Congress chose May for Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month to commemorate the immigration of the first Japanese to the U.S. in 1843 and to mark the anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, work done mostly by Chinese immigrants, in 1869. We profile Vik Bhatia of IT, Laura Chen of Protective Services, and Alex Kim of Physics.
Laura Chen, Strategic Planning and Compliance Manager, Protective Services Division
When Laura Chen traveled to China for the first time in 1986, people in her grandmother’s remote rural village asked her if the Golden Gate Bridge was really made of gold. “This was the lore that people still believed,” she explains. “That this country is so rich and full of opportunity.”
It was that lore that drew both of Chen’s grandparents to the Bay Area back in the mid 1920s—they wanted a better life for themselves and, more importantly, their future families, and they were willing to take on the challenge of starting over in a new country to achieve this. Both of Chen’s grandfathers arrived in the Bay Area when they were barely young men. Her grandmothers arrived a few years later. “My paternal grandmother was a ‘picture bride,’ so she had never even met my grandfather until she arrived to marry him.”
Chen’s maternal grandmother went to work in a shrimp factory in Jack London Square and her grandfather in a cigar box factory in Oakland. As an adult, Chen’s mother set her sights on an office job, and she was pleased to work as a file clerk in Oakland’s Skyline High School, but continued to strive for more for her children.
“Growing up, my ‘job’ was my education,” Chen says. “My father wouldn’t even let me into the kitchen to learn to cook; he was so focused on me studying and preparing for college.”
Chen fulfilled her parents dream—she attended UC Berkeley and graduated with a degree in architecture, and then landed a job at Berkeley Lab in Facilities, where she advanced to a position as the Chief Facilities Planner. She moved over to Protective Services about three years ago to serve as the Strategic Planning and Compliance Manager.
Growing up with her paternal grandmother living with her family, she spoke her grandmother’s Toisan dialect in addition to learning Cantonese and Mandarin at Chinese school. “In the evenings, I’d teach my grandmother English, and eventually she achieved her goal of becoming a U.S. citizen,” Chen says. “It was a needed part of her assimilation to make this country her permanent home. By the same token, my father served in the U.S. Air Force and was a veteran of World War II.”
Oakland’s Chinatown was also a source of cultural community for Chen’s maternal grandparents. In their working-class neighborhood, Chen’s grandmother always fed whoever came to her dinner table. “I don’t know how she did it, but my mom said she always managed to feed anyone who showed up,” Chen says. “That spirit of generosity is a really important trait in our culture, and it has definitely carried on in my mom—even now in her 80’s she volunteers regularly at a homeless services nonprofit.”
That sense of volunteerism is something Chen says she has taught her own three children. Keeping family close and celebrating holidays together are another aspect of Chinese culture that has carried through to her generation. “Chinese New Year is the most important to my family,” says Chen. “It relates back to where my family is from in China, these tiny farming villages where food is seasonally connected to the holidays in importance.”
Chen had a chance to see those farming villages in 1986 when she accompanied her grandmother on her first trip back to the village where she’d grown up. Chen’s father had donated money to help build a school in the village, and the family was invited to attend the “grand opening.”
The tiny village seemed almost lost in time—the people still washed laundry in the river, no one had seen a camera before, light bulbs were some of their most valued possessions, and they grew everything they ate right outside their homes.
“They were so thankful for what my father had given,” Chen says. “Even after working so hard to raise me and my siblings and provide us with a good education, he still felt it important to give back to his family village for their education.”
Vik Bhatia, Decision Support Manager, Information Technology Division
Vik Bhatia was a 20-year-old recent college graduate when he first stepped foot in the United States. It seemed like the thing to do at the time.
“In India, there was such intense competition and so many well-educated people; I thought heading to America for work was a good option,” Bhatia says. “I think all that competition and struggle all through high school and college actually put me in a good stead for taking on new challenges in my life.”
Bhatia describes an upper-middle-class upbringing in India, attending University of Delhi and majoring in business with an emphasis in computing before “computer science” was a common college major. Bhatia’s father was in the armed forces and constantly on the move, but his parents made the decision to keep the kids and mom stable in one place, mostly in New Delhi, with frequent visits to far-flung areas of India to visit their dad. Bhatia has two sisters, and his mom was very focused on her kids and their education throughout childhood.
“Most immigrants come from close-knit families, and there’s usually a story of sacrifice,” he says. “Your family has perhaps taken on a huge loan or given up their own pleasures to give you a chance to come to a country that offers greater opportunities.”
Bhatia says he thinks that it is this that drives a lot of immigrants to succeed. “I think you bring to your work or school life an attitude that’s really positive and there’s that determination that you’re going to work hard and do whatever it takes, knowing what it took for you to be able to be there,” he says.
