ith the 2020 elections approaching, immigration remains one of the most thoroughly debated topics as President Trump’s controversial policies and detention centers dominate the news cycle. Photographs in the media show immigrants crammed together, huddling under foil-like, crinkly Mylar blankets on concrete floors. Chain-link fences enclose migrant holding areas in the U.S Customs and Border Protection facility in McAllen, Texas. Migrants detained in these severely overcrowded detention centers experience rough conditions: in the border town of El Paso, Texas, 900 migrants were held at a facility designed for 125. Children and infants have been separated from their families. Migrants often lack access to basic sanitary needs such as showers, clean clothing, and toothpaste.
Since Trump took office, he has implemented many anti-immigration measures, including the travel ban, Migrant Protection Protocols that have the power to send asylum seekers from Mexico back across the border while awaiting their immigration hearings, and a “zero tolerance policy”—all of which seek to restrict immigrants from entering the country and persecute undocumented ones.
In the Upper School, students study immigration in classes, from language to history. In Min L.’s Chinese 5: Advanced Topics class last year, one unit was dedicated to learning about Chinese American immigrants. Additionally, the theme of immigration is interwoven throughout the 11th-grade U.S. History course.
I feel that people migrate because something is not going well in their country, so you need to address the issues [there]. The United States could support in that area, rather than shutting people off and disconnecting.
For the past three years, upper school Spanish teacher Jo N. has led one of the 11th-grade trips to San Diego and Tijuana in order for students to learn about immigration and understand the complexity of the border issue. The group has met with Border Patrol agents, visited migrant shelters in Tijuana, and traveled with the organization Border Angels—which focuses on serving San Diego’s immigrant population—to drop off water near the wall for immigrants. Last year, students observed an immigration master court case; afterwards, Maya M. ’20 and Cevi b. ’20 spent an hour speaking to the lawyer.
“Our goal is to hear the individual stories of those whose lives have been impacted in some way by immigration,” Jo said.
Justin Z. – At the Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport in 2015, friends and family surrounded Justin Z. ’20 to say goodbye to him and his parents, Ping L. and Zhenjian Z., as they prepared to board a one-way flight to America.
“Seeing all of my friends and people I care about, and having this last conversation with them was a pretty emotional moment,” Justin said.
Four years later, Justin expressed deep appreciation for his parents, who were motivated by the American education system to immigrate from Guangzhou.
“In my opinion, the Chinese education system restrained students from taking full advantage of their talents,” Justin’s mother said.
I was pretty sad in the beginning, but after I got here, my curiosity overwhelmed my sadness.
“I think my son deserves more opportunities and a better environment to realize his full potential.”
Justin described his experience attending Tianhe Foreign Language School in Guangzhou through seventh grade (right before moving), as rigid, as they emphasized test-based evaluations. He took a weekly quiz for each subject and completed larger unit tests each month. At the end of the year, there were several tests that determined a student’s acceptance to middle and high schools.
In California, Justin missed his friends and called them twice a week. (He still keeps in touch, and reconnected with them when he visited China for an internship as a video game designer at the company Tencent.)
Bay Area’s significant Asian population reminded him of home, but there was still a
lot of adjustments In China, students stay in the same classroom throughout the day, while the teachers move. Students’ test scores were often publicized, shared, and compared—very different from the culture Justin found in the U.S.
“I immediately got into this mode of exploration and observation of differences between China and America,” Justin said.
Using English for daily interactions was initially challenging for Justin and his parents.
He took English as one of his subjects in China, but his performance was solely based on test scores and “how well you filled [in] the bubbles.”
Although he excelled, he didn’t know how to hold informal conversations and “had to learn a lot to catch up.”
Being Western and Chinese had both been a part of my identity, and it is just interesting to observe that the thing that is different stands out in certain environments.
