September 11 Digital Archive

Meiling Tse


Meiling Tse



Media Type


Chinatown Interview: Interviewee

Meiling Tse

Chinatown Interview: Interviewer

Val Wang

Chinatown Interview: Date


Chinatown Interview: Language


Chinatown Interview: Occupation

high school teacher

Chinatown Interview: Interview (en)

Q: A little bit about where you were born and the story that your dad told you.

Tse: Right, well, I grew up –


Q: I’m Val Wang.

Tse: You need to put your face in the camera.

Q: And I guess if you could introduce yourself a little bit, your name and where you were born and your age. Your age? And say where we are right now.

Tse: I don’t have to say my age, do I? Okay, I’ll say it, it doesn’t matter. Just don’t show my students. They think I’m 25. Okay, should we start? Or should we just answer?

Q: Yeah, just name, age, where we are.

Tse: Well, my name is MeiLing Tse, it’s my last name. I was born in Hong Kong and I immigrated to the United States with my entire family when I was 4 years old. I have two older sisters and a younger brother. When he came, he was one years old and I’m 35 years old now and I’m teaching at Lower East Side Preparatory High School and I was born in Hong Kong, like I said, and the way that my family immigrated to the United States was through my father’s – some connection between my father and his job. And so I tell my students this really interesting and fabulous story of this generous guy who was my father’s boss who just kind of sponsored my entire family to come to the United States so that my father could work for him in the restaurant, so the boss, the guy opened the restaurant in Brooklyn and my father started to work for him. He was a loyal worker for many years until he retired and my family grew up in Brooklyn near my boss in the Sheepshead Bay area of Brooklyn. And went to high school – to elementary school, started kindergarten, actually, in the United States without knowing a single word of English because when I immigrated here, I didn’t know a word of English. My parents didn’t speak English, didn’t have any friends who spoke English. So, even though when you’re playing with your friends, you learn English, but because I didn’t have any friends who spoke English, I went to school without any English language skills. The school I went to, I remember, didn’t have any bilingual – no Chinese in the school, no bilingual classes as we have today and I remember the first day of school I was so scared because I didn’t understand what anyone was saying and I remember the end of the day I was hiding in the closet and the teacher had to fget me out to go home. And so those were my earliest memories and I tell my students the story just to put them at ease that every person that comes here really has a very difficult beginning. It’s not easy to assimilate and even for me, at age five, four or five years old, it was so hard and, so jumping forward, I learned English, went to high school and college ---

Q: How long did it take you to learn English? Or, how long was it until you felt comfortable here?

Tse: I remember reading, well the early years after that first memory was kind of blurred, but I remember reading books on my own in third grade, in third grade, just going to the library and taking out tons of books to read in the summer. And so I would say that I could probably read at a third grade level by the time I was eight years old, so I would say that between those first three years, it was very critical. I did learn somehow. How I learned, I don’t remember.

Q: At home, what were you speaking at home?

Tse: At home, my parents spoke Cantonese and that was the only language we used.

Q: How was their English progressing during that time?

Tse: Well, my parents were blue-collar workers. My father worked in a restaurant. He was a waiter and my mother was a seamstress, so they really had no use for English, so basically, they took classes and they tried to learn, but even up to today, they really have no use. They’re in their own community, there’s no really reason for them to use English, so they haven’t --- I don’t think they can really converse in a conversation with an American. So we’ve basically kept – they’ve been kind of shelled in their own little world all these years, actually.

Q: You mentioned that the area you grew up in didn’t have many other Chinese kids. So what was that experience like growing up, surrounded by people who weren’t Chinese?

Tse: Like I said, I have two older sisters and a younger brother, so basically, my family, we basically kept to ourselves and played with each other. We had friends, but basically, they were like school friends, like after school, we really didn’t hang out with them. We came home like obedient kids. We were latchkey kids, so we let ourselves in the house. We played in the house, went to the library. My sisters were my friends, so we played together, basically.

Q: Did you have any contact with the Chinese community in Chinatown, in Brooklyn, or in Queens? When did you ever come in contact with them?

Tse: Well, there was a big contact because my parents, my mother especially, worked in Chinatown and as we got older, my older sister actually went to Chinese school on Mott Street, CCBA [The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association] and my second sister did and my younger brother. I was the only one who didn’t go to Chinese school and my mother’s side of the story is that I refused to go so she let me go, according to the story, so I never learned Chinese that way, to write and read. But getting back to your question, we would go out every Sunday because that was family day and that was the place where my parents were very comfortable and we would go out to eat for dim sum, hang out with his family friends in the neighborhood, and basically, yeah, that was our contact, coming out every Sunday, just to eat, go shopping, hang out with my mother’s friends and my father’s friends.

Q: So you mentioned you didn’t have family here. How did they meet people? How did your parents meet people?

Tse: Basically from their, well, it’s not a hundred percent true that they didn’t have any blood relatives, but like family friends, like my mother’s workers became very good friends. We had some distant cousins here and basically, there was an association that my father was affiliated with, people who came from the same area in China got together, and so there was this organization called the “Tees” group, the T-S-A group, you’ve probably seen it in Chinatown, on Division Street and my father would go up there and they would gamble and men would get together and just talk and just hang out, so there was an association there and he would bring the family around, the kids, just to meet his friends, so they could see, Oh, these are your daughters, these are your lovely daughters and your good son, kind of show the family off, so, that was important for us to, to realize that there were other people who were concerned about us.

Q: So what part of China was that, were those, was that group of people from?

Tse: Mostly from Canton, Guangdong, in China.

Q: I guess if you could talk more about growing up and high school and then going to college and that whole process of where you went to college and how you made those decisions.

Tse: I went to a local school, after elementary school, I went to the local high school, which was Midwood High School at Brooklyn College and there were more Asians there, but I wouldn’t say that there were new, first-generation Chinese. I mean, there were definitely Chinese there whose families were wealthier, I remember, kids whose families were in the medical profession, people who were pretty well-off, probably second or third generation in America and I just remember they were still no ESL [English as Second Language] classes, but I remember in my sister’s grade there was a new immigrant, she was Vietnamese and my sister became sort of like the surrogate parent for that young girl because we understood what it meant to be an immigrant and I remember my sister would bring her friend home to kind of do homework together and kind of be together and so I remember my sister kind of taking on the role, kind of like teacher-slash-friend for this newcomer. For the most part, most of the Asians in the school were pretty much like second or third generation, I would say. And then later on I decided to go to New York University and followed my sister’s footsteps, because my sister went there first, I have to say. And then, at NYU of course, there were people from all over the world and that’s one of the things that attracted me. I wanted to find a school where people have similar experiences, but also people with wide experiences and wanted to get to know more, different people. So, of course everyone knows New York University has students from all over the world, from many various different backgrounds. And I had a really great experience there.

Q: So, say, like, your friends in high school versus your friends in college. How were they different?

Tse: Actually, it’s kind of funny. In college, I would say was the first time I met friends who spoke Chinese, who were new immigrants and who were probably first generation Chinese-Americans and I spoke Chinese in school. It was the first time, really that I made friends there who were Chinese, who spoke Chinese.

Q: And how did you decide to become a teacher? Can you talk about that whole process?

Tse: Well, actually, going back to high school, during the summers there was a program called SYEP [Summer Youth Employment Program], which the government funded to have students work in different areas in the city, so somehow I, the company or I guess the organization which sponsored the program, was in Chinatown, so I ended up working in Chinatown when I was 14 years old when I got those papers, my working papers and all my summer jobs from the age of 14 to 18, during my high school years, were in Chinatown. So I worked at the Chinese-American Planning Council, every summer, working at their summer youth program. I was either a - what was I – a counselor. There are really big titles, but to a 14-year old, we were really assistant counselors. There was somebody in charge of us. We didn’t have that many responsibilities, but we, you just kind of work with, pretty much like babysitting, watching the kids who were younger than we were. So most of my jobs have been working in the Chinese community since I was 14. And the last year in high school, I remember, I was placed in a program where were worked with kids who were slightly older, they were high school kids, so they were almost the same as I was. And most of those kids were in school in Chinatown and they didn’t speak English. So then I started really tutoring, working with the students in another level and from there I got interested to, in education and thought in college that this was something I would study, so when I got to NYU, I continued, actually, to work at the Chinese-American Planning Council, getting other kinds of jobs in different areas and kind of stuck with that company for a while.

