How an Undocumented Immigrant Made Me the Luckiest Sportscaster in the World

Escaping poverty in Hong Kong to have a shot at making it in America


Michael Yam

3 years ago | 5 min read

Myphone buzzed on Memorial Day. It was an update in a text chain with my cousins. I clicked on the image of a document, brown with age, and discovered a letter addressed to “The Honorable Robert Kennedy.”

The letter described a family surviving a Communist regime, a “husband” — my grandfather — working aboard a ship that docked in Baltimore, Maryland. Apparently, he’d gotten lost in the city and did not return to his boat. According to the letter, that same man would surrender himself to immigration officials.

He did not want to violate laws.

My grandmother, or rather the person who knew English well enough to type this for her, wrote:

I appeal for your kindness and sympathy to intervene on our behalf and to exercise and execute your power and authority by notifying your immigration authorities to temporarily revoke, resend,

or at least shelf their order of deportation and, instead continue to let my husband stay on just a few yers [sic] longer until such he will have saved a little money to return to Hong Kong to start a little business of our own in order to keep us all alive.

Her words scream desperation.

One of the letters written by my grandmother pleading with Robert Kennedy not to deport my grandfather from the United States.

This is just a small part of my family’s story, which started in a Communist country on the other side of the world. It includes a perilous journey made by my grandfather, who sacrificed his own happiness to help his family escape poverty and have a chance at prosperity.

As I watch news coverage regarding immigration policy in America and political unrest in Hong Kong, I am torn. It’s safe to say things are different in 2020 compared to 1962. Social media, news coverage, and how we consume content have all radically changed. What hasn’t changed, however, is people.

There are genuinely great, compassionate folks on this planet. There are ruthless people capable of unimaginable evil. And there’s everyone in between.

My platform as a sportscaster allows me to offer opinions, inform fans, and share the stories of remarkable college athletes — some of whom are immigrants themselves.

I want to say two things. I want citizens in the United States who have the freedom to speak out to do so. We should never allow ourselves to be silenced by any government,

especially one that is not our own. I also hope the people shaping immigration policy in this country consider the desperation a refugee without a home experiences. Imagine what it must be like for a parent to watch his or her child not have enough to eat, and enjoy none of the benefits every kid deserves.

Even worse, imagine being separated from your child, not knowing when you will see him or her next.

My family suffered a similar separation, albeit a self-imposed one, and it left deep emotional scars. In Hong Kong, my grandparents were poor. My grandfather was a sailor, and he’d heard about a ship that was sailing to the United States, “the land of opportunity.”

He knew the boat was heading to Baltimore, which was as close to New York City’s thriving Chinese community as he was going to get.

After the ship had docked, he was given the freedom to explore the city. He had no intention of going back to Hong Kong. When his superiors realized what had happened, they reported him to U.S. immigration officials and told them my grandfather was a Communist. In the late 1950s, that was a sure-fire way to grab the attention of law enforcement.

While he washed dishes at Chinese restaurants he occasionally had to hightail it out the back door and jump into dumpsters to hide from immigration officers. A sudden and unexpected raid might mean his entire life could be upended; in a matter of seconds he could be snatched up and sent back.

My grandfather would eventually turn himself in. With the help of an attorney, he obtained a visa and green card to stay and work. For the next 10 years, he was alone, away from his family, cooking and cleaning dishes. He sent nearly all of his money back to Hong Kong to support his wife and kids.

The money was vital to their survival.

My grandmother was able to secure a three-bedroom apartment with that money. My dad told me the Yams lived in one bedroom and rented out the others to two additional families.

My grandmother had to be a “super saver” because of the inconsistency in money being sent home. My dad recalls most meals growing up were rice and potatoes. “We would have chicken maybe once a month,” he told me.

My grandmother with me and my two cousins.

My grandfather was eventually granted citizenship and by 1968 he saved enough to fly my grandmother, aunt, uncle, and my dad to their new home in New York City.

He eventually opened his own restaurant where everyone in the family was expected to contribute. My dad remembers him giving food to the homeless on the street. My grandfather probably understood better than anyone what it was like to be hungry.

His restaurant in the Bronx was robbed several times. The breaking point came when my aunt was held up at gunpoint while working the register. They closed the restaurant. After years of scratching and clawing to make a life for his family, my grandfather’s business was gone.

His American dream had dissolved into a nightmare. My dad told me it was the only time he ever saw my grandfather cry.

Whereas my dad had been told by his teachers in Hong Kong that he would never be able to learn English (he proved them wrong), my childhood was filled with the support of great teachers at private Catholic schools. My mom figured out how to work full time and still usher me to swim, soccer, and baseball practice as a kid.
They worked hard to make sure I could focus on school and extracurricular activities and eventually go on to college. It never occurred to me I couldn’t or wouldn’t attend a four-year university and set off on a very different journey through life than that of my parents and grandparents.

I remember my grandma running circles around the sandboxes and swings in the Bronx park across the street from the apartment I grew up in.

Back in Hong Kong, I don’t know if there were parks where she could run. I doubt her physical health and conditioning made the daily check-list of priorities. Instead, she was busy imploring Robert Kennedy to show compassion to my grandfather in broken English.

My mom and dad.

As Attorney General at the time, Robert Kennedy did a 26-day global goodwill trip that took him to Asia, where he spoke sympathetically about Chinese refugees.

I found a picture of him in Hong Kong in 1962, surrounded by children from that trip. The buildings around them look worn-out and dirty, with clothes hanging off of every surface. It is a visual testament to the city’s poverty at that time.

Now I get to speak to students who aspire to be broadcasters. I get to tell them, “You won’t find someone luckier than me.” What’s the difference between me and the 38-year-old version of me living in any other country, struggling to survive? I’m just lucky. Lucky to be here and not there.

Lucky to be one of the few whose family caught a break from a sympathetic United States government instead of the thousands still out there, trying to do what my grandparents did. As much as the world continues to change around us, wanting a better life for those you love never will.

Originally published on medium


Created by

Michael Yam







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