Zhuang Liehong and his wife, Little Yan, weren’t suppose to fly to JFK Airport. When they left their small village in China’s Guangdong Province in the winter of 2014, they were part of a government-licensed tour visiting the United States with a final stop in Las Vegas — and were suppose to stay with the group.
As assurance they would come back, Zhuang and Little Yan left their 8-month-old son, Kaizhi, behind with his two sets of grandparents.
But they were willing to take the risk to get out of China for good.
“I wanted to live in a land of freedom and democracy,” Zhuang told The Post, munching boiled chicken feet during a dim sum feast at East Buffet, his favorite Chinese restaurant in Flushing, Queens.
“I knew I had to leave China and come to America for that.”
They realized it would be months — at the earliest — before they would see their child again. That there was even a risk that they would never reunite. Sympathy from the Chinese government can be in short supply. Especially if, like Zhuang, 34, you organized pro-democracy protests and served a brief stint in jail.
Little Yan, 32, remembered leaving behind her son and embarking on a 7,000-mile trip into the unknown. “I wanted to cry,” she said. “But I didn’t want to do it in front of Kaizhi. My biggest fear was that he would see us years later and not recognize me as his mother.”
They ditched the group in Las Vegas and took an afternoon flight to JFK. Zhuang had just one telephone number in his pocket. It was that of Brooklyn-based journalist Lauren Hilgers, 37. She met him while reporting a freelance story on the revolutionary activities that Zhuang stirred up in his Chinese village.
“He asked for my phone number and talked about coming to the US,” Hilgers said. “I didn’t think he would do it.”
Hilgers took the two under her wing and wound up embedding with them for their first three years in New York. She chronicled the couple’s struggle to gain an American toe-hold in a new book, “Patriot Number One: American Dreams in Chinatown” (Crown).
Zhuang and Little Yan spoke almost no English when they touched down, although they were better off than many Chinese newcomers: They arrived with a $30,000 nest egg, proceeds from a parcel of land Zhuang had sold.
Still, their means were limited. A Chinese real-estate broker all but kicked them out of her office after realizing the couple’s meager budget — less than $700 a month.
Later on, a Chinese landlord unceremoniously evicted them from an apartment where, unbeknownst to Zhuang and Little Yan, they were subletting illegally.
“Helping other people is not part of the Chinese culture,” Zhuang said. “Chinese people mind their own business and focus on how much money they can earn.”
Little Yan managed to get work doing manicures in low-rent nail salons, but the fumes gave her terrible headaches. Zhuang bounced from job to job. He delivered Chinese food, bussed tables, shelled shrimp. Formerly a tea-shop owner, he felt too good for menial labor and ignored Little Yan’s suggestions that he become an Uber driver and bristled at her put-downs.
At one point, she snapped, “You’re a good eater but a lazy worker.”
Zhuang and Little Yan were not alone in their quest to game the system for a better life in America.
According to the Migration Policy Institute, roughly 268,000 Chinese illegal immigrants reside in the US. The institute estimates that 63,000 of them live in Brooklyn, Queens and Manhattan.
These days, according to Min Zhou, a UCLA sociology professor who specializes in Asian studies, the easiest way to land Stateside without documentation is to use the same strategy Zhuang and Little Yan employed: Get a tourist visa and never leave.
Making such immigration surprisingly easy is that Chinese authorities care less than they once did about citizens leaving the mainland. Additionally, visas to the US are relatively easy to obtain.
“The Chinese government does not place a lot of restrictions on travel,” Zhou said. “When you’re a dissident, they are happy if you leave. Then they don’t let you back in.”
During the 1990s, before China streamlined the process for scamming one’s way into the United States, many immigrants resorted to signing on with smuggling rings known as “snakeheads.” The rings sneaked immigrants in via cramped boats, one of which, the Golden Venture, ran aground off Rockaway Beach in 1993 with 286 passengers aboard; 10 of them died in the 53-degree waters.
Once here, those who survived snakehead voyages often found themselves needing to pay off as much as $70,000 in smuggling fees with what approximated indentured servitude.
Illegal immigrants who come over the modern way do their research ahead of time, via location-blocking software that circumvents China’s so-called Great Firewall. Often, they figure out where they want to live and establish social networks before hitting American soil. Nevertheless, particularly if they lack the $30,000 cushion of Zhuang and Little Yan, they don’t necessarily live much better than the smuggled immigrants.
