The Unusual Immigrant
Sheon Leung found little difficulty in adapting in America
essay written by Elice Leung
Sheon Leung first pursued college because he was capable enough to do so in an extremely competitive group. However, on completion of his college career in Hong Kong, he found that he despised the teaching job he took and went on to graduate school at the University of Boston. He found no hardship in adjusting to American life because he isolated himself with fellow Hong Kong immigrants.
Almost indifferent about his journey to the United States, Sheon Leung admits that he is “not a very typical immigrant.” 1 He was never thrust into a foreign land without knowing the language, never forced into a difficult situation without any support. Partly because of his unwillingness to “break through…[the] barrier” of having a different culture than Americans, and partly because of his long time spent in school, he remains isolated to this day from mainstream American society. 2 He never really had to adjust, if only because he kept to the limited circle of people from almost the exact same origin, which was already pretty well adjusted to Western civilization.
From the Chinese province of Guangdong, Leung’s father moved to the British Colony of Hong Kong to find work. About sixteen at the time, Chong Leung worked as a mechanics apprentice. The Japanese bombed the city on December 8, 1941, and occupied the territory on Christmas Day. Chong went back to the mainland because life became extremely hazardous under Japanese rule. Even though mainland China was also occupied, it was “harder to survive” in Hong Kong—the occupancy’s regime was extremely harsh and many people starved. 3 The Japanese took over for three years and eight months until August 31st, 1945 when the occupying forces surrendered. It was around this time that Chong came back to the city. He was now married to his wife by arrangement, Hor So. Sheon Leung, the second of eight children, was born on April 14, 1951. Not yet a glittering metropolis, Hong Kong was mostly “four [story apartments],” and so Sheon lived with his family “in a place that was shared by many families.” 4 There was little privacy. Later on, as the family grew and the city developed, they would move several times between larger flats occupied by only their own family.
Although neither of his parents went very far in school, Leung and his siblings took their education very seriously. Their parents dictated the eldest son’s future; Richard was destined to carry on Chong’s machinery business. Their grandmother had even discouraged his education so that he would be more involved with work—she would remind Richard of how Chong was successful despite only staying in school to the fifth grade. However, the other children never asked what they were to do, since they knew what they wanted to do already—it involved learning. The only thing to do was study, since there were no extracurricular activities, no library, and no space or money in the crowded city for sports. Even within the family there was little time spent together. Everyone was concerned solely with their own business—Sheon Leung himself “seldom [communicated] with anyone”.5 It was partly because of the general characteristic of Hong Kong people to be extremely busy and have little time for the problems of others.
Leung’s personal focus was to get into college. At the time, it was not expensive; however, it was a great privilege since it was extremely difficult to pass the entrance exams, which allowed “less than 10% of people” to gain entry into the college.6 He went through primary and secondary school and did fairly well, despite the overwhelming workload. Even when still in the equivalent to American middle school, students were weighed down with numerous subjects, including “Chinese, English, English literature…Chinese literature, geography, biology, chemistry, physics…economics, public affairs,” and more.7 Still, these subjects were not really taught. Rather, the teachers’ aim was to make students memorize as much information as possible without making sure anything was actually learned.
Leung felt extremely disappointed after gaining entry to Chinese University of Hong Kong, because it was “just an extension of the secondary school.” 8 In many subjects the students studied, the difficulty was about the same as the same subject at a graduate school in the United States. Despite this, there was no attempt on the part of the college to ensure understanding or to encourage critical thinking. A great deal of pressure came from active attempts to fail students on exams. If a student failed a class, they had to take it again and pass within the next semester or they would repeat an entire year. Consequently, there was little time for anything besides studying. Leung found his situation ridiculous; he would go to play soccer from “four thirty to five, everyday,” because he was “so frustrated.” 9 His only aims were to “pass the exams” and “make it to the next year.” 10
When Leung graduated from college in 1975, he found himself unprepared—he had spent no time considering his future because his energies were directed toward keeping afloat in classes. Because most of the seniors from the year before had become teachers, he looked for a similar job. He was “so earnest to find a job” he read the newspaper early every morning, and when he found an ad “call[ed] at eight” and got one of three interviews that particular school had taken.11 For the two months of the summer before the first term began, he “enjoyed life” and spent time with his friends from the college.12 They typically went camping and always took pictures of their group on their outings, developing the film themselves in the college’s darkroom. Leung would remember these times fondly in the busy years to come.
