Coming to America: JoySauce edition

Some of our amazing writers share their immigration stories and what it means to them to be American

For many Asian Americans, celebrating the Fourth of July isn't as simple as watching fireworks and cooking hamburgers.

Photo illustration by Ryan Quan

Words by JoySauce

 Independence Day: Our most all-American holiday, marking the birth of the United States.

And while the idea of who can be described as “all-American” typically evokes certain demographics (read: white) to mind, the truth is that the United States is a nation of immigrants. There is no “typical” when it comes to being all-American. No matter what some folks may think, with the exception of Indigenous folks, our families have all come from somewhere else.

So this 4th of July, we at JoySauce asked our writers to share a bit of their immigration stories and what it means to them to be in the United States and what it means to be American.

Here are their stories. 

Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

Xintian Tina Wang

A young Asian girl, in a black dress and sunglasses on her head, holding a blonde baby doll.

A young Tina Wang in 2001, in Hangzhou, China.

Courtesy of Tina Wang

I came to the United States from Hangzhou, China when I was 18, embarking on a journey that was as daunting as it was exciting. Navigating a different language and understanding an entirely new cultural landscape made it challenging to find who I wanted to be and who I identified with in college.

To me, being American does not mean denouncing or abandoning my Chinese heritage. Instead, it's about finding a niche where I can embrace both cultures, even in the discomfort that sometimes comes with it. This dual identity is a constant balancing act, a dance between two worlds that have shaped who I am. It's in this discomfort that I find my strength and voice, using my platform as a Chinese journalist in the United States to advocate for underrepresented communities and tell their stories with empathy and respect. Being American means celebrating diversity, honoring my roots, and striving to create a bridge of understanding between different cultures.

Shin Yu Pai

My parents came to the United States from Taiwan in the early 1970s, when my father attended graduate school at a small university in Kirksville, Missouri. My mother followed, leaving behind a successful career as a teaching artist and graphic designer. I was born a few years later in the Midwest. We eventually made our way westwards to California, where my father hoped to find more professional opportunities. My dad’s jobs included dry cleaning assistant, truck driver, professor of Chinese language at public universities, legal interpreter, and teacher at an alternative school. At age 82, he continues to work as an interpreter for local hospitals. My mother made art, showing her work at the San Bernardino County Museum and in galleries in the L.A. area, as well as in Carmel. My parents still live in Highgrove, the small unincorporated town where I grew up.

The American experience has been what we make of it. My parents left Taiwan during its years of Martial Law and White Terror. They traded those challenges for different ones, hoping to find freedom and opportunity here. As a second-generation Taiwanese American, I didn't face the same racism and biases that they did in their time, though there were different ones. The sacrifices that my parents' generation of immigrants made allowed me to have different choices and privileges, to be more audacious in my ambitions and to pursue things that I never would have felt within reach had I grown up in a country with patriarchal Confucian values. Having witnessed my parents' hardships firsthand, I feel in part that the American experience is about being able to successfully code switch and flow between complex identities and communities as a shapeshifter—to take up a flexible identity and citizenship.

Winter Qiu

My parents are first-generation immigrants who came to the United States because of the one-child policy. The prevailing family story is that my mother had been pregnant with me, so everyone was relieved that they could immigrate when they did. After a lengthy citizenship process, a ton of labor, and a splash of luck, my parents legally belonged to The Land of the Free, which gave me a free ride to citizenship. (Thanks, mom and dad.)

American values seem perpetually in conflict: Wealth and poverty. Freedom and slavery. Liberty and oppression. Being American is about picking and choosing which of those values you want to reflect. For me, I believe in change and hope for a better future. At the same time, I detest the systemic racism that plagues American history and its consistent—and current—involvement in wars abroad. But for all its flaws, I was allowed to exist here. So here I am to say...Happy birthday, America. I could shout it too, but you wouldn't hear me over the ridiculous amount of fireworks blasting off tonight.

Samantha Pak

Samantha Pak's parents on their wedding day in Cambodia in 1970.