“If you stay here, you are limited,” Zhou said. “You can find a place to live if you can subject yourself to crowded conditions” — some illegals sleep side-by-side on bunkbeds in dorm-style hostels, which Hilgers experienced during her research — “and get a job in Chinatown. You can make enough cash to live a basic life. But it is very hard to own a home or move up or make meaningful long-term plans.”
Zhuang thought he found a path to riches. He began buying products in America, shipping them to well-off residents of China and carving out a profit for himself. But the road dead-ended after only a few months. His rickety business failed for multiple reasons: a family member refusing to pay for goods sent, a regular customer planning his own trip to America (and, thus, not needing the services of Zhuang) and a government clampdown in his home village that made locals reluctant to receive packages from him.
‘When you’re a dissident, they are happy if you leave. Then they don’t let you back in’- Min Zhou
It left Little Yan questioning their decision to leave for the US. “The pressure was big,” she said. “When you go through hardship, feel bad and experience discomfort with the place where you live, it’s easy to let things get to you. Plus, I missed my parents and knew that I could not go back to China.”
Further stresses mounted due to the hurdle of gaining political asylum — which was necessary in order to have a shot at bringing in their son. At first, hiring a lawyer to make that happen looked like it would cost the budget-busting sum of $8,000.
But then Hilgers stepped in.
“I made a bunch of calls and found the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, which agreed to do it for free,” said Hilgers, who wrote about the nearly yearlong process of filing papers, waiting for answers and filing more papers. Looming over every moment was the reality that their son was on the other side of the world.
Chinese are the single largest nationality granted asylum, according to the Department of Homeland Security, although the “Northern Triangle” nations of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — as evidenced by the caravan of asylum seekers at our southern border — are gaining ground. In 2016, 20,455 people were granted asylum in the US, of which 4,484 were Chinese.
The number of Chinese citizens requesting asylum has increased in recent years, rising 19 percent between 2015 and 2016. More than half of people granted asylum status live in New York or California.
(Refugees are a separate legal category. In 2016, 84,989 refugees were admitted into the US, the most being from the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Syria.)
In 2015, Zhuang and Little Yan were granted asylum. Soon after, Zhuang’s family applied for son Kaizhi’s admission to the US. That came through the following year. When the document permitting immigration into the US “for the above named alien” arrived, it was photographed by Zhuang’s father and forwarded to Zhuang. He and Little Yan stared at it in disbelief and studied each word, written in English. It would expire in two months.
Via the online network WeChat, Little Yan canvassed friends from home to serve as a chaperone and travel to America with her child. A woman she barely knew agreed to do it. Airline tickets were bought for the boy and the acquaintance — but the woman missed the flight.
With only a two-day window for Kaizhi to leave China before his visa would run out, Zhuang and his wife stewed with dread. They feared their son would miss the deadline for immigration.
Zhuang held back from yelling at the woman — “She still had our baby,” he said. “I had to be nice” — and Little Yan prayed the woman and her son would get on the plane a day later. They did.
Some 14 hours passed before a JFK arrival-hall reunion that was bittersweet.
“He would not call us Mother or Father,” Little Yan said of the boy, then 2 years old, who hadn’t seen them for most of his young life. “It took two months.”
Four years after arriving in America, Zhuang has settled his family into a basement apartment in Flushing. In standard Chinese-immigrant tradition, they lease a room to a newer arrival in order to help with their rent. Kaizhi now has a newborn brother and, while Little Yan focuses on being a mother for the two kids, Zhuang has become the main bread winter. Finally relenting to Little Yan, he signed up with Uber.
Despite the hardship and stress, Zhuang and Little Yan both believe the move was not only worth it but essential. “They recognize that there was no other choice,” Hilgers said. “One thing about the American dream that fulfilled itself is their ability to be free here in a way that they could never be free in China. That makes the struggle worthwhile. It’s either be free in America or run the risk of being jailed in China.”
Providing a lift back to the subway station from his family’s home, Zhuang was asked the name of their newest addition. “Kyle,” he said proudly.
Reacting to a passenger’s surprise at the Western name, Zhuang quickly responded, “He’s American. We’re all in America now, but Kyle was born here.”