Q: And then you said after you graduated college, you started teaching? Is that --

Tse: Yeah, well, actually, after college I got a degree in elementary ed and I taught sixth months in kindergarten, in Brooklyn, didn’t enjoy it. The kids were very tiresome and somehow I found myself taking time off and I came back to work at CPC as a full-time, for a year. Then in that time period I decided to go back to get my Master’s degree in teaching English as a second language. And so then I applied to get a job at NYU, so I worked at NYU full-time and taught a writing workshop to students and then I started to pursue my Master’s and one year later, I interviewed at this school and got a job here and here I am about ten years later and still here, still enjoying it. The students are, as I put it before, they are about, the school is about 70 percent immigrant students and of those 70 percent, I would say 60 percent, 60 65 percent Asian immigrants. Asian, Chinese immigrants. So, it’s kind of like going back full circle to my background.

Q: Can you tell a little bit about the class that you teach and about the problems that the kids have and how you work through a lot of their issues?

Tse: In this school, we have a really good ESL program. We have all levels of ESL, starting with beginner and it used to be that 10 years ago we used to accept students who were at the really basic literacy level learning English, so I remember doing very basic, just going over the alphabet, A B C. Of course now, with the English Regents, we don’t accept those kinds of students anymore. We still have beginning level learning students, so that’s ESL 1, 2. We also have Intermediate 3 and 4. Five and 6, 7 is a transitional English class, English as a Second Language into a mainstream English class. And so I’ve taught every level of ESL, from beginning to intermediate and advanced and it’s really amazing to see in a really short amount of time, from students can be here from three months in this country, from three months to two years and they have to learn a lot. A lot of skills, a lot of language skills. And the ultimate goal is, for them, is to learn enough English to pass the English Regents, which is mandated of every student in New York City in order to receive the high school diploma. So that’s a big challenge, a really big challenge and they rise to the occasion. I mean, that’s what’s amazing that in two years, that they can learn such an incredible amount. I mean, if you think about it, if you were to, if we were to go to another country and could we master a language in two years? That’s mind-boggling, yeah.

Q: And so can you say, in the ten years that you’ve been here, what you’ve seen in the changes in the students, where people are coming from and what kind of English they come with or what kinds of problems you’ve seen that have changed in the last ten years.

Tse: As I said before, ten years ago we actually accepted students who were at the literacy level where we started with the alphabet and at the same time, we also had students who have incredible amounts of grammar and English levels, and most of the students came from Hong Kong ten years ago. If you look at today’s student population, most of our students come from more rural or small town farm areas in China, Fukian, especially. I would say 80% of our students are from Fukian today, yeah. And I would say of those students, about half of them don’t have more than a sixth grade education, so that’s another challenge that’s come up that they don’t have the literacy skill in their own language so it’s hard for them to actually transfer their knowledge of language into their second language or their third language.

Q: What do their parents usually do, here?

Tse: I would say probably 99 percent of their parents are blue-collar workers, work in factories, restaurants. There are a minority number of students whose parents were at the technical level, doctors, perhaps, nurses in China, but of course after coming here, they have to get jobs to support themselves, so again, they are kind of working blue-collar jobs.

Q: And so what kinds of difficulties do you see them having here and how do they kind of compare to the difficulties that you had when you came?

Tse: Their difficulties?

Q: Yeah.

Tse: Well, it’s interesting, because thinking back now a lot into the things that we were missing as a child, we didn’t have dolls, we didn’t have money to buy certain things. My clothes were all secondhand because I had two older sisters, so when I tell my students this, they’re like, What? How could you like, didn’t you want more? Didn’t you have your parents like give you stuff? So when I see a lot of students these days, actually I would say are better off or at the same level that my parents were at. I think you have to look at it in perspective, when you live in a certain time period, you don’t think of the things you don’t have because you don’t have them, but if you’ve had them before and then all of a sudden you don’t have it, then you compare and say, Oh my god, what happened? You know, why is our life worse? Or, you know, what has changed for us? So I think that for most students, because they didn’t have much before, and I would say I would know at least a couple families who told me that, you know, when they were in China, they really, they didn’t, their parents didn’t work, you know, they really just stayed at home, and every day was just passing by. They are so extremely grateful to be here that they really, they really don’t care about the clothes that they are wearing. The education is really the most important thing to them.

Q: Interesting. I guess we can talk a little bit about, should start talking a little bit about 9/11 and you were pretty close to that area. I guess first a little bit about that day and where people were, if people were here and then more about what happened afterwards and how the school dealt with it and the kids and if there were any changes that happened because of it, at the school and any counseling that the kids went through, or the teachers. So I guess a little bit about what happened that day, or where you were or where the kids were.

Tse: Two years, last year, we did a little write-up, kind of like memorial of the day and one of my students handed in this essay on that day, he was on his way from China to come to the United States and the plane was stopped and they had to re-route and stop in California because of what happened here and he remembered that it was, not so much scary, but a sense of not knowing what is going to happen to you, so in his essay he writes they were just stranded in this one place and nobody knew what was going to happen and now all the dreams and excitement of coming here, you know, kind of like fell backwards, you know, are we going to have to go back to China or are we going to move forward? So it’s kind of interesting in retrospect those students who came here during that year probably had a really amazing memory of probably what happened. For us, that day, it was in the morning, and it was, from one of the classrooms, you could see the smoke and you could see one of the towers missing, and we remember, the entire school would try to like move the entire student body into the auditorium so that people would not go crazy or panic. We were just waiting word to see what happens, you know, was it just a plane or was it something else. And of course when we found out, you know, we couldn’t leave school, there were no train available, so we thought we were going to camp out in school that night. You know, the students were kind of, we were all shocked, but we didn’t, most of the people here in our school didn’t know anyone personally who was in the buildings. So I guess it was, the shock was so great that we didn’t really think about the reality of what was happening. We were just stunned, you know, classes didn’t go on. We just basically sat around and waited. The students, no one talk about it. They try to, try to continue the day but not really knowing what to say. So it was a really hard day, so –

Q: Most of the kids weren’t from around here, you said? They couldn’t just walk home, or –

Tse: Some of the students were able to go home, you know, within walking distance, but the rest of the students kind of waited. We had all of the TVs on, just kind of waiting word to see if the trains would go on, whether we should let the students go at 3 o’clock or not, yeah.

Q: And the rest of the week, did there, were there classes? Or what happened, sort of just with the class, with the school?

Tse: Well, we were told to try to continue things, as much as possible, but of course when you go home and you realize what happened, you know, and a few days, as time passed, two days or three days later, when it really sets in about the reality of what happened, it’s really hard to just continue. And I would say, we had a social worker at the time and she did go around to talk to the students in each classes and really appreciate that she brought up certain things that the teachers, you know, did not feel comfortable talking about or did not know how to approach it. And it’s really hard because you put your own personal opinion about what happens and we had some Muslim students in the school as well.

Q: How did they experience 9/11 or what was their experience after 9/11?

Tse: They were quiet about it, actually. I mean, later on, the following years, a year later, because we heard about the hatred and what was happening in their neighborhoods, but at that time, it was just, I think we were all just stunned. There was no blame, there was no animosity towards them, but we try to keep things in the low-key, just try to move on.

Q: Did they talk about what had happened in their neighborhood? What were they saying about their experiences?

Tse: They just, well, from what we heard in newspaper, you know, that they were being shunned or, it wasn’t so much that they, since I guess they, this school’s a pretty safe environment, so we really tried, I mean most of the students know each other. It wasn’t so much that our students were picking on the other students, but when they went home to their own worlds, I guess they had a different experience and it wasn’t so much shared in the school. Little bits and pieces came out afterwards. You know, like especially a year later, little things came out. They didn’t talk much the first year, about their personal feelings or like what happened to them afterwards.

Q: So, after a year, how did it come out? Was it in counseling steadily for a year or how did that work?

Tse: There were a few students who actually met with social workers on a one-to-one basis, who got counseling, but some of the teachers addressed it to the entire class. We spoke, we sat in a circle the second or third day and we talked about what happened. It’s just still, like, for the students, I don’t think they really want to talk about it. I don’t know whether it’s the age or whether they don’t think it really affected them, but they just didn’t want to talk about it, just wanted to move on, it’s like, Miss Meiling, can we just get back to what we were doing before? Just really just kind of want to forget about it, just kind of move on.

Q: Have they been like that the whole time? They’ve never wanted to talk about it, or --

Tse: The second year we had a memorial. Like each 9/11, the school, we put a memorial. We have students come up to a wall and write things, write their memoirs, write what they felt, what happened that day. And for that one day, I would say, it’s still so much like, it’s a one-day deal and after that, they don’t really want to talk about it.

Q: What about you, your experiences that day? How were you feeling or how did you react or –

Tse: Well, my sister actually worked in that building and her company actually moved out of that building a few months ago, so like I, I didn’t personally know anyone who worked there, except my sister who had moved out, so I was very relived, but I remember just like a blackout, you call everyone you know and want to find out if they’re okay, but itwas, it’s still hard, like for everyone else and you stay glued to the TV to hear the news.

