Beautiful for Spacious Skies

I long wondered about my parents' decision to leave behind their lives in China and begin again in America.


drawing by Rachel Tian

We learn early on in our education that America is the world's melting pot. For me, and for other students whose parents took the risk to uproot their old lives to being anew in the U.S., the lesson is personal.

Like many of my fellow students, I was born to immigrant parents and am the first generation to have been born in America. This means that at some point before my birth, my mother and father made the daring decision to pack their bags in the homeland, fly to a foreign nation filled with opportunities, and begin a new chapter of their lives thousands of miles away from their families.

I have long thought about their situation and the similar situations of others who uprooted their old lives to begin anew.  Throughout history, how did Chinese immigrants has America welcomed to its shores? Why did my parents choose to move to America in the 1990s? What pushed them to make such an impactful and life-changing decision? How did they prepare themselves for the inevitable difficulties of such an experience? 

The first wave of Chinese immigrants who traveled to America entered through the west coast in the early 19th century, where they found jobs in agriculture, mining, and particularly railroad construction (as America was undergoing industrialization at the time). Tragically, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 due to negative public sentiments, banning Chinese immigrants from entering the country any further. 

The Immigration Act of 1924 extended the blockage to all Asian and numerous European immigrants, an ugly display of xenophobia and a further rebuke to foreigners who yearned to start a new life in America. For the next half-century, migrant flow subdued, with political, economic, and legal developments preventing Chinese citizens from either leaving their homeland or smoothly obtaining a U.S. visa. 

The Immigration Act of 1924 extended the blockage to all Asian and numerous European immigrants, an ugly display of xenophobia and a further rebuke to foreigners who yearned to start a new life in America.”

Fortunately, the immigration ban did not withstand. Under President Lyndon B. Johnson, the Hart-Celler Act, or Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965, passed and set a new immigration policybased on reuniting immigrant families and attracting skilled labor to the United States.” Within five years of the bill’s passage, Asian immigrants entering the United States, especially those living in war-torn countries, more than quadrupled. 

In the midst of the Vietnam War, President Richard Nixon traveled to the People’s Republic of China in 1972, hoping to normalize relations with the country and set up a permanent U.S. trade mission in the country. He was the first American president to set foot in China after its official establishment in 1949, marking the start of a new era. 

Following the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act and Nixon’s establishment of U.S.-China trade relations, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping reformed the country’s economy and encouraged bright, eager Chinese students to take advantage of open doors to America. Record numbers of Chinese university students would soon graduate with degrees in America, qualify for immigration status in the U.S., and help to integrate American corporations into the developing Chinese market. 

My own family’s development in America followed a path similar to those who traveled to the U.S. in search of educational and professional opportunities. Following Deng Xiaoping’s visit to America in 1979, the Chinese leader dedicated himself to rebuilding his country and supported citizens’ involvement with the United States. According to Carlos Echeverria-Estrada and Jeanne Batalova from Migration Policy Institute, “The population of Chinese immigrants in the United States has grown nearly seven-fold since 1980, reaching almost 2.5 million in 2018, or 5.5 percent of the overall foreign-born population.” 

My father, intrigued with the possibility of a life in the storied melting pot, received the prestigious opportunity to study abroad in San Francisco in the early 1990’s as part of an International Scholar Workshop. He seized the chance to visit America for two months and experience an entirely different culture with a flourishing economy. 

Although he returned to his hometown following the workshop, my father said that, at the time, leaving San Francisco left so many unanswered questions hanging in the air.

Despite all the hardships, our circumstances were a blessing compared to that of before. Here, our hard work was noticeably rewarded.”

— Jian Tan, the author's mother

“I felt an attachment to this new country,” he told me. “The atmosphere, the economy, and the education were on a level that I had not known was possible. The day I left, I immediately knew that, no matter what, I had to come back and experience it again. But there was no knowing of when that would happen.”

For the next two years, he studied in the medical field back in China. At work, he met my mother, a kindred spirit seeking a life of opportunity beyond the borders of the country.

“Everyone was making their way to America and Canada at the time,” my mother explained to me. “The endless possibilities seemed so tempting, and I was willing to risk my career for a chance to live through it.”

Not long after they met, my father was called to Atlanta, Georgia, for a visiting research program. At the time, it seemed like a blessing; America was beckoning him to return, and he could not miss the opportunity. After many months in the program, the professors offered him the chance to extend his research work for a longer period of time. The official journey of establishing a place in America began. 

Soon, with the help of my father, my mother also traveled to America, and the two went through a lengthy process to obtain their green cards. Although they knew that success would not come overnight, my parents worked hard to adjust to life in the U.S. Language was a barrier to overcome, and stable jobs weren’t simply handed out.

My mother recalled, “Despite all the hardships, our circumstances were a blessing compared to that of before. Here, our hard work was noticeably rewarded. There was time for improvement. I missed my family back home, yet I knew I wanted to stay in America for myself.” 

I’ve always considered how my life would have turned out had I been born in China, Would I be as well-versed in English and Mandarin as I am now? Would I want to pursue the same major in college? Would I have immersed myself in as many different cultures as I do now? Although I have no answers to those questions, I know that my parents’ courageous decisions have helped me make sense of my own life.