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The Immigrant's Way

by Margaret W. Wong

Editor's note: We feature an excerpt from Margaret Wong's book, "The Immigrant's Way".

This book is meant to be read by all foreign borns, whether you aspire to come to America or are already here, whether you have legal status or not. You may feel disappointed in life and have not accomplished what you set out to do. I asked myself why I have this burning desire to write this manuscript and to give you my wisdom and lessons learnt from mistakes in my 40 years living in America. You and your parents have helped me build my practice. Without you, I really would not be here. So, to return your faith in me, and to thank you for allowing me the opportunity to work with you for all these years - helping you get permanent residency (Green Cards), fighting deportation, and obtaining U.S. citizenship - I am writing this book.

I understand how disappointed and sad you can get when you worked so hard in this country for so long but cannot get a Green Card, the indicator of permanent residency and acceptance into the American system. Having experienced the same difficulties with the process of immigration to the United States, I wanted to help others along the way, which is why I chose to become an immigration lawyer. Now, looking back on these past four decades, I want to write down what I have learned so that other immigrants can benefit from my experiences, but more importantly, from my mistakes.

I think back to my own journey: leaving Hong Kong when I was only 19, a naïve school girl from an all-girl Catholic school; being fired from waitress jobs during college for not being able to distinguish between a Rob Roy with olive, a Manhattan with cherry, and a martini with a double twist; and now being a nationally known immigration attorney with offices in five cities, counseling thousands of foreign-borns on how to obtain and maintain legal status in the United States. I am living the American dream.

A lot of people probably wonder why we still want to come to America, with its high crime rate, interracial issues, highly publicized corruption, and shaky economic conditions, when the rising powers in India, China and Russia are starting to equalize the power structure of global markets. Yet it is my firm belief that the United States is still the best country in which to live, thrive, and become somebody.

Along my journey, I have become one of the honorees of the Ohio Women Hall of Fame, co-chair of the NAPABA District Immigration Law Committee, an honoree of the Ellis Island medal of honor, a life member of the 6th Federal Judicial District and the 8th Ohio Judicial District, and a board member of the United Way and Ohio Notre Dame College. For philanthropy I received the Margaret Ireland Award from the Cleveland Women's City Club and the 1997 Creative Philanthropy Award from the Women’s Community Foundation. I am also named in Crain's Cleveland Business’s "Women of Influence" list and Cleveland Magazine’s list of "Most Interesting People." As the first Asian-American president of the Cleveland Chapter of the Federal Bar Association, the Cleveland chapter won the coveted Chapter Activity Award. I was also appointed by the Ohio Supreme Court as a charter member of the Continuing Legal Education Commission for attorneys, and I served as a member of its Ohio Supreme Court Racial Task Force.

While I have had many successes, there have been setbacks as well. My divorce was so painful that I have had to shut it out from my mind. After being physically and emotionally abused by my first husband, I was rendered so insecure that I believed even spending money on a Starbucks coffee would render me penniless when I grew old, with nobody to care for me. I still do not buy an ice cream cone or a nice mechanical pencil without thinking about it. In spite of my numerous awards and board memberships, that feeling of impotence, and of being an outsider, has driven me to write this book for all of us foreign-borns. There is hope for people like us, and dreams still waiting to be realized in America. I hope some of the experiences in this book will resonate with other zero-generation immigrants, who like me may often feel out of place both in the lands of our birth and our adopted homeland. (I use the term zero-generation to refer to those like me, who are immigrants to the U.S. and not born here. My children are first-generation Americans, although it is also valid to say I am a first generation immigrant, they are second generation).

How can more foreign-borns survive and thrive in this land and become truly a part of it, helping to make history along the way? How do we become what we are destined to be and make our parents, as well as our makers, proud?

First, there are certain things that most foreign-borns, or at least that I, may never understand: the New Yorker cartoons, and for that matter, most American jokes. Despite this, most foreign-borns in the United States are tenacious survivors. We work hard to save and to bring our families to America to enjoy a better life—in living standards, personal freedoms, and environmental conditions. We also tend to be stoic, do not voice our opinions often, and are generally more accepting and accommodating to the not-so-great things that happen to us or around us, while being thankful for the good things that do happen.