Q: Was, were any of your students affected in terms of their parents losing jobs or any of those kinds of effects?

Tse: Well, I know, like, there was a big drive to really help the students fill the forms so they could get from FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency], the aid they needed. A lot of students who were concerned about their parents were lost jobs in this area. Even the students who didn’t live in this area, in the Chinatown area, their parents worked down here, so parents who lost their jobs, the social workers would try to help them to apply for aid, to help them get financial assistance.

Q: So what kinds of aid programs were there? Because I’m not too clear about what kinds of aid programs there were.

Tse: There’s the FEMA program. So, I mean, we all knew it personally, so we tried to send the students down there to get the forms and they would come back here and ask us to help them fill it out. I had a friend whose son actually worked in the office, so I had some connections there and I got some forms for them. I had a, they actually had, they were, I mean it was translated in Chinese, so it was, there wasn’t so much problems in filling out the forms, but actually getting people there to stand in lines, reassuring that it was okay to go there and get help from other people.

Q: Was there a lot of reluctance to do that? To get help, to go seek help?

Tse: I think they were appreciated at the end, appreciative, the students. In the beginning, it was, like, they weren’t, they couldn’t believe it, I would say, there was such a thing existed in the United States, where they can get all this help. But they did bring the information back to the parents and you know, back and forth, the information got to the parents and somehow, they got the assistance, some of the students got the assistance they needed.

Q: And who was eligible for it and how –

Tse: In our school, we have a free lunch period for a hundred percent of the students, so I would say 99.9 percent of the students probably qualified.

Q: To get the free lunch?

Tse: Right. And probably for other assistance programs.

Q: So after 9/11, were there other assistance programs? Did the school apply for any money or were there other extra programs here?

Tse: Our school wasn’t directly affected by what happened, but I know that there were other funds. We did get, I mean this was, I guess, you know I think about a year later or within that year, we had, you know, different organizations approach us, with different things. We brought a hundred kids to see Beauty and the Beast on Broadway. Yeah, yeah, that was from one of the organizations which, you know, really felt for our school because we were so close to what happened. And there were a couple things that, you know, that we were able to achieve. I mean, , some of the, you know, benefits, I guess you can say, unfortunately, through what happened.

Q: So what organization did that, the Beauty and the Beast?

Tse: I think it was the Broadway, I don’t know the organization, the artists on Broadway, something like that.

Q: They just gave you guys a hundred tickets?

Tse: Yeah, to bring the kids to see the show.

Q: How was that experience?

Tse: The show, I mean, that’s great, I mean, anytime you get to take a bunch of kids on Broadway and just the show itself is very entertaining. And we told them, it’s because of this reason and they were very appreciative, that people were thinking of them. I mean, I was very appreciative that, you know, that we were able to take a hundred kids on Broadway for free. That’s not easy to come by.

Q: Yeah, that’s, that’s good. So, were there any other also effects in terms of health after 9/11? From the, were there more cases of asthma from the fallout from the World Trade Center or also from pollution in the, in this area?

Tse: Well, we noticed that the air [unintelligible] quality was not as a good. You know, on some days, especially in the first few weeks, it’s like evidently there was something in the air and we were asked not to open the A/C because the filter was probably contaminated. I tried not to open my windows at all just because, like, you never know, like if you hear about it and you feel afraid, you’re not sure what’s going to happen. I don’t think the kids really, like, you know, other people, especially the students, were that concerned about. They didn’t think about, you know, probably long-term effects. And they didn’t really feel that there was any danger you know in the air. I know there was a big push to get air filters and different things in the school at that time, but due to our lack of funds, we didn’t go that far. I think they only clean out the air-conditioner filters and that was it.

Q: So does the school have a lot of funds, you said there was funding problems. Are there, can you talk a little more about that?

Tse: The funding problems in our school?

Q: Yes.

Tse: Well, I think it is just the way the, comes from the top. It depends how they decide to, where they decide to spend their money. I mean, teachers don’t, we really don’t get a say in how the money is spent in school, whether we should have, hire more teachers or other support staff. We don’t really have a role in that. If we did, probably things would be run a little bit differently. But you were saying, do we have more support? Well, I can say that our school is probably much better off, I mean we have no problems in terms of chalk, missing chalk. There is always lack of books, you know, if we want to get a few more copies of a certain book or we want to try to use a new book, we would have to wait and wait and then wait until there are funds for it. So definitely textbook money is hard to come by, [unintelligible]

Q: So, actually, I don’t know if we’ve talked about this being –

[Lan asking to stop the tape to adjust the lighting after a light blew out.]

Tse: It’s not going to go on, though because it probably blew out.


Tse: That’s not the first time it happened. It just goes out and either it comes back on or we have to call the custodian. They’re not going to come today.

Q: As long as it’s not flickering, I guess.

[Break in tape]

Q: Okay, I guess we were kind of at a stopping point, so if we want to go back now and talk more about your childhood and what you remember about coming to the States and why your parents came and why they chose New York. And a little bit about what you remember about being really young in Hong Kong.

Tse: Well, when my students ask when I immigrated here, 1972 was the year and we do a little research into history and that was the time when Nixon was president and welcome arms. They wanted immigrants. The immigration door was wide open and it was relatively easy for us to come here. My family was sponsored by my father’s boss who had a business connection with my father. It was under his kind graces that he sponsored us and actually probably paid for our entire passage to America. My family consists of my mother, my father, my two older sisters and a younger brother and myself, that’s six of us, couldn’t have been that cheap and my father worked for this person for the last, I guess, 25 years until he retired and until the guy passed away. Getting back to your question of why did my parents come here, my parents were born in Toisan (??) which is Toisan, you know, Toishan is the way you say it in America and they immigrated to Hong Kong during the wartime and my parents met in Hong Kong and had all four of us there before the opportunity came up for them to immigrate to America. We were the first part of our family to come here, my mother’s sister’s family is still there in Hong Kong. On my father’s side of the family, they went to different places. They went to Holland. We have two of my brothers live in Holland. We also have some half-brothers who are in the United States, but pretty distant relatives and we don’t really get together. But my parents immigrated here for, of course, a better opportunities. They understood that if we stayed in Hong Kong probably that was not the way that my parents wanted to raise us. They wanted to give us more opportunities to, in this new land. And probably all the stories about America, you know, the golden gates, the gold on the floor, the clichés about America, you know, that was true for my parents. They believed in it, they believed in the American dream. And even though my father would have to take a low-paying job when he came here and my mother didn’t know what she would do when she came here, they decided take the risk and all of us came over here at the same time. We were probably lucky that we all came here together because some of my students today, some of my students are here by themselves or some of the students, their parents have come earlier than them because they haven’t, due to paperwork of some sorts, they weren’t able to come together as a whole family and so that kind of disbalances the family unit and I think we were lucky that my entire family were able to come at one time and of course at that time there were probably programs for people who came in, to help us out. I don’t remember any specifics, I just remember there were a lot of people who did help us out. My father’s business, his boss and friends which they made later in the neighborhood, the Chinese families, were probably the main people who helped us get grounded in our new life here and --

Q: What did your dad do when he was in Hong Kong?

Tse: He was a sailor and when he came here, because of some connections he made with a person he knew there, the person trusted him and trusted him, I guess, a lot and when he came here, he worked for him.

Q: So he was a sailor and he would leave Hong Kong a lot to go on trips?

Tse: Right, right.

Q: And do you remember being in Hong Kong?

Tse: My parents had a small soda shop there, so we have a few pictures from Hong Kong where my two sisters and I are sitting at the front doorstep of this candy shop and black-and-white pictures and at the garden, and different places. My sister remembers more because she was actually seven when she came. I was four when I left so I don’t have many memories. There are a couple, few memories, places, because I did go back to Hong Kong twice, as an adult and don’t remember the places. It’s very a big city, it’s similar to New York City, 42nd Street, so it’s not that big of a change.

Q: So can you talk about going back actually, your experience? What was it like going back?

Tse: Well, my mother’s sister still lives there with her family so when I went back, I contact them and they brought me to some places I didn’t remember. I mean, the places were very different. My mother has actually gone back to Hong Kong before I went back and basically things in her hometown haven’t changed much. In the way you had to walk to get to certain place. Still very poor living conditions, but in the city, if you were to stay in the city, in a hotel, I mean it’s no different from New York City. Yeah.

Q: So did you go back to her hometown as well?

Tse: I didn’t know anyone there, so when I went back to Hong Kong, it was with friends and it wasn’t a visit with my mom. So if I were to go again, a trip with my mom would probably be more meaningful it terms of searching my family’s roots. But my mother’s sister was there and her daughter was about the same age as me, took me around, she took me around. Her mother’s not well, so she couldn’t tell me much about her, their life there. But Hong Kong is a very hip city. It’s like New York City. She grew up in the city. They really have no desire to immigrate to United States. I asked her once, before ’97, I went back and they’re pretty happy there. They have a whole life there. There’s no reason to leave. They’re professional people there, so I mean if they were to come here, it would be just to visit.

