Times Past

Dan Krieger: Chinese immigrant lived to support family

‘Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “People grow through experience if they meet life honestly and courageously. This is how character is built.”‘ 

So begins Spencer Lee’s prizewinning essay in honor of Howard Louis, the colorful longtime owner of the Ah Louis Store, at this year’s Chinese New Year banquet at Cal Poly.

“One of my great grandfathers had immigrated from China by himself to make money so that he could send money back home to China to support his family, a common venture that many able men of China pursued.

“And like the typical Chinese man, he married his wife and impregnated her just before leaving for America ... Upon arriving to America, he was able to get a job as a cook in an American restaurant.

“To save more money, he slept on a cot inside the kitchen, making the duty of sending money to his family his sole reason for living. He was never able to bring his wife and kids to America, and he eventually died of old age in that kitchen, on the cot he slept on, living the lifestyle he had to for the people he was responsible for.

“When I think about my ancestors, I think of the hardships that they suffered and the trials they endured, and it humbles me to realize that I am the product of such perseverance.

But even with such a family history, I was raised in an American environment and thus adapted to the American culture.

“I grew up in Walnut Creek, a city where diversity is no more than a word in a dictionary that kids learn in grade school. But being one of only five Asian kids in our grade school class taught me to blend in. The color of my hair or the shape of my eyes did not define me.

“And so I played with all types of kids, maintaining zero prejudice as young innocence provides. And when the time came, I signed up for soccer, baseball, and basketball, the way every young American in Walnut Creek had. And when my parents would ask me where I would like to go for dinner, I would always ask for hamburgers and pasta, the way every young American in Walnut Creek would.

“I am both Asian and American, but it wasn’t until a vacation in China just before starting my freshman year of high school that I realized that I am also neither. It was prior to China’s economic boom. The majority of China was still considered nearly third world.

“My family and I were venturing into the grungy and chaotic streets of outer Shanghai. I was spat on. I looked down at my snow white cargo shorts and saw the spit slither down the legging. When I looked for the culprit, I saw a filthy Chinese in the back of a van with a barred but open window.

“We looked at each other for a few seconds, him examining me and vice versa.

“He looked away and snorted, as if getting ready for the next show. When I looked back to my family, they were walking, unaware of the silent showdown between me and this indecent stranger. So I trotted back to my family, leaving the saliva on my shorts and a contented expression on my face, refusing to give that man any satisfaction or my family any reason to worry.

“I look back at that night and realize I am a fusion of Asian and American, a painting neither black nor white but a beautiful collaboration of color. And like any great work of art, we the critics can take a step back and take the beautiful and disregard the ugly, taking the good pieces and leaving the less necessary to create this collage we call Asian American culture.”

Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and president of the California Mission Studies Association.