Falling Through The Cracks of the Chinese American Dream

Low-wage workers in Chinese immigrant communities often lack access to the social safety nets intended to help people living in poverty — in part because of “model minority” stereotypes. Since the pandemic began, it's had disastrous consequences in New York City.

“HE DIED FOR HIS FREEDOM”

FLUSHING, QUEENS

NEW YORK CITY — Overcast skies quickly transformed into heavy rain as Hurricane Ida made its way up the Eastern Seaboard on the evening of Sept. 1. Hongsheng Leng and his family took shelter in their basement apartment in Queens.

The National Weather Service blasted out cellphone warnings about life-threatening floods, but in English and Spanish only — to get public alerts in other languages, people had to actively enroll in local programs.

Around 9 p.m., the flooding forced the maintenance hole covers near Leng’s house to erupt like small geysers, one bang after another echoing through the street. Homes on the ground floor of Peck Avenue were soon under 4 feet of water; their basements were filled. People trapped outside climbed on top of cars. Police waded through the area, asking if anyone needed help — but in the night’s chaos, no one came for the Lengs.

Leng and his family were among a growing community of Chinese Americans excluded from the “model minority” myths — stereotypes that Asian people in America are upwardly mobile, quiet, and unaffected by racism — that often dominate political discussions. Instead, they are part of a population of immigrants who arrive in America as adults only to find that the systems in place to help people out of poverty weren’t designed for them.

With limited English skills and professional credentials that carry little weight in their new country, they have limited work options and often end up accepting off-the-books jobs; these positions leave them ineligible for unemployment benefits and force them to start from scratch near the bottom of the income ladder. Having spent years of their lives working in their native countries, they lack sufficient 401(k)s and pensions that allow people to retire comfortably. They bring with them no inheritance to keep them afloat or to jump-start their children’s path to upward mobility. In a country where savings accounts and emergency funds are largely dependent on employment history and generational wealth, there is little to cushion their fall through America's tattered social safety net.

In New York City, a quarter of Chinese immigrants live in poverty, according to the city’s calculations — a rate comparable to that of other Asian communities in the city and elsewhere in the country. Assumptions that Chinese immigrants and other Asian diasporas thrive in the US are not merely false but damaging; community advocates say the model minority stereotype is part of the reason predominantly Chinese neighborhoods receive a disproportionately small slice of the government funding meant to support lower-income households.

The result is a human toll in plain sight but often overlooked in the world’s richest nation. An older immigrant couple collecting cans to survive as a wave of hate crimes sweeps their adopted country. A middle-aged man working under-the-table jobs until the pandemic hits. An enterprising son whose entrepreneurial ambitions only set him back. Grandparents waiting in line at a food pantry discussing their dreams for the next generation. A promising student who gets into a prestigious high school but struggles to get ahead. A reunited family living in a basement apartment that fills with water when the storm hits.

Leng, a college-educated architectural designer and painter, was already in his 50s when he arrived in the United States on a temporary visa 26 years ago. His wife Aihua Shen and their daughter Ling remained in Wuhan. He overstayed his visa and became out of status (meaning he entered legally but remained illegally), presenting him with the same employment challenges facing the more than 100,000 undocumented Asian immigrants estimated to live in New York City.

Leng had a dream of opening an art gallery in the US and did not want to face the shame of returning to China unsuccessful, his brother-in-law Libin Shen said. Years passed. Ongoing health problems, which required several major surgeries, ruled out jobs in restaurants and other positions that were physically demanding. And Leng spoke little English. Over the years, he got by on odd jobs, selling his art on the street and picking up gigs at a graphic design firm. In 2004, he applied for asylum, claiming that his political activities with the Chinese Democratic Party in the US made him a target for persecution if he returned to China.

A decade later, his wife and daughter joined him. They made a home below ground, in one of around 50,000 illegal basement apartments in New York City, the country’s most expensive rental housing market.

“She never told us anything negative when she was in America. She always said everything was fine.”

The family occasionally scavenged to get by. A neighbor said Leng collected bottles and cans and tried to repair and sell electronics; the neighbor was irritated when he scattered unsellable items and broken parts in front of other people’s homes. Financial struggles were not rare in their neighborhood, Flushing, one of New York’s Chinese enclaves. In Leng’s zip code, where more than 70% of residents are Asian, 1 in 4 Asian residents lives below the federal poverty line. Many are Chinese, who make up about three-fourths of the Asian population there.