Then, he taught. Unfortunately, Leung utterly loathed his work. At the time he lived with his family again, so he had to get up at seven every day to get to the school because of the distance—sometimes earlier, if he had to prepare materials. He was irritated that “each hour of lecture [took] two hours of preparation.” 13 School would last until three every day and the release only meant more time spent preparing for the next day’s classes. For some classes, students weren’t even provided with textbooks and Leung had to spend a great deal more energy than he liked to teach them the proper material. Even his weekends were spoiled because he labored over class notes and lab reports. Combined with his poor opinion of the school system from his days in secondary school, the time wasted by teaching convinced him that the occupation was a “waste of [his] talent.” 14
Still, Hong Kong was not a city for the scientifically inclined. When China was taken over by the Communists, a great number of refugees from Shanghai arrived, bringing with them banking and manufacturing industries that once had been based on the mainland. There was little interest expressed in anything that wasn’t immediately profitable. To conduct research at a university would require a doctor’s degrees, and Leung was fed up with studying in Hong Kong because of the lack of depth. He saw that the only way out was further schooling, but it would only be tolerable out of the city. At the end of his first year of teaching, he decided to take the exam to apply for graduate school in another country. However, he was prevented from taking his second year because of work. His third year of teaching was easier than the previous two, since he taught the same subjects and had notes done already; he sat the exam in spite of the respite. In addition to the general math and English exam, he took physics for his specific area of study. He was accepted to University of Buffalo in the state of New York, and decided to go there first without waiting for acceptance from schools in England. Unlike many other Hong Kong citizens, he did not go to other expanses of the British Empire, like Canada or Australia. Because he was going there for schooling, Leung wasn’t very concerned with what the United States was going to be like. He and his classmates understood it was an “affluent society.” There was also the hazy idea that “the whole world [didn’t] like Americans”—he was inclined to agree with it because of an annoying coworker who happened to be American. 15
Leung bought a plane ticket with the money he earned from teaching, and said goodbye to his family. On August 22, 1978, Leung flew directly to Buffalo, New York. There was little trouble; with his single suitcase, he took a taxi to the university, attended orientation, and later went to the university’s physics department. He was “not scared,” because he was actually told that he had to “sit for an exam right away—so [he] had to study.” 16
Leung’s immigration was relatively painless compared to the experiences of many others. Firstly, there was no language barrier for him. Since Hong Kong was a British colony, classes were conducted in both English and Chinese. Oral examinations in English. Because of that, Leung was fluent enough in English to have few problems communicating with Americans. The only thing that struck him about the language was natives’ pronunciation of words like ‘master’- his vowels were British, after all (Actually, Leung’s first experience with speaking with a foreigner was similarily embarrassing since “the lady [conducting the exam] was a Scot” and he couldn’t understand her accent). 17 He found that his “English was not [very] good, but compared with Japanese, Korean, even some Taiwanese” people his communication was not a problem.18 Second, there was a system of people he already knew. A large part of the physics department consisted of Chinese University alumni. Because of this, he had a place to stay a few hours after his arrival on campus—his eventual residence would be shared with three other Cantonese people. A large portion of Leung’s classes was actually composed of foreigners, including many of the professors, so he did not interact much with local Americans. This was another reason Leung had little difficulty in adjusting. Not only did he actively isolate himself with others from Hong Kong, but he was just one of many immigrants (as opposed to a few Americans) immersed in advanced mathematics and sciences. The students’ circle was not in the “fresh air [of] America,” but rather was barred from the overall society by the campus.19
Since Leung spent most of his time studying or at the university, there was little opportunity to realize a great change in his environment. There were only a few incidents when he was really confronted with the fact that he was in a place where the culture was different from Hong Kong. Once he went ice skating with his friends on holiday. It was pair time. Not realizing what this implied, he and a male friend took hands and were “stopped by the rink keeper,” and didn’t understand why until someone explained it to him later.20 Most of the time, however, change in custom didn’t occur to him.
Within his circle, Leung found the U.S. more pleasant in Hong Kong in one aspect: school no longer infuriated him. There was no longer an outrageous system pressing him to memorize mindlessly and without reason; he could “read whatever [he liked], [and didn’t] have to worry about grades, [didn’t] have to worry about repeating a year, [didn’t] have to worry about passing an exam.” 21 He studied because he wanted to learn, and obtained two master’s degrees in two years: one in physics and one in electrical engineering. Although he was no longer with his family, it was not a big deal to him. His parents were in good health, and he assumed his siblings were also getting along decently. Rhoda, his youngest sister, once sent him a picture (she was barely a teenager when he left home). He wrote his family once a month and never received a reply. Long distance calls were too expensive to make. Still, most of his friends were alumni from Chinese University. Sometimes they “went to Toronto, then [bought] some Chinese groceries… the same thing [as in Hong Kong], chicken, potatoes.” 22 There was a cooking club of several people. They would chop up chicken and then stir fry it with a cleaver and a wok, both bought from Chinatown. In this club he met Mary Au—another immigrant from Hong Kong and alumni of Chinese University of Hong Kong. They married several years later in Salt Lake City, August 14, 1981.
