In 1989, my father, Zhong Chen, who was a professor in academia, was under pressure due to political turmoil in China. With the help of Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur, he secured a student visa to The University of Toledo to escape the unstable fallout of his home country, where he left his wife and 4-year-old son with a hug.
My mother, Liping Gao, and I were not able to join him at the time and stayed behind in China. We did not know that it would be four years until we would see him again. That is how long it took for my mom and I to secure our visas to come to the United States.I still remember the multiple long journeys to visit the U.S. Embassy and staying in hotels night after night to wait to be granted an interview. From 1991 to 1993, my mom and I would take the train from Xian, our hometown, to Beijing, the capital. Each trip took 12 hours one way. The trip was tough on my mom, especially with an 8-year-old in tow. Each time we went, we had to wait outside in a line most of the day just hoping to get in the embassy; the weather was not always nice. We were denied visas three times before they were granted the fourth time.
I still remember the cold winter air when our plane finally landed in Detroit on New Year’s Eve in 1993 and seeing a man that resembled the memory of my father waiting for us with a hug. I still remember the drive to Toledo that night and seeing all the New Year’s fireworks as my life in America started.
My dad graduated with his Ph.D. from The University of Toledo soon after. Like most immigrants, my family had to change our visa status many times to remain in the U.S. legally. Every few years, we had to renew or reapply for different visas, hoping that it wouldn’t be denied. One denial is all it takes for us to go back to a country where we have nothing. That uncertainty of your family’s life is what most immigrants talk about when they describe the difficult, long journey to citizenship.
I grew up in the Toledo area most of my life and graduated from The University of Toledo with a dual master’s degree in public health in 2011. I work at UToledo’s Jacobs Interprofessional Immersive Simulation Center.
During my 25-year journey to citizenship, I never lost the dream of being able to hold my hand to my heart proudly when my classmates recited the Pledge of Allegiance; or when my friends sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Toledo football games; or when I hang the stars and stripes in front of my home in Toledo; or when I tell my beautiful daughter, Lilian, that her “baba” (Mandarin for daddy) is also an American like her.
To my fellow Americans: Don’t forget the journey and sacrifice of your immigrant family to get here, and never take for granted the privilege and responsibility that so many people around the world are currently fighting to obtain. It is the duty of we the people to make this country a more perfect Union.
Chen is a clinical simulation and educational research associate in the Jacobs Interprofessional Immersive Simulation Center. He was among more than 70 people who became U.S. citizens during a naturalization ceremony Sept. 17 in the Law Center.