Linda Tseng-Ong's and James Ong's individual narratives of immigrating to the United States in their teens offer two portraits of the American dream. By chance, UC San Diego played a part in their shared story of accomplishment, appreciation and generosity.
In the midst of the country's bicentennial celebrations in 1976, James and his brothers arrived in the United States with parents who could see no future under the stifling social and economic weight of Taiwan's system of martial law.
"At the age of 14, I embarked on my love affair for all things American," he says. "Today I can still smell my first bite of Kentucky Fried Chicken and my first nibble of McDonald's French fries. I can still see in my head the first time I touched the splendor of the Grand Canyon and the magic of Yosemite."
Within a few weeks of his arrival in California, James was placed in an Irvine public high school ("No questions asked, just your utility bill") and began learning English. Four years later he was admitted to UC Berkeley and, in another four, the UC San Diego School of Medicine. He went on to train in internal medicine and cardiology in Los Angeles.
"In little over a decade, the public schools of America had transformed a Taiwanese boy catching frogs and tadpoles into a cardiologist operating on the hearts of its citizens," he says.
In 1983, James himself became a U.S. citizen and remembers a late-night visit in Washington D.C. that year when, "as a newly naturalized American, I came face-to-face with President Lincoln. I remember how proud I was, traveling with that pristine blue passport."
For Linda, South America was the first stop on the journey to the United States with her parents and three siblings. An internationally respected anesthesiologist and pain specialist, Linda's father attended conferences around the world, always keeping an eye out for potential: sanctuaries for his family should Taiwan's political situation erupt. Increasingly fearful of Communist rule, in 1976, while Dr. Tseng remained in Taiwan, the family went to Argentina hoping for residency and safety, but finding corruption and upheaval in the aftermath of President Juan Peron's presidency. The family stayed for one year, then received good news: the University of Utah extended the offer of a visiting professorship to Dr. Tseng, and the family found a welcoming—if temporary—new home.
Dr. Tseng spent a year of sabbatical at the University of Utah doing research but had to return home at the conclusion of the year. He returned to Taiwan to continue as the head of the anesthesiology department at Kaohsiung Medical University as well as his pain clinic practice in Taiwan.
"The people in Utah were very friendly," says Linda, "but my high school had only four Asians, so my mom said let's try California!"
The family moved to Upland, a Los Angeles suburb, where Linda's mother got a job in a technical field and applied for permanent residency. After four years of moving, acclimating and uncertainty, they became citizens of the United States where, Linda laughs, "It was nice to have an Asian community again!"
James' parents—business entrepreneurs in Taiwan—started their American life in the greasy kitchen of a Newport Beach fast-food restaurant, serving fish and chips to tourists. The restaurant closed its doors in the recession of 1982, which opened a window of opportunity for James' father to venture into the new field of personal computing.
"A few years later," says James, "the high-tech startup that my father created with three other partners—all first-generation immigrants—went IPO on Wall Street.
"What other country in the world would welcome its immigrants with open arms, treat them with dignity and respect, and shower them with endless opportunities regardless of race, gender or creed?"
Endless opportunities included education. James and Linda both attended UC San Diego-she as an undergraduate, he as a medical school student—yet they didn't meet until later, in Los Angeles. Linda had earned a B.A. in bioengineering at the Jacobs School, then went on to earn a medical degree from Loma Linda University where, as an intern, she met James, a resident. Today she is a pediatric neurologist on the faculties of UCLA and Children's Hospital Los Angeles. James is a cardiologist/cardiac electrophysiologist in private practice in Los Angeles. A second home in La Jolla helps keep them close to family in the area, and to the campus they care about for many reasons.
"At UC San Diego, I had an opportunity to study abroad in France for a year," says Linda. Already fluent in Chinese, Taiwanese, English and Spanish, in Paris she perfected her French. "It was such an amazing experience, realizing how people saw Americans. I gained an even greater appreciation for this country. I knew that here, if you work hard you have opportunity. But it's also such a generous country—it takes you in, allows and encourages you to be the best you can be."
As did their families. "My parents went through the war under Japanese colonization," says Linda, "which made them very tough, hardworking and grateful. They really instilled in us the love of learning. My dad always has a book in hand and reads all the time."
Professor Tseng, in his 80s, takes classes on the UC San Diego campus. "He loves learning Spanish and made so many friends with the teachers and students there at Extension," Linda adds.
Linda and James have passed their families' values on to their children—Alexander, a musically gifted son entering high school; daughter Tiffany, who is studying bioengineering at Stanford; and daughter Christina, who is pursuing a teaching credential at UC Berkeley.
Linda and James also model generosity. They've named UC San Diego in their estate plans, a gift earmarked for medical education. James says with a smile, "When we're gone we won't need our money anymore, and how much do our kids need anyway? We want to put our money to good use because we all start with zero and benefit from this society. This is a way to give a small part back to the world.
"For many today, being American is an entitlement, but for some of us, it is grace."
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