City records show anonymous complaints were made about the building the Lengs inhabited, for which six violations were issued. The most recent complaint, filed in 2007, indicated that the building’s garage and basement had been illegally converted into apartments, but inspectors were unable to access the property. The complaint was closed after two inspection attempts. EW Escrow, the owner listed for the property, did not respond to a request for comment.

Libin Shen said his sister Aihua wasn’t forthcoming about their circumstances. “She never told us anything negative when she was in America. She always said everything was fine,” he said. “Had I known about her living condition, as her brother, I would have immediately asked her to come back.”

On Sept. 2 at 11:42 a.m., after the rains receded, police responded to a 911 call. Emergency responders found a basement apartment without the requisite second exit. The two-family house had been converted into a seven-family residence, according to Department of Buildings records. A man and two women were discovered unconscious and unresponsive inside the basement of the house. EMS pronounced them dead at the scene.

Hongsheng Leng was 82 years old, his wife Aihua Shen was 65, and their daughter Ling was 31.

In China, the Shen family did not find out about their deaths until four days later, via a community organization in the US. Libin said he fell to the ground. He had heard a storm hit the New York area, but didn’t know the family lived in a basement apartment, and it never occurred to him they were in real danger, or that the city would have experienced what he sees as a breakdown in emergency services that night.

Leng “had the freedom to go to the United States,” Libin said. “When I hear of the American dream, the only thing I would like to say is he died for his freedom.”

Most of the 11 basement deaths from Hurricane Ida’s historic flooding were people of Asian descent, including Chinese, Nepalese, and Indo-Caribbean families.

The Leng’s apartment was soon gutted, erasing the ruins of their lives in America. On the front door of the house, a faded sign remained bearing the Chinese character “fu,” meaning good fortune and luck.

“A SOCIAL SECURITY CHECK IS NOT GONNA CUT IT”

HARLEM

Before the flood, Yao Pan Ma and his wife had lost their apartment in Chinatown to a fire. It had only been about a year since the couple left their children and grandchildren in China to come to the US in November 2018. With few options, they moved in with the wife’s older parents in a housing project in Harlem, a neighborhood where residents had faced the headwinds of racism and economic hardship for generations. When the pandemic shut down the city in March 2020, Ma, who had been a dim sum chef in China, lost his job in a restaurant in Chinatown, where he cooked and washed dishes.

Ma, 61, had not worked enough to qualify for jobless benefits. His in-laws, who are in their 90s, receive less than $1,000 in combined Social Security benefits, but it wasn’t enough to support all four of them. “For four people, you can scrimp all you want, but at the end of the day a Social Security check is not gonna cut it,” Karlin Chan, a spokesperson for the family and community advocate, said.

So in 2020, Ma and his wife began collecting bottles and cans to make ends meet, one five-cent deposit at a time.

The pandemic hit recent Asian immigrants, as well as those with no college education, especially hard. In a country where retirement incomes are far more robust for those who work jobs with pensions or 401(k) plans, older Americans without such nest eggs rely on public programs that don’t always meet basic needs. Social Security payments, which are based on a person’s earnings history, penalize people who were low-wage workers or who arrived in the US later in life. The impact of this system on older people in Asian communities in the US is clear: Asian American and Pacific Islander men earn 14.5% less in annual Social Security income than men on average, and AAPI women receive 11% less than other women on average, according to Social Security Administration reports; 11.7% of Asian people ages 65 and older live below the federal poverty line, compared to 7.3% of older white people, according to census data.

When the pandemic hit, reports of violent racism against people of various Asian ethnicities escalated. In 2020, an older Chinese man collecting recyclables in San Francisco was taunted, attacked, and robbed in front of a crowd of onlookers as someone said, “I hate Asians,” according to a video of the incident. A year later, Vicha Ratanapakdee, an 84-year-old from Thailand, died after being pushed. In New York City, 61-year-old Filipino Noel Quintana was slashed across the face on the subway, and then in Los Angeles, two people beat Korean American veteran Denny Kim while yelling “ching chong” and “Chinese virus.” In March, eight people, including six Asian women, were killed by a 21-year-old man in a series of spa shootings around Atlanta.

Then on a clear, warm night, around 8:15 on April 23, 2021, Ma was attacked while out collecting bottles on 125th Street in Harlem. His assailant, a 49-year-old man, was recorded on video approaching Ma from behind and knocking him down. “I am not going to let you up,” the man thought, according to a statement he later made to police. He repeatedly stomped on Ma’s head until he lay motionless and bloodied. Medical personnel transported him to Harlem Hospital Center, where they found bleeding in the brain and facial fractures.