Q: Did you feel a connection to her or, because you’d never met her, right?

Tse: Only through pictures.

Q: So what was that like?

Tse: It was amazing. We connected. Even though we’re family, we haven’t really seen or spoken, just through parents’ letters, we kind of knew of each other and what we studied and what we were good in and what our parents thought of us and so we met. It was more of, because we were blood that really we connected and kept in touch.

Q: Was she the same age? What did she do there?

Tse: She was a graphic designer and her older sister worked with her husband in their own business and her other sister was an aspiring dancer at that time. [Laughs.] I think she’s a housewife now, but they all were, they had big dreams, you know, but to pursue them in Hong Kong, not with any intention of leaving that place.

Q: So what surprised you most about going there?

Tse: That there wasn’t much of a difference compared to New York City. Of course there was the language, people spoke Cantonese more and really appreciated that we spoke Cantonese with them. We spoke English with them in some places, which was fine because they spoke English.

Q: What surprised you most about going back?

Tse: What surprised me most was that Hong Kong wasn’t that big of a surprise in terms of, if you were to travel to another country, you would think that things were really different and there wasn’t really. It was a big city. I stayed in the main part of the city, in a hotel. If you traveled to some of the poorer places, of course life is very different. Wild dogs there and the place you go, the cemeteries, the old style cemeteries are probably places you want to visit just to see, you know, there’s a hint of the old lifestyle there, but in the city, there’s not much different from New York City.

Q: Did you, I was going to ask, did you feel like it was going home? Or where do you feel like your home is? Did you feel at home there?

Tse: I was a tourist. I was a visitor. I mean, I don’t have any, I haven’t been there for the past, since I came here, with my mother’s sister’s family, my aunt’s family who were there, I wouldn’t have anyone to visit there. I would say because I’ve been in America for such a long time, you know, actually went through the whole citizenship process when I was 18 years old and was sworn in in a courtroom and everything. I would say that I consider myself a Chinese-American.

Q: And what about your parents? What do they feel about what they are?

Tse: I think as most families, if you live in a place long enough, even if you don’t consider it your home, you know, if you’ve been in a place long enough, it’s hard for them to consider any other place to live. I remember when we were younger, they would say, Oh, when we retire, we’re just going to go back to Hong Kong and live there and leave you guys here, you know. But I don’t hear them say that anymore and I think it’s because they’re so used, and they like living here. They have their family, they have their life here. If they were to move back to another country, back to Hong Kong, or China, they would have to start over again with their friends and settling down. Everything is just so convenient here. My parents are pretty traditional people. I mean, they don’t have any American friends, basically, and they live really in their own world, very sheltered world. But I would say that they’re very comfortable. They know how to get on the subway and go to places where they like to go, go to the park, Central Park or go to Brooklyn Botanical Gardens, so there are certain places that they know how to get there, and, you know, Chinatown is always there and they’re just very comfortable where they are. They consider, I think they consider America to be their home.

Q: And, I guess if you also talk a little bit about sort of your process of what Lan was saying about becoming American, sort of the difficulties in that and what point you felt like, or if you can remember any specific incidents where you felt, like, okay, actually, I belong here now or I feel American now? Or not?

Tse: Well, the term “what is an American?” is very philosophical and there are many ways to answer it. I think my best answer is, came about when my students asked me, so what, of course with the intention of thinking, what should we consider ourselves? and so if you had to answer that question, you had to be very careful with what you say because you’re influencing someone else and that’s scary, right? But I would say I’ve always considered myself a Chinese-American. Chinese because of my cultural background, you know, the way I look, the way I was brought up, the values my parents instilled in me, and I would also say I would attach the American too because this is the country that you live in and there are other values, other behaviors, other cultures that you added onto yourself to make you the person you are today. So I wouldn’t say, completely say that I’m just Chinese because you know if you live in China, you might say that you’re just Chinese, right? Just because you live in America doesn’t mean that you’re just an American because you have other historical links to yourself. So we say America is a melting pot. America is not just one kind of person or, you know, you’re not just one kind of person, you’re always linked to another country or another cultural background, so even if I think two or three generations down, you know, like my children’s children’s children, I would teach them to be Chinese-American. I would like them to consider themselves Chinese-American.

Q: What do your students, what is your students’ take on that? Are they eager to be American?

Tse: They think I’m, they view, in the beginning, yeah. They were surprised I speak Chinese. Even though I look Chinese, in the class progressed, they think I’m totally American. So they would consider me as an American. It’s only after my speech or after getting to know me, probably two or three months later, that I’m very Chinese in certain ways and have similar values or understand where they’re coming from, that they begin to realize that, oh, you’re Chinese too. So probably Chinese-American.

Q: So when you say you feel very Chinese, what is, how does that, how do you experience that or how do you feel like you know that?

Tse: Well, I don’t want to go into any stereotypes of what it means to be an American, but you can look at certain behaviors of the Chinese-American who grew up here, the teenagers who grew up in New York City are much more verbal, not to say I’m not, but just that they’re behavior, who they hang around with, their living conditions, their environment, influence them to be who they are, the TV they watch, the friends they hang around with, the books they read, if they read at all. I think that those external factors influence them more than the internal factors and the fact that probably their parents are more, you know, assimilated in society that they’re more external, they’ve accepted the external parts more, too. So I think compared to my students, who only been in America two years, this is, all who they are has been from their upbringing and they’ve been brought up in China all these years, so they haven’t assimilated yet, even though their forced to do certain things, but they haven’t totally accepted it or you don’t have to like it, but maybe not even understanding it could be problem for them too, to consider themselves an American yet.

Q: So growing up, what I guess, if we could go over what, growing up, in the ‘70’s and ‘80’s, was different from kids who immigrate here when they’re five and grow up here now? Just how it was different culturally or socially?

Tse: I would say, I want to talk about the similarities first because as I said before, I tell my students I remember going to school and not understanding the teacher. I remember learning A B C from the beginning. I even though the age, there’s an age difference, I was four and they’re sixteen, seventeen, there are similarities. The struggle of first having to speak English, not understanding other people, not understanding the context of culture or [unintelligible] whatever, the difference is that I was younger and probably was able to play without using language, probably able to blend in, things weren’t that academic at that point, when you’re four years old, five years old and things are different for students now. Students who are 13, 14, coming to America, are probably at a crossroads in their lives because they’re coming of age, they may, depending on their level of English skills, I would say most of our students have some kind of background in English. They’ve studied English as a foreign language in their country, so, they’ve learned some grammar rules and depending on how much they’ve learned, sometimes does influence how successful they’re going to be here. Because of the age and pressures of finishing high school, how much, how many friends you make here, American friends you make here will also influence how much you push yourself into the American culture, I think. So, the differences are, in terms of the age, I would say, the environment is very different. I remember, we were able to play out in the streets until I don’t know what time and that, of course, understanding, I grew up in, not a great neighborhood, but a pretty decent neighborhood. I remember a time coming home I had to be chaperoned because the people were hanging out on the stoop and of course if you go to New York City that’s not a big deal because lots of people hang out on the stoop, but for my parents, they were like, bad people hang out on the stoop after 9 o’clock, so we were never allowed to go out certain times. But again that’s in my parents days, they were very traditional and they were very, since they didn’t know anyone in this country, they were very protective and their rules were very strict for us. I think our students today, the rules are a little looser. Pretty much they’re on their own. They learn to be independent, they are independent. Probably in China before they came they were independent. A lot of our students went off to school, didn’t live at home and they had to learn to cook and clean for themselves, so it’s almost, it’s almost a blessing for them coming here with those skills because now they have to learn to be independent and to take on a lot of responsibilities and practically become mature overnight. They have to learn to do all these things on their own without their parents’ help or advice.

Q: Did you, so you said you were less independent, you said, growing up than a lot of these students?

Tse: Yeah, totally.

Q: Did you ever go through a period of rebellion where you, you know, had friends who were more, you know, had looser parents and you wanted to be more like that?

Tse: I would say I didn’t really connect with that many friends who were outgoing in school but I can tell you about my sister who was very rebellious and I remember she ran away from home twice and we found her at an American boy’s home and they were just friends and we knew the guy later on, a few years later, and they were just friends. That was junior high school. She was probably 12 or 13 years old and there were certain things that my parents didn’t allow her to do, probably stay out later than she wanted, you know, come home earlier than she wanted to come home or do certain things like go to parties or do certain things that she wanted to do. So she was the rebellious one. She would run away or stay out late, intentionally not come home with me, you know, those kinds things, just to tell my parents, hey, I don’t want to follow your rules. I was a good one. I basically listened to my parents. I did well in school, I studied hard. I read books. Books were really my friends. I did a lot of reading. I listened to my parents.