Courtesy of Samantha Pak

My parents are refugees of the Khmer Rouge. My dad, who was in the Khmer Air Force, had to escape to Thailand in April 1975, when Pol Pot’s regime captured the capital city of Phnom Penh, where my parents and their two children lived. He arrived in the United States in June 1975, settling in the Seattle area. Meanwhile, my mom and older siblings were part of the mass exodus from Phnom Penh into the countryside, and were forced into the labor camps—better known as the Killing Fields. My mom survived, but my older siblings (along with about 2 million Cambodians) did not, neither reaching the age of 5. It wouldn’t be until 1981, two years after the Khmer Rouge fell, that my mom would make it to Washington state and reunite with my dad. Two years later, my sister was born; and three years after that, I came along.

To me, being American is complicated. While growing up here has afforded me numerous opportunities I likely wouldn’t have had in Cambodia (being a journalist, for example), it’s also hard to forget the many atrocities the United States has committed against minorities of all backgrounds—all in the name of freedom. Ever since I was young, I’ve questioned what this country really stands for when we have a history riddled with violence. Because of this, it’s harder to claim my Americanness. But I guess that’s what it means to be American: Accepting the good, the bad and the ugly that comes with all of that—and wanting us to be better.

Ray Liu

Language has a lot of influence on how I view Americanness. My parents came to this country in the late '80s, a few years before I was born. I grew up in an immigrant household, with Cantonese-speaking parents and grandparents and English-only siblings and cousins. As the eldest of the children, I became my family's interpreter and translator, by default. As much as I understand the need to remind ourselves, as children of immigrants, to release ourselves from the debts that we owe our parents for their labor of raising us after leaving their home across the ocean (in most cases), I find pride and joy in my bilingualism.

And as I continue to navigate this Americanness of mine, I find myself wanting to learn more languages, finding thrills in similarities between various dialects. English is only one of the many celebrated languages in this country; it's boring to lean into just one, right? Some people seek culture through food. I choose to do so through language. In a way, by being involuntarily "hired" by my family as the Cantonese-English translator, I embarked on a journey of how I shaped and identified my Americanness as a Chinese American.

Alex Chester-Iwata

A row of six Asian and white people in formal wear sit in a row on a couch, with greenery in the background.

Alex Chester-Iwata (third from the left) and her husband with family members on their wedding day.

Courtesy of Alex Chester-Iwata

My dad's family (the Japanese side) came to the states pre-WWII and bought a farm. This farm is now a shopping center and mobile home park, and has been in the family ever since. They were very lucky that their white neighbor took care of this land while they were incarcerated in the American concentration camps. This was not the case for most Japanese Americans, who lost everything during WWII. My mother's family (the Jewish side) escaped Paris pre-WWI during the rise in antisemitism and made their way to Lincoln, Nebraska, because that is where my great-grandfather's sister ended up from Russia. On the boat to the states, my great-grandmother was assisted by a famous boxer of that time. She was only in her late teens and made this crossing with three small children.

Being American is complicated. I am third generation and still othered because of the way I look. I am constantly asked "what are you?" I am often embarrassed when traveling to another country and never say "I am an American," instead I say "I am a New Yorker." IYKYK

Annie Atherton

As a fourth-generation Japanese American (yonsei), I feel extremely "Americanized." My mother's grandparents immigrated to the United States from Japan in the early 20th Century, and both of her parents were born on U.S. soil. After WWII broke out, my grandfather was sent to a concentration camp. Many Japanese Americans made a conscious effort, then and in the following decades, to emphasize their loyalty to our country despite the injustices they'd endured. They had to go out of their way to appear as American as possible to prevent being viewed with suspicion, though they'd often be viewed this way anyway—and waited decades for an apology.

