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Monday, March 7, 2011

From Guangdong to Texas, From Discrimination to Assimilation

I grew up as one of the few Chinese families in West Texas in a small city called El Paso.  Family stories have it that my paternal grandfather was only 12 or 13 years old when he immigrated around 1912 without any family member from his hometown of Guangdong, China (also known as Canton).  He came to San Francisco to find a better life for himself since his mother was the third concubine which means he would see little inheritance, if any, from his father's wealth.  His mother was basically a slave to his father's family.

My paternal grandparents

 My grandfather was crafty.  Apparently he passed the national test in China just before immigrating to the USA.  He spoke only Cantonese when he arrived to Angel Island.  My maiden name, "Garbern", was apparently the romanization of my grandfather's first name.  Unable to speak English when he arrived, my grandfather did not understand when the customs agent asked him his name.  So his first name and last name were transposed.  In China your given name and family name (which is your last name here), are said in the opposite order as they are in English.  In Chinese you say your family name first then your given name.  All children in the same generation within a family have the same middle name to distinguish their family connection and generation.  Pretty smart way to keep records.

My grandfather's Chinese name was Yu Gah-Bun, Yu being the family name, and Gah-Bun being his generational or given name.  The custom agent created an entirely new last name for us; Gah-Bun became Garbern.  As far as I know we're the only family with that last name.  After I got married I made that my official middle name to retain some of my family history.

My grandfather quickly assimilated into San Francisco's Chinatown.  Immigrants were mostly from Canton so he was able to continue speaking his native tongue but quickly learned street English.  As I mentioned he had very little formal education but he was a street-smart, crafty kid.  One of the first things he learned was how to gamble.  To while away the time he wold get involved in all sorts of gambling.  It was a way of life for many young immigrants.   His gambling would end up affecting my family in a major way, more on that in a minute.

In Chinatown, there were various Family Associations.  These were formed by the various family trees in Chinatown.  For instance, my grandfather's last name, Yee, is a very common last name in China.  My grandfather became part of the Yee Family Association which helps their members get started in a business or other financial, charitable or brethren ways.

Eventually my grandfather met his wife, my grandmother.  She was second generation, having been born in America.  But because she married someone from China, her status reverted just because she married my grandfather.  Beyond the confines of Chinatown there was much discrimination against Asians in the early 1920s.  (Consider that in the 1940s, the Japanese were interned in various camps across the country).

Life was hard especially since his young adult life was during the Great Depression.  But it would have been even harder if my grandfather remained in China.  In the USA he was able to save a little money, learn a trade and buy a home.  I've heard various stories from different relatives about how my dad and his parents ended up in El Paso from San Francisco.  The most consistent one is that my grandfather gambled away some of the Yee Family Association money.  So he packed up his wife, their young son (my dad) late one night and left San Francisco to avoid being caught.  My dad told me stories of leaving in the middle of the night surreptitiously and sneak away.  He was under five-years-old when this happened so his memory may have had some flaws.  I've also heard that my grandfather had health issues and moved his family to El Paso because the weather was better for his bad heart.  The gambling story has more intrigue so that is the one I tell my children.  (My grandfather did pay back his debt by the way.)

Texas was a far away place to go for someone who had the comforts of a large Chinatown to assimilate.  In Texas his young family was more conspicuous.  Somewhere along the way my grandfather learned to work a printing press.  Soon he opened up a print shop in downtown El Paso.  When I was a little girl I recall going to the Print Shop and playing in the offices and the big room where they had these huge print machines churning out various jobs.  I remember the smell of ink and paper. 

My dad always told me how he experienced a lot of discrimination growing up in El Paso.  In fact I did not realize I was of Chinese descent until I went to elementary school and was called various names including "Chink", "Chino" (Spanish), "Slanty Eyes."  I remember coming home one day after being yelled these names and asking my mom what they meant.  She didn't want to alarm me about the discrimination, she merely told me they were calling me "Chinese."  "What's Chinese?" I asked.  She told me it means my family is from China, and people could tell from my eyes that I was Chinese.  "My eyes?  What about my eyes?"  She told me they were smaller and slanted, and that's how people could tell.  I rushed to the bathroom mirror to look at myself.  My eyes did not look small to me, - what was she talking about

I distinctly recall when I learned I was different.  Throughout my elementary school years I would often be called names.   But I still made lots of friends who made me feel it was a cool thing to be different.  I was fine with that.

Disclosure: I received a free copy "Mr. Rosenblum Dreams In English" which was the inspiration for this post.  The book is part of the From Left to Write book club. - The Twitter hashtag for the From Left to Write book club is #left2write. Follow From Left to Write at @fromleft2write


  1. Can you imagine a young teenager speaking no english and coming to this country? It is unimaginable. My grandfather was 16 when he came over from Portugal, all alone. In his case, they transcribed his birthdate incorrectly so he always celebrated two birthdays!

  2. My grandmother has an over-the-top story about her father being arrested for trying to kill someone and - in revenge - that someone's family chased my great-grandmother and grandmother into the rain forest in Venezuela, where they hid for months, living with monkeys. My mom usually shakes her head when she hears it. But, I like to have some excitement, so choose to believe it. Makes my family seem so much more exciting somehow!

    I, too, was told I looked different in grade school. Had no idea until some kid decided to let me know.

  3. What an amazing gift you have to know your family's story. Both my parents are immigrants from Vietnam (and met in the US) and they speak very little about their journey to the U.S. I can only assume that they wish to forget their refugee experience. Thank you for sharing your story! I grew up in Louisiana, so I can related to the discrimination.

  4. What a fascinating family history you have and what a well written post! Your grandfather could have written a book or maybe you could too!

  5. Great post, Tina! I always wondered about Garbern. I had to share your story with my mother since her Dad's last name was changed due to a misunderstanding and a missing key on a typewriter.

  6. I don't know whether it was easier or harder for my family since they did not look 'different'. It was only when my grandparents began to speak that people realised that they were not English. I think it was especially difficult during the war, when they had German accents and German names.

    Your family story sounds fascinating. Thanks so much for your post.


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