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Born and raised in Hong Kong, Lassanna Wong-Karrim came to the United States in 1988, being the first of her family to cross the Pacific. Her parents supported her decision to become an international student, but felt that it would be best to find a school close to relatives. As a result of these wishes, Lassanna found herself flying to the U.S. on her own at the age of 18. She was set to arrive in Tucson, Arizona, where she would achieve her bachelor’s degree in accounting at the University of Arizona – which was only two hours away from a nearby uncle who could support her when needed.
During Lassanna’s childhood, Hong Kong was under Britain’s colonial rule. The school systems in Hong Kong were modeled after the education system in the United Kingdom. Children in Hong Kong were then taught English throughout primary and secondary school. Growing up, Lassanna became fluent in both Cantonese and English because of the education system. Knowing English gave her the advantage of adjusting to America with ease. Being fluent in two languages enabled her to make friends with Caucasian students, while allowing her to befriend other Chinese-speaking international students.
While in college, Lassanna recalled never being directly discriminated against. Lassanna felt that the University of Arizona had a large enough population of international students that the student body was accustomed to interacting with people of various cultures and races, thus making it a safe campus for all. For Lassanna, making friends in the U.S. was a smooth process: she was able to befriend other Chinese-speaking international students like herself, while also developing friendships with primarily-English speaking students. Lassanna believed that this was a result from not only being fluent in the English language, but also a result of her upbringing.
Many Chinese immigrant parents would stress the importance of maintaining one’s cultural identity to their children. In A Different Mirror, author Ronald Takaki brings attention to the struggles of being a second-generation Chinese in the U.S: “There was endless discussion about what to do about the dilemma of being caught in between… being loyal to the parents and their ways and yet trying to assess the good from both sides” (Takaki, 205). Lassanna’s parents, however, emphasized the importance of being open-minded and being able to adapt, rather than the importance of maintaining Chinese culture. They foresaw the acculturation that would inevitably occur while Lassanna was in the U.S., and encouraged her to embrace the new American culture, while putting little to no pressure on her to retain her Chinese culture: “My parents were very open-minded. They never pressured me to retain their culture, but they did want me to pick out the good aspects of each culture and learn from that.”
Lassanna had no intentions of living in the United States, but after she finished her first year of college, her family left Hong Kong to join her in America. After being ruled by the British for over 156 years, Hong Kong was set to be returned to mainland China in 1997 (Chronology). Many people in Hong Kong were worried about the transition. Hong Kongers feared the Hong Kong Special Administration Region (HKSAR), a unique geographical area with a high degree of autonomy set up by the People’s Republic of China, would “strip away their way of life” (Ren). “Hong Kongers” had developed their own distinct culture apart from the “Mainlanders.” The returning of Hong Kong to China was then depicted as a possible return to the “mainland life, and Hong Kongers associated mainland China with poverty, hardship, and dullness because many people left mainland China to find work and opportunity.
Fearing “The Return” of Hong Kong to China, Lassanna’s parents made the decision to move their family to San Francisco, California in 1989 to avoid facing Hong Kong’s transfer back to China’s sovereignty. Lassanna returned to Hong Kong that summer to help her father, mother, and two younger sisters to prepare for the move. Lassanna’s father, a licensed doctor who ran his own practice, had to sell both his clinic and home. Once their properties were sold, Lassanna and the rest of the Wong family took their first plane ride together towards the U.S.
While Lassanna returned to school in Tucson, her family – the Wongs – began their adjustment to living in the United States. Lassanna’s father, Dr. Wong, had some difficulty adjusting to his new life in the U.S., as he was no longer able to work as a doctor. Although Dr. Wong was certified to practice in Hong Kong and any area of British Sovereignty, his certification was not applicable in the U.S. In the U.S., “a doctor is only allowed to practice in the U.S. once he has obtained a license in the state in which he intends to work” (The Atlantic). Considering how long it would take to obtain a U.S. license, Dr. Wong sought out alternatives for work. Dr. Wong attended the City College of San Francisco to become a Pharmacist’s Assistant while volunteering at the hospital. However, both became a strain on Dr. Wong’s health. Mrs. Wong began noticing his weight loss: “After noticing my father lose all that weight, my mother said to my father, “Just forget it. Retire and just enjoy life.”
Interestingly enough, Lassanna, whose first language is Cantonese, noticed that she too, began to automatically speak and even think in English after coming to the United States. After having her two daughters, Lassanna noted that her parents told her not to worry about speaking Chinese to her children, but rather, to speak English to them instead: “My parents wanted me to make sure my daughters were going to fit in and get a good education. To do that, they’d have to be able to speak English well.” Lassanna currently speaks English to her daughters, but continuously makes effort to help them learn Mandarin — a Chinese language that is rapidly becoming popular and important to know. Lassanna hired an in-home private Chinese tutor — my mother — to teach her daughters to speak, read, and write Mandarin on a weekly basis. Although Lassanna finds herself having some struggle remembering how to write certain Chinese characters, she continues to actively speak Chinese to her daughters as often as she can.
Lassanna Wong-Karrim and her two daughters, husband, and dog currently live in San Francisco, allowing them to be near Lassanna’s parents. Lassanna feels that she has been able to have a balanced embrace of the good in both the American culture and Chinese culture. Although she does not miss living in Hong Kong, she and her current family, along with her parents, are living comfortable and happy lives, never looking back on their decision to move to the U.S.
Victoria Lai wrote this profile as a student in Professor Maggie Hunter’s Sociology of Immigration class at Mills College.
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