He adds: “Being a first-generation immigrant is the hardest; you’re always torn between two lives in two places. I was always really close to my family, and so I made the decision to ask my parents to move here.”
Bhatia’s mother and father agreed and moved to the Bay Area in 1995. By that point, Bhatia had worked for Oracle, Pacific Bell, and Sony before he settled into his career at Berkeley Lab, where “I’ve never felt so much job satisfaction and pride of ownership in my work,” he says.
Having the perspective of many cultures has profoundly influenced Bhatia and his family. “Growing up in a military family that frequently moved about in a vast country with 23 officially recognized languages and incredible cultural diversity definitely impacted my family’s outlook,” he says. ”It helped shape our liberal attitudes and way of life, and coming to America in many ways felt like another move, but one that opened up abundant opportunities that we are extremely grateful for.”
Bhatia’s parents still live with him and his family in San Ramon and have forged close bonds with his four children. Having three generations in one household isn’t always easy, but Bhatia says that the benefits his kids have gained by sharing their grandparents’ culture so closely has been immense.
“My kids love traditional Indian clothing, the fabrics, the colors,” Bhatia says. “And there are some Indian festivals that we celebrate here where they get a chance to wear them—the Festival of Lights, Festival of Color, weddings.”
And food, always an important cultural connector, has taken on new contours in the Bhatia household. “I love to cook and do a lot of cooking for my family on the weekend,” Bhatia says. “Indian food is popular at our house, but our food is definitely a metamorphosis of Indian, American, Mexican foods.”
Bhatia and his wife take their kids back to India every few years for a month-long trip. “As my kids get older they are really able to see and experience their own connection with the Indian culture and heritage. At the same time, I think as Americans they are quite captivated by many issues prevalent in Indian society,” he says. “In India, they see themselves as ambassadors of their American values and freedoms.”
Alex Kim, Staff Scientist, Physics Division
Choosing to study physics was a somewhat rebellious move for Alex Kim. His Korean parents expected him to become a doctor, lawyer, or possibly an engineer. Physics was unheard of.
“I did start off as an engineering major at college but was quickly bored with that and then found myself deciding between physics and philosophy,” says Kim, who went on to earn his Ph.D. in Physics at UC Berkeley and is now a staff scientist in the Lab’s Physics Division. “I don’t really see them as so different.”
Kim says his parents had been surprisingly “hands off” throughout most of his schooling, but when it came time to choose a college major, expectations were made clear. He says his mother noted his older cousins’ academic achievements to point the way.
Education was what had drawn Kim’s parents from South Korea to the United States to begin with—his father had moved to the U.S. to attend college, then returned to South Korea to marry, only to move back to the U.S. again with Kim’s mother to pursue his career as a patent attorney. Kim’s mother worked as a systems analyst. Kim was born in Illinois and lived there for eight years before career opportunities and homesickness drew his family back to South Korea again.
“My parents were the only ones in our extended family who were living in the U.S. at that point, so I think they just really missed being close to family,” he says. “It was not a popular decision with me though.”
Kim recalls how difficult it was to leave the familiarity of America and his friends to go live in an unfamiliar country where he didn’t speak the language, as his parents had only ever spoken to him in English.
“At that point, Korea wasn’t as developed as it is now, so I have some interesting memories of things being pretty different and funny smells and sights,” he says. “And school was really different in Korea; there was corporal punishment, which was pretty sobering.”
Still, Kim has some fond memories of spending time with his large, extended family in South Korea and visiting his aunt and uncle’s dairy farm in the countryside.
After eight years in Seoul, Kim and his sister, mom, and dad went back to the U.S. again, this time settling in Virginia. “By the time we came back, it wasn’t such a rough transition; I had grown used to being in Korea, but I was still very American.”
He adds: “I would also say that my parents weren’t particularly traditional Koreans, though Korean food was important and traditional foods were part of my childhood, and still to this day I prefer Korean food.”
Kim recalls specific Korean dishes that his family ate at New Year’s and on birthdays, and says he still feels drawn to prepare and eat them now. “For New Year’s it’s a rice cake soup, which is a bit sticky and chewy, the idea being that good luck will stick with you in the New Year,” he says. “For birthdays you always eat seaweed soup to remind you of your mother, because it’s a traditional meal that Korean women eat after childbirth for the nourishment.”
Kim still travels to South Korea frequently to visit family and for business. “It’s now more modern than here; it’s really amazing how much it has changed since I lived there,” he says. “I love to go there to eat; the food there is so much better than the Korean food here!”