Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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IMMIGRANT VOICES

On the meaning of being Chinese

by Daughter of Beleza

Beleza was born and raised in Brazil, and has been living in the Bay Area for over seven years. As the daughter of Chinese immigrants in Brazil and an immigrant herself in the United States, she has witnessed the struggles and difficulties of newcomers. She has seen how cultural and language barriers prevent even the most hardworking from successfully adapting, and how broken immigration laws also prevent high-achieving students from becoming active members in society. Beleza's work towards social justice include teaching  at-risk youth, writing for ethnic media, and mentoring immigrant students.


I am, by ways of describing my identity to other Americans, Chinese-Brazilian. To me, this means that my family history is a history of a never-ending search for better opportunities, whether in China, Brazil or the US, reflected in the year 1961 when my grandpa left China to Brazil, to the year 1985 when my father arrived in Brazil, to the year 2002 when I arrived in the US as an undocumented minor. This is also a history of hope, that can be illustrated by the hard work and diligence of my parents’ family and my parents themselves working in the fields in China for very long hours a day to have food to eat, and a home to live in, cultivating the hope that life was going to improve somehow, somewhere, someday. Or the history of my parents immigrating to Brazil, and beginning life from scratch, where they did not know the place, the language, the culture, but hoping that their children’s life, my life and my siblings’ life, would be better than what they had growing up. Or my history in the racialized USA, where my race, my language, my culture, my immigration status limit how much I can achieve, but that are, nevertheless, what countless of others have been historically challenged with, and that despite that, still came up triumphant, which I hope to achieve one day.


Ironically enough, my family’s migration history began with my grandpa’s sister immigrating to the US in the 1950s, after she got married to a Chinese American. In the US, she worked at a sweatshop in San Francisco, saved money, and sent remittances back to China. With some of the money that she sent back home, my grandpa bought “papers” to go to Brazil. So, in 1961, my grandpa left his wife, and his three children, which included my three year old dad, and arrived in Brazil with enough money, which was also sent by his sister in the US, to start his own business at a pastelaria (a restaurant/bar/café type of business that Chinese immigrants are notorious for owning). Unfortunately, in Brazil, it takes about 15 years for permanent residents to naturalize and become citizens, so it was only in the late 1970s that my grandpa was able to naturalize, and to begin his family petitioning process. In the 1980s, the petition for his family was approved, and my dad arrived in 1983, followed by my mom in 1985.

Adjustment in Brazil happened fast. My mom and dad began working days after arriving, and could never be happier. Opportunities were very scarce in China, so the luxury of having a job, even if it involved 16-hour nonstop shifts, was something to celebrate. And, really, coming from a really humble background, where my grandpa only finished third grade, my dad seventh grade, and my mom ninth grade, and from China where my family literally had no money, and even if they worked they would still have no money, Brazil was like heaven on Earth.

I was born in 1986, my sister in 1988, and my brother in 1991. We were pretty much raised Brazilian outside of our house. We are fluent in Portuguese, and speak in a broken Chinese that kind of resembles Cantonese with our parents. We attended school in the Japanese neighborhood, ate Chinese food at home, had Brazilian appetizers and pastries from our pastelaria, and loved getting McDonald’s on special occasions. A typical childhood, if you ask me.

In 2002, my family decided to move to the US because, after all, they believed this was the ultimate dream, the “American Dream.” I cannot say that moving here has been a blessing, but it sure has given me many opportunities, although not without a cost. Amidst a convoluted immigration process, my mom and siblings were granted permanent residency, but I could not fall under their petition, and was left undocumented. The lack of documents prevents me from many things: on a small scale, I cannot apply for financial aid to go to college, on a large scale, I am not considered a person, and do not even have an ID from the state I have been living in during the past seven years.

Ethnically speaking, I feel I am complicated to classify, but who isn’t, right? To me, being Chinese-Brazilian in America means a history of living in three opposite cultures, and sometimes feeling that I did not belong in neither, a constant struggle that immigrants, and national citizens, face when their appearance is foreign to natives in the country. Jokingly, I say that I am Asian in America, Brazilian in China, and a “gringa” in Brazil. Nevertheless, I believe that dealing with these hard to reconcile extremes have somehow helped me in becoming more comfortable with my identity.

Finally, I believe that this history of confronting and overcoming adversity are the reasons why I have been able to accomplish so much coming to the United States. Also, after learning that Asian Americans, Latinos, and other immigrant groups have historically faced incredible oppression that yet contributed to this country socially, culturally, politically, and economically shapes me into a person who chooses to try to do something meaningful every day, who tries to create change that I think is necessary in order for this country to realize its ideals. This is also the reason why I continue the legacy of struggle in my own life, in my studies, and in my work.

Photos provided by Beleza Li, Top: photo of Beleza with her father and siblings in Brazil, Middle: photo of Beleza and her mother at their family pastelaria in Brazil, Bottom: photo of Beleza and her family in San Francisco.

Return to Immigrant Voices

Place of Origin
Brazil

Place of Settlement
San Francisco, U.S.

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