Lands Of Opportunity

Many Chinese are leaving behind their homeland's booming economy for the brand of freedom offered in Maryland and the rest of America

Sun Special Report // Chinese Immigration // Part 1


It was a quintessentially American scene: a split-level house in the suburbs, with a tree-shaded lawn and burgers on a gas-fired grill for friends and family gathered to congratulate a new college graduate.

The graduate, Kelly Li, citizen of China and future citizen of the United States, was about to go to work for one of the richest corporations in the world, Exxon Mobil.

This party in Lutherville wasn't just a celebration of an American dream realized; it marked the culmination of a plan that began taking shape in Guangzhou, China, some 17 years ago, when Kelly's parents began contemplating an American future for their only child.

Yet from the time Wenhui and Miaolian Li decided they wanted to leave China until they were given permission to do so five years ago, the dynamics had changed. They were leaving behind a new, surging China -- departing what is quickly becoming this century's land of opportunity. At a time when the Chinese economy is expanding at a pace of about 10 percent a year, some legal immigrants like the Lis are taking a calculated step down the ladder of opportunity in coming to the U.S.

The Lis traded their white-collar office jobs and middle-class lives in China for blue-collar jobs in the Baltimore area -- Mr. Li drives a truck for a company that supplies Chinese restaurants, Mrs. Li packs fruits and vegetables for a business that provides produce to Giant supermarkets. They sacrificed their place on the ladder to secure their daughter's.

For all of the progress in China, some of its citizens still see the U.S. as a better place -- for economic reasons, political reasons, educational reasons. History matters, too. To families like the Lis, whose prospects and freedom were cut short by one Communist political campaign after another, America is a place for the next generation to have everything they could not.

Sometimes the reality doesn't match the promise of a nation seemingly brimming with opportunity and freedom. The future can be uncertain. Yet despite the sacrifices most make in taking the leap to a nation that is foreign to them in every way, they continue to come.

Even as prospects improved in China, the number of legal immigrants from there nearly doubled during the 1990s, according to census figures, from 530,000 to 989,000. The small Chinese population in Maryland grew as well.

America's appeal is so compelling that a large number of Chinese who can't wait or don't qualify for visas come anyway, sometimes paying huge sums to shadowy characters who help them enter illegally. Hundreds of thousands may have come this way in the past quarter-century. These immigrants may never realize all their hopes, however, as they face high barriers to success in a country that does not officially welcome them. Often they toil in lives lived mostly underground, as restaurant workers, as housekeepers or nannies to legal Chinese immigrants.

The flow of Chinese into the U.S. shows no sign of abating. Yet a new, albeit small, trend has emerged. In recent years, China's economic boom has enticed back an increasing number of its citizens who have American degrees. For them, moving back to China is the way to move up quickly.

As political leaders in the U.S. argue over immigration policy, they are re-enacting a great historical debate about what it means to be an American, and about who deserves to become one.

The debate today is focused mostly on the impoverished Spanish speakers who sneak across the U.S.-Mexican border. But it often overlooks the question embodied in the Chinese phenomenon: why, even as globalization spreads opportunity, so many people still want to become Americans.

People such as Yaming Luo, Kelly's uncle, who is among the revelers at her graduation celebration. Once a manager of a company in Guangzhou, Luo works in a windowless kitchen in the back of a sushi restaurant in Baltimore County, part of an isolated life lived entirely in the language of his home country. He dreams that one day, years from now, his payoff will come when his grandson -- not yet conceived when Luo moved to Lutherville -- can immigrate to the United States to study.

Nearby stand Jie and Daisy Zhang, friends of the Li family, who left behind memories of violent repression in China. After tanks rolled into Beijing in 1989 in a crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square, killing hundreds on the orders of the government, Daisy resolved to leave the country. The Zhangs came to the United States to study. They ended up building fairly typical suburban lives with well-paying jobs, a house on an Ellicott City cul-de-sac and three children, whom they have given the gift of U.S. citizenship.

What the children do with their lives here is up to them. "I never put my mind to my children," Jie Zhang said. "They are American people. They'll decide based on their judgments."

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