“An arduous journey to fulfill a dream”

SAN FRANCISCO, CA – On a clear day, a glimpse down the street from Tony Huang’s one-bedroom apartment in San Francisco affords him a view of rose-tinted skies as the sun sets over the Pacific. With a daughter who has recently married, a steady job as a massage therapist that allows for some savings and a close-knit group of family and friends nearby, Huang seems to be well on his way to living the American dream.

Life, however, has not always been this stable, especially in the past decade. For much of the time after Huang immigrated to the United States in July 2001 from Guilin in the Guangxi Zhuang autonomous region, the label of “undocumented immigrant” has followed him and often left him bouncing from job to job with little, if any, sense of security.

“You really can’t stay anywhere for too long without documentation,” said Huang, who has also worked in construction, plastic manufacturing, restaurants and laundry services since he landed in San Francisco nearly 10 years ago.

Although he knew that the transition would not be an easy one, nothing prepared him for the challenges he would face. “You always think that America is so clean, so sophisticated, kind of like what you see in Hollywood movies … but in reality, it’s nothing like that.”

Like many immigrants, Huang came with the dream of building a better future. “My plastics business in China had not been going well and I thought I might as well come to the US to try my luck,” said Huang, who was also a dentist at the time.

After securing a one-year, multi-entry 30-day B1 visa, Huang came under the premise that an American business was interested in learning more about his plastics operations. He now admits, however, that there was never really any interest and he never had any intention of leaving.

With $400 given to him by his mother and an older sister, Huang set out for his dream. “I was still getting over jet lag when I first started at the construction site,” said Huang. After a month there, a friend referred him to a plastics manufacturing plant.

A month later, with his visa expired, Huang was let go. “Those were times that left you feeling thoroughly exhausted,” said Huang. “It wasn’t just the physical labor, it was mentally and emotionally taxing as well.”

After several short stints with restaurants in New York City and in northern California, Huang found a small restaurant in San Francisco willing to take on an undocumented worker for little pay. This allowed him to accumulate enough savings to hire a lawyer to plead his case to the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

“As long as you have money, there’s actually a lot of ways to obtain legal status,” said Huang. He, however, acknowledges that he is one of the lucky ones, and that there are still many fighting to stay legally.

“No one wants to cheat the system but when you have so few options, it’s really mei banfa (no other way),” said Huang. As a Christian, Huang was ultimately granted a green card, and has since been able to bring several relatives, including his daughter, to the States.

When asked whether or not he would make the same move today, Huang said he would. He is also looking to visit Guilin again for the first time since leaving, where his mother has since passed away.

“If you asked me this question five years ago though, my answer would be very different,” said Huang. “It was definitely a very trying period but my story is not unique. There were, and still are, so many who have gone through similar experiences.”

As published in China Daily. All interviews were conducted in Chinese and translated into English. For my own reflection on this, please look here.

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