Swimming to America, A Love Story

There’s a story in your voice
both by damage and by choice.
It tells of promises and pleasure,
and a tale of wine and woe,
the uneasy time to come,
and the long way ’round we go to get there.”

—Elvis Costello and Lucinda Williams

Note: These are the remarks as originally written, for a speech to public media broadcasters at AAJA’s National Convention in Atlanta. I was drinking Corona from a glass (weird) and feeling like my jolly self when I started talking, but then I surprised myself when I started crying during this speech. Then people in the audience were crying with me, and it ended up being an emotionally cathartic and meaningful time. Thanks to those of you who could make it!

Tonight I’m going to talk about the importance of making sure your voice is heard.  But I want to open with a story about my dad, since without him I wouldn’t have MY voice.

It begins in Shanghai with — as you might expect — a young boy.

My dad was five years-old when the Communists defeated China’s ruling democratic government, the Kuomingtang, in the bloody Chinese civil war. So the backdrop of his youth was formed by Mao Zedong’s deadly and costly reforms of China, a famine that killed 30 million people at least, and the absence of his father. 

My grandpa was on the other side of the world, in St. Louis, Missouri, where he’d gone to get his graduate degrees on a Chinese-government funded scholarship not long after my dad was born and during the years when China was open to the world. Grandpa never could return to China after he left, since his country’s government had been replaced with a totalitarian situation where no outsiders were allowed in, and no Chinese were allowed out. 

My dad grew up with his mom and sister, eventually reaching an age when it was time to go to college. But he only attended for a semester or two before Mao closed all colleges and universities as part of the Cultural Revolution and an effort began to return intellectuals to the fields. This included children of artists and intellectuals and anyone considered bourgeoisie. My father was sent to labor and re-education on a pig farm in Guangdong province.

I don’t really know what he saw there — he doesn’t talk about it. All I know is it was a really horrifying time. And he would get up in the mornings and secretly practice swimming in the freezing streams behind the farm … training to escape. 

This labor camp in Guangdong Province was close enough to the free, British Hong Kong that he could feasibly try and escape the camp and defect from the country. Y’all know mainland China and Hong Kong are connected by land, but it was considered too risky to try and cross the land border, with its fencing and guards and all. It was slightly less risky but still highly dangerous to try and get into Hong Kong by sea, by crossing the bay. 

Twice he and a few other men made the attempt to defect by raft, in the middle of the night. Twice they were caught, brought back and subjected to beatings and more re-education.

On the third try, he and five others dived into the deep, dirty Shenzhen bay, and swam four kilometers — more than two miles — in the dead of night to Hong Kong, risking being shot or drowning along the way. 

My dad recalls seeing the twinkling lights of Hong Kong from that dirty, freezing water as the most emotional moment of his life. It was the moment he saw freedom. 

My grandpa, as you recall, was in St Louis this whole time, working his senator, Stuart Symington, to make sure my father could get passage into the United States should this treacherous escape plan actually work. Senator Symington reached out to a New York Senator, Bobby Kennedy, to help my dad if he was able to fly into a New York airport. A few years ago, I saw the letter from Kennedy’s office to my grandfather, saying that my dad would be permitted to enter the US as a refugee, since he was fleeing communist China.

By the time my 6’2” dad made it to the state, he weighed just 135 pounds.

And I find myself thinking a lot about that young, skinny, desperate man these days, as refugees and immigrants have come under fire and accused of hating America.

To me, the story of my family’s relationship with America is a love story. Immigrants don’t hate America — they love what this country stands for. The very idea of it inspired so many of them to leave the only homes they’d ever known, often at great peril, to find a safe harbor and a new home.

And now, some of these people, or their children (like me), or their children’s children, have the great opportunity and responsibility to tell this country’s story through our work. But that does not mean suppressing our own truths. Our voices contain multiple stories. 

It is important that, for the reporting we do, for the brands we represent, and for our own mental health  — we don’t stop being children of immigrants or immigrants ourselves when we’re covering the news.

Because at its core, journalism tells us how other people live, and helps us to imagine living like them. Having immigrant stories so close to us strengthens our work, because we can cover these stories with a layered perspective, with humanity, and with ears that are open to the truth of how other people are living. 

Lomi Kriel, the Houston Chronicle reporter who broke the family separation policy, long before it burst into the national news, says the number one thing that makes her good at covering immigration… is that she is an immigrant. 

There is real deliberation and combat right now over what kind of country this is — who gets to live in it and who gets to speak up about how it’s being run. Who has power, who frames that power, whose voices matter. I don’t know who needs to hear this, but I just want to affirm that your voice matters. 

Your voices especially matter in the face of newsroom power structures that are still so lacking in the diversity we talk about at conferences like these. Even as I got more career experience, I had trouble getting over the hump of thinking that my voice was somehow “less than,” because as a child in St. Louis and Dallas suburbs, I was almost always the only Asian person in my classes or in my activities. That kind of environment can make you internalize a notion that white is default and your otherness is something to be ashamed of. 

Things are changing, in so many places! I look around at my daughters’ preschool and elementary schools in LA. They are, first of all, Spanish and Mandarin immersion schools, which tells you a lot, and second, the classes look like the UN of little humans. White and brown and black and all the other shades in between. It’s America! My generation’s old baggage about being “the only one” is increasingly irrelevant in Gen Z’s multicultural, pluralistic world. 

That’s the world we have to reflect in our news coverage or else we’re failing to tell the truth.

The truth is what fighting for representation is about. Creating more diverse journalism isn’t about slotting people of color into the newsrooms we have, it’s about transforming the newsrooms we have — our institutions, our culture, and our storytelling — because it gets at the heart of what journalism is: telling the full truth of a story.

We aren’t serving our communities as well as we could be when we aren’t represented or representing by making our voices heard.

Whatever it took for you or your ancestors to get here, we have literal skin in the game now. And it enhances our coverage because you know what it is to be of America but also questioned about your Americanness. You know what it’s like to have a foot in a different culture. 

Shrug off this notion that somehow your skin in the game makes you less objective — it makes your coverage more FULL. We can’t be truly helpful to our communities until you know what it’s like to need help. That makes those of you who have real, lived-in experience of immigration so valuable in covering the negotiation of America’s identity right now. 

So stake your claim in your newsrooms, speak your voice in your communities, tell stories of people’s lived experiences and do it with compassion. Until we can have discussions about how crucial your voices are, in all our newsrooms, and move it toward meaningful action, we aren’t doing enough.

We are more alike than we are unalike, as Maya Angelou famously said, and our charge as journalists is to not let one another forget it. 

And since he figured so much into my remarks here, and has played such a role in making me who I am, I’ll close with an update on my dad’s story. I’m happy to say that it isn’t finished.

My dad is alive and well and thriving. He has four grandchildren. He has a titanium hip but continues to love gardening, something he’s been into since I was old enough to form memories. He gets so excited when hummingbirds come to feed at the bird feeder in his garden. He loves watching his vegetables sprout  — everything he plants somehow survives. Seriously, he threw an avocado pit into my compost one time and a full on avocado tree the length of my arm sprouted out of my compost bin. 

The man knows a lot about how to live.

My dad, me and his rooftop garden at their Taipei home. (Not to be confused with his other garden, in California.)

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