An American born from the outsideWanly Chen
Sep 26, 2018
The story of a Chinese-born Malaysian and his American identity.
From the outside, Victor Cheung* looks like an average 21-year-old American. He attends college, plays basketball, goes to the clubs in Midtown, New York, and occasionally has philosophical conversations with his friends when they smoke.
But Cheung lives on the edge of the American dream everyday. His journey of becoming an American as a Chinese-born Malaysian started at the age of two, when his family immigrated here. He is also one of nearly 800,000 DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) recipients, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services – a program that was terminated by President Trump back in September 2017.
The end of the program leaves Cheung’s future in America questionable. Despite his Malaysian birth, Cheung admits English is the only language he knows how to speak. He said he doesn’t want to go back to a country he doesn’t know; to him, he is an American.
What is an Asian American in your terms?
Someone who is obviously Asian, or of Asian heritage, but grew up here with American values. I have American values, you know, which obviously I can see through the conflicts between my parents. My parents are Asians but I’m Asian American.
Why do you consider yourself an Asian American?
I do because I am from Asia and I was raised here. I believe in the pursuit of happiness, and striving for your dreams and not just settling for something that is safe. I think recently I’ve been more outspoken1 , and not shy which I would say it’s an immigrant and also a Chinese thing.
Why did your family want to come to America?
There are a bunch of reasons – like the better opportunities. From my dad’s perspective, my mom wanted to come here because my mom’s side moved here. When I ask my mom on why she moved here, she said that it’s because my dad lost his job and we didn’t have opportunities there.
When did you first understand the meaning of an undocumented immigrant?
After high school. I didn’t understand how important it was until I had to apply for FASFA and I was told, “You can’t have this aid unless you were a permanent resident.” That was kind of a huge let down. Then I thought about how I [couldn’t] open a bank account or have a driver license without paperwork. It made me think of how my brothers went through it because since they’re older than me and they went through a lot of their older years not having social security – I wonder how they thought about getting a job and stuff. I was 18 when I got my social security so they probably went through their early 20s without one and they had to search for under-the-book jobs so that must have been hard.
Could you and your family get deported now?
[We] can get deported now. If immigration services really want to come in and knock on our doors and deport us, they can. Just because you have a social security number, it doesn’t mean you could stay. You need to have permanent residence, that’s when you’re allowed to stay as long as you want. We came on travel visas before, which expired, so that’s an illegal immigration.
Do you think you’ll ever be able to become a U.S. citizen?
Hopefully. It seems that everything is so limited now because there are options that are hard. Marriage would be the easiest way…, I understand it’s easy to marry somebody for the papers but I just feel it’s kind of wrong. At the same time, I’m mostly young and I don’t know how it feels to feel like the world is closing in on you and not have any stable future.
What are some ways that society can help you?
Future proofing my life. I can graduate with my degree, but that doesn’t mean I could get a job. I would have to go to a whole new country [because] I’m just going to have to use the degree that I got; it would just be a waste to stay here.
I was scared because I didn’t want to go back to a country that I don’t know, but somebody said something really cool, like you could go to Singapore [since] English is their first language. So I was like perfect, I guess I’ll go to Singapore then. I can see myself making it making a new life still but it’s not something that I would want to do. If I was forced to do, I’ll do it.
What changes would you want to see to make that happen?
[DACA] is kind of open ended. We don’t know how long this is going to last, it’s not sustainable. Although I hate Trump for rescinding the problem, it really brought light to the program. People didn’t know what it was, but now that this is happening, people are like protect all DACA kids. But we’ve been here for mad years, you guys never noticed until now because he’s trying to take it away.
The Dream Act is a surefire way [of] the possibility of actually having permanent resident. Right now, if DACA continues, it’s just this deferral – it’s literally pushing it aside and keeping us safe for now but not actually providing us with a legitimate way to stay here legally.
For people reading, what do you want them to take away from the article?
Understand that we’re literally like them, the only thing that is stopping us is papers. We’re all the same people, we grew up on the same block, we went to the same schools, we spoke to the same people, same teachers and stuff. We grew up the same, but the only thing that is separating us is the place where I was born.
*Editor’s note: Names have been changed to protect victims’ identities.
1: The interviewee believes being outspoken is an American trait.
This interview has been edited and condensed.