I see my family's story as being part of this historical experience. I was not taught to speak or understand Japanese. Though we went to a Japanese American church, my life was largely the result of assimilation. Even so, some aspects of our heritage clung on and the older I get, the more grateful I am that they did. The food my grandma cooked was "Americanized" Japanese food and I loved it. She also adored her hometown of Whitefish, Montana, so our relationship to this country has always been complex. But also, the ways they behaved I now recognize as part of our culture. For example, they rarely, if ever, said "I love you," but there was never a doubt in my mind that they'd do anything for me.  Actions speak louder than words, and the fact that they could instill that much confidence in their devotion to me without saying it made it more powerful to me.

Thuc Nguyen

An Asian man and woman from the 1970s stands together with trees in the background, while the man holds a young girl.

Thuc Doan Nguyen and her parents at a refugee camp.

Courtesy of Thuc Doan Nguyen

I was born near the Mekong River and when I was barely a toddler, my 20-something parents put me on a tiny boat meant for river travel. They and their students then pushed that boat out and took us all to the South China Sea. The chance of death was far greater than the chance of survival. Somehow we survived nature, diseases and malnutrition and received help from Doctors Without Borders at an Asian refugee camp. If it were not for the help of strangers, none of us would be here today or be Americans.

My parents were not looking to be American at all. They were hoping we'd get sponsored to a place like Australia or Canada. Alas, we were sponsored to a small town in Eastern North Carolina. Being American to me means acknowledging my regionalism. I was brought up as a Southerner, with a specific way of talking and behaving with the utmost of manners. To be American now is to know that I have certain freedoms, but also exist in a country that is very divided.

Jun Chou

Three Asian women and an Asian man stand together in front of an American flag, whle the Asian man holds documents and a small American flag.

Jun Chou and her family at her dad's naturalization ceremony.

Courtesy of Jun Chou

Growing up in Canada, I thought the United States was composed of three states: New York, Texas, and Los Angeles (Disneyland was in L.A., so my undeveloped brain deemed the city its own state). When my family told me, at the age of 13, that we were all moving to Greenville, North Carolina, I carved out a new rectangle in my disjointed mental map of the country. Sixteen years later, my American identity surpasses my Canadian one. It even exceeds my identification with Taiwan, the country of my birth and the racial identity I most visibly represent.

My Americanness comes out in subtle shades. In Taiwan, it translates into an eagerness for the karaoke microphone as my family members watch shyly. In Paris, where I lived for a year, it was the absence of tobacco whenever I rolled a joint, my fixation on racial inequality that my French friends deemed an overemphasis, and the small talk I made with the cashiers at the grocery stores. Ultimately, being American means not knowing what being American means. Because what is the country of e pluribus unum if I’m not a mishmash of all these different experiences to create a singular me?

Caroline Cao

An old portrait of a group of Asian people in a room with photos and a white wall in the background.

Caroline Cao's family on her father's side.

Courtesy of Caroline Cao

Being an American is, honestly, complicated. When I was in grade school, I bought into the whole “glory” of being assimilated. Sometimes, I feel pressured to give this neat, tidy narrative of assimilation: "I love the United States. I love our red, white, and blue flag." Sure, coming from a family of Vietnamese refugees, we made the best of where we lived. But I feel responsible for knowing the intersectionalities of issues, and I hope I do more than enough to act on it. It was only in my adulthood I grasped the origin and meaning of the Asian American identity, and its roots in activism. So, being Asian American means awareness and action to me.

Teresa Tran

An Asian man and woman, dressed in a suit and dress sit against a dark background, with young Asian girl in a red dress sitting on the woman's lap.

Teresa Tran and her parents.

To me, being born and raised American means forever wrestling with this country's racist, colonialist, and imperialist history. This has caused the fracture and displacement of countless families, including my own, which is spread across three continents to this day. If it weren't for the United States' involvement in the Vietnam War, my father might not have felt the need to run away from home, risk his life to become a boat refugee with his church community, and arrive in Idaho by way of Indonesia and the American Red Cross, with gratitude in his heart to his American benefactors (usurpers).

