From Hong Kong to New York: What it means to be an American

By in Asian Immigration

From Hong Kong to New York: What it means to be an American

From Hong Kong to New York: What it means to be an American and the Struggles Immigrants face

By: Julianne Tszuska, Wagner College’14

Panorama of the Hong Kong Skyline

A panorama of the Hong Kong Skyline

“To be an American to me isn’t anything special. Because I don’t have to change much…But I think to be an American my children it has a special meaning to them because they have a higher chance to get a better education here and more freedom for them to do whatever they want. It’s not like in China, they have a very restricted life.” – Joseph Lam


For my paper I interviewed Joseph Lam, an immigrant from Hong Kong. Mr. Lam came to the United States in the late 1988 to be reunited with his family. As soon as he came over with his parents, he applied for his wife and daughter to immigrate as well. There has been much social mobility within his family. When his parents came here they were blue collar workers working difficult jobs for long hours. Mr. Lam took the NYC civil servants exam and is currently working as an Information Technology programmer for the city of New York and has been working for the city for over 20 years. His daughter is currently in her third year of medical school in Westchester. His son is a junior at Baruch college also contemplating going to medical school.


Like many immigrants who have come to the United States, Joseph Lam left everything he knew behind in Hong Kong to be reunited with his family and to create a better life for them. It is often hard for immigrants to move to an unfamiliar country where people speak an unfamiliar language but many do it every year. Immigrants like Mr. Lam have ways to maintain their culture and pass it on to their children while adapting to every day American life. An example of this is through food and the support of a Chinese community found in the many Chinatowns in the boroughs of New York.  There are also many differences that immigrants and children of immigrants have to face such as the education system in the United States. Unfortunately, immigrants also face discrimination, hardship and prejudice as well. But many immigrants are resilient and are able to create successful lives in the United States rich with culture from their homes and new culture from the United States. With support from their communities, they have the confidence to face the many challenges, such as the differences in the education systems that may come their way.


Chinatown plays a major role in maintaining Chinese culture and helping immigrants adjust to life in the United States. The man I interviewed lived in Chinatown for
three to four years until he brought his family over and moved to Flushing
Queens, another Chinatown in New York. In his interview, Mr. Lam stated that the Chinatown in Manhattan is very crowded and mostly the new immigrants live there until they earn enough money to move out. It is basically a stepping stone for new immigrants. They are surrounded by familiar Chinese culture while they are getting used to life in the United States.

Chinatown in Manhattan was established in the 1830s when Chinese sailors began settling in lower Manhattan originally around Mott, Park and Doyer Streets. By 1898
Chinatown grew to include Pell, Bayard and Baxter Streets and Chatham Square.
Today, Chinatown covers over twenty streets. In Chinatown there are mostly restaurants, garment factories, grocery stores, gift shops and jewelry stores. (Hsiang-shui Chen, “Chinese in Chinatown and Flushing,” Asian American Center,)


 According to Joseph Lam, “Besides family reasons, people come to the United States for education. There are only two universities for 7 million people [in Hong Kong].
Not everyone gets a higher education. In the United States its better, everyone
has a chance to go to university. There are so many here. You have to be really
smart to get into University in Hong Kong. My Kids are here and they have a
chance to do what they want. They can get an education and can have any job
they want in America.” (Author interview with Joseph Lam.) The
education system is very different in the United States. Immigrants coming over
specifically for school both primary and secondary school may find it hard to
adjust. According to Joseph Lam from his personal experience with being
educated in Hong Kong and seeing his children educated in the New York City
public schools he said “schools are very different…In Hong Kong students study
more. They have books and are in the class most of the day. Here [in America ]they
get breaks and have more play time. They go on visits [field trips] too. I know
my son goes to libraries and here and there all for school.” (Author Interview with Joseph Lam)

For immigrant children in the New York City education system, they face many
challenges. One challenge is a language barrier while another major challenge
is living in a poor area with an overcrowded public school. Schools in these
areas also have low performing students, high dropout rates, and poor
attendance rates. Before educational reforms immigrants were forced to learn
English the hard way and often they were put into the first grade regardless of
how old they were. Also, immigrants who were placed in the appropriate grade
level for their age were often lost due to their limited knowledge of English
and would fall far behind. But according to Nancy Foner, there have been
programs created to help immigrant students on the elementary and high school
levels. There are bilingual programs where students receive lessons in their
native language while they are learning English. As soon as they are
comfortable with English they will begin regular classes. There is also ESL or
English as a second language programs designed to pull students
out of class for intensive English instruction. These programs are necessary especially
today because school is more important and even manual labor jobs require a
high school diploma or a GED diploma. (Foner, Nancy. 196-202.)



Author Interview with Joseph Lam, born August 24, 1960, immigrated to the United States October 1988.

Chen, Hsiang-shui. “Chinese in Chinatown and Flushing.”Asian American Center. . (accessed March 23, 2013).

Chua, Amy. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.

Cooper, Donna, and Adam Hersh. The Competition that Really Matters: Comparing U.S., Chinese and Indian Investments in the Next Generation Workforce . The Center for the Next Generation,

Foner, Nancy. From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002.

Lui, Mary Ting Yi. The Chinatown Trunk Mystery: Murder, Miscegenation, and other Dangerous Encounters in Turn of the Century New York City. New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.

McGlinn, Lawrence A. “Beyond Chinatown: Dual Immigration and the Chinese Population of Metropolitan New York City, 2000.” Middle States Geographer. 35. (2001): 110-119.

Vernez, Georges, and Allan Abrahames. How Immigrants Fare in U.S. Education . Santa Monica: Rand, 1996.

Zhou, Min. Social Capital in Chinatown:The Role of Community-Based Organizations and Families in the Adaptation of the Younger Generation. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1997.