Q: And you had a brother also.

Tse: I had a younger brother.

Q: Was he rebellious?

Tse: Not really. I would say, we were, I wouldn’t say sheltered, we were kind of sheltered. You know, our family did things together, like on Saturdays we would play ball together. We would go out as a family and kind of stay together, because my parents didn’t have many friends then either, so we hung out together. My parents tried to find things for us to do together and we became, we became friends, each other’s company.

Q: So where is your younger sister now?

Tse: My brother?

Q: The rebellious sister.

Tse: Oh, she’s married. She lives in Queens and she works in a law firm. My older sister is also a teacher. She teaches in Harlem. She teaches elementary school.

Q: And where’s your brother?

Tse: My brother’s unemployed right now. He’s in the computer field, so they’re having a hard time looking for a good company who will support what he’s interested in doing.

Q: I guess, can you, let’s see. I don’t know if you have anything else to say about the difficulties of just coming here and just from the time you came to high school, what sorts of difficulties you had in feeling assimilated or comfortable in the society?

Tse: I would still say, like, growing up, as a first generation, as you know, with my parents still being a very strong influence on my life, that we didn’t, you know, the things that were important to American teenagers weren’t that important to us, going to the prom or – I went to graduation, but I didn’t go to prom. Those things weren’t that important to me and you know, just hanging out, having slumber parties, things that the typical, what you would say the typical American students are doing, just hanging out on weekends, were really not that important to me. And I think it was probably because of my parents’ upbringing, you know, my upbringing under of my parents’ eye and I think it was the time period was very different. Yeah, I don’t know what to say about that.

Q: You think different than now?

Tse: Yeah.

Q: In what way?

Tse: Well I think because the very strong and structured family, right, I grew up with. I think the students today, they, even though the family is still very important and a lot kids still have both parents at home, yet there are other kids who don’t or who have one parents and that definitely influence the way they think and the way they live their lives.

Q: How would you say it influences them?

Tse: Well, in terms of knowing who they are probably. The way – you can tell by the way they dress, if they go shopping at certain places. And they’ve only been here for six months, but they know where to buy clothes. Or they have a certain kind of clothing because they want to fit in and they never had this before and now they’re here alone or they have one parent and they need to – and they can probably persuade a parent to get something for them because there’s only one parent that they can probably get it. A lot of our students also work, too. They get part-time jobs, working in bakeries or as waiters, part-time and so they have a little bit of cash flow. The school is an alternative school, which means that we have older students. Some of our students graduated from high school, a small percent, like 2 percent, actually graduated from high school in China and are ready to go in college, but because they want to get their high school diploma here to, to also improve their English, they come to this school. So the goals are a little different. I would say that the students here are a little more mature than other students because of their age and a lot of them are here alone. They live here, they have to support themselves. They have different concerns and goals in life.

Q: So how would you say their self-image differs from yours when you were their age because you said they have a lot of obsession with clothing or with fitting in.

Tse: Not all, I would say some. There’s a group of students in this school from Hong Kong and they’re all very chic and you can just tell, when you walk in the hallways, if you didn’t know them, they were from Hong Kong, just by the way they’re dressed, the way their hair is styled or the way they talk. Of course, speaking Cantonese gives it away too. But just their personalities is a little different. They were their pants like down to their hips. They try to be very Americanized. There are certain t-shirts they wear, Stussy, this new brand that came out that’s very popular. They spend stuff on jewelry. They have earrings. They have necklaces. They’re a different breed than the students who came from China who probably – their parents grew up in more traditional, very small, maybe come from the farm, rural areas in China. Life is very different for them.

Q: So how do these groups interact in school?

Tse: Just like in high school, where I grew up, there are different groups of people, different cliques, different groups hang together and here, it’s no different. People hang, group together based on where they grew up. Either it’s language or sometimes, very rarely, personalities. You know, you have the Hong Kong group, the Cantonese group, the Fukienese group, you have the group who’s very smart and just loves to study, doesn’t matter where they’re from, they stick together, there’s a group who love to speak English and they find other friends who have similar interests. So it’s no different from high school, but, well, there’s no jocks. I don’t see any Chinese jocks here. So that’s, that group is missing. But very similar to any teenager growing up, they’re, you know – people find friends who have similar interests or background as them, so, that’s not very different.

Q: And so when you were growing up, you said that – was it strange to be one of the only Chinese people in your high school?

Tse: I didn’t say I was the only Chinese. I would say I was one of the – probably one or two immigrant Chinese families who went to school there. As far as the other Asians, I didn’t really consider them Chinese, more like Americans because they didn’t speak Chinese or if they spoke Chinese, they basically acted differently. All their friends were friends with other Americans, people who were very popular in school, that kind of teenaged life. They did things differently. They were in different clubs, different social groups.

Q: So did you not – you didn’t have much relationship to the other –

Tse: I did. With one girl I did, but it was more platonic relationships. Because we were in the same class you kind of shared similar – I didn’t want to say homework, share homework, but we shared some conversations about the class, but I wouldn’t say we, after class, we went to lunch together.

Q: And what attitudes did your parents have towards dating or that kind of stuff?

Tse: Yeah, well, their attitude was – we had to secretly date, secretly have crushes or secretly go out with our friends. Everything was secretive because our parents just never addressed the issue. You can marry after college or something like that and, in one way, they pretty much were liberal in letting us find out for ourselves. On the other hand, I would think they didn’t want us to find out, so that’s why they didn’t ever talk about it. And I think kids today are a little more sophisticated, because they started dating when they’re 16, 17 years old or even if they haven’t done it, they know about it. They’ve seen their friends who’ve gotten pregnant or gotten abortions or whatnot or even divorces. Different social problems have forced them to accept these ideas. They’re a little more sophisticated than I was.

Q: So your parents never talked about it?

Tse: They never talked about it. Well, even we tried to bring it up. My sister had a boyfriend when she was very young, I think the first year of high school and it wasn’t the house she ran away to, not the boy that she ran away with, but my parents would say, like, You can date anyone who’s not Chinese, you know, let alone marry. But like you know, you really shouldn’t date a person who’s not Chinese because you might – with the assumption that you might end up marrying him. So my sisters and I would secretly date.

Q: Did you date people who were Chinese?

Tse: In the beginning, yes, but later on, in college, we would date outside our race. I mean, our parents never knew. Yeah, it wouldn’t sit right with them.

Q: So even now, how is their idea about that?

Tse: Now, they are become more flexible. They just want – my sister did marry a Vietnamese-Chinese guy, so, you know, they’re very happy about that. But I think their views on marriage is – they would probably prefer – I’m still single, but if – they would probably prefer me to marry a Chinese-American person rather than anything else, but you know, they knew I was dating a Caucasian person. They didn’t say anything about it. They went, Mmm hmmm. They didn’t say much. They didn’t say, “Yeah, this is great!” but they didn’t say, “Oh, no, you shouldn’t do that.” They didn’t say that, they didn’t resist. I think it’s probably because they themselves have gotten used to maybe hearing different things or they’ve gotten more relaxed with their values about what should – you know, things aren’t so black and white anymore for them. I think they were very protective in the beginning because everything was very new to them. They were really just trying to protect us. They were trying to figure out things for themselves.


Q: I guess more about dating. What about your other sisters or your brother – are they married?

Tse: No, they’re still single, but basically, I haven’t seen them with anyone else other than Chinese, so I guess they’re pretty much dating Chinese people.

Q: Do they feel more comfortable that way, or –

Tse: I didn’t ask them about it. I – for myself, I think there’s – it just kind of depends who the person is and who you associate yourself with. So if most of their friends are Chinese, they probably – that’s their circle of friends.

Q: And how about you? Do you feel more comfortable dating Chinese-Americans?

Tse: It’s not a matter of comfortable. I think it’s more convenient, like if you’re going somewhere and you want to – because I speak Cantonese and some of the guys I’ve dated who are Chinese don’t speak the language very well and I always say something to make fun of them and, you know, it’s kind of fun to have some kind of commonality, even though they’re not fluent. You can say something. There’s a joke. You say something that you don’t want someone else to hear. It’s kind of nice. It’s kind of like a secret language or something you both have in common. It’s just kind of fun.

Q: Do you feel like it’s easier to connect with people who speak Cantonese as well as English?

Tse: Well, if their background, their growing up is similar, I think definitely there is connection there instantly, but not necessarily. There are other things that are important, your values and basic chemistry.

Q: And so how connected do you feel to the Chinese community either here in Chinatown or where you live?