While I understand and accept the privileges I've been afforded as a result of being American, there will always be a part of me that wonders what my life would've turned out like had I grown up in Vietnam, surrounded by my extended family and my mother never being separated from her parents and siblings. What would my life have been like had I grown up surrounded by people who looked like me and media that reflected my community from the start, rather than later in my life as an AA+PI in the United States? It's something I'll always ponder. 

Eric Diep

An old portrait of a group of six Asian people of different ages, in a room with Asian decor.

Eric Diep and his family.

Courtesy of Eric Diep

One of my biggest regrets is I never sat my parents down and asked them how they got to the United States. After they passed, I only knew bits and pieces of details through family members and recollections of my childhood memory. My father claimed he came here with only $20 in his pocket. He worked various odd jobs before eventually starting his own construction company as a general contractor. This origin story of coming to the United States was his way of teaching me about his struggle. How he had to overcome adversities like learning a new language and finding work to start a new life.

For me, being in the United States is simply doing what you can to break generational cycles. I think a lot about my parents and what they had to go through for me to grow up in a peaceful neighborhood, meet childhood classmates who I’m still friends with, and have the freedom to go to college and pick a profession I’m passionate about. I didn’t realize until they were gone, how grateful I am for the opportunities they gave me. The difference between my parents' survival mode and mine is reassuring myself that my life choices are for a future legacy that my kids/nephews/nieces would appreciate one day. My parents made mistakes so I wouldn’t have to, and for that, I’m always going to be proud of them.

Valerie Moloney

My family's journey from the Philippines happened by way of Morocco, where my dad was stationed in the U.S. Navy. He was the first of his brothers to establish citizenship in the United States, a ceremony that I only remember via one photo: me next to my parents in a white eyelet dress that my mom sewed herself, a love letter to her native Rosario, La Union in the Philippines. I was waving an American flag, really tan, with blunt babydoll bangs. My parents beamed in that image—a burst of all the hope that they had for me, their naturalized daughter. I still love going back to that document, which my dad had to sign, and admiring his swooshy cursive.

For the next decade, he'd go out on underways, six- to nine-month-long excursions out to sea, in various ranks, from corpsman, to mess management specialist. Goodbyes and reunions were common images in our local news—dads and moms leaving babies and spouses at the Norfolk Naval Station. Lots of my uncles were in the Army, Navy and Marines. One is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Now that I'm an adult, an American taxpayer, I can fully appreciate the enormity of that call to action: to leave one's family for the greater good of our citizens. And while I'm not in the military, I think of that. How can I be a good human? When I pass, would my circle say that I made their world better? Man, I hope so.

Anjana and Vandana Pawa

A South Asian man and woman, and two young girls stand in front of Niagara Falls.

The Pawa family at Niagara Falls.

Courtesy of Anjana and Vandana Pawa

Our Americanness is simply luck. In 1996, our dad visited the United States for the first time. He had some family members that lived here and he wanted to visit, mostly so he could revel in the majesty of the Empire State Building in person, which he’d been fascinated with since childhood. When he returned home to Bangkok, Thailand, where we are originally from, through a series of conversations, he found the U.S. Department of State’s Diversity Visa Program, colloquially known as the “green card lottery”—which makes 55,000 visas available annually to people from countries with a low number of immigrants—and applied. In 1997, 4.7 million people applied for the lottery. Of the 55,000 visas granted, 7,280 were given to people from Asia; 103 were people from Thailand. And four of those people were the two of us and our parents. 

The statistical probability of that is a number so low that sometimes it’s hard to fathom. We’re still figuring out if it’s a waste of a lifetime’s worth of luck, but maybe that’s why our parents still buy lottery tickets today. Because if luck granted them the chance to come to this country and become Americans, what else could it do?

Philiana Ng

My mother was born and raised in Shanghai, and my father was raised in the Philippines. Like many immigrants, they came to the United States with hopes of better opportunities through the promise of the American Dream. They met in Northern California in the 1980s and later had accomplished careers—my mother as a government worker, my father as a respected bookstore manager. They combined their countries of origin to form my name so as to never forget their roots.

