When Life Doesn't

Go As Planned

Story by: Yichen Lee

Photography by: Floor Flurij

It’s mid-day on a hot summer Tuesday, and the streets of Chinatown in Sunset Park, Brooklyn are bustling with people.

 

Save for the street signs in English, the stretch of 8th Avenue from 40th Street to 65th Street looks, feels, and even smells like a busy marketplace in China. The sweet aroma of fresh produce and the odor of the daily catch from seafood stands mix with a faint scent of asphalt under the scorching sun. Bargaining animatedly in Mandarin, Cantonese, or Fuzhou dialect (from the Fujian province in China), shoppers weave in and out of the businesses and shops lining the streets, large bags of groceries in hand, making it difficult to pass on the sidewalk.

     

Located at the heart of the business district of Sunset Park is the Light & Love Home on 54th and 8th. Children and teenagers of the local Chinese population flock to this Christian community center to spend the day on various classes and projects during Summer break, while the elders lounge in the common room watch Chinese soap operas, chatter in small groups and participating in organized activities.

 

Sitting in one corner, unfazed by the surrounding noise, Mr. Lu concentrates on his morning copy of Sing Tao Daily through thick reading glasses, slowly sipping a hot cup of Tieguanyin, a Chinese oolong tea. “This is my usual reading time,” he explains in Mandarin with a heavy Canto accent. He waits while his wife takes an English class upstairs.

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Since the first groups of Cantonese moved into the neighborhood in the 1980s, Sunset Park—the first Chinatown in Brooklyn—has continued to grow.

 

New immigrants arrive, along with an influx of residents from Chinatown in Manhattan, migrating across the river to escape rising rents and tight quarters. Although the original Cantonese majority has been supplanted by waves of Fuzhou immigrants in recent years, now, over 60% of the older population in the neighborhood are of Chinese descent. A Canton native, Mr. Lu began his immigration journey in his twenties in 1961, when he was smuggled into Hong Kong on a boat in search of a better life outside of communist-controlled Mainland China.

 

“I never looked back,” he says nonchalantly. “Ever since I climbed out from the bottom of that cargo ship and saw the lights of Victoria Harbor.”

 

Through the help of a friend, he settled down and found a job at a restaurant as the chef’s apprentice, where he learned the culinary skills that he would go on to use for a lifetime.

 

After a few years, he met his wife. She became pregnant quickly. With a son on the way, Mr. Lu decided to venture overseas for better work. He spent almost a decade in San Jose, Costa Rica, where his first three children were born, before finally making the move to the U.S in 1982.

 

“They said it was the place to be,” he recalls, “Everyone was talking about moving here.”

 

The transition didn’t come easy. Mr. Lu’s connection in the U.S. could only get him into the country alone, forcing him to leave his family behind. The man who helped him owned a Chinese restaurant in Virginia, and Lu agreed to work for him there as the man promised to help file the paper work for the rest of his family. Under the impression that a few months was all it would take for him to reunite with his family, he worked hard for the owner off-the-books without asking too many questions. Weeks and months passed by without any progress in the immigration process before it dawned on him that he was being viciously exploited. And, he was trapped. He had no money, knew no one, and spoke no English. He ended up working there for seven years without seeing his family, before making enough money to hire a lawyer. Within seven months of hiring the lawyer, he was able to obtain citizenship, allowing his family to rejoin him.

 

“It’s kind of comical in a dark way when I look back, how seven years of our lives were ‘stolen’ just because I believed that a fellow Chinese would never swindle me.”

 

Originally, Mr. Lu had dreamt of “making it big” in the States, but without higher education or any technical training, he continued to work in restaurants after leaving Virginia. He moved to major cities – San Francisco and Miami - following jobs - before eventually settling down in Brooklyn in the mid-‘90s, where his wife also found work at a clothing factory.

 

“It was basic survival, but what options did we have but to take things as they come? Cooking was the only thing I knew how to do well, and my shifts were over 12 hours per day that I didn’t have any extra energy or time to learn new things, including English.”

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The Lus are now retired.

 

They do not receive the full social security that would be representative of their work life, because they worked off-the-books for so many years.

 

For the past three years, Mr. Lu has lived in public housing in Red Hook in a one-bedroom apartment, where he and his wife are one of the only Chinese families in the large swath of developments. Even though they endured the floods and devastation from Hurricane Sandy shortly after moving in, they are grateful for the $350 a month in rent that they pay and feel safe in Red Hook. They just have very little connection to the neighborhood.

 

When they leave their home, it is almost always to travel six miles away to Sunset Park, for their weekly grocery shopping, for the spices and ingredients required for Chinese cooking that wouldn’t be found in regular markets. Mr. Lu also visits the community center two mornings a week to relax and socialize, while his wife takes various classes or does volunteer work for the center. Everyone speaks Mandarin or one of the Chinese dialects. Cantonese-speaking doctors are also readily available in the neighborhood, eliminating the trouble of commuting and miscommunicating.

 

The Lus are also grateful that their family is nearby. In their apartment, one of the walls is covered with family portraits, the most prominent one being a large framed photo of the whole family: their three sons, daughter-in-laws, and the grandkids surrounding them, all smiling and looking radiant. Only missing is their daughter who moved to Hong Kong about five years ago. The sons each live in Brooklyn, Queens, and Staten Island, all of whom visit Lu regularly.

Being a devoted Christian, Mr. Lu’s oldest son has been persuading his father to go to church with him on Sundays, especially as he grows older.

 

“I guess he wants salvation for me,” Mr. Lu laughs. “I’ve never been religious, but I’d like to think I’m on good terms with all the Gods, be it the Buddha or Jesus. I sometimes let my son take me just for the sake of spending time with him.”

 

Mr. Lu says that he is like a rock with all the rough edges smoothed out over the years. He is gentle, unintimidating, and easy-going. At one time he was more stubborn. Now, he says he is more at peace with the choices he made, and content with the life he has now: routines that includes exercising at the park at the crack of dawn, followed by reading the newspaper while enjoying a hot cup of tea, and spending time with his wife, children, and grandchildren whenever he can.

 

Looking back on the hardships he endured, Lu doesn’t regret making the decision to immigrate, because of the better life he helped provide for his children.

 

“Of course, it was not easy, and things didn’t really pan out exactly as I had planned, but in the end my children received decent education, and now they are all grown, healthy, and have decent jobs and families of their own. I couldn’t have wished for better, and would make the same choice again if given the chance.”

 

Across the table, now back from her English class, Mrs. Lu, his wife of 51 years, smiles as she hears this, while continuing to fold little origami pyramids, assembling them into small flower pots and little cartoon figurines. They are to be sold for charity at a street fair this coming weekend, hosted by the Light & Love Home, and the Lus are doing their part to help raise funds for an orphanage.

 

“This is us trying to be as useful as we can be,” she says.

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© 2015 by Robert N. Butler Columbia Aging Center at Columbia's Mailman School of Public Health