Please do not lose faith in yourself! Just because you were not born in this country and do not and sound mainstream does not mean that you cannot become successful here. I have summarized my tactics toward success in 22 rules:

1. Learn to speak English.

I know it is difficult, especially when you work three jobs a day and are just trying to survive. Take an English language class at the library, or ask your neighbor to record a story on a tape for you. Whenever you are working, if it does not require answering phones, keep listening to it and repeating the words.

Try to learn twenty new words a day. Be sure you learn how to speak proper English (as opposed to slang words or the “F” word). Do not use swear words, or at least use them very rarely.

Keep in mind that most American women do not like to be called “baby,” “darling,” “young woman,” or “honey.” When in doubt, address Americans as Mr. or Ms. Suchandsuch, sir, or ma’am. It is always better to be humble than snobbish.

2. Become a good communicator.

We are not like natives in this land that we have made our home. They were born here and have spoken and written English their entire lives. However, expressing ourselves clearly is crucial for success in America.

Why did my boss give me a raise and appreciate me as myself, and not just as a nondescript worker? It was because I knew how to express myself and worked hard on my job. I may speak with an accent, but if I am a good worker, my boss will be able to tell as well. How do they know I am a good worker? They know because I can express myself to better understand the needs of the job, customers, co-workers and supervisors. Communicate your ideas. There are two ways to exert leadership: writing and speaking skills. At least be good at one of these skills.

3. Save your money, pay taxes, and file annual tax returns.

From where many of us come, our governments do not do enough good for our people. Bureaucrats may take our tax money and use it to buy things for themselves. In the United States, the system is different. The more money that we report we make, the more we can borrow and establish credit.

We should learn not to be too commercialized. We should remember to be more frugal, because most of us do not have a lot of friends or relatives in the United States who can help us on a rainy day. Buying many clothes, expensive clothes, or designer handbags is not worth it in the United States most of the time. Unlike our countries of birth, where wearing brand name clothes can impress others, in the United States, smart people will not feel differently as long as you are neat and clean while less smart people will only become jealous of you. So why bother?

4. Make friends.

Learn from those around you. Everyone has a different set of strengths and specialties in knowledge. You do not have to be inside a classroom to learn. Many of your native-born American friends can teach you a lot about American and Western history, culture, and language. Some of the knowledge they take for granted can be very helpful for you, who are lacking in this department.

Teach native-born Americans that you are not better or worse than those who are born in the United States, just different. You are an ambassador from your native culture, so help them understand you, and in doing so, they may get rid of some misconceptions about immigrants and foreigners. Show them that although you may be less practiced at English grammar and spelling than they, it does not mean you are stupider or less competent than those who were born in this country.

5. Smile often. Show gratitude, and remember to write thank you notes. Always be polite.

We want the best of both worlds, so we need to be accepted and fit into both worlds. Proper manners can help in this respect. Remember to knock on the door before you enter a private room. Westerners treasure their privacy in many cases more than the rest of the world. Remember to hold the door open for the next person going into the same door behind you. Do not spit or throw gum or cigarette butts out the window or on the streets. Also, remember not to squat on the ground; it is considered uncouth in the Western world.

I still remember when I first came to the United States in 1969. That day I was with my host family, and I opened the window on the highway to enjoy some fresh air. While I thought the air was fresher than that of Hong Kong, my hosts almost died from the wind because the car was going sixty-five miles per hour.

6. Keep your dreams. Visualize them, and make them happen.

Do not let the toughness of life in the United States wear you down. It is difficult when we do not have a permanent home or have to worry about our spouse divorcing us and causing us to lose our legal status, social security number, driver’s license, bank accounts, etc. Remember that our status does not represent or define who we are. We are who we are from our side. In taking an intelligent choice and calculated risk to come to the United States to start a new life, we are the trailblazers from our countries of birth and for our families. We have to remember to keep our faith.

You and I are not here in America to just be nobodies. We came to the United States for a better chance at becoming a “somebody” and living a good life – something we may not have the opportunity for in our countries of birth.

7. Be positive, think positive, act positive.

I was denied my foreign student visa three times before I was finally approved. That was only after my parents had begged one of their rich friends to sign for me, guaranteeing my living expenses in the United States in spite of my scholarship to the university. I am still friends with my sponsor to this day. In fact, their granddaughter, Karen Chang, is now in law school and had clerked for our firm prior to returning to school. She also contributed to this book. Hopefully, she will become a lawyer at my firm one day.

