Nineteen years ago, my parents decided to move our entire family to the suburbs. As it turns out, we weren’t the only ones. A recent Washington Post article highlights the national trend of APAs moving away from urban Chinatowns and into suburban communities.
Back then, I didn’t really understand why we were moving so far away. We were living in Elmhurst, Queens, and had a fairly comfortable life. We attended a local Chinese church and we shopped at local Chinese grocery stores. Many of our family friends and relatives lived nearby. We were also close to my grandparents, who lived in Manhattan’s Chinatown.
One day, my parents decided to buy a house in Great Neck, a predominantly Jewish neighborhood that was a thirty minute drive away. Unfortunately, the house we bought was a fixer-upper, which meant that it needed renovations. We wouldn’t be able to move in until February of the following year. By then, we’d have missed half of the school year. So in order to make sure that our schooling wouldn’t be interrupted, my parents decided to have my sister and me attend the Great Neck schools immediately, before we moved.
That meant that every morning, we’d have to wake up at 6 AM. After a quick breakfast and change of clothes, we’d pile into the family car. My mother would drive us down Queens Boulevard in our cherry-red Pontiac Grand Am. We’d hop on to the Long Island Expressway, where we’d putter along (never over 55 miles an hour) until we reached Exit 33.
My sister was first dropped off at the local junior high school. I’d be dropped off elsewhere since I was still in elementary school. My mother and I would take our time as we drove over to my school, since we had half an hour to kill. We would wait in the elementary school parking lot while listening to 1010 WINS news on the radio. When the time came, I’d jump out of the car, walk across the parking lot, and go to school.
Then, my mother would drive back to Elmhurst and go to work.
After the school day ended, my mother would leave work to drive back to Great Neck and pick us up. First she’d go to the middle school to get my sister, and then she’d drive to the elementary school and get me. Finally, we’d head on back to Queens.
She did this for six months.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but that is one hell of a commute. Every day she would be on the road for over two and a half hours, and that’s if there wasn’t any traffic. I don’t think I truly appreciated it until I was older and started working and had a commute of my own.
I later asked my parents why we moved to the suburbs in the first place. Why did my mother have to endure such a terrible commute? Why did we pick up and leave such a familiar community and move far away from our friends and relatives? For me, it was an uncomfortable experience. Besides having to make new friends, there were just so many cultural differences between the city and the suburbs.
My parents told me that they did it for the schools. More than anything else, they were worried that my sister and I wouldn’t get a good enough education in the city. What if we didn’t do well enough to qualify for entry into one of the specialized public schools? The schools we were zoned for were terrible. And not only were the schools in Great Neck strong, the neighborhoods were also quiet and safe. There, my parents wouldn’t have to worry quite as much about our safety and well-being.
Basically, my parents decided to move for the benefit of their children.
To me, that’s really the reason why so many APA families have migrated to the suburbs. It’s not merely to achieve some vague sense of the American Dream – a nice house, a front yard, and a prettier neighborhood.
It’s really so that their children can attend good schools in safe neighborhoods. It’s so that the kids can have a strong foundation so that they will have a better future. The spirit that drove them to leave their home country and immigrate to America is the same spirit that drives them to move to the suburbs.