The man arrested and charged for the attack, Jarrod Powell, said in a deposition that a “Korean” man and a “Japanese” guy had robbed and maced him. He suggested that one of them was Ma. He “did not provide any details relating to the description of the perpetrators of the alleged robbery other than that they were Asian,” according to court records. The NYPD counted the incident as one of 80 reports of anti-Asian hate crimes over the first three months of 2021. Powell and his attorney declined interview requests.

“A lot of people, when they get here, they realize that the streets are not lined with gold, they’re lined with garbage and shit.”

Ma remains in a coma. Ma’s wife, too fearful to continue collecting bottles, worked as a home health aide for a few months but is unemployed again. “She’s still in shock,” Chan, the family’s spokesperson, said.

When Chan last saw Ma at the hospital, months of worsening dystrophy had turned the injured man’s body frail, nearly reducing him to “a mummy,” in his words. “His chances of waking up diminish by the day,” Chan said. “Every time I go visit him, this anger, this anger just wells up in me.”

In early November, Ma was moved into hospice care. His wife still plays classical Chinese opera when she visits, hoping he can hear.

Seeing the disappointments Chinese immigrants around him face every day, Chan said he couldn’t help but think about their predecessors who arrived in California 150 years ago, lured by rumors of gold mountains on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. “A lot of people, when they get here, they realize that the streets are not lined with gold, they’re lined with garbage and shit,” he said.

“I THOUGHT I WAS COMING TO PARADISE”

SOUTH BROOKLYN

Two years ago, a middle-aged man named Yu found himself in Brooklyn and squeezing out a living as a contractor with a Chinese-owned business doing home renovation. He earned about $100 a day, under the table, sometimes getting consistent gigs, sometimes working just one week in a month.

Yu, his wife, and their daughter had arrived in the US in July 2019 after a 14-year immigration process. “I wanted to see what the rest of the world had to offer,” Yu said through a translator. “It was really a dream to see how things would go.” The family left the southern Chinese village of Toisan — where many people in earlier immigration waves had come from — for New York, where his sister was living.

They settled into an apartment near Gravesend Bay. Yu and his wife took the one bedroom and their daughter the living room. Yu, already in his mid-50s, worked part time while his wife went through the state’s required training to become a home care worker. Their daughter stepped into New York’s public high school system, not speaking any English.

They had barely settled in before the pandemic began. Yu — who wanted to only be identified by his surname, fearing consequences for working off the books during that period — quickly found he was ineligible for unemployment benefits as he hadn’t reported working by that point. His wife, who had just completed her training to start work as a home aide earning $15 an hour, quit the job as COVID killed hundreds of New Yorkers daily, worried she too would catch the virus. Her voluntary resignation made her ineligible for unemployment benefits. Their daughter attended school remotely, cutting her off from the social interactions that allow a person to adjust to their new home. Months would pass in which they rarely left the house. No one made any money.

Financial stability can be tenuous for older immigrants like Yu. Many lack the generational wealth or even emergency savings to recover from an economic setback. To survive in the short term, many work off the books at the expense of benefits they’ll need to get by in the long term. Even those who report their income may find they are ineligible for public benefits they need like Medicare because they haven’t worked here long enough, according to a 2021 paper on older Asian Americans in Frontiers in Public Health. The pandemic has further split those who lacked the means to survive the upheaval from those who had the resources to thrive.

Without income, the Yu family’s rent, $1,500 per month, was now unaffordable. Their sponsor, a retired family friend who agreed to be legally responsible for supporting them as part of their immigration application, has paid several months of rent for them. But without an income or access to government relief, the newly arrived Yu family did what all people in America do when there aren’t other options: They borrowed money. The Yus have no credit history, so the loan came from family. They spent as little as possible and ate free food distributed by the local public school.

“We want our daughter to be like the phoenix and the dragon,” Yu said, “soaring to the heights.” 

When the city reopened, Yu’s wife returned to work six days a week as a home attendant for an older Chinese person, but it wasn’t enough to cover their expenses, let alone catch up. Yu also found work six days a week for a Chinese-owned window manufacturer.

“When I first came here, I thought I was coming to paradise, but work is harder here,” said Yu, 58. “I didn’t have to work as many hours in China; both of us are working six days a week. It’s not what I expected.”