Some people may view us with suspicion or even hostility, but that is mostly because of their ignorance and assumptions based on our looks and accents. Once we show them who we really are, they will understand to look past appearances and may even be less prejudiced when looking at other immigrants.

As foreign countries become wealthier, America will have fewer foreigners like us who have no status and are willing to work hard for very little money. If we leave, who will do our work here? Of course, I am only day dreaming, because the thought of me leaving this beloved country of mine is ridiculous.

8. Read, meditate and think, manage your thoughts.

Just because we do not have permanent status does not mean that we should lose ourselves to the panic and depression and forget to live our lives. If we are constantly worried about the federal government picking us up and jailing us even though we may never have been ordered deported, or about some overzealous police officer calling ICE, we will lose sight of who we really are and where we want to go from here.

We need to clear our minds to focus on what will empower us so that we can improve ourselves and become stronger. We need to control our minds and our attitudes. We are not going to leave our home here anyway, so why drive ourselves nuts just thinking about it?

We are all scared of something. As foreign-borns in this country, we are always scared of the police, and because of this we often forget why we are here in this beautiful country in the first place – to raise our children and give them the dignity that they would never get in our countries of birth; to learn English; to be able to walk into a beautiful hotel and have tea in their restaurants like everyone else, which is often not possible in our countries of origin; to be free from harassment and kidnapping; to become the best we can be; and for some, to be the first in our families who came to America, and be the trailblazer.

Of course, we love this country even if some of the locally-born residents harbor resentment towards us. All we want is to stay here, make a quiet living, and live here to support our families.

9. Do not get on government support, even if those around us think it is free. Nothing is free in life.

Once we get Medicaid, Medicare, or Welfare, it is very hard to get green cards or to become United States Citizens. The more we do this, the more we play into the American stereotype of immigrants wanting something for free and living off “real” Americans’ money. We are strong and good people. We can work for what we are entitled to in the United States. Although we may be poor in legal status, we should try very hard to not be on government support.

10. Do not drink alcohol before driving. Do not try illegal drugs. Do not get into fights.

Do not get violent no matter how angry you are at work, with friends, family, or strangers. Do not raise a knife to threaten people when you are angry. We have laws in America, and disobeying them can result in criminal charges. They can put us in jail even if we are just angry and expressing it since we do not speak English.

Do not hit your spouse or shout too loudly at them. It is a criminal offense in America to hit your spouse. Remember that in this country, just because she married you for life does not mean that she has to sleep with you. No means no. You cannot force a spouse to do things with you that she does not want to do.

Also, do not buy or carry a gun if you are not yet an American citizen. We are in a foreign land. We need to honor their rules just as we expect them to pay us fair wages because we work for them.

11. Children belong in schools. Education is their way toward greatness.

We do not want our children to be like us, doing menial and often smelly work with very little pay and no respect. We want them to be just like our picture of the other Americans - big, handsome, beautiful, and doing office work. They will be able to earn the big bucks so they don’t have to depend on their children like we do when we get old. We see American kids as different. They have a lot of choices. We think they can do anything they want - buy 100 dollar Nike shoes (the real ones and not fakes), buy beautiful bags that never in my life time I dared to dream of owning, and spoil themselves with little fear of retribution.

Being successful now, I try to help more people who are less fortunate in the world. So many people in your country of birth need our aid in U.S. dollars to help buy their food, build their huts, and buy medicine. America encourages its citizens to share their wealth with others.

12. Push yourself to keep up with the times – learn how to use computers and the internet.

I still remember when I first applied for the visa to come to the United States in 1969. We were at the height of the Vietnam War, and even though the youngsters in the U.S. were against it, the western world respected America for sticking to its promises and its policies to fight the communists. The world was not as rich and the internet didn’t exist back then. Now, you can find just about anything on the internet. Knowledge is king. We need to flow with it.

We need to push ourselves to learn how to use computers and other modern technology. We need to push our children to learn, as well. Then, they can be somebody one day. Our children can do anything they want to, provided they work hard for it.