Growing up as a second-generation Chinese American, I did not fully embrace my identity or heritage. At some point, I subconsciously decided that assimilating into American culture among my peers was more vital. As I’ve gotten older, I have come to realize that my Asian American identity—and existing between two worlds—is what makes my lived experience unique. To me, being Asian American means opportunity, perseverance, and acceptance—and all the complexities that come with it.

Pooja Shah

A group of four South Asian people standing in front of a black iron gate.

Pooja Shah and her family.

Courtesy of Pooja Shah

My parents' migration story is very typical among South Asians in the United States; with only $20 and the clothes on his back, my dad came from Gujarat, India to New York. Two years later, my mom and I joined him. We lived in a grungy basement in Hillside, Queens, where my younger brother was born. We eventually moved to a small one-bedroom apartment in Sunnyside, Queens. My mom worked a retail job and catered Indian sweets and snacks for rich families, and my dad worked as a cashier at a kiosk in Rockefeller Center.

Being in the United States always meant one thing: perseverance. No matter how many times my family dealt with racism, inequity, lack of acceptance, financial struggles, or yearning for “home,” they pushed forward. I remember many times being told we didn't have the means for after-school activities or summer vacations, but my parents always found ways to keep us connected and entertained that were in their financial means. They showed me and my brother that working hard and having a resilient attitude was integral no matter how many setbacks they experienced. Their lives in India, in contrast, were so much more luxurious and comfortable (i.e. they had a cook, housekeeper, laundry person, etc.), but the desire to live in the United States and teach their children to live their dreams meant they were willing to compromise their comfort for our prospective future.

Glow Ngwe

A group of five Black people in suits and dresses, stand together in front of a staircase.

Glow Ngwe and her family.

Courtesy of Glow Ngwe

I was born in Cameroon, Africa, a West African country rich in language and culture. If it were up to me, I would have loved to stay in my country where the people love to sing, dance, and rejoice—but that was not an option as my parents strived for growth and stability. My country, though beautiful, is plagued by poverty and civil war due to ripples caused by colonization. With this in mind, my parents put their hard-earned money on the line to gamble for a chance to immigrate to the United States. Luckily it paid off.

My mother won a visa lottery, granting our family of five a one-way ticket to the United States. But that's it. No place to reside, no job opportunities—nothing but the clothes on our backs and anxiety in our hearts. You are left to figure out everything else on your own. But my parents had hope. They believed they would succeed and bring that success back home to Cameroon. In 2007, as my family and I stumbled out of the plane and stepped foot on American soil in New York, a new chapter of our lives began. Not just for us, but for those who depended on us back home. To me, being in the United States means reclaiming opportunity. I am blessed to even have the chance of opening doors that my family in Cameroon can’t. I am not here solely for me, I am here representing and building a path for my family.

Nimarta Narang

I came to the United States for university and it was my first time living away from my family. My strong American accent flummoxed my peers and teachers, and they had trouble remembering that I was an international student. The paradox of my upbringing abroad and seemingly American voice has encapsulated my experiences here—being in the United States means constantly negotiating my sense of self, according to the context of my surroundings. It has led me to becoming much more thoughtful, open-minded, and empathetic (something I strongly hope and strive for), but also more stubborn, rooted, and fiercely protective of myself and those I love.

Nancy Wang Yuen

An older Asian woman in a long brown coat, holds a young Asian girl in red, stands in front of a gray wall.

Nancy Wang Yuen and her Nai Nai in Taiwan.

Courtesy of Nancy Wang Yuen

I immigrated to the United States when I was 5 years old. I left Taiwan, where I was born and raised by my nai nai and came to live in Southern California with a single dad I barely knew. I was told that this was “good for me.”

On the first day of school, my teacher yelled at me for not responding to her. I knew no English. That was my first memory of racism. All of my life, I’ve been asked “Where are you really from?” This uncertainty has shaped my identity as an American—specifically as an Asian American. I see the American identity as a work-in-progress that we must actively push towards greater inclusion to reflect the diversity of future generations.

Cielo Perez

A young Asian boy and girl sit in a car and smile.