Tse: Well, the area where I’m living right now is another growing Chinatown, so I kind of feel like I’m living in Chinatown because there are Chinese restaurants all around, Chinese Laundromats, Chinese supermarkets, Chinese groceries. There’s everything there and it’s actually in the last five years. I’ve lived there all my life, but that community is actually growing. There are more Chinese moving in so – they speak the same language I do. I’m kind of hesitant to say this, but I’ll say anyway. I kind of feel like I’m looking for another place to move where there’s not so many Chinese just because there’s just like I think I want a place quieter. Not that I want to move away from Chinese people, but I think one of the reasons I moved into this neighborhood was because it was nice and quiet. Sometimes when you want to – you know, after work or you just want to kind of move away from your job and I’ve worked in Chinatown, near this area, Lower East Side, my entire life and I went to school at NYU, very close to Chinatown and a lot of times a lot of my social activities have been in this area, so it’s very convenient, it’s very comfortable to be in this area. At the same time, as you grow older, you realize that there are other places to go visit, other people to meet, other challenges, other people you definitely want to meet, other things to do besides in your community, so while, yeah, I feel like I’m going to work in this community, I’m going to help this community grow, at the same time, part of the American Dream, part of the society is to really understand America is not just Chinatown, it’s not just this area. And you want – I want my students to understand that too, where they can always come back to. I always joke about it with my friends, like, we come to Chinatown to eat, to take advantage the cheap prices, the groceries, and then we go back to our homes. But it’s kind of true, in a way. We want to connect to our Chinese roots, but on another level, we want to be in mainstream American society where, you know, there are other things in life to be enjoyed and to be discovered, too.

Q: How do you feel like you came to that kind of understanding?

Tse: I guess probably through friends, if you go to certain restaurants, you venture our of your neighborhood to try something new. Like when the first time I went rock climbing and then you think, okay, what else am I going to do next? You kind of stretch. Once you stretch, you think of more things to do and you kind of step outside your circle, your box. And I think that’s very important, too. If you always stay inside your circle, you’re not going to grow and you have to compare. You have to look at your life in retrospect with everything else in your whole world.

Q: So what was your neighborhood before it became more Chinese? Maybe like 5 or 10 years ago?

Tse: There were some Chinese living there, but on my block there were two Chinese families. Mostly Jewish people, Russian people in the area, I would say. Some Italians.

Q: So now is it people who are just coming to the States or is it people who’ve been here for a while?

Tse: I think it’s a mix. There’s a mix of business people who are opening the restaurants and there are a mix of new immigrants. Some of my students live in my neighborhood, so I know that there are new immigrants too. So it’s mixed. And it’s kind of nice to see a different mix, instead of just one type of socio-economic group.

Q: So how do you feel like your sort of generation who has been here longer interacts with the newer generation?

Tse: I think we – I think for myself, I can’t speak for others, there’s still a very strong connection because I still speak the language. I understand what’s going on, that when you hear the problems or you hear the issues that they’re – or the challenges they’re going through, you know, you’re reminded of something very similar. So you’re not that far, you know, far off. But I think for most of us, as we grow older, like my sisters and I, we’re more compassionate towards new immigrants and, you know, even though we joke, okay we were in the same situation, we wore secondhand clothing or sometimes our parents didn’t have presents, like we didn’t have presents. We had to bring Christmas to our parents. Like, that kind of thing, [unintelligible] the students and newcomers today. But at the same time, because we’re at a different level, our lifestyle is different, we’ve, you know, we’re making money, we’ve quote-unquote arrived. You do feel a sense of compassion who are now just, just coming across these challenges. I mean I’m sure they have different challenges today, as growing up as teen. There are probably things they don’t talk about that’s on their minds, but there’s a lot of similarities. I don’t think there are that many differences. There are differences, certainly, but I think for any group coming from one place to another, there aren’t that many differences.

Q: So you talked about not having new clothes and not having Christmas. Are there other things you really remember growing up that were kind of – that you remember, just about immigrating here?

Tse: Well, I would say the food, the food. I didn’t grow up on McDonald’s but I remember going to McDonald’s was a big treat and I think that’s one thing a lot of kids enjoy. Maybe it’s instilled in them, oh we’re going to McDonald’s, it’s your birthday, so – when you become a teenager you like the taste of burgers and fries instead of rice [laughs] and vegetables and fish. But my parents always cooked Chinese meals at home. We never ate any other kind of food and there were even strange foods that they made that we ate and we liked and even today, if I went to a restaurant, I would order something, ask for a certain dish, like bitter melon and people would say, like, “Why would you eat that? That’s disgusting! That’s bitter!” or that’s a food that’s not acceptable to the American palette, so it’s very strange, in a way, but it all comes because of our upbringing. I know some of my friends whose children who were born in the United States. Their palette is totally different. They can eat hamburgers every single day. They can go by, you know, once without rice. I would say my diet consists a lot – at least 50 percent of rice. And my mother’s generation, they would not go through a day without rice. They think they would die tomorrow if they did not have a bowl of rice today. [Laughs] So their thinking, their eating habits, their thinking, is quite different.

Q: So do you remember, what kinds of treats did you have, if you didn’t go to McDonald’s when you were little, what was like a really special occasion when you were little?

Tse: Going to a restaurant and eating Chinese food [laughs] was a special occasion. Really. We didn’t go out much. You know, money was pretty scarce and we had to save the rent and things like that. We didn’t have much to buy.

Q: So what was your – did you live in an apartment or did you live in a house or –

Tse: We lived in an apartment for at least 15 years. In high school, we finally moved, my parents moved into a house. We spent the entire family savings. When I say entire family savings, I mean including the children’s savings, like every, all our summer jobs, you know or any other money we got from relatives or friends, New Year’s, like all that, every single dime went into buying that – our house, which is of course, like, every Chinese dream to own their own land, to own their own house. Sixty-eight thousand dollars isn’t much today, but in the ‘80’s, that was a lot to my parents, so, we had a mortgage then and we all helped to pay for it when we got jobs during summers, to help pay for it.

Q: So what was the house like?

Tse: Very Buddhist, you know. My parents still live there. It’s on top of a store, so I mean, they’re very financially wise and rent out the first floor, you know, and they have a mortgage and they live on the second floor. Recently, they renovated the entire place. For the first time they actually stripped the walls since we moved in and they were able to do that because all of the kids are grown up and we can retire them and what else do they need money now for? We can go out every day to eat if they wanted to, but basically they’re very comfortable there. They’re well off now, they have a place to live without a mortgage. They have social security to live off and they have all their children to, for all the extras that they need.

Q: So was the house – did you each have your own bedroom or how big was it? Or –

Tse: I think our first apartment was bigger than our house. I remember we had like two bedrooms in our apartment but those rooms were really big. Sixty-eight dollars a month, I remember, in the ‘70’s. [Laughs] We were paying the highest rent, sixty-eight dollars. I remember my neighbor paid about 20 dollars for rent. [Laughter] And, really big apartment, that apartment has actually been demolished. They built a school there, but I remember like the reason that we moved. We didn’t actually want to move. We were forced to move. We would just run wild there. It was a really big place. Big living room. Two big bedrooms. A bathroom. Big kitchen. When we moved into our house, it’s actually smaller than our apartment, but it was our own and that’s important, to have something that you’re not kicked out. Nobody has anything to say about what you’re doing there, too.

Q: So what did you, did you live together with your sisters or in the house, what was the –

Tse: What was the set-up? There were actually two bedrooms there, but since my parents had one bedroom and my sisters and I all shared the second bedroom and my brother was sleeping in the living room, until he went off to college. So that was a good thing he went off to college otherwise I don’t know where he would live. And when I actually started teaching, I moved out myself because there just wasn’t enough room in the house. It’s really small. So, yeah.

Q: So were all your sisters living there also?

Tse: Yeah, yeah, throughout high school we had fights in there. Can you imagine three girls in one room? Bunk beds. Okay, I’m taking the top, you take the bottom. Switch the other days. Yeah, not, not easy, but if that’s all you had you didn’t think otherwise. Like now, I could never share a bedroom with my sister or, like, you don’t want to share with somebody else. And also imagine a bathroom sharing with six people. Like, I have my own bathroom now, like, if someone else comes in, I’m like, there isn’t room here for two people. So, you know, again the idea of if you never had it before, you don’t miss it. You don’t appreciate it either.

Q: Do you have any other memories of that house or sort of growing up in that ---

[Discussion of lighting]

Q: Do you have any other memories just growing up there?

Tse: A lot of memories. That was the house, my sister got married there, we put our first carpeting, wall-to-wall carpeting. It’s like as we did better, our family did better, you know, a lot of improvements made to the home. Our first big purchase was the ceiling fan. It was really, you know, like a big thing. The kids, like, we all chipped in and bought a ceiling fan, you know. [Laughs] That was a big thing. So just like, growing up, those memories, the little things that we could do to, to, to make our parents happier, to make our lives easier. Those were the enjoyable moments, like when we had Christmas, we would buy all the presents for ourselves and our parents [laughs]. You know little things like that were good memories.