Growing up, Justin had always been viewed as having Western connections by his classmates because his family would travel to the U.S. and bring back various American goods, like food, medicine, and clothing. In fifth grade, after one such visit, Justin returned with a Stanford t-shirt. When he wore it to school, his classmates shared an “implicit understanding” that he had a connection to America and was more Western, which they thought was cool.
“After I came here, everything got flipped around and I became the Chinese person,” Justin recalled.
But, he doesn’t feel “othered” by these differences.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re an immigrant or native-born,” Justin said. “Regardless of your background, ethnicity, or immigration status…at the end of the day you’re a person with [your own story].”
When I moved to England, I was the Spaniard. Then I moved to Mexico, and they really didn’t know quite where to place me because I wasn’t American, but I wasn’t Mexicans.
Jo N. – Upper school Spanish teacher Jo has lived all over the world: Spain, Great Britain, the Bay Area, Southern California, Mexico, and France. Born in Mallorca, Spain, Jo was the daughter of immigrants: her father immigrated from Britain and her mother from Trinidad and Tobago. In Spain, there was minimal diversity, and Jo felt like a foreigner.
“I remember walking down the street and people just making the assumption that I was a tourist,” Jo recalled. “They would call me ‘guiri,’ which means ‘foreigner.’”
At age 12, she left Spain for boarding school in the U.K., where she stayed for university, and worked in Britain for four years as an assistant librarian in the International Institute for Strategic Studies, and later as a manager at an Argentinian restaurant. When Jo was 26, she moved to Mexico City.
Jo moved to Mexico without a concrete plan and fell in love with the city, her community of friends, and her job of managing a telecommunications company’s internet department. She lived in an apartment with two friends, above a café, while three other friends lived in another apartment nearby. Jo likened it to living in a house on “Friends.”
After two years in Mexico, she immigrated to Irvine, California, but moved to be closer to her partner (now husband) at the time.
“If I hadn’t met my husband, I would probably have stayed in Mexico,” Jo said. “I just loved the people.”
Not thinking it would be long-term, she described her journey as adventurous. One year after her arrival, Jo traveled in and out with her British passport, returning to the U.K. and Mexico until 1999.
I don’t know that I would’ve gone back to teaching if I hadn’t found Nueva
Initially apprehensive about immigrating, she held negative attitudes towards the United States: it was more of an individualistic society in contrast to the collectivist environment she was raised in.
“I couldn’t understand why my husband would go to the fridge and get himself a drink without asking me whether I would like one, or I would be in the kitchen cooking a meal and he would come and start eating,” Jo recalled.
Jo’s interest in cultural intelligence and the roots of cultures comes from finding a stronger sense of home through the people in her life, rather than physical place.
“I don’t care where I live. I have a very strong connection with my family and so that has been my central safe place,” she said. “It’s my family.”
She moved to the Bay Area from Irvine partly because of the community she formed here. At Nueva, she also discovered a close community, and got a sense that people “truly cared for each other.”
You laugh even about death. For Day of the Dead, we celebrated what the dead liked the most.
Gloria Z. – Gloria Z. immigrated to San Mateo from Guadalajara, Mexico 23 years ago. There was a scarcity of job opportunities, and she was two months pregnant when she traveled to be with her husband, who already lived in the States.
“In Guadalajara, when a person was 28 years old, they could not have a job, but we needed money and a place to live,” Gloria said.
For Gloria, journeying to the United States was the most difficult part of immigration. She flew first to Tijuana from Guadalajara, then crossed the border to San Ysidro, in San Diego. Gloria’s husband knew people who helped her cross. They gave her the ID of a woman from San Ysidro who was visiting Tijuana, who she resembled. She was accompanied by a young American man for the border crossing, and they pretended they were a couple.
Whenever an immigration official drew close, the American would signal Gloria to turn on the radio and sing along, with a sign of affection.
Her first year after arriving in the United States was lived under the shadow of anxiety. Although it was easy to locate immigration services like the Samaritan House, Gloria feared even the idea of leaving her home.
