My family and I, from New York City, were visiting my relatives in San Francisco, California this summer. On a weekend we visited Angel Island with my cousin and my grandma. We took a ferry from the Blue and Gold Fleet (http://www.blueandgoldfleet.com/) to this “Ellis Island of the West,” which is now a national state park (http://www.angelisland.org/). The Immigration Station is a 30-minute hike from the ferry dock. My brother was exhausted by the time we trekked to the foot of its stairs and refused to walk any further, so I took him on a detour by the coast, where we found the fog-warning bell. Having rung the bell, however, my brother still refused to walk the steps. Afraid that we would be left behind, I resorted to piggybacking him up the three flights, which was quite a feat but worth the effort.
We passed through dark hallways with peeling paint and reached a large room (the detention barracks) where we met up with our family. I saw calligraphy on the walls, poetry maintained since the early 1900s; and small cots, which served as poor excuses for beds. Despite the haunting reminders of the immigrants’ sufferings, my parents were proud to stand in a place of such historical significance, especially since our own Chinese ancestors may have passed through here. My dad read aloud all the display signs, talked to the tour guide, and eagerly took pictures. It was the first time I saw my parents really find a connection to a foreign place.
Angel Island also used to be called “The Guardian of the West”: the Immigration Station was a controversial place ever since it was built and used in 1910. Many Asian immigrants entered the station, hoping to build new and successful lives in America, especially with the prospects of the Gold Rush. But harsh immigration laws stopped them, spurred by political hostility towards foreigners, who were blamed for the economic downturn. The immigration process took longer and conditions were far from ideal. The detainees wrote the poetry, telling of their fears of deportation, their lives in detention, or advice for other detainees. The station was abandoned in 1940, and then used again in World War II, during which the walls were repainted several times to get rid of the “graffiti,” but the poetry remained. The station fell into disrepair, but discovery of the calligraphy inspired the station’s conversion into a museum, which was why we were still able to see such a historical place.
It was soon time to leave, and the ferry took us back to San Francisco, back to the city, the present day, the other family members who are Chinese immigrants but fortunately never had to undergo a journey as harsh as the Angel Island detainees’. As for my generation, first-born Americans, we never had to undergo any immigration process. We were born as American citizens and reaped the benefits and opportunities presented to us from the beginning of our lives, which is what our ancestors intended us to do. But the steps themselves, not the outcome, are the most important part of any journey. We must not forget our history and how we and the others before us arrived in America. After seeing Angel Island firsthand and the irony of its name in comparison to its history, I know that the values my parents learned directly from their ancestors are the same values I learned from listening to my parents’ stories, and seeing places like Angel Island that are preserved decades or hundreds of years later: the importance of freedom and cultural identity.
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