan considers that the experience has been positive so far. “The teachers are very patient with Jason. He couldn’t speak any English when he started, but his teacher listens and tries to understand. His friends teach him English – they like him because he’s the only Chinese boy.”

As Haiyan talks about her son’s teachers, Jason wanders back and forth between the restaurant kitchen and the dining area, showing his mother an Eric Carle picture book from his volunteer English tutor, Janette Stone of Green Lake. At one end of the kitchen, there are number and alphabet charts on the wall over a low table, along with pictures of family trips to China.

Haiyan says it has been a challenge getting used to the school system. “The first day he was supposed to bring snacks and painting supplies and lots of things to school, and I didn’t know. And all these Parent Daily Questions come home and I don’t understand them! But the teachers try to explain, and they do what they can to help. It’s better for us here than it is for Jason’s cousin in Appleton. At least we get the School News delivered to our home – we know what to prepare for, what the dates are, what we’re supposed to do. I don’t know what we’d do without that newspaper!”

Haiyan wants her children to get what’s best from American culture – but she doesn’t want them to lose their Chinese culture and language. “We want them to study Chinese, and celebrate Chinese festivals, like the Moon festival and Chinese New Year.”

In fact, Nicole is living in China with her grandparents and will stay with them until she is about three years old, in part so she will learn Mandarin. “I miss her, but I want her to learn Mandarin – and if she is with us she will learn our dialect and English only.” Haiyan plans to send both children back to China during summer vacations if they can afford it so that they maintain their Chinese roots and learn Chinese well.

“Lots of Americans ask my why I want to leave Nicole with her grandparents. It is very common in China, especially in rural areas, to leave children with their grandparents until they are four or five.” In Haiyan’s village, most of the young adults have emigrated to the United States. “Only old people and small children are left.”

One important aspect of Chinese culture that Haiyan wants her children to learn about is family values and respect. “In Chinese culture, kids listen to their parents and respect them. In China, the family is very tight – children support their parents when they get old.”

“In the U.S., kids don’t respect their elders in the same way. When they grow up they want to have their own life. But I like that American kids are so independent. From age four or five on, they learn to eat by themselves, to dress themselves… In China, parents do so much for their children.”

Does Haiyan see any tension between her twin hopes for her children: that they show respect and deference to their elders, and that they be independent? “Yes!” she says emphatically, laughing. “There’s already a conflict! Jason is only 5 ½ and already he has his own opinions and wants to do things his way!”

For her part, after being in the U.S. for a few years, she has modified her expectations of her son. “Before I came here, I expected that he would take care of us when we were old. Now, I think it is good enough if he can take care of himself. If we were in a crisis I would hope he would help us. I see Americans who don’t do that. But I no longer expect him to take care of us.”

Haiyan misses her family in China, and hopes to be able to visit them most summers if it is not too busy at the restaurant. The relatives cannot obtain visas to come to the U.S. “There are few tourist visas available for China now – mainly business, work and student visas.” Between visits they stay in touch by computer using MSN software – with a video camera at each end so they can see each other as they write back and forth. “I saw my daughter today!” says Haiyan, beaming.

Haiyan and her husband hope to naturalize as citizens at some point. Dan tried once already, but although he knew U.S. history and geography well enough, he could not write in English. They both hope to study and learn enough English to pass the citizenship test. Dan works 10 hours a day every day at the restaurant, however, so time is especially limited for him.

How have they found their reception in the U.S.? For the most part, Haiyan and her family have experienced area residents to be friendly. “Sometimes there’s discrimination,” she says. “Like if I go into Sam’s Club, I’ll walk in the door with several American customers, and I’m the only one they check to see if I’m a member. And sometimes people get impatient because I don’t speak much English. But mostly people are nice – they seem to like Chinese people even if it’s hard to communicate.”

Asked if they wish for a larger Chinese community, Dan breaks in with a grin and says, “No! That would mean more competition!” Haiyan adds that they are pretty independent. Haiyan and Dan confer animatedly, and then say “Having more friends would be better… but sometimes living in a Chinese community is too noisy. There are too many Chinese people in it! That’s what we like about Ripon!”

Would they recommend what they have done to other Chinese friends and relatives? “Yes!” they both answer emphatically. “It’s a lot easier to find work here than in China. There the pressure and competition are too much.”

Peng "Roc" Huang and Gloria Liu graciously provided their interpreting skills for the interviews on which this article is based.

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