A Nation of Immigrants

by Ken Katz

This month’s account of EG Yang’s journey to the United States is much like the account by Marcia Lam (from Lin Jia) and another by the Patel family (from Adventure Toys and, until last month, Buckingham Wine and Spirits). Thus far, it’s the story of individuals and/or families experiencing untold hardships in pursuit of the “American Dream,” which is ultimately realized. 

Our decision to initiate this series of stories was motivated, in large part, by the five-year-long attack on immigrants that began when Donald Trump launched his campaign with a tirade focused on “drugs, criminals and rapists” coming across the border from Mexico. Then, after taking office, he banned immigrants from Muslim countries and notoriously (as a nod to the White Power movement) claimed that there were “fine people, on both sides.” His insistence on labeling the COVID-19 pandemic as the “China Virus” also fostered antagonism not just towards Chinese-Americans but against Asian-Americans in general.

His attacks, often echoed by his supporters, are especially problematic and counter-productive given the fact that the United States is and has always been a nation of immigrants who are and have always been an essential key to our economic well-being. A 2019 article in Fortune Magazine notes that: 

For nearly as long as it has existed, the United States has been a magnet for global entrepreneurs and business leaders. First- or second-generation immigrants played a founding role in 44 of 2018’s top 100 Fortune 500 companies including Apple, AT&T, and Ford, according to data analysis published in the February 2019 issue of National Geographic. Other domestic blue chip firms founded by immigrants or their children? Alphabet. Amazon. Costco. And that barely scratches the surface. 

Of course, the economic contributions of immigrants barely scratches the surface. High on the overall list of benefits is the incredible diversity that we enjoy as Oakland residents. Fifty languages are spoken in our public schools, and we rank fourth in ethnic diversity nationwide.

To focus on one specific benefit, when you choose to dine out in the Greater Grand Lake area (including Adams Point) you can choose from at least fifteen Asian/Southeast Asian restaurants that are mostly owned by first- or second-generation immigrants from Thailand, India, China, Vietnam, Japan, Nepal, and Korea. These include three excellent Japanese/sushi restaurants within a two- or three-minute walk of one another on Grand. In addition, there are, by my count, at least three Mexican restaurants owned by individuals with immigrant roots. Mediterranean cuisine comes in a choice of flavors–Israeli or Greek. There’s an Ethiopian restaurant on Lake Park and another on the Adams Point stretch of Grand. We haven’t yet mentioned Caña and would definitely be remiss if we failed to mention Colonial Donuts, which is owned and operated by Phing Yamamoto, whose family came here after fleeing the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia–as is the case with the owners of Lakeshore Produce right next door.

As a direct result of all of the facets of the diversity that readers of this newsletter experience daily, I think it’s fair to say that we see the world quite differently than those who live in more homogeneous parts of this country. Yes, we enjoy each others’ cuisines, traditions, and festivals, but, more importantly, this diversity fosters tolerance. Efforts to denigrate immigrant communities largely fall on deaf ears here because we know otherwise through our personal experiences as Oaklanders, and especially so as loyal patrons of the essential first- and second-generation immigrant-owned independent businesses in the Grand Lake district. 

Fortuitously, much of what we’ve said about the immigrant experience is summarized by students at Lincoln Elementary School in a must-watch,  three-minute video brought to our attention this past week by Pamela Erickson. 

Editor’s Note: Please comment (below) regarding restaurants and other immigrant-owned businesses that are your personal favorites and, if you’d like the owners to share their stories, do encourage them to email us at info@splashpad.org with “Immigration Story” in the subject line.