“It was an experience that scared me,” Gloria admitted. “I didn’t want to turn around and look at people.”
She was told that immigration officials were everywhere. Worried about attracting attention and getting deported, she decided to delay learning English.
Eventually, Gloria acquired a green card.
I knew that there were [no real familial ties] between him and me, and I was worried that I might make a mistake,” said Zamora, who recalled feeling nervous during the entire journey.
Permanent residency, to her, offers a more stable life because of the greater number of economic opportunities in the United States.
In Mexico, she was told to marry someone who would support her financially, but now she feels independent. She described the Bay Area as more costly than Mexico, but it is easier to buy what she wants, not just necessities.
Still, she misses feeling as carefree as she did in Mexico, where no one could stop and ask for her papers, and the frequent and festive celebrations, and how beautiful they were, especially Christmas and Day of the Dead.
Gloria noticed that in the United States more racism exists, compared to the classism in Mexico.
“I would like for everyone to be seen as equal,” Gloria said.
I felt like there were just a whole lot of opportunities and I could do whatever I wanted, which is not very common.
Ted T. – Upper school math teacher Ted T. immigrated from Thessaloniki, Greece in 1987 to study at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a student visa.
“Despite the fact that I wasn’t rich, I had a very generous [academic] scholarship,” Ted said. “So I was very appreciative. It was a privilege. That’s what drove my immigrant experience to be a more empowering one. ”
At MIT, Ted triple majored in math, aeronautics and astronautics, and political science. He was fulfilled by the intellectual environment and found Boston to be welcoming to students. He met other international students, some of whom were Greek, and formed deep connections. He missed the support of family and friends back home and visited during school holidays.
He ended up staying in Boston for his graduate studies, where he met Patty, whose parents were also from Greece. After completing a master’s and Ph.D. in operations research, Ted and Patty got married. He started the application process for a green card, which was “long and tedious,” and had to repeatedly take time off from work. He was advised not to leave the country for his honeymoon until he received his passport, and meetings were often postponed.
Five years after their marriage, Ted and Patty returned to Greece in 2001 for a yearlong position at Ted old American high school.
Ted and Patty enjoyed life in Greece, but “it was very difficult to have young kids” as there was less developed infrastructure, which was one of the reasons they returned to America.
It was really nice to be walking around and having my parents point things out. It felt like I was so connected to this place, even though I don’t spend a lot of time there
Health insurance was also unfamiliar, so Patty and Ted relied on relatives and friends to guide them.
His youngest of three daughters, Eugenia Ted ’20, was born in Philadelphia, but lived in England for two and a half years and France for one year before moving to New York. She would interact with kids who spoke different languages, not caring about the differences in accents.
“She was very social and uninhibited…It doesn’t bother you when you’re a little kid and you have friends from all over the world…you don’t think twice about it,” Ted said.
But maintaining ties to their cultural roots was a priority.
They exposed their daughters—Alex (now 23 years old), Effie ’18, and Eugenia ’20—to their heritage by frequently traveling to Greece, sending them to Greek school, and speaking Greek with them. Patty devoted her time to teaching them to speak Greek fluently, stemming from her passion for languages.
Eugenia embraces her Greek culture and enjoys having connections overseas. She appreciates her dad’s home-cooked Greek food and being able to return often to a country of varied, pervasive beauty.
“When I go back to Greece, if I’m walking down the street and I hear people speaking Greek or I see a Greek person, it’s very comforting to me,” she said.
My soul is split, like in a Harry Potter kind of way, in different parts. I’m almost a different person when I’m in different places and I could certainly imagine living in those places again, or retiring there.
Ted and his family try to visit Greece once every few years. On past trips, they stayed with Ted’s mother in Thessaloniki; on their most recent trip, they traveled to Athens—rich with family history—and visited Patty’s old apartment.
Like Eugenia, Ted has many places in the world to call home, feel comfortable in, and miss.
Written by Valarie B