By Sherri Geng
My parents emigrated from China when I was only six months old. Theirs was a generation of field-working Asians who stepped off the boat and flung themselves gratefully onto the rich earth of a new land. After a dark period of struggling to exist, both emerged from the cocoon of bewildered immigrant to become self-made, strong, and independent.
In America, both studied at university on scholarship while working full-time jobs. They lived in a crowded flat in downtown Washington, D.C., where drug dealers had set up shop in the backyard. They owned one bicycle, which they rode to the thrift store and grocery five blocks away. Later, after their bicycle was stolen, they walked. Rain, snow, sleet, ice -- the hardships mattered little. Like most immigrants, my parents came here to seek one thing only: opportunity for a better life.
It is hard not to notice the disproportionate number of immigrant success stories in America. All across the world, America is considered the land of opportunity, and so it should not be surprising that the immigrants who do get here end up being uncommonly successful: They are the ones who fought the hardest, stared down the most competition, were driven by the fiercest pangs of hunger. They arrive to find a university system that is unparalleled for the variety it offers and the breadth of the community it embraces.
Immigrants have three advantages over most people born in America. First, by prevailing in the rigorous competition to enter America, they have proved themselves capable of overcoming both past and future adversity. Second, they do not take America for granted. They have a strong, even desperate desire to prove that they deserve a place in the society of their chosen country. Finally, they take pride in their native culture, and thus are determined never to tarnish its image so that other immigrants who follow will find at least an equal welcome.
However, immigrants are also at a disadvantage to succeed. Not being born and raised in America, they typically are not going to be able to excel in English, U.S. history, or American jurisprudence. Because math and science and technology can transcend language barriers, these are the fields that are most dominated by immigrants. My parents studied engineering in China, and they were easily able to continue their engineering studies in America, even while they were struggling to adopt English.
Once immigrants begin to settle down, they teach their children to place a high value on education, because they also must earn their place, regardless of where they are. This is what I was taught, and this is what I will teach my children. In this way, immigrants pass on to successive generations the same values that made the first generation successful: Work hard, concentrate on long-term goals, and take nothing for granted.
In biology, positive feedback is a regulatory mechanism that relies on enhancement -- the more something happens, the easier future happenings become. It applies to immigration as well. The better the American economy and its education system become, the more people will flood in from the four corners of the earth. In turn, these people will be more likely than the average American to succeed economically and academically, thereby making America a more prosperous place that can support a better educational system -- which in turn makes it more attractive to future immigrants. It's a win-win cycle for all parties.
My parents, like many immigrants, have managed to make the most of the American educational system. Each earned a PhD. My father, Zheng, founded a successful company (Genex Technologies Inc.) that employs upwards of 30 people, and my mother, Jennifer Xie, works in statistics at the U.S. Postal Service in Washington.
They took their poor-man's wages, their broken English, and most important of all, their hunger for a better future, and they spun it into a golden tapestry. Theirs is a legacy that will continue to grow and sparkle, because they have passed their values to me, and I am just as resolute as they to weave a place for myself in America -- and then to teach my children what it means to be descended from immigrants.
Geng was a finalist in the 2005 Intel Science Talent Search