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.)

Since We’re On The Subject of Refugees…

“The things you experience … are written on your cells as memories and patterns, which are reprinted again on the next generation. And even if you never lift a shovel or plant a cabbage, every day of your life something is written upon you.”

-Madeleine Thien, in her cultural revolution epic, Do Not Say We Have Nothing

My dad, Beechy Hu, on Shanghai's famous Bund before he defected from China in 1966, in the early years of China's punishing Cultural Revolution.
My dad, Beechy Hu, on Shanghai’s famous Bund before he defected from China in 1966, in the early years of China’s punishing Cultural Revolution.

I’ve been thinking a lot about identity lately. Since nothing is divorced from the context it’s in, I can’t think about who I am (or who we are as Americans) without thinking about where I came from.

More than 15 years before I was born, my dad left the only home he’d ever known — China — on a leaky raft in the South China Sea. His dad, my grandfather, had been the United States as a student since my dad was a baby (after scoring high enough in some national exam that earned him a scholarship), and when war with the Japanese broke out he couldn’t go back. That situation was both a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it was a familial tie to the Western world. A curse, because Grandpa’s scholar status is exactly what Mao Zedong and his forces targeted for “re-education in the countryside” during the years of China’s oppressive Cultural Revolution.

I don’t know the details, as my dad has gone the 34 years of my life without talking about it. But in snippets I’ve heard from him, my late aunt (his sister), and my mom, and my grandmother, I have learned my father was one of the tens of thousands of young Chinese sent to labor in rural areas of China to familiarize themselves with the plight of Mao’s vaunted peasants. Dad went to a pig farm where he saw beatings, starvation and suicides. To this day he doesn’t speak of this time in his life, probably because a lot of it is unspeakable.

The pig farm was in Guangdong province, in Southeastern China, close enough to the coast to make an escape. The situation in China was getting While laboring, he secretly trained to swim long distances in a freezing river near the farm by slinking into the water every day before dawn. He told me this summer he didn’t know whom to trust, so he could tell no one in the family about his plans to defect. It was a time of secrets, since countrymen were turning on each other, and encouraged to.

On the other side of the earth, Grandpa was lobbying his senator in Missouri, Stuart Symington, to help get my father asylum should he make it to the U.S. Symington’s office reached out to the senator from New York, Robert Kennedy, for help, since if my dad survived the long odds to make it out of China, his first stop would be in a major city like New York. Kennedy’s office worked with Symington’s office, and wrote my grandpa assuring Dad would get safe passage. He made it, at 6’2″ and weighing only 135 pounds, with no papers to his name.

But for American values and its policies of that time, I wouldn’t be here.

New Reading Resolutions

Part of the problem with being a professional reader and writer is that you spend all your time reading and writing, but often it’s not really the kind that you want to be doing. Don’t get me wrong, I consider it a great privilege that my job is to straight-up read a lot, then travel around, discover ideas and people, or history as it’s happening, ask questions of the person/idea/event, then tell the story. I mean, that is a ridiculous vocation for which to be paid.

But after reading way too many periodicals during the hellish and hateful 2016 election, I found my psyche exhausted and altogether pissy by year’s end. I decided I need to recommit to reading about “bigger” ideas, themes, connections, etc. To get my head straight, if you will. So I am resolving to read more books, recommended by the smarty pants I get to call friends. I’ll track the recommendations (and by year’s end, the progress) here. If you have thoughts or additions, please let me know in the comments or all the other ways to reach me.

The Plot Against America, Philip Roth
Recommended by work friend Scott Detrow

Scott’s take: “So basically, it’s fiction but Charles Lindbergh runs against FDR. FDR runs a really serious issues campaign and Lindbergh just flies his plane from state to state entertaining people. He wins in a landslide, and immediately appeases Hitler. It goes by especially quick once you’re gripped by the horror of it becoming reality.”

Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
Recommended by work spouse Matt Thompson

Matt’s take: “It’s post-apocalyptic fiction. But it’s feel good post-apocalyptic fiction that will remind you of all the things to appreciate about life and living.”

Sense of an Ending, Julian Barnes
Recommended by Reeve Hamilton of the now-defunct Breakfast Club

Reeve’s take: “I like it so much, I bought myself another copy. It’s about relationships and how they are complicated and affect each other. It’s really about group dynamics, which you would like. If you’re reading blurbs about how it’s about regrets, it’s about a totally different kind of regret. It also captures teen boyhood of a certain variety better than just about anything else, which I’m sure you will find to be a big selling point.”

Mao’s Last Revolution, Rod MacFarquhar and Michael Schoenhals
Recommended by John Delury, China historian and our Seoul friend

Delury’s take: “It’s a quick read. Once you understand the dynamic of ‘working toward the Chairman’, the pages fly by as your heart sinks. Its the best treatment of the Cultural Revolution’s high politics, the Mao-eye view.”

Born a Crime
Recommended by Liz Taylor

Liz’s take: “There are parts that are super poignant, makes some great observations about race, and also parts are totally hilarious. Go with Born a Crime.”

I like that a lot of these friends know me really well and emphasize the “quickness” of the reads, because I have a pretty short attention span. But we have a lot of weeks left in this year so keep your ideas and recommendations coming …