Q: Can you think of other memories like that, or other milestones in your growing up?

Tse: In growing up?

Q: Growing up, or just living in this house and just what kinds of things you remember, like buying the ceiling fan or these moments where you just, or just that you think fondly of?

Tse: I have to think for a while. There are so many things. Good and bad things, that you experience with your family. I think we lived in the house the same amount of time -- no probably we lived in the apartment longer than in the house, so I think there are more memories in the apartment, at least more special memories I think you would say because we kind of played together with my sisters, or like you know, we played house or pretend things on the floor or just grew up in that apartment. When we moved to the house, our life kind of ventured outside of the house, you know. We went off to college, so we did things – or high school first. We did more things outside the house than in the house, whereas growing up as a youngster, we stayed in the house more than went out, so it was quite different.

Q: Did your grandparents ever – were they still in Hong Kong? Or were they still alive?

Tse: They never came to this country. They were still in Hong Kong and my grandmother passed away about five years ago and she’s –

Q: Did you know her at all, or –

Tse: Through the pictures and on the phone. Hearing stories about her. She was the tallest one in our family. Little things about her, but I didn’t know her personally.

Q: She never came to visit.

Tse: Yeah, she didn’t want to come. It was too long of travel and she had family – I mean, her other daughter and family were still there, so they were taking care of her.

Q: Was that your mom’s mom or your dad’s mom?

Tse: My mom’s mom. Yeah. My father’s side of the family kind of scattered. He has half-brothers and sisters. He had a difficult childhood. His family is not all together. You know, it terms, they’re not really friendly towards each another. So he doesn’t talk about it. But he has some half-brothers in the United States and some half-brothers in Holland and, we keep in touch more with the ones who are distant, yeah, than the ones who are close by.

Q: Distant like Hong Kong or distant –

Tse: Holland, yeah.

Q: So do you know them?

Tse: Yeah, actually, they came to America twice, so we actually know them better than the ones who live in New York City. Yeah, and they’re doing very well. There’s one, two of the sons are studying to be doctors in Holland, so that’s a big thing. You know, like, especially for my parents. We have two doctors in the family now, that’s a great thing. That’s too bad they’re in Holland, they can’t help us here. But it’s just good to hear that we’re all professional people working towards big goals and what my parents, you know, their parents had, you know –

Q: Let me think. If we can talk about patriotism and how patriotic you feel about America, especially after 9/11 and how that changed?

Tse: Well, even before 9/11, when I got my citizenship at 18 I had to go through the whole testing, the interview and then finally the swearing-in. I mean, that whole experience really touched me. And then later on, going to jury duty, you know, sharing those experiences with my students, you know, what does it mean to – what are certain things that an American is responsible for? You know, I don’t take it lightly. It’s something that a lot of people, maybe even Americans, don’t think of it as something that’s really necessary and take it that seriously. But I do take it very seriously and I’m very, when I go into jury duty I kind of hope I’m chosen so I can sit on the case and hear it and see what’s going on. I have been chosen for one and the last two times I wasn’t, so it’s just an experience that you really feel like, this is what it means, like you have the right to decide on the fate of another person. You know, the little things like that, if you didn’t, when you just study or hear about it, you kind of take it for granted and you don’t know what it really means until you’re in a position and even for our students like when you give them that situation. You’re the juror, you decide on the fate of this person. Wow, that’s empowerment. Did you think you would ever get the chance anywhere else in the world? So I do take that and I try to instill it in my students too, just this sense of – not only responsibility, but what does it feel like to be this, to be a part of this culture and to live in this country. What are the things that you need to do to be responsible and to be a citizen?

Q: So is that, I mean that’s different from how your parents view living here?

Tse: I think so, I mean, they’re, I mean, for my parents as real immigrants, true immigrants struggling with a family to feed, probably their goals, their world looks a little different from mine. I grew up, you know, wanting – I mean, them wanting the experience of the American Dream, but me experiencing the American Dream is different.

Q: So do you feel patriotic or how do you feel about this country, especially after 9/11, I guess.

Tse: You’re asking for my political views?

Q: No, I guess just how you feel as a citizen living here, especially seeing what you’ve seen.

Tse: I think many Americans mentioned it, but I also strongly feel that we take freedom for granted and I feel like it’s something we really need to revisit and think about because people have died for our freedoms to be living here, to be walking around with all of our freedoms, to be able to speak what we think and to be able to walk on the streets safely, relatively safely, at night. I mean, like something we take for given, Americans. And I think especially immigrants, coming here, there are a lot of things they’re pleasantly surprised about – oh, wow, we have this, we have this, like you know, TVs, there’s so many TVs and we can get Broadway shows for free, like all these incentives and all of these opportunities which they couldn’t get anywhere else. I think they really appreciate it and they really see the value of, you know, living in this great country. And I think one more thing to say about the immigrant experience is that if you ask my students, you know, where they’ll be in five, ten years, some students will say, you know, depending how long they’ve been here, even on average some students will say, I see myself here, working here. Some students say they seem themselves back in their country, like when their chance comes, after they’ve gotten their education, their degree, they’re going to go back and do something else. It’s really interesting.

Q: Yeah, that is interesting. Do you feel like you’ll stay here in New York?

Tse: [Laughs] Yeah, I love New York. I grew up in Brooklyn, but like New York, I’m a New Yorker, yeah. If I could afford it, I would live in New York City.

Q: Yeah, it’s hard. I guess that’s about all unless you have anything else to say?

Tse: I’ve said so much. I can’t even remember what I’ve said.

Q: I think that’s about good. Thanks. Thank you.


Chinatown Interview: Interview (zh)

<p> 問﹕請簡單講一下你是在哪里出生的,以及你父親跟你講的故事。</p>
<p>問:我是Val Wang。</p>
<p>TSE:我名Mei Ling,姓Tse。我出生在香港,在我四歲的時候,我和我全家人移民到美國。我有兩個姐姐和一個弟弟。我們來這裏的時候,他只有一歲,我今年35歲。我在Lower East Side預備高中教書。正如我剛才所講,我出生在香港,我們全家是通過我父親移民到美國來的 – 是因爲我父親的工作。我是這樣跟我的學生描述這個有趣而又難以置信的故事的,我父親的老闆非常慷慨,爲了讓我父親在他餐館裏打工,他把我們全家申請到美國來。<br>

那個老闆在布魯克林區開了一家餐館,我父親就爲他打工。我父親這麽多年來一直是個忠誠的雇員,一直幹到他退休。我們在布魯克林區長大,離那個老闆所在的布魯克林區Sheepshead Bay地區不遠。我在那裏上的高中 – 小學,幼稚園。實際上,我那時連一個英文單詞都不會,因爲我移民到這裏時,一個英文單詞都不會。我父母不講英文,他們的朋友也不講英文。因此,即使在和朋友玩兒的時候,你都在學習英語。但因爲我沒有講英文的朋友,在上學的時候我沒有任何英文語言能力。我記得,我去的那間學校沒有雙語課程 – 學校裏沒有中國人,沒有我們現在的雙語課程。我記得上學的第一天我很害怕,因爲我聽不懂別人講話。我記得放學的時候,我躲在櫃子裏,老師不得不把我擡出來讓我回家。這是我最早的記憶。我跟我的學生講這些是想讓他們不要有太大的壓力,因爲每個剛到這裏的人都會有一段很困難的適應期。的確很難融入,甚至對於我,當時只有四、五歲,也不容易。但後來就好了,我學英文,上了高中和大學---</p>
<p>TSE:我們經常去,因爲我父母,尤其是我母親,在唐人街工作。在我們長大後,我大姐在Mott街上中文學校,CCBA [The Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association],我二姐和弟弟後來也有去。我是家裏唯一一個沒有上中文學校的。聽我母親講,是我不想去,所以她就沒有管我。據她說,我就是這樣沒有學寫和閱讀中文。但談回你的問題,我們每個星期日都有去唐人街,因爲那天我們全家休息,我父母也喜歡去那裏。他們在那裏吃點心,和附近的親戚朋友呆在一起。基本上,就是這些聯繫,每個星期日出來,去餐館吃飯,逛街,和我父母的朋友呆在一起。</p>
TSE:基本上是從他們---,他們並不是在這裏沒有任何親戚,而且像家裏的朋友,比如我母親和她的同事是很好的朋友。我們在這裏還有些遠房表親。實際上,我父親還參加了一個組織,從中國同一個地方來的人都聚在一起,有這麽一個叫“Tees”的組織,T-S-A團。你也許能在唐人街看到,在Division Street。我父親會去那裏賭博,男人坐在一起聊天。因此那裏有這麽個組織,他會帶他的家人、孩子去那裏,見他的朋友。這樣,他們會知道,哦,這是你的女兒,這是你可愛的女兒和聽話的兒子,向人家炫耀一下自己的家人。那樣才能使我們覺得還有其他人在關心我們。</p>
<p>TSE:我去了一所本地的學校,小學畢業之後,我去了附近的高中,布魯克林區學院的Midwood高中。那裏有更多的亞洲人,但不是新的、第一代華人移民。我是說,那裏肯定有家裏很富有的華人,我記得有一些孩子的家裏是醫生,非常有錢,也許是美國第二代或第三代移民。我只是記得那裏沒有ESL [English as Second Language]課程,但我記得我姐姐的年級裏有一個新移民,她是越南人。我姐姐差不多成爲那個女孩子的代理父母,因爲我們知道新移民的感受。我記得我姐姐把她的朋友帶到家裏一起做功課,呆在一起。我記得我姐姐差不多擔當起這個新來者的老師加朋友的角色。我想學校裏大多數的亞裔是第二代或第三代移民。後來我決定步我姐姐的後塵去紐約大學,因爲她先去的那裏。<br>

