Alice Wong interviewed Tony Wong (no relation) at StoryCorps San Francisco on July 2, 2015. Below are edited and condensed excerpts from their conversation for the Disability Visibility Project.
On Tony’s birth and his mother’s difficult delivery
Tony: Yeah, that’s why when I was born, my whole body was blue color.
Tony: Without the oxygen.
Alice: For so long?
Tony: Yeah, for so long. So my whole body was blue color, and I could, I could not quite because everybody, every baby, when they come out, they were cry, they will the son, you know, but I didn’t.
Tony: And then I was sent to the oxygen, the emergency room for about half a year.
Alice: So you stayed in the hospital? For half a year?
Alice: Your first half year of your life.
Alice: Wow, that must have been really stressful for your parents. They must have been very worried about you.
On growing up in Hong Kong with cerebral palsy
Tony: In Hong Kong when you have a disability, your life is completely different. You got the society for label you as a disabled and then when you go out, your life, your school, my life my school, my pre- school, my elementary school, all go to the special education school. It’s the school for all for the people with disability. You cannot go outside in the society [and meet other non-disabled students].
Alice: So even though it’s in the 80s, and you’d think by now many countries would have mainstream or integrated classrooms. So you’re saying that in Hong Kong, you were just completely segregated at the very beginning, throughout preschool and elementary school. Right?
Tony: Yeah…So when I was kid when I aware of something I’d always be labeled as a disabled person. So that’s why I feel I am different, most different from other people and me. Because in Hong Kong when I was younger, I didn’t walk very well, I needed to hold someone’s hand to walk about to 10 years old.
Tony: So when I go out to the street, I need to hold my mom’s hand and then a lot of people look at me. Right. You know look at me on the street and they are all like, “Why does all this guy walk like that?” They feel very skittish and people sometime feel a little bit intimidated and the Hong Kong the special education school is for whole day. From 9 o’clock till 4 o’clock.
Tony: You know, 9 am to 4 am and then the classroom is very small, only seven people. If seven, it’s still there, it’s still there.
Alice: So you got a lot of attention.
Alice: So in a sense it was kind of good, right?
Tony: Yeah, yeah, yeah the school and for summer I have a lot of classmates, same as you…Yeah, and some students will use same classroom from Grade 1 to Grade 11.
On becoming more independent
Tony: I feel in Hong Kong it’s very difficult for me to be independent.
Alice: And why is it harder in Hong Kong?
Tony: Because the community is very harder, very competitive… [and] it’s very inaccessible in Hong Kong. And also I go to special education school, but we saw has been really limited. We saw the support has very limited. And then I feel very hard, very difficult to be independent. And then so I feel in Hong Kong very hard, very difficult, but I am lucky here…[in Hong Kong] when you finish the middle school, you need to take a bigger exam…if you passed the exam, you continue. If we don’t pass the essay, you need to get out for school. So we need to find a job by ourselves or we need to go to some disabled center but the salary is too low.
Alice: Right, segregated [employment] and low wages.
On transitioning to life in the United States and in a mainstreamed school for the first time
Alice: So tell me what was it like for you when you came here, not knowing English that well and having CP and thrown into an American classroom with other mostly non-disabled kids, what was that like?
Tony: I loved challenge too. And I always state that as a disabled in the USA you need to have good English to do good, to be successful. If your English is not good you still has a hard time in the USA. Especially as a Chinese because I feel in the Chinese culture, the people with disability is not very welcome.
Alice: So you had to jump into high school culture after only being in elementary school in Hong Kong. So you kinda missed this whole middle years of socialization and culture. Wow so, was it just weird and scary or?
Tony: Yes, very scary. Because in Hong Kong I just finished elementary school and when I come here, they reassessed me to grade nine, ninth grade high school.
Alice: Yeah but did you have a lot to catch up on?
Tony: Yeah a lot of pressure and friendships because English is slow and then the time when I come here. I assigned to the Newcomer High School. They are for high school for one year for the Newcomers [recent immigrants to the country] but I feel many of them [students] didn’t know about disable. They didn’t understand about disability.
Alice: Okay, so it’s kinda this double-thingy, where, in the Newcomer’s school, while you’re among other Chinese-speaking people, you were the only disabled kid. What did that feel like to have gone from a community where you were with, I guess primarily students living with disabilities to this school in another country, and you’re the only student living with a disability?
Tony: In these times, even though I had a lot of special care, special support, special care and then I feel I was very different. I feel really scared. Because, I told you about Hong Kong, that people don’t know disabled people. When you go out and I go out and people look at me [like] I was scary as odd people. So I didn’t know very much to interact with the people-
On interactions with other Chinese immigrants with disabilities
Alice: Have you met a lot of other newcomers with disabilities or Chinese American? So tell me about some of the people that you’ve met and have you been able to form a community in terms of Chinese speaking disabled people.
Tony: Yeah, I know many…I know many Chinese disabled people immigrate here and I support them and I feel, I feel more of them need to take the time to get used to America. I feel they need, this is Chinese American, more of, I feel more of Chinese American, they don’t accept they have disable.
I always remember I help a Chinese disabled before but he feel very upset. You know why. He feel upset because he feel I need to label him as a disable. He didn’t want to be a disable. He want to be a normal people. Even though he has physical disable.
Alice: …that’s why sometimes I think it’s really hard outreach wise. Let’s say like a disability organization is trying to do outreach and yet you have to be able to identify and understand that you do have a disability and it’s okay. And that you have rights and there are services and lots of things available but I think it takes that step of acceptance. Which is very hard in people in Chinese cultures so. And larger I think the broader Asian American communities.
Tony Wong is a Chinese American immigrant with a disability. He emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States in 1998 at the age of 14. Tony received a Masters in Social Work from Cal State East Bay and currently works as a social worker at a mental health clinic in San Francisco.