By Erin McKenzie-Brahms, Itero Group Partner and CEO
As an Asian American, May is very important to me and my family. To celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, I am honoring my Chinese grandfather, Lee Ying Moy, who served in the Army during WWII as a cannoneer in the 531st Field Artillery Battalion, as well as paying tribute to the generations of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders who have enriched and contributed to America’s history, culture, and achievements.
In 1927, my grandfather immigrated from Guangdong, China (today know as Canton) to the United States. He was 12 years old, and he was by himself. As a male, it was his duty to help support his parents and grandparents, who stayed in China – he was sent to the US to find employment and send money back to them. He traveled as a third-class passenger on a ship called the SS Thomas Jefferson. Third-class accommodations were on the bottom of the ship, and he slept on the top bunk of bunk beds stacked three high. He was allowed to spend time each day on the deck but had to go back into his room by evening. The ship made stops in Tokyo, the Philippines, and eventually docked in Seattle, WA after 28 days at sea.
In Seattle, he had to take a physical examination and endured hours of questioning by an interpreter because he did not speak English. He then spent more than a month in a detention center, which was like a jail, where he was asked the same questions repeatedly as a provision of The Chinese Exclusion Act (1882), which was the first significant law that forbid a specific minority group from immigrating to the U.S.
After he was released from the detention center, he took a train from Seattle across the country to Washington, D.C. The trip took four days and four nights. He lived in Old Chinatown (which was then at the corner of 3rd St. and Pennsylvania Ave.) Several years later the government decided to widen Pennsylvania Avenue and moved the residents to H Street.
My grandfather’s first job was at a laundry mat. He worked Monday through Friday from 4-10 pm, all day Saturday, and Sunday from 8am-12pm. He earned seven dollars per week, plus room and board. He also attended the Gales School, which was a school for foreign-speaking students.
He quit school when he was 15 years old to work at the laundry mat full-time to support himself and his family in China. He worked there for three years and then got a job in a Chinese restaurant (The Canton Restaurant on 14th St and Pennsylvania Ave). Most days, he would peel potatoes and onions and wash dishes. Occasionally, when the restaurant was short staffed, he would be allowed to wait on a customer. When the manager saw he could handle the job, he was promoted to a waiter.
In 1942, my grandfather was drafted into the United States Army. He was trained at Camp Lee, near Richmond, VA, and from there went to Fort Bragg, NC. He was eventually stationed in the Philippines and Okinawa, Japan, where he served as a cannoneer in combat in the 531st Field Artillery Battalion. He was honorably discharged from the Army in 1946.
Later that same year he met his wife-to-be, Mae Fong Woo. They were married August 4, 1946, in Washington, D.C. Together they had three daughters and six grandchildren (including me). My grandfather continued to work as a server in China Doll Restaurant, in Chinatown, until he retired at age 62. He passed away on September 11, 2001, from natural causes. I continue to be proud of my grandfather and all the sacrifices he made for his family and for the United States, the country he loved so much!
My grandfather is one of many Asian Americans who have had a significant impact on US History – from fighting in WWII to building the 7,000 miles of Transcontinental Railroad between California and Utah. During that time, thousands of Chinese laborers, many as young as 12, took on some of the most dangerous and difficult work, with hundreds dying from explosions, landslides, and construction accidents. While many of the circumstances, influence, and achievements of Asian Americans throughout history go unrecognized, I work as hard as I can to make sure the toil of my ancestors is recognized, the diversity of Asian culture is celebrated, and – most importantly – all cultures and the diverse perspectives they represent are respected.