Cielo Perez (right) and her brother on their first day of American school.

I grew up in three countries. Born in Brunei, lived in the Philippines for two years, and then spent the rest of my childhood and adulthood in the United States. For most of my childhood, I felt like an immigrant, and it still feels like it. I didn’t become a U.S. citizen till I was 17 years old. Although I was exposed to other kids that looked like me early in my childhood, the rest of my childhood felt alienating. I’d be the only Asian kid or sometimes the only minority amongst my peers. Even when I held a leadership position in college, I had only one Asian peer.

Being American on my own terms means I can do anything I set my mind to. Having a work ethic can only take you so far in other countries, but here in the United States, you have endless opportunities to go in any direction you want to. My parents remind me and my brother, “Don’t be afraid of taking risks.” You never know if you’ll end up liking something.

Michelle Li

My family's journey to the United States started when I was adopted from Korea. I am now considered an older adoptee, which means my immigration path included naturalization. When I was a teenager, I reconnected with my Korean family, and it transformed how I saw myself in the world. I even helped one of my biological sisters immigrate to the United States when we were in our late 30s. Being American and becoming American has been arduous and isolating at times, but it has also been overwhelmingly beautiful.

My view on becoming an American through adoption and immigration became more apparent as a mother—my biracial son asks me why we don't look like grandma and grandpa, and he takes pride in learning about Korea. His boisterous curiosity made me realize that even at a young age, he wanted to know about our family's journey. Immigration is part of his story, too. Being American has afforded me wonderful opportunities, relationships, and experiences, and I believe it has enriched my life beyond measure. We spend a lot of time recognizing what's wrong in our country and our world—and we should—but it's also necessary for our hearts to realize what's gone right.

Jennifer Liang

An old black and white portrait of an Asian woman and man.

Jennifer Liang's grandparents.

Courtesy of Jennifer Liang

Both my paternal grandparents left Guangdong province during WWII. The Catholic Church was instrumental in helping them come to the United States. During the war, my grandfather first immigrated to the United Kingdom, and then with assistance from the Catholic Church, got passage on a ship from London to New York via Ellis Island. My grandmother remained in China for another 10 years. After the war, a pastor who was friends with my great-grandmother, a devout Catholic, helped my grandmother and her daughter leave Guangdong with him. They arrived at Angel Island in San Francisco. Then my grandfather arranged for them to get to New York. He became a prominent businessman in Manhattan’s Chinatown, building and running two movie theaters, importing films from Hong Kong and mainland China, running a Chinese newspaper, and of course owning the requisite Chinese restaurant.

I am of Chinese and Italian descent, and being American to me means being able to weave all the threads from my ethnic roots, as well as the traditions and customs I have experienced from friends with different backgrounds, for a nationality that continues to evolve. It also means honoring my ancestors who made it possible for me to live the life I have now, and to try to give my family better opportunities just like mine did for me.

Tamiko Nimura

An old portrait of a group of Asian people, a man and woman, and two young girls, dressed in kimonos.

Tamiko Nimura (front, center) and her family.

Courtesy of Tamiko Nimura

I’m second-generation Filipina American on my mom’s side, and third-generation Japanese American on my dad’s side. My mom came thanks in part to her adoptive mother and the Tydings-McDuffie Act; my dad’s father came through Hawai’i and Mexico before settling in California and sending for my grandmother, a picture bride from Hiroshima. 

I have always been in awe of the strength, grace, beauty, and resilience of so many Americans that I love. And yet in this moment of precarity for our democracy, I would like to echo the late great James Baldwin, who said, “I love America more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually.”

Published on July 4, 2024

Words by JoySauce

Art by Ryan Quan

Ryan Quan is the Social Media Editor for JoySauce. This queer, half-Chinese, half-Filipino writer and graphic designer loves everything related to music, creative nonfiction, and art. Based in Brooklyn, he spends most of his time dancing to hyperpop and accidentally falling asleep on the subway. Follow him on Instagram at @ryanquans.