Dear America


Dear America,

My grandfather has a space where the tip of his thumb should be. It’s a little divot of roughened skin that is hard to notice until you place your hand in his. He lost it in a factory accident in China decades ago. I remember how he told me the story of the heavy machinery and the heavy fall, and how his slow, deep voice seemed to carve itself into me. But when I was little, I still liked to trace the hardened scar tissue with my own soft little hands. I’d trace and think about how I could never live up to my grandfather’s strength.

America, this is your immigrant.

Dear America,
I sit in the half darkness of our kitchen in the morning; a bowl of oatmeal is in front of me with a fresh snowfall of pork floss covering the top. My grandfather sits in quiet completion beside me. He has gotten up long before I have, and so his bowl is already empty. I stick a spoonful of oatmeal in my mouth and smile around the handle at him. His arm feels frighteningly soft under my hand, but I can feel the ghost of solid strength with which he used to be built. In my mind, he is still an unmovable bronze statue.

America, this is your immigrant.

Dear America,
My mother tells me one night what my grandfather once told her. She gathers my forever-cold hands into her warm palms and tells me my grandfather’s three firsts. He told her: 革命第一,工作第一,他人第一. My mother says it means “revolution first, work first, others first.” But she says she prefers to use dreams not revolution.

America, this is your immigrant.

Dear America,
My grandparents met in college, my grandfather tells me. She was an amazing student and a track star and, he laughs, “ferocious.” He tells me how they competed in an informal footrace on the college grounds and how my ferocious track-star grandmother lost. “But,” he laughs again, “but only just!” My grandfather laughs his love to the world, which is a good thing because my grandmother shouts hers. Every Tuesday I sit down to dinner with them. I can see life’s hardships in every roughened line of his hands, and I can hear life’s struggles in every strike of my grandmother’s voice. But I look up and see the playful, Cheshire-cat crinkles around his eyes and I hear his soft, knowing chuckle, and I understand the secret to a full life.

America, this is your immigrant.

Dear America,
I tell my grandfather one night, “Mom told me these are your three firsts: ‘revolution first, work first, others first.’ ” He laughs.

“Yes, I remember saying that.”

I lean my head on his shoulder. “She told me that she doesn’t like the revolution part. She told me she prefers to say ‘dreams’ instead.” He pats my knee.

“Really?” he asks and contemplates for a moment.

“I think revolution is an important part of America,” I say. He shakes his head.

“Revolution means cutting lives.” His smile for once makes me unsure. He continues, “I remember I used to say ‘revolution first,’ but I also remember changing that . . . when I first came to America. I was all alone across the ocean in a small room in Chicago, and you know what I thought?” I shake my head no against the soft knit of his sweater. He turns his head toward mine and gently chucks me under my chin.

“Family first,” he laughs.

America, this is your immigrant.

Don’t miss the Second and Third Prize–winning “Dear America” essays from our “Tell Me a Story” High School Contest.
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