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Daniel Chen

Family History Project: Coming to America, My Grandfather's Journey

By: Daniel Chen
College Now Course - BSS 1

The Chen family carries a last name shared by millions of Chinese around the world. My ancestors had always been the migrating type of Chinese, as the past few generations of my particular family had been living in the land of Burma, which is now known as Myanmar. It is uncertain which exact year or period the migrant Chens had emigrated from China to Burma, but it was certainly for the sake of escaping the instability and general chaos that was occurring during that time in the Middle Kingdom. The first Chen in my family history to consider leaving Myanmar for the land of America, however, was my grandfather, Chen Yee Kyi. He, like many residents of third world countries at the time, had always considered the United States the best place for becoming successful despite past hardships. An American education, he believed with some validity, was a great way to find success in life. He worked tirelessly for the family to get the funds needed to emigrate to the "land of the free"; or rather, the land of the "educated and prosperous". His story begins in 1915, in the city of Rangoon, Burma.

Grandpa was born to a rather well off family in Rangoon; my great-grandfather was an aristocratic figure in the neighborhood he had lived in. In a British colony in which many of the natives were poor and illiterate, he was a scholar who knew how to read ancient Chinese literature and also had a relatively high income as a contractor. However, the family fell from this high status when he died while grandpa was still a toddler. Much of my grandfather's youth was spent filling in the shoes of his deceased father, supporting the family with a job at the lumberyard. Eventually he would meet my grandmother and become her life partner, but he would also invite his two brothers, two sisters and mother to come live with him and his wife. In 1941, my grandmother gave birth to my eldest uncle. A year later, his and the family's lives would be changed forever by a terrible war.

WorId War II had affected everyone in the "greatest generation", and my grandfather's family was no exception. In 1942, the imperial Japanese army invaded and conquered Burma, and declared it an "independent republic" freed from "British tyranny". Of course, it was easy to see who the tyrant really was, and the Japanese forces immediately put in place a puppet government to rule over the country. My grandfather and his family fled north as refugees to the Chinese capital of Chongqing. Though a citizen of Burma, he was a fervent and patriotic nationalist of China, and upon arriving in Chongqing joined the Kuomintang army via military academy. For three years, grandpa was trained to fight and survive against the Japanese horde that threatened to engulf all of Asia. In August 1945, the Kuomintang was about to deploy his regiment to the east, but the war was about to finally ended. The atomic bombings of the Japanese cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima and the subsequent Japanese surrender had occurred the day before his deployment. Though peace and restoration was still a far off dream in devastated East Asia, there was cause for jubilation upon the Japanese defeat and Allied victory. The Chinese Nationalist government gave grandpa a choice after the war's conclusion; he could either stay in China and continue his service in the Kuomintang army, or take the money he earned in compensation from his military service during the war and return to Burma. He chose the latter, and brought the entire family back to Burma. He used the money he earned from his military service to pay for his college tuition, and pursued a degree in civil engineering.

When grandpa finally received his degree, he got a job as a civil engineer contractor for the Burmese army's equivalent of a "national guard." By 1948, Burma gained it's independence from Great Britain, and in 1951, my dad was born. Not long after that, grandpa was hired as the principal of the Burmese army corp. engineering school in Rangoon. These were happy times for our family, but in 1962, another devastating event would change their lives once again. The democratic government was overthrown by a bloodless military coup that transformed the nation into a socialist state. The new socialist government changed Burma's society dramatically, with state control of almost everything in the country. Grandpa's position as principal of the military engineering school in Rangoon was annulled. He was given a new position as a colonel in the Buurmese army, and stripped of his civilian status. Grandma had owned a tailor shop, but the government was beginning to nationalize all the industries of the land and abolish private ownership. My grandparents realized that Burma may not be the best place to raise their children to become successful, and grandpa began saving up money to fund the family's future moving plans.

The family had quite a few plans to consider, but they all dealt with a common obstacle. The socialist government would not allow any of its citizens to travel to the United States. An earlier plan involved grandpa and a buddy of his illegally crossing the Myanmar- Thailand border, and then paying from there for the trip for the rest of the family. Although he made it to Thailand in one piece, he realized the difficulty of getting the United States from that country in part to due to local corruption and foreign currency difficulties; he and his friend decided to turn back to Burma. Grandma had a sizable amount of international connections from her business work in the tailor shop industry. We had significant contacts in Canada, Brazil, and Taiwan; however, grandpa had his sights set on the United States. Grandma's contact in Taiwan, who worked in the American embassy there, would be able to support our family upon arrival to the States. This method was much safer compared to the previous danger presented in the Thailand escapade; we would simply travel to Taiwan, and from Taiwan travel to the United States. Of course, all of this would lead to the entire family's loss of Burmese citizenship, and as a result everyone in the family had upon leaving Myanmar passports that indicated that he or she was indeed "country-less". This, however, did not hinder their entrance into Taiwan, and everyone in the family gained Chinese citizenship. They would all soon gain American citizenship a year later, as well.

In order to support the family, grandpa got a job in the U.S. Construction Company, which at the time was building nuclear power plants in Taiwan. Grandma remained at home and took care of the five children, of which included my own father. My eldest uncle applied to a Taiwan college and was studying and residing there at the time. When the professional visa came from the US Embassy, arranged for by grandma's associate's friendly sponsorship, grandpa headed for America on his own. There, he would continue to work tirelessly as a civil engineer for the money needed to pay for the airplane tickets, which would be needed for the rest of the family to come to the United States.

My grandfather, Chen Yee Kyi (1915-2000), was a persistent hard worker who worked his hardest to feed the family and did all he could to better the lives of his loved ones. My father and his siblings all grew up to work in good professions thanks to the sacrifices my grandparents made to get them a good American education and life. My father and uncles would also begin families of their own and create a new generation of American-born Chens, which include me, my sister, and four cousins. Although he passed away six years ago, I'm sure my grandfather's spirit is looking down from heaven with contentment, knowing that he had given his family and his future descendants the ability to have a better life in the "land of opportunity".