<p>TSE:實際上,在高中的時候,在暑假有一個叫SYEP [Summer Youth Employment Program]的專案,政府資助學生在市里各個地方工作,我想贊助這個專案的公司或組織在唐人街。所以,在我14歲的時候,我就開始在唐人街工作。我從14歲到18歲上高中的時候,都在唐人街實習和做暑期工。我每個夏天都在Chinese-American Planning Council打工,我做指導員。這些都是很高的頭銜,但我當時只有14歲,應該算是指導員助理。還有其他人管我們。我們的職責不多,像是和---,差不多是看孩子,看管那些比我們小的孩子。因此,從我14歲起,我的大部分工作都是在華人社區。在高中最後一年,我記得我的專案是帶一些比我稍微大一點的孩子,他們也是高中生,和我差不多一樣大。他們大多數在唐人街上學,但不講英文。於是我就開始做輔導,教些其他水平的學生。自那開始,我對教育産生興趣。在上大學的時候,我就想這是我要學的。<br>

後來到紐約大學時,我繼續在Chinese-American Planning Council工作,在不同的領域做些其他事務,我在那個公司做了很長一段時間。</p>
<p>TSE:這個學校有一個非常好的ESL課程。我們有各種程度的ESL班,從初學者開始。在10年前,我們接收一些只有最基礎英語水平的學生。我記得教些非常基礎的內容,比如ABC字母表。當然,現在因爲有English Regents,我們不再招收那類學生。但我們仍然有初級水平的學生,屬於ESL 1,2。我們也有中級,3和4。5和6、7是過渡型英語課,從英文作爲第二語言進入主流英語課程。我教過所有水平的ESL課程,從初級到中高級。我很吃驚看到在非常短的時間裏,一些學生在這個國家只待了三個月,從三個月到兩年,他們要掌握很多技能,很多語言技能。最終的目標是,對於他們來講,學習足夠的英語通過English Regents,<br>


<p>TSE:實際上,只有一部分學生一對一地接受社工的心理輔導,一些教師是向整個班講的。在第二或第三天,我們有坐在一圈發言。我想那些學生實在不想談這些。我不知道是否是因爲年齡差距,還是他們認爲這與他們無關。但他們就是不想談論這個,只是想忘掉它,說,Mei Ling老師,我們能不能繼續做以前做的事情?好像就是想忘掉它,繼續新的生活。</p>
<p>TSE:我知道當時大家都被動員起來,幫助學生填表格,向FEMA [聯邦緊急事件管理處]申請補助。很多學生擔心他們的父母失去這裏的工作。甚至那些不在唐人街這裏住的學生,他們的父母在這裏工作。因此,一些社工幫助那些失去工作的家長申請補助,幫助他們申請經濟資助。</p>



<p>TSE:她是圖形設計師,她姐姐和姐夫有自己的生意,她的另外一個姐姐那時是個年輕的舞蹈演員。[笑] 我想她現在是個家庭主婦,但他們全都有自己的夢想,但都是在香港,沒有任何要離開那裏的想法。</p>




<p>TSE:我現在住的地方是另外一個日益擴大的唐人街,因此覺得像是在唐人街。因爲到處都有中國餐館,中國人的洗衣店,中國超級商場,中國雜貨店,什麽都有。實際上,就是這近五年才有的。我一輩子都住在那裏,但實際上那個社區在不斷擴大。有更多的華人搬過來,他們跟我講同樣的語言。我有點不願講這些,但我還是說吧。我想搬到其他中國人少的地方住,因爲我想找一個安靜一些的地方。倒不是說我想遠離華人,但我想我搬到這個地方的原因之一就是因爲這裏很安靜。有時你如果想要---,下了班之後,你就是想要遠離你的工作,而我一直都在唐人街上班,離這裏很近,Lower East Side。我在紐約大學讀書,離唐人街也很近。大多時候,我的社會活動都是在這個地區,所以很方便,在這裏住很舒服。同時,當你長大的時候,你意識到你可以去其他地方玩兒,認識其他人,面對其他的挑戰,其他你想認識的人,在其他社區做的事情。我想在這個社區工作,幫助這個社區發展。但同時,我有我的美國夢,要真正意識到美國並不僅是唐人街,並不只是這塊地方。你想---,我想要我的學生也懂得這一點,這樣他們總能記住。我經常和我的朋友開玩笑,跟他們講,我們來唐人街吃飯,因爲這裏的價錢便宜,買蔬菜,然後回家。但在某種程度上這是事實。<br>


<p>TSE:我想是吃的,食物。我小時候並不經常吃麥當勞,但我記得去吃麥當勞算是很不錯的了,我想這是很多孩子都喜歡的一件事情。也許他們腦子裏就是有這種想法,喔,去麥當勞一定是因爲你過生日。因此---,在你十幾歲的時候,你喜歡吃漢堡包和炸薯條,而不是米飯,[笑] 蔬菜和魚。但我父母經常在家裏做中餐。我們從來沒有吃過其他食物。他們還有給我們做很奇怪的食物,我們甚至今天還喜歡吃。如果我去一家餐館點菜,我會挑一些特定的菜,比如苦瓜。別人會問,“你爲什麽吃那個?真噁心!太苦了!”或一些美國人不吃的東西。所以在某種意義上很奇怪。但這完全是因爲我們成長的環境。我有一些朋友,他們的孩子在美國出生。他們的食譜完全不同。他們能每天都吃漢堡包,可以不吃米飯。我想我的飲食包括許多---,至少百分之五十是米飯。對於我母親那一代人,他們一天不吃米飯都不行。他們覺得,<br>

如果他們今天沒有吃米飯,明天就會死的。[笑] 因此,他們的想法,他們的飲食習慣是非常不一樣的。</p>
<p>TSE:我想我們住的第一所公寓房間比我們的房子都大。我記得我們房間裏有兩個臥室,但都很大。在70年代,我記得是六十八美元一個月。[笑] 我們的房租最高,六十八美元。我記得我們鄰居的房租是20多塊錢。[笑聲] 非常大的房間,那個公寓實際上已經被拆了。他們在那裏建了一所學校,我記得就是因爲這個我們才搬走的。我們實際上並不想搬,但不搬不行。我們在那裏住得很寬敞。的確是很大的地方。大起居室,兩間大臥室,一個洗手間,大廚房。當我們搬進房子的時候,實際上還沒有我們公寓房間大。但那是我們自己的,能有自己的房子住,用不著擔心被趕走是很重要的。沒有人干涉你在裏面做什麽。</p>
<p>問:你是否還記得其他關於在那個房子裏長大的--- </p>
<p>TSE:很多記憶。我姐姐是在那裏結的婚,我們鋪了第一張地毯,牆對牆地毯。就好像我們發展得更好後,我們家裏也會有改善的,家裏添了很多東西。我們添的第一個大件就是天花板風扇。的確是很大一件事情。我們這些孩子都有湊錢,買了天花板風扇。[笑] 那是很大的事情。就是這些成長時的回憶,我們能夠做的一些使父母開心、使我們的生活更方便的小事情。這是一些愉快的時刻,比如我們過耶誕節時,我們給自己和父母買很多禮物。[笑] 就是這些小的事情,是很好的回憶。</p>

<p>TSE:[笑] 是的,我喜歡紐約。我在布魯克林區長大,但喜歡紐約,我是紐約人。如果我有錢,我要住在紐約市。</p>


“Meiling Tse,” September 11 Digital Archive, accessed March 26, 2023,