Was life in America better in any way? “The air quality,” he said.

Yu said he hopes to learn English, a pursuit that is difficult to make time for when you have just one day a week off. The city offers free English-language courses, but the programs do not have enough seats to meet the demand. Some programs have waitlists. Perhaps in time, Yu’s daughter, who is now 16, will help pull the family to where they imagined they would be. Like many other students learning English, she has struggled to keep up as the pandemic closed schools for most of her first year here.

“We want our daughter to be like the phoenix and the dragon,” Yu said, “soaring to the heights.”

“THE PROBLEM WAS ALWAYS THERE, BUT NO ONE TALKED ABOUT IT”

CHINATOWN, MANHATTAN

The son of immigrants who had long carried an American dream, Patrick Mock grew up to become a businessperson. He managed a Chinese bakery and supplemented his income by going to trading card conventions, where he sells Magic: The Gathering and Pokémon cards. At 27 years old, he lives in the same tenement building in Chinatown he grew up in, where rent is $700 per month.

He’s struggled like many young entrepreneurs, but with none of the family wealth that helps those who succeed.

“My bathtub is still in the kitchen and my toilet is still in the hallway,” he said. The building, like other tenements in Chinatown, an ethnic enclave formed as a result of racist attacks and discrimination, is full of “glue traps and rat cages.”

Though his parents had come to the US to provide a better future for the next generation, Mock said, “I’m still in the low-income bracket.”

Mock’s father was a chef who traveled to Massachusetts for work and came home to New York one day a week. His mother worked at a daycare until she got breast cancer. He’s spent his life in lower Manhattan’s Chinatown, surrounded by people struggling to get by — from the older people who make ends meet however they can (some by selling the gambling vouchers casinos give to those who ride their shuttle buses) to the cashiers, cabbies, restaurant workers, delivery drivers, and home health aides who make up much of the city’s low-wage workforce. “The problem was always there, but no one talked about it,” Mock said.

About six years ago, during his first year in college, he borrowed money from friends and family and sold some valuable trading cards to invest in Joy Luck Palace, a Chinatown restaurant. “My mom and dad didn’t have that kind of money. So I had to ask around,” he said. “You need credit. I don't have credit. How I got my personal loans was through friends and family.”

“When you come from nothing, every opportunity you get to rise up, you try to take it,” Mock said.

The plan didn’t work.

When one of the business partners left the restaurant, Mock raised his hand to take over as CEO in 2018. But he soon found huge deficits on the books; the restaurant was out of money. Just months after he took over, utility companies came to shut off the gas and power during a lunch shift. That was the end of the business. The landlord and vendors came after him for payments. Then the workers sued the owners for unpaid wages.

Mock was 24 — “young and dumb and naive,” he said. He was still in college and working a side job as a roadie for a DJ company when he was served the lawsuit. “I was scared out of my life,” he said. He couldn’t afford an attorney. He still had midterms and finals. The plaintiffs won by default when he and the other defendants didn’t appear in court. The workers said this year they still hadn’t been paid. Mock was also liable for the restaurant’s unpaid taxes.

Mock still dreams big. “​​One thing about the American dream is they all tell you to ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself off,’” he said.

Coming to the US was a decadelong journey for Mock’s father. He left China in the 1950s when the US still severely restricted immigration from countries outside of Northern and Western Europe. Instead, he traveled to Brazil and lived there for 10 years while some 30 million people in China perished in the deadliest famine in recorded history. He eventually became a naturalized Brazilian citizen in order to bypass the US’s restrictions and enter the country in 1964, just before the US opened up immigration to people from other regions. Mock’s mother came in the 1980s as the government made deeper cuts to social programs.

When the pandemic brought everything to a halt, New Yorkers from Asian diasporas saw their unemployment rate soar to nearly 26% during the pandemic, the highest rate among all racial and ethnic groups and more than the overall rate of 20% for the city at large. One zip code that encompasses parts of Chinatown was excluded from a city loan program for low-income areas because it also covered the wealthy, predominantly white neighborhoods Soho and Tribeca — that Chinatown’s geographic adjacency to white neighborhoods was an obstacle for business owners seeking help seemed almost emblematic of the problematic perceptions of Asian Americans’ figurative adjacency to whiteness.

Chinatown was economically devastated by the shutdown. Xenophobia caused by what then-president Donald Trump called “the Chinese virus” may have kept some customers away. People without jobs filled Columbus Park; some slept on cardboard at night. Laid-off restaurant workers from other cities trickled into Chinatown hoping to find new opportunities but found none.