13. Focus on your goals. See a good immigration lawyer at least once a year.

Everyone needs legal status in the United States. Remember to do a change of address by filling out the AR-11 form with the government whenever you move (until you become a U.S.C, when you can stop filling this out). It is really easy. To tell the truth, it is easier this way, because then we don’t have to keep remembering who and what we said when. Always go to court when it is ordered, because the laws have changed since the ‘80s. If we do not go when we are told to, we will get an in absentia deportation order which is very difficult to reopen when you want to get a green card.

When you see an immigration lawyer each year, only see qualified help. Do not just go to anybody that your friend recommends. Immigration fraud is a big business, because the people know that we are desperate to stay here, and so they charge big bucks. Some Koreans spend between 30 and 50 thousand dollars to come to the U.S. illegally. It costs many Chinese about $70 thousand to come illegally and $100 thousand to come legally. Do not get involved. Remember, we are not natives here and Americans do not accept that we just trusted our friends and that our friends were not supposed to cheat us when something like this happens. This is a land of law, not of instant gratification. There is a process that we all have to go through to get to somewhere. Nothing is easy in life. If it were so easy, we would not be here. Remember, we are the trailblazers. Just marrying an American may not solve the problem.

14. Eat healthy.

Most of us do not have health insurance, which means that we cannot afford to be sick. Doctors and hospitals are very expensive. It will take your life savings (after tax) to get any surgery done. Even the rich are often unable to afford it. Will yourself to not get sick. Rest and sleep, and don’t get anxious or depressed because of your visa issues. In my practice, I’m increasingly seeing depressed and anxiety-ridden people who are worried sick about their status. They get so angry. Negative energy is transferable and transparent. We have made a choice of coming to America to give ourselves and our kids a good life. We do not have the luxury of getting sick. Protect your bodies physically, mentally, and spiritually. Even when we’re very stressed, we need to try to eat and sleep properly. Pray, and stay healthy. When you do become sick, go see your friends who may know some doctors who are from our countries so that they might be able to help us. Rest and focus your energy somewhere else.

If you do have to go to the hospital, you can negotiate a payment plan and pay them monthly. Also, if you are to go see a doctor, do not walk into the emergency room, unless you have to - make an appointment first. It will be much, much cheaper that way.

15. Good will be rewarded with good.

I have gotten so much help from my college in the years since coming to the U.S. that now I am trying to give back by sitting on the Boards of organizations that do good for foreign borns. I am trying to give back to my law school, the State University of New York Law School at Buffalo, and Cleveland State University in my home town, by sitting on the advisory board. I also give scholarships to help Notre Dame College in Cleveland.

What goes around comes around. I work closely with my church, because without everything they have taught me, the values they imparted to me, and their scholarships, I would not be where I am today.

Remember: the good that America has done for us and all the kindness to others will be paid back one day. Only in this country can we reinvent ourselves in less than one lifetime and see the changes and joy that the freedom can give us. It is not fleeting. We can go get a cup of coffee and enjoy it in the sun outside or at night in our own homes without the fear that it would be taken away from us or that we would be jailed for no reason. Even most of our jails here are nicer than the jails in our birth countries.

Most people in the United States do not discriminate as much as we think they do. When they do treat us a little oddly, usually it is because we are doing things a little differently from what they expect (not holding doors open to others behind us, crossing the street when we’re not supposed to, etc.). Sometimes they are just jealous that we work so hard and make them look bad for not putting in as much effort. But we do so mostly because we don’t have much choice – unlike them, we don’t have as many friends and family to fall back on in times of economic hardship. Once we educate them about the reasons why we are here, they will understand us better. If they don’t, that is their problem and not ours. We can only do so much within our power to change the world. Let’s try to take one step at a time.

16. Do not do stupid things which you know are stupid.

One example is renting a warehouse to help a friend store their phony Gucci or Louis Vuitton bags so that they can sell them. It is a serious crime, even though you thought you were only renting the warehouse and not committing the crime of selling counterfeit goods. American courts view it as you conspiring with the person committing the crime, and you can be fined or jailed for it. The fact that you knew about the fake goods makes it a criminal act even if you were not at the scene when the fake goods were sold and you didn’t make any money from it. This will make your clean record with the courts not so clean anymore. Our firm handled a case with this exact fact pattern.

