Hard Road To A Better Life

Some Chinese who immigrate illegally to Maryland and elsewhere in the U.S. struggle through lives marked by isolation and regret


Chen Rong, a 19-year-old coach passenger on a flight from Paris to Miami, wasn't the person his passport said he was. The man described in the passport was older, married, born in Hong Kong and a British citizen.

The teenager in the seat was baby-faced, naive and, given that he was about to enter the United States illegally, understandably nervous. But he remembered the specific instructions he received before boarding the plane.

So Chen got up from his seat, stepped into the bathroom and, as he recalls, tore the British passport into little pieces and threw it in the trash, eliminating the last shreds of a paper life that had cost his family $65,000 to obtain. Somewhere over the Atlantic, Chen became a man without papers and without a country, all his possessions contained in a single carry-on bag. He was apprehensive, but he was ready to start a new life in the United States, like so many other successful Chinese emigrants he had heard about back home.

If Chen had known at that moment what he knows now, he would have wished for the plane to turn around. He did not know that, less than two years later, in 2006, he would be working more than 80 hours a week at a small Chinese restaurant in downtown Baltimore, with little chance of ever living a normal American life. He did not know that one day he would be crying on the telephone to his parents in southeastern China, asking, "Why did you send me this way?"

He didn't leave home out of desperation. The son of a businessman and a doting mother who sent him to one of the better high schools in the city, he had prospects in China that would almost certainly have been better than those he has here.

Chen Rong is like so many who came before him from the province of Fujian, on China's east coast, where an underground pipeline for decades has shuttled hard-working young people to the United States and, in return, funneled American dollars back into their communities. It's not the poorest Chinese who make this leap; it is an emerging class of urbanites with the ambition for greater prosperity and the means to reach for it. Without one of the limited number of visas available for legal immigration, they choose to get to the U.S. the only way they know how - illegally. For Chen, it's a gamble that doesn't appear to have paid off.

The difference between coming to the United States legally and illegally, Chen would learn, was the difference between assimilation and isolation, between a life of opportunity and a life of purgatory. He would arrive not only without the official right to be here but without the support systems and connections of extended family, guaranteed jobs or college enrollment enjoyed by those who follow the proper channels of legalized immigration.

Yet thousands of undocumented Chinese enter or try to enter the U.S. every year, experts estimate, joining a large group of countrymen who came by legal means. In Maryland, the Chinese-born population is small but growing. The wave of immigration continues unabated even as a new China has emerged as a major economic power.

No one knows the exact number of Chinese who come to the United States illegally, but hundreds of thousands might have entered in this manner during the past quarter-century. They come convinced life will be better, as Chen's parents believed, ignoring the evidence of menial jobs, loneliness and constant fear of arrest.

"People like me, who are illegal immigrants, can only hide ourselves in places like Chinese restaurants, working secretly," Chen said. "Everybody says that the United States is a free country, but I feel like if you're in the United States and you're illegal, you will live a harder life than people in prison."

The story of Chinese immigration to the U.S. today has more twists and subplots than it did generations ago. The stereotype of people fleeing lives of poverty for a chance to strike it rich (an ambition reflected in the Chinese name for California, "gold mountain") has evolved into something more complicated.

`Life is hard here'

Chen dreamed of going to a good American college, of starting a business, of becoming a U.S. citizen. His sense of the possible, though, turned out to be a mirage. His real life in Baltimore sometimes seems to him every bit as hard and hopeless as a Chinese migrant worker's back home. Short and pudgy and full-cheeked, Chen looks younger than his 21 years. He smiles easily even as he talks about his suffocating life in the restaurant.

For six days a week, Chen runs a fryer, works a cash register and takes orders for food from mid-morning until midnight or 1 a.m. at a Chinese carry-out restaurant.

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