The Fading American Dreams of China’s Most Notorious ‘Snakehead’
Before she died in prison, Sister Ping smuggled thousands of migrants from an obscure Chinese county to U.S. shores. Some now wish they'd never left.
The next year, Guo returned to Ting Jiang to visit family with a newly obtained green card he got through amnesty. He was given a hero’s welcome; a classmate, Zheng Xiuyu, remembers the brouhaha vividly. “More than two dozen girls stood in a queue in front of his home for him to select a wife. He was only 17,” said Zheng. (He is not related to Zheng Guangda, the teacher mentioned earlier.)
Guo’s reception contrasted sharply with Zheng’s own courtship experience. “When I went to the matchmaker asking to see the photos of the girls in a profile folder, she declined and said those were reserved for people coming back from the United States,” Zheng Xiuyu said. “At that moment, I vowed to myself that I had to come to the United States, too.” He arrived stateside in 1995 after a zigzagging route through several countries that consumed six months.
By the late 1980s, everyone in Ting Jiang felt the shift. Ou Shuiming, a math teacher at the school, had noticed students disappearing from his class, starting in the mid-1980s. “They didn’t tell the teachers they were going abroad. [But] when they stopped coming to school, you knew what happened,” said Ou.
The summer after the class of 1990 graduated from the county’s middle school, Ou quietly boarded a plane to Thailand. From there, he was told to catch a boat to Malaysia. While onboard, he was given a Japanese passport with his own picture and a plane ticket to Los Angeles. He paid the smugglers $30,000 for the trip.
The journey was smooth until Ou arrived in the United States and was greeted by an immigration officer who spoke Japanese. Ou only knew one word of the language and was quickly exposed. He was arrested, bailed out by a friend the next day, and immediately headed to New York to work in a restaurant run by a distant relative.
By the time Ou arrived in the United States in 1990, about a hundred or so of his own students had already come before him. And the smuggling fee had climbed to $30,000, where it had once been $18,000. But his students kept coming. Eventually about 310 of the 350 members of the middle school class of 1983, Ou’s first group of students, had immigrated to the United States.
Ou, who has only recently retired from restaurant work, cannot stop thinking about what would have happened if he had not taken that trip. Had he stayed in China, he could have almost certainly risen to a high place in his beloved field, education. He could have opened his own cram school and possibly made serious money during the economic boom his home country eventually experienced. But Ou could not have possibly foreseen any of this when he left; at that time, his monthly salary was about $32, less than 2 percent of what he made toiling in a U.S. restaurant.
Ou consoles himself knowing that, after coming to the United States, he helped his three other siblings each send a child to the United States. Among them is Zhang Tianxing, a nephew who graduated in 1987 from the same middle school where Ou had taught.
So when Zhang, who came to the United States in 2002, decided to move back to China in 2011, Ou was both baffled and anxious. He knew China’s economy was strong; still, hadn’t coming to the United States been the dream of everyone in Fujian? Ou couldn’t understand why his nephew would give up a green card and a well-paid management job just to return.
For Zhang, however, the decision was clear. Even after landing stateside, Zhang had watched China’s economic rise with great interest, investing in the Chinese stock market from abroad and even buying a Fuzhou flat in 2004. “In the United States, I made more money than I could in China,” Zhang said. “But the returns of the stock market and real estate market were growing quickly in China.” Besides, he added, “In the United States, Fujianese immigrants don’t have much of a life. They work hard, and their only entertainment after work is to drink and gamble with family members and friends. I don’t want a life like that.”
By the time of Zhang’s return, going back to China to look for opportunities had become a new trend among émigrés. Almost every class of the alumni association had a few people already heading East, or preparing to do so. The businesses they established in China include hotels, manufacturing and real estate companies, and schools.
One of those enterprising alumni is Ni Zhoumin, a 1985 Ting Jiang middle school graduate. His early story as an immigrant smuggled into the United States traces the arc of the American dream, while his return home says much about the rise of the Chinese dream. Soon after arriving in the United States in 1987, Ni knew he would not be content with mere survival. Within two years, he had saved enough by working 13-hour days at a New Jersey restaurant to partner with a relative and open a takeout restaurant in Atlantic City. By 1991, Ni owned eight restaurants spread across New Jersey, North Carolina, and Virginia. In 1993 — around the time the Golden Venture ran aground, shocking Americans unaware of Ping’s massive, ongoing human-smuggling operation — Ni had founded a food distribution company based in North Carolina. The company now boasts 20 distribution centers and serves more than 20,000 Chinese restaurants nationwide.
In 2005, Ni needed to streamline order processing and lower his labor costs, so he set up a call center in Shanghai. Ni hired several Ting Jiang alumni as his company expanded. In 2012, the company opened a branch in Ting Jiang. The person Ni hired to run it is Zhang Tianxing, one of the school’s alumni.
Not all returnees have such a happy story. “Other families would be happy to see their loved ones coming back from the United States. But we were deep in sorrow,” said Lin Yan, a 50-year-old who runs a boutique shop with his wife in Fuzhou, as he took me to visit his brother, Lin Qiang. Lin Qiang now lives at the Shen Kang Mental Health Institution in the outskirts of Fuzhou. The building is clean and bright, but to see Lin Qiang, we had to pass through two locked fences to get to the visiting area, a reminder that this was not a college dormitory.
Lin Yan and his sister are both alumni of Ting Jiang’s middle school. But Lin Qiang, the youngest of the three siblings, dropped out after primary school. In 1992, he became the first in the family to go to the United States with the help of Sister Ping. His first month, he made $900 working at a restaurant that provided room and board. He sent $800 of it home, an amount Lin Yan would have had to work for a year to make in China. In a long-distance phone call after his arrival, Lin Qiang’s tone struck his siblings as happy. “He said it was hard work in the restaurant. But he didn’t mind because he could make the family live better,” recalled Lin Yan.
But the good days didn’t last. Four months after the Golden Venture ran aground, Lin Qiang suddenly ceased his regular calls home. The family went into a panic. They asked friends in the United States to look for Lin Qiang, to no effect. They started to fear the worst. “We thought he might have been killed by gangsters,” said Lin Yan.