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Both June and Ji Xing write about how hard it was for them when they first arrived. Ji Xing talks about visiting the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and how much the history shown there reflects the lives of many immigrants today. June writes, “Everybody who comes here and lives is a hero.” Do you have a hero in your life who made a new life in the United States? Are you that hero? Tell us the story.

We Are All Heroes


When I read Irene Laos’s story, “I Am the Hero” in the 2008 Literacy Review, it made me think about my past. At first, when the Chinese came here, everything was new to us. We had to learn things from the beginning, just like a newborn. Step by step, we learned little by little. English was a big issue for us. We learned by watching TV and listening to English-speakers, how they said what they said. Year by year, my understanding piled up. I’ve lived in Chinatown my whole life in New York. I lived in Hong Kong less than 18 years and in New York for more than 44 years. In Chinatown, most people speak their mother language. When they go out of Chinatown, they panic and feel uncomfortable. They do not speak English and are afraid of being lost.

When I arrived here, I only had one suitcase full of clothes. Now, after 40 years, I have a whole apartment full of everything. My first year in New York, I had my first child. Then two more came. When my youngest child started first grade, I became a seamstress. I didn’t have much choice what to do. Jobs were limited. I needed to learn the skills to survive. I didn’t know how long my husband could manage to feed our family. If my husband were to pass away, we would have nobody to depend on. So I needed to find a job. Just like a kind of insurance.

At the factory, I didn’t know how to begin. Everything there was new to me. I had to put long linings in dresses. Dresses had long zippers. In pants, women’s zippers are on the left, men’s zippers on the right. I sewed pleats and waistbands. I worked from nine to six, six days a week. At first, I was very slow. I would stand behind the other women and watch them and repeat what they did. A woman who sat next to me was from a village near mine in China. We spoke the same language and that made things more friendly for me. Gradually, I fit into the job. I learned to sew very quickly. I beat them all.

During that time, we were very poor, but I didn’t apply for welfare. We spent every penny that we earned to feed our family. Now times have changed. Now people have better opportunities. For example, the home care workers: People who take care of the elderly get paid by the hour. When I was a seamstress, we got paid by each piece of clothing we finished. It was hard to keep up. I worked at the factory for 17 years. Then I worked at a hotel as a maid for two years.

I’m aging now. I’m enjoying my golden years. I don’t want to look back at my past. It was a hard life for me. Everybody who comes new to this country has a difficult time. There is unbearable pain. But that’s life. It is not easy. Everybody who comes here and lives is a hero.

The Tenement Museum
The Lower East Side Tenement Museum at 97 Orchard Street is a unique museum. I had never been before, but I went with my class last week. We were given a cordial reception by the hostess when we came in. She was an actress dressed as though it was the early 1900s. She treated us as if we were new immigrants to the United States. She told us how to find an apartment and a job. She said that she had immigrated from Greece to America and told us about her present conditions of living: Eight people in her family lived together with only a little comfort or privacy in a small, three room apartment. Their lifestyle and all their equipment was simple and crude, but I felt that they were very warm and kind. Seeing this apartment made me think about my own experience of hard work and plain living when I was a new immigrant to the United States. The scene was so vividly portrayed that I felt as if I were participating again. The famous Emma Lazarus poem says, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” At first, it is very difficult for new immigrants. We are like those people in the poem. All new immigrants come to the United States looking for a wonderful future. The experience of succeeding is valuable, but the hard starting point is an unforgettable lesson. Because it was hard at the beginning, I know how to work hard in order to go forward and upward in my lifetime. I wish that the second generation would keep the excellent character of their fathers and mothers. Maybe they should visit the Tenement Museum to see an example.

We Are All Heroes

I loved this story. It's very moving and poignant. My mother was also an immigrant (she grew up in Germany during WWII), and she experienced some of the same things June experienced when she first arrived in the United States.