On December 19, 2011, the day after International Migrants Day, I found myself on a plane from Almaty, Kazakhstan to Dushanbe, Tajikistan, for a business trip. I was surrounded by Tajik laborers returning home to celebrate the New Year. Other than my three colleagues and I, the seats were filled with Tajiks bearing electronics, toys, and other gifts for their families. Had it not been for my ignorance of Tajik or Farsi, I would have struck up a conversation with my neighbor to find out what life was like being separated from one’s family for work. Instead, I reflected on my own family, descendants of immigrants not unlike my fellow passengers.On December 23, 1909, my 26-year-old great-grandmother, Auyoung Yee Lau, emigrated from China to Hawaii to join my great-grandfather, who had opened a successful shop in Honolulu. Prior to his wife’s arrival, my great-grandfather sent home $45 each month to feed five adult family members. I wonder what went through Auyoung Yee’s mind as she boarded the boat from Hong Kong to what she called “the land of the Golden Mountain.” I would guess that her thoughts were on the unknown country she was about to make her life in and the three children that she had lost in recent years, two of whom died of preventable childhood diseases before the age of 3.
After my great-grandmother’s journey to America, her tragedy was overcome with the subsequent births of five boys, four girls, and finally, my grandfather, whose Chinese name translated into “Happiness Complete.” Had my great-grandmother and her family been denied access to health care services in Hawaii due to their migration status, I wonder if my grandfather and his siblings would have suffered the same fate as Auyoung Yee’s first three children? Would my great-grandmother’s happiness have been complete?