Magazine Top Ten 2018: From Rural China to NYC, An Intimate Story about Modern Immigration

Posted by: yetheart, December 26, 2018 11:26 am
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Lauren Hilgers (photo credit: Erich Hehn)

We were very excited to welcome Lauren Hilgers to Flushing Library on Friday, April 20 to discuss her new book, Patriot Number One. Lauren was joined by Zhuang Liehong, the subject of her fascinating book.

Lauren met Zhuang in China in 2012, while she was reporting about political unrest in his home village of Wukan. Zhuang, the Patriot Number One of the title, had been leading his fellow villagers in pro-democracy protests against the corrupt local government. Two years later, Zhuang realized that he might be arrested in an impending crackdown on the village. He and his wife, Little Yan, left their infant son with relatives and made the journey to America to seek asylum. They arrived on Lauren’s doorstep in 2014, with limited savings and only a shaky grasp of English. Zhuang had studied New York before he arrived, and knew where he wanted to live: Flushing.

In Patriot Number One, Lauren tells Zhuang and Little Yan’s story as they work to build their lives again from scratch after relocating to Flushing’s Chinatown. She also shares the stories of other Chinese immigrants she met through Zhuang and Little Yan, and paints a picture of the struggles and triumphs of these new Americans as they pursue the American dream here in our borough.

We sat with Lauren and Zhuang to discuss how things are now for his family, the current situation in Wukan, and more. Lauren, who is fluent in Mandarin, acted as a translator for Zhuang.

“Originally, it was Zhuang who pulled me into his life. He wasn’t going to be the focus of my original story about the budding democracy in Wukan, but every time I went there, he was very friendly and open, and I spent a fair amount of time with him and Little Yan,” said Lauren. “So, I didn’t set out to write a story about immigrants in Flushing, but then they came to New York City and landed on my doorstep! I had lived in New York for two years at that point, and maybe come to Flushing once, so I really learned about the neighborhood alongside Zhuang and Little Yan, and got access to parts of Flushing that I wouldn’t have had without him.”

Patriot Number One“One of the first things that really shocked me was how isolating the immigrant experience is—I expected there to be an easier sense of community, maybe similar in some ways to the ex-pat experiences I had as a Westerner in Shanghai,” Lauren continued.

“Zhuang didn’t have a family network here, so he was very skeptical of people, and worried about being taken advantage of. The more immigrants I talked to, the more that I found this to be true. Even if you had family members here, if they had been living in the U.S. for a long time, and you hadn’t had that much contact with them, you were unsure if they would take advantage of you, or what the boundaries might be. And even when you do make friends, and build a sense of community, people end up working such long hours that it’s often nothing like life was in China. Zhuang also thought when he came here that it would be much easier to get status; any bump in the road in your asylum case can result in enormous delays. The bureaucracy was pretty amazing at times.”

In terms of money, it’s been a tough year for Zhuang and his family, because he made the decision to keep protesting. (During the course of Patriot Number One, Zhuang protests in front of the Chinese embassy in New York and during a Florida visit by Chinese president Xi Jinping to bring attention to the arrests and abuse happening in Wukan. Zhuang’s father is one of the villagers who has been arrested.)

“Right now, Wukan is like a big prison,” said Zhuang. “The people inside it are not free. Their Internet is being controlled, and they’ve put up multiple surveillance cameras around the village and my mother’s house.” People also follow his mother during the day, and if anyone visits her, or brings her presents, authorities arrive quickly to inspect them.

Zhuang said that the problems in Wukan are not just those of one single village, but are common throughout China, and that people living in the country do not have human rights. “There is no rule of law if an average person wants to protect their rights,” he said. He urges America to “not allow the Chinese government to buy your silence” when it comes to human rights violations.

Lauren Hilgers and Zhuang LiehongWhat were the hardest things about being a new immigrant? Zhuang mentioned that finding work was a huge issue, and that job assistance and placement would be of great help—if you are not a student or can’t speak any English, your opportunities are very limited. In New York’s Chinatowns, there are only three industries you can even consider for work: restaurants, hair salons and spas, and construction.

When asked about the new presidential administration’s immigration polices, Zhuang said that he is grateful for the asylum policies that allowed him and his wife to stay here, but he does think that current immigration practices make it difficult to stay in the United States legally. Students in particular, he said, have few options after they finish their studies, and many are forced into the asylum system as a last resort, slowing it down and jeopardizing other asylum cases. He feels pessimistic about the asylum system now, and worries that people who need it the most will be unable to use it. His asylum case took about a year, but that seems pretty fast to him now, given the current climate. He feels lucky that, because he was from Wukan, his case received exposure that helped the process along. And, of course, he said, not everyone is lucky to have a friend like Lauren. “She is my sister,” he told us, smiling.

The best things about being a new immigrant? America’s many different and beautiful climates—Zhuang visited San Diego on his way to New York; he took a boat to see the Statue of Liberty during his first weeks in the city; and he is eager to continue taking in the wonders of his new country. He is grateful that he was able to sell a piece of land in Wukan before he left, and didn’t have to immediately start working long hours to pay back loans like other immigrants who arrive in the U.S.

He also feels that America treats its poor better than China, and that there are programs and philanthropic organizations to help less fortunate Americans that don’t exist in China. “China only treats its rich people well. The difference is enormous. It’s something Americans have a hard time understanding,” he said.

The best way to help Chinese immigrants? “Translation is most important,” said Zhuang. Lauren agreed, having witnessed (and written about) the stress of immigrants dealing with letters, bills, and notifications that they couldn’t read. Zhuang mentioned that Chinese-language websites with local news and local services—created by libraries, the city, the borough, or community organizations—would be very helpful. He pointed to the Mandarin website 51NYC.com as a model.

Zhuang asks Americans to be patient with Chinese immigrants as they adjust to the customs of their new home and learn the norms of American society. And he wants Chinese immigrants to respect the freedoms of their new home, and not be afraid or reluctant to call the police or rely on the systems of the American government to help them. He stressed that he wanted to find meaningful work, build a new life for himself and his family, and not be a burden to anyone in his new country. And he is determined to keep protesting for Wukan and for democracy in China.

Pictured above: Lauren Hilgers and Zhuang Liehong at Flushing Library.

Photo of Lauren Hilgers by Erich Hehn.

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2018 issue of Queens Library Magazine.

Read the Other Stories in the Queens Library Magazine Top Ten of 2018.