In the midst of the city’s gradual reopening, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio visited the neighborhood in August 2020. Mock approached the mayor on the street, asking for “more hope, more confidence.” He wanted City Hall’s help closing off streets to cars on weekends to increase seating for outdoor dining, like in Little Italy, and adding decorative lights to help create a more festive environment. But in a moment caught on video, the mayor walked off midway through Mock’s emotional plea. This brief exchange triggered a local uproar — a sign of white America’s chronic indifference toward the people in Chinatown.

Mock said the community has been coming together and finding other avenues of support. After securing funding from a private donor he met through Yuh-Line Niou, a member of the New York State Assembly, Mock has been distributing meals to people in Chinatown without homes. As high-profile hate crimes drew widespread attention to the plight of Asian communities, Google and the nonprofit Asian Americans for Equality also helped fund Mock’s efforts, including installing new lights on Mott Street, a historic corridor in Manhattan’s Chinatown lined with restaurants, groceries, and gift shops.

As the pandemic pushed him to help the most underserved around him, Mock described being among today’s “donut hole class”: a large swath of working people who are falling straight through the middle of America’s safety net because they earn too much to qualify for public assistance. Mock views his setbacks as common in America, a place that has long drawn strivers willing to sacrifice for a chance at upward mobility. “It’s the land of immigrants,” he said. “We're all running away from something, wanting something better.”

“WE ARE POOR AND WE ARE OLD”

LOWER EAST SIDE, MANHATTAN

Not far from Mock’s tenement apartment, a long line had formed around the block outside of a food pantry near the Williamsburg Bridge by 10 on a warm September morning. Run by a nonprofit called UA3, the pantry serves up to 750 people per day, and almost everyone who lines up is an older Chinese person.

One woman in the pantry line, Ge, 67, said she had just retired from her job as a home aide, for which she earned the minimum wage, $15 an hour over 27 hours per week. Twelve years ago, she was a rice farmer in southern China. Today in the US, she said, looking at the people waiting for food, “We are poor and we are old. That’s why we are here.” Like others who spoke to BuzzFeed News, she requested that she be identified only by her surname to protect her privacy. She is now trying to get by on the $540 per month she gets from Social Security as well as whatever help her daughter can offer. “I don’t even have enough to pay rent,” which is $900 per month, she said.

Pantry volunteers work a fast-paced, nine-hour day hauling and unboxing heavy crates of food and pandemic supplies, such as hand sanitizer and masks. One of the volunteers, William Yu, lost his job at a community college during the summer and is recovering from a stroke. It’s harder to restart in your 60s, and Yu — who immigrated here five decades ago — is now dipping into his retirement savings to get by.

That morning, a procession of people — some with rolling carts marked with big corporate logos, resembling promotional swag, and some under hats and sun umbrellas — snaked down the sidewalk. Directly across the street, another line of mostly East Asian people wrapped around the block outside of a pantry run by Vision Urbana, a nonprofit that works with the area’s Latino and Asian residents. The mirrored lines kept moving through the day but never seemed to get any shorter.

Some of the people using the UA3 pantry had come to the US in the 1980s, when China’s extreme poverty rate was above 80%; some came in the 1990s, when there were still some 750 million people in China living below the poverty line. Others arrived in the 21st century, as the country made a sharp turn and skyrocketed to become the world’s second-largest economy. But in a country of 1.4 billion people, millions were still left behind during this period of growth. Those who came to the US struggled without institutional support for people who come from rural areas and don’t speak English.

The systemic failures harming immigrant families were clear early on to Sean Hong, a college student who is a UA3 cofounder and the son of the organization’s chair, Don Hong. He attended PS 130, a Title 1 school in Chinatown that serves a large number of students from low-income households and has an 88% Asian student population, according to federal data. Many of his classmates didn’t have computers or internet service, Hong said, so he and his father worked to raise money to buy devices for students who needed it.

Another of the organization’s cofounders, Kin Wah Lee, 66, said she witnessed how institutional neglect harms immigrant communities during her 30-year career at the New York State Office of Mental Health. Patients who didn’t speak English were often misdiagnosed and held for too long in psychiatric facilities, she said. She cofounded the New York Coalition for Asian American Mental Health and urged the New York state government to meet the needs of immigrants from Asian countries.

