This story was written by one of New Jersey’s ethnic media outlets that is participating in Voting Block, a statewide collaborative reporting project to encourage political discussion — and more informed voters in neighborhoods across New Jersey ahead of this fall’s gubernatorial election.
When New Jersey resident Tommy Xie first arrived in the United States, he was 17, alone and had not a penny to his name. Today he owns two businesses, one a home-remodeling firm and the other a real estate venture.
Xie, now 55, says while he’s achieved the American Dream, his ambitions are now pointing in a new direction.
“Chinese contribute a lot to the U.S. But our contributions have been largely underestimated,” said Xie. “It will only change if we participate in politics more often.”
As the co-chair of the newly founded United Chinese American Association of New Jersey, Xie says his goal is to see to it that happens.
Cars and skyscrapers
Xie grew up in Fuzhou, China. When a cousin who came to the United States in the 1970s sent back photos of New York with cars and skyscrapers in the background, Xie was enchanted. “America looked so affluent in the photos. In China people were still struggling to put food on the table,” Xie said.
Xie arrived in New York in 1980 on a one-way flight and began working for his cousin at a Chinese takeout in Manhattan’s Chinatown. It was a reality check, said Xie. “I immediately realized America was not as splendid as it looked in the photos. Many people here had to work 24/7 to make ends meet too.”
Xie became homesick, and the physical demands of working long hours also made him literally ill. Once, after developing a bone spur in his foot, he went to the doctor to get a pain killer injection in the morning and then headed back to his job as a busboy that afternoon.
“I lived with 10 other immigrant laborers in a two-bedroom apartment in Chinatown,” said Xie. “I could only let my tears flow on my face quietly late at night when the others fell asleep.”
Crisis and opportunity
But as the saying goes, in crisis comes opportunity.
Xie got to know the restaurant’s landlord, a fellow Chinese who owned several properties on the block as well as a home-remodeling company, and soon realized he was more interested in real estate than in the restaurant business.
In 1982, he quit the restaurant and got into home remodeling. Using skills he learned as a boy, he found he had a knack for the profession, but without a network he had no way of bringing in business. So he decided to try and impress what clients he did have, hoping he might gain visibility through word of mouth.
“Once a customer offered to pay me far below what the job was worth, but I took it anyway. I did the backbreaking work for a whole month without making a penny,” said Xie. “That customer later referred me to a lot of other customers.”
Becoming a citizen
Xie became a citizen in 1994. That same year, he purchased a three-family home in Elmhurst, Queens. After a few renovations he rented it out, and quickly purchased another home in Fort Lee. He continued that pattern for close to a decade, buying a new home almost every other year. He then opened a building supply store in Bergen County, and three years after that expanded it to become the largest Chinese-owned home remodeling company in the state.
Xie resettled in New Jersey after marrying a woman from his own hometown. “It was love at first sight,” he said. The couple have two kids and live in Basking Ridge.
“Compared to New York, New Jersey offers a better living environment,” said Xie. “You can live in a spacious place and don’t have to worry about traffic jams or parking. It’s better for families.”
Xie hasn’t decided who he will vote for in the November gubernatorial race, but he says whoever wins, he hopes they can move to lower property taxes. “This is the only drag of living in New Jersey to my mind.”
Xie said he wants to see more Chinese getting into local races, and involving themselves in other aspects of mainstream daily life. “We need to interact with the local communities so that more Americans know we are not here to just make money and grab jobs. We care about this country and this neighborhood too,” he said.
Xie’s wife, Qiong Shi, agrees.
“I do think there should be more Chinese running for all level of public office, even school boards, so that our needs are addressed,” she said. “For example, my son’s school district is a good one. But if we had more Chinese board members, we might be able to add Chinese to the foreign language courses at the schools.”
As for Xie, who was recognized with an Ellis Island Medal of Honor in 2012, he says his American Dream has changed over the years.
“I used to aim at making money and making my parents proud of me,” said Xie. “But now I want to help more Chinese live in the U.S. with success, pride, and dignity.”
This story was produced as part of the Voting Block collaborative project in New Jersey, funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.