My ancestors on my father’s and mother’s sides left their home countries (China and Japan, respectively) during periods of political and social upheaval, and for promises of a better life in America (or what were then the U.S. territories, not states). My paternal great-grandfather, Lim Lip Hong, left Kwantung Province (now Guangdong) at the age of 12, boarding a junk to California in 1855. My maternal great grandparents left southern Japan at the turn of the 20th century to work the sugar plantations in Hawaii; they left reportedly due to religious persecution (some were Christians), and we also speculate they left due to the social upheaval (one side was reportedly from the samurai class, which saw great changes and disenfranchisement in Meiji era Japan). I recently looked up, in the Hawaii State Archives, the passenger list of the ship that my great-grandfather Okazaki was on in the early 1900s--his entry indicated that he was a farmer from Kumamoto.
On my father’s side, I can’t imagine the hard scrabble existence that my great-grandfather had as a 12 year old working on the transcontinental railroad. Both sets of my Chinese great grandparents and families were affected by the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943); my great uncle who was born in the U.S. saw opportunity to live his life in China (he was a founder of the air force in China) and had to produce, like any American-born Chinese, elaborate documentation of his American status. As a result, there’s ample documentation of the Lim (Lym) family in the National Archives Chinese Exclusion papers of that family. I was amazed to see our Lim Lip Hong’s family photos from the archives in an exhibition about the Exclusion Act at the Museum of Chinese in America. Here’s one featured there:
This one was taken to prove the citizenship of one of Lim Lip Hong’s sons, Lim Fook Yin, who was born in San Francisco but left for China to help found the Chinese Air Force. My grandfather, Wah Fook Lym, is the kid in the middle holding the book; incidentally, he was the only sibling to attend college, University of California, Berkeley where he graduated in engineering in the 1910s. All the children of Lim Lip Hong were amazing achievers despite structural, social obstacles they must have faced as Chinese. Nevertheless my grandfather never got a job as an engineer—despite his Berkeley education. It was during this period that our Lim surname was Anglicized to “Lym”--presumably to mark our American identify with the immigration authorities.
The plantation life of my Japanese ancestors in Hawaii was imaginably arduous and there was a racialized ranking and segregation of all immigrants working in the sugar economy in Hawaii (which was a Territory of the U.S) at that time, with separate camps for Chinese, Filipino, Japanese, Korean, Puerto Rican and Portuguese workers:
One of my Chinese great-grandparents (on my dad’s mother’s’ side) Min Chung, was born in China in the 19th century) from Kaiping (Southern China) and became a borax miner and labor contractor in Tonopah, Nevada. To assimilate, he changed his name to “Billy Ford”; he was also well-regarded by the white business community there and his family was protected and harbored by them when waves of anti-Chinese violence swept the west. My grandmother, Rose Ford Lym, was one who was protected in a neighbor’s house during mob violence riots.
On my paternal side, there were overall efforts to really integrate into the “mainstream” (aka white community)--at least to not choose to live in the ghettoized enclaves that most Chinese inhabited. Lim Lip Hong, for instance, had a family ranch compound in the Potrero District in San Francisco: This was highly unusual in San Francisco where the Chinese were primarily restricted to the boundaries of Chinatown. Min Ford, as mentioned, was a well-respected business man in his town of Tonopah and took the Anglo name of “Billy Ford”.
On my mother’s side, assimilation was not really of concern--they lived in a primarily Japanese immigrant world and spoke Japanese at home, though World War II, martial law, and the closure of Japanese language schools during that time in the islands de facto forced more Americanization. They also lived in a pretty segregated universe and saw no opportunity for advancement into the plantation ruling class, which was the preserve of the haole (white) elite. Nevertheless, the descendants of my Japanese great-grandparents were afforded good educations in the “mainland”--the U.S. My mother went to the University of Colorado, Boulder, where she met my father; one of her aunts got her masters degree in librarianship at Columbia University and others went to college elsewhere in New York State and in the Midwest. I guess if there was any assimilation, it was through higher education for my mom’s family. Similarly for my father’s family, a university education was a means to become economically and socially successful. To this day, the virtue of higher education endures for me and our now 5th, 6th plus generation Lym and Okazaki American families.