UA3 has operated without any city government funding but obtained $10,000 from the Brooklyn borough president's office this year. Community-based organizations serving Asian Americans received just 1.4% of the city’s social service contract funding from fiscal years 2002 to 2014, according to the Asian American Federation, a research and advocacy group. AAF research and policy director Howard Shih said that language and cultural barriers contribute to a lack of awareness of public programs among many Asian immigrant communities, and that government outreach has typically been inadequate — perhaps in no small part because of false assumptions based on ethnic stereotypes. “We see the impact of the model minority myth on the availability of resources,” Shih said. “We have populations that need support and help.” Because of racist assumptions, he said, even when people do see signs of poverty, “they don't think of it as a widespread issue.”

“We see the impact of the model minority myth on the availability of resources.”

This year the New York state budget included $10 million to combat anti-Asian violence and provide economic relief to Asian American communities during the pandemic — an influx of money that came after “decades of underfunding,” Niou, the state Assembly member, said in a statement. “Year after year, the AAPI community has been erased from the state budget.”

One of the women in the pantry line, Chan, a perky 61-year-old, said she followed her son to the US five years ago and found work as a home attendant. She looks after two clients, one who requires 24-hour care three days each week. She gets paid for only 13 of those 24 hours because state law limits how many she can work in a day. “I only go home twice a week,” she said.

Lum, an 88-year-old woman in line with a walker, said her family arrived in the US in 1985, but she and her husband and even their children struggled here. To help her kids get ahead, she spent the years watching over her five grandchildren. Lum and her husband now get $300 in monthly SNAP benefits. Their rent at the senior housing complex, which is subsidized, just increased to $300. The food pantry is essential for their survival. Like many other immigrants, she and her husband hope their sacrifices will serve as a stepping stone for future generations.

“IT’S HOME”

NEAR THE MANHATTAN BRIDGE

William Lam, 36, was one of the younger people in the pantry line that morning.

Two decades ago, Lam was a student at Stuyvesant High School, a highly ranked Manhattan public school that is now a controversial symbol of the city’s unequal and racially segregated education system. The school’s student body is 72% Asian in a city where around two-thirds of public school students are Black or Latino. The majority of Asian students in specialized high schools come from low-income families, and the poverty rate among the specialized schools’ Asian students is higher than that of the overall student population in the city.

Lam’s father owned a deli in Chinatown before he died of cancer when Lam was 2 years old. For the last 30 years, he and his mother — who worked as a home attendant and in school cafeterias — have lived in a housing project complex of 16-floor brick towers between the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges on the Lower East Side; 26% of residents in the development are Asian, according to the New York City Housing Authority. Rent for their one-bedroom apartment is $500 per month. Because their household’s income is low, they get a discount on their internet, phone, and TV plan, reducing their bill to $200 a month.

High school was a difficult time for Lam. Classmates "would throw paper at me," he said. "They would throw chalk at me. And the teacher doesn’t do much.” He had an especially hard time in science classes. Then on Sept. 11, 2001, Lam was in gym class when two planes crashed into the World Trade Center just blocks away from Stuyvesant High School. “I heard loud noises, like airplane sounds. Fast. And loud. And a crash.” After the attack, he struggled academically and eventually dropped out.

“Sometimes, I can’t fulfill their dreams.”

These days, Lam occasionally works at a video game store but is supported mainly by $700 monthly payments of Social Security disability insurance, which he receives for reasons he asked not to share publicly.

“It’s hard for me to find work,” he said.

On an average day, Lam plays video games, catches up with friends, and watches Hong Kong dramas with his mother. “[My parents] wanted me to be happy,” he said. “They wanted me to graduate from school to get a job, of course. But there are a lot of things out of my control. Sometimes, I can’t fulfill their dreams.”

Lam wants to open his own store but doesn’t have the money. His mother, who retired early after injuring her knees and is cared for by a home attendant, spends a lot of time in the apartment, where she can gaze at a nearby hospital and watch people walking by. “It’s home,” he said, adding that after 30 years, “it’s hard to imagine moving.” His mother is happy here, he said. “She said she is going to die here.” ●

Jeremy Singer-Vine contributed reporting to this story.

Ahmed Gaber for BuzzFeed News

In New York City, nearly 1 in 4 Chinese people lives in poverty and many more are struggling

Shannon Stapleton / Reuters

with little to no safety net to catch them.

Ahmed Gaber for BuzzFeed News

The consequences span generations

Stephanie Keith / Getty Images

and they can be deadly.