Selling drug paraphernalia is a crime even if you are not selling the drug. Ecstasy is a drug. It is not just for a party or for having private fun with a friend. Giving your friend an ecstasy pill in her mouth, even if it is not swallowed or chewed, makes you both guilty of committing a criminal act.

We may not think this is fair, but these are the laws of this country. I have seen so many cases like this. I know you did not mean to do any harm and did not even know that this was against the law. But be careful! You are new in this country. You are the ones that the government is watching even more closely than others. Do well. Do not hurt your families and make them lose faith, lose love, and lose face because you were stupid.

17. Develop your core skills. Strengthen your weaknesses.

Life is more than just making money and sending it home to pay for a new house for our families back in our birth countries. They want us to do better, also, and be the best that we can be. It takes at least two to three years to be good at anything: being a carpenter, a professor, a grounds maintenance person, cook, lawyer, etc. The sun shines everyday, and we go to work everyday. We’re often willing to work six, or even seven days a week. If you want to succeed, if you want to be at the front of the pack instead of the back, you just have to work harder than others.

18. Keep up with current events.

Try to read at least two English newspapers a day – local and national news. I personally read the Cleveland Plain Dealer, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal.

You can learn from reading the newspaper both the current news and the culture within the United States, as well as international news and topics reminding us of where we came from and pointing us in the direction of where we want to go.

The New York Times has a liberal bent. The Wall Street Journal is very pro business. Your local paper will help you learn what and who is important in your city and state. This way, you will know whom to call if you need help (whether it would be with the government, NGOs, or businesses).

An alternative is to force yourself to watch the morning, evening or nightly news. While you generally will get less information from these sources, it is cheaper, and will also help with your listening and pronunciation skills.

19. Keep a daily journal.

It will help you keep track of the many ups and downs, successes and hardships you have gone through. This will also help keep you focused on your long-term goals.

Remember to look back once in a while. What has happened in the past week, month, year, decade? See how much you have accomplished in this time. If you have not moved forward toward your goals, perhaps in the next week, month or decade you can try something else. I like the line from this old black and white movie, Swing Time. When you fall, “Pick yourself up. Dust yourself off. Start all over again.”

20. Keep your faith.

Never lose your call of belief. We are people who wanted to come to the U.S. and came. Remember how you heard and read stories when you were very young at home about neighbors and friends who became a "somebody" in the U.S., and you knew you could do it as well? You nagged and nagged mom to let you leave and to help raise some money for you. You had an epiphany that somehow you would get here. But after getting here now what? You may be working three jobs, living in a dingy apartment, taking the bus, and watching the rich people go shopping.

Don’t ever lose that feeling and remembrance that somehow we will make it. It does take about five years. There will be so many times when we have regrets, kick and scream, and miss home, but I know we can do it. We are here in the United States. Trust me, after three to five years, you could survive and thrive working one job, and be happy.

21. Motto - A family, education, and hard work – If you think in this order, good things will come.

22. Moral Compass – Don’t forget it!

About The Author

Margaret W. Wong is a licensed, practicing immigration lawyer who has been representing foreign borns since 1977. Amongst other accolades and honors, she has been inducted into the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame, is a recipient of the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, and served as the first Asian American president of the Northeastern Chapter of the Federal Bar Association. Her law firm handles over 5,000 matters with foreign borns each year, with offices in Cleveland, New York, Atlanta, Columbus, and Detroit. She resides in Cleveland with her husband and two children. She is a life member of the 6th Circuit and 8th Judicial District. She is listed as an Ohio Super Lawyer and Ohio Leading Lawyer, and as one of Cleveland Magazine's Most Interesting People. She sits on the Boards of United Way, St. Vincent Charity Hospital, and Notre Dame College in Cleveland. She is an avid educator, reader, and writer. Currently she is the co-chair of the Immigrant Law Committee of NAPABA. She is a Charter founding member of the Ohio Supreme Court CLE Commission and Ohio Supreme Court Racial Task Force, and a life member of the Ohio State Bar Foundation and Federal Bar Association. She currently sits on the National Advisory Committee of the Cleveland State University Law School and the State University of New York at Buffalo Law School. She is also the author of "The Immigrant's Way". To learn more, see

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