Leung left graduate school to find work in Silicon Valley in California. After he and Mary were wed, they lived in Sunnyvale. With their first child, Eva, they moved to Union City and lived there until 1996, when they moved to Irvine with two more daughters, Yvonne and Elice. By this time, contact with Hong Kong had become easier. Leung’s parents became permanent residents and visited every now and then after Eva was born. Before that, they had been limited to calls on Chinese New Year because it had been “very expensive” 23.
Leung’s permanent residency application was slightly more worrying than his parents’ had been. He expected it to be difficult because the United States employed a quota system that was intended to stabilize the country’s ethnic composition. Because of Hong Kong’s previous status as a British colony, it was only allocated a small percentage of the 20,000 persons-per-country quota established by the Immigration and Nationality Act Amendments of 1965. His application had been simplified by the relaxation of the quota “from 300 to 2,000” applications. 24 He obtained citizenship five years later in 1993.
Even out of university and life as a working adult rather than a bookish student, Leung still found himself set apart from American society as a whole. He was always surrounded by other foreigners, by people even from the same city. In his first workplace, “six guys [spoke] Cantonese…in a small group of thirteen or fourteen”. 25 It was because of the tendency of Americans in that industry to look down on actual engineering and go for positions in marketing. Also, at the time, there were great opportunities in the defense industry due to the Cold War. Leung could not take a job in defense because he was not yet a citizen. Indeed, most of his coworkers in his company’s department for the design of ordinary semiconductors were foreigners.
Concerning his children, Leung was more worried about their fitting in with American culture than keeping formal Hong Kong tradition, which was diluted anyway because of the long British occupation. All of his children were early readers, and he and Mary taught them careful pronunciation. But besides successful adaptation with language and in school, Leung didn’t bother to pay too much attention to his daughters’ retention of Chinese culture. He thought “it would be nice” if they knew Cantonese, and felt “sad for [them]” since they didn’t know of Chinese festivals. 26 He spent a lot of effort getting all three of them Hong Kong citizenship. Still, none of the three are fluent in Cantonese and would have great difficulty communicating in Hong Kong if English was not so prevalent there. There was not too much concern over learning Cantonese because English was acceptable in Hong Kong and Mandarin seemed to be more useful in the coming future. With festivals and other traditions, Sheon felt “lazy” and did not want to bother with them. 27
Leung feels no regret about immigrating to the United States, if only because he refuses to compare his actual experience with a hypothetical situation if he had stayed in Hong Kong. His social circle is still “small,” consisting only of alumni from Chinese and Boston universities, mainly from his physics department. 28 He rarely makes more than the slightest contact with Americans that are not Chinese, limiting himself to a ping pong club of Chinese immigrants and dinners with his alumni on holidays. His greatest satisfaction is that his work makes use of his talent in math and science, while it would have been difficult to have such luck back in Hong Kong.
1. Leung, Sheon. Personal Interview. 25 May 2009, 16.
2. Leung, Sheon. Personal interview. 24 May 2009, 12.
3. Leung, Sheon. Personal interview. 23 May 2009, 1.
4. Leung. 23 May 2009, 2.
5. Leung. 23 May 2009, 5.
6. Leung. 23 May 2009, 3.
7. Leung. 23 May 2009, 4.
8. Leung. 23 May 2009, 4.
9. Leung. 23 May 2009, 4.
10. Leung. 23 May 2009, 4.
11. Leung. 23 May 2009, 5.
12. Leung. 23 May 2009, 5.
13. Leung. 25 May 2009, 14
14. Leung. 23 May 2009, 6
15. Leung. 23 May 2009, 7
16. Leung. 23 May 2009, 7.
17. Leung. 23 May 2009, 7.
18. Leung. 23 May 2009, 8.
19. Leung. 25 May 2009, 16.
20. Leung. 25 May 2009, 15.
21. Leung. 25 May 2009, 16.
22. Leung. 24 May 2009, 12.
23. Leung. 25 May 2009, 17.
24. Leung. 24 May 2009, 10.
25. Leung. 25 May 2009, 16.
26. Leung. 24 May 2009, 13.
27. Leung. 25 May 2009, 19.
28. Leung. 25 May 2009, 18