a real American girl

There’ve been times when my country’s actions have irritated me, bewildered me, even angered me. But my country is like my own mother: not perfect, yet still my mother. She’s the one I love, the one who made me who I am. Since today’s the birthday of the United States of America, it’s a good day to remind myself how good this country has been to me.

My paternal grandfather came to the US from China. He was just a youth, and he sold newspapers to feed himself. Yet somehow he managed to scrape together enough money to eventually bring a wife over from China and establish a restaurant called Tom Lai’s, on the San Diego waterfront. His son (my dad) was born an American, during an era when Asian Americans couldn’t swim in the same pools or drink from the same water fountains as whites. During WWII, Dad enlisted in the Army, fought in Germany, and came home to work in Grandpa’s restaurant.

My dad with my sons

My mom immigrated from China as a young woman who could barely speak English. It was wartime in China, the iron curtain was about to fall, and she was soon cut off from everyone she loved. She never again saw her parents or sister. Stranded and penniless in America, she eventually married and went on to earn a master’s degree and became a social worker.

My mom and me

These are my roots. I’m the daughter of a cook and an immigrant.

Today, my books are sold around the world and my characters are about to become a TV show. It’s one of those improbable yet quintessentially American success stories. It might have happened had I been born instead in Sydney or London or Paris. But it just so happened that I was born in San Diego and raised an American, and today I’m feeling pretty darn grateful that I was.

Patriotism isn’t just an American thing. The French are exceedingly proud of France. And oh, how the Turkish love their country! But today, on July 4, I honor my own country, the country that took in my grandfather and my mother, the country that kept the doors open to my own hopes and dreams.

Happy birthday, USA.

14 replies
  1. railasoares
    railasoares says:

    Oh, Tess, what such a great post! This is a great family story and I’m happy you’ve been so succesful. But, yes, I’m SURE indeed it would had happened wherever you had been born, because it all is what it is for you because of your own talent, because you were given a special gift. I also agree about patriotism. Totally. Congrats for the text, it’s amazing. Oh, happy 4th of July! 🙂

    P.S.: These pictures are adorable! Especially the one where you’re with your mother. Super adorable. 🙂

  2. Anthony Lee
    Anthony Lee says:

    It’s a very nice story, Tess, and one I can definitely relate to. I also agree that, even with problems going on in the country right now (e.g., economic recession, oil spill, etc.), the United States of America has always been and still is a land of opportunity for anyone who works hard to achieve their dream.

    Thanks for sharing. And Happy 4th of July!

  3. Lorra Laven
    Lorra Laven says:

    Yes, there’s a lot we could do better. But I’m proud to be an American and that is why I fly the flag every day that it doesn’t rain.

  4. Iona
    Iona says:

    Very nice post! Nice pictures too. And like all parents, they’re probably pretty darn proud of you! And you of them. 🙂

    Oh, and about Ice Cold: I really would’ve liked a signed copy, but apparently “your” book store doesn’t have an online store, or PayPal. So it’s a bit difficult for me to order a copy …

  5. Sandra_Ruttan
    Sandra_Ruttan says:

    Love the post, Tess, and your family has such a wonderful story to be proud of. It’s the American I know – built off of hard-working immigrants who fully integrated into American society and became part of America’s story.

    I know I’m “Canadian” but my great-great etc. grandfather sailed with the Hasbrouck Party in 1675 to Boston, then New York. He was a Huguenot. He married in New Paltz, NY in 1680, Abraham took the Oath of Allegiance to the English Crown on September 1, 1689, and he bought land and eventually died in New Barbados, New Jersey in 1713.

    It was only because his great-great-grandson was in the British military that somewhere between the start and end of the American Revolution, Peter Ruttan ended up in Ontario, Canada. Four generations of my direct ancestors were born in America.

    I do hope that one day, I can make the trip from Boston to New York and retrace paths. When I went to Europe in 1989 I went to part of the Duchy of Lorraine, where Abraham fled from, and saw some of the locations mentioned in the full family history. I’m still hoping that I can do that in the US, too. This land is part of my heritage.

  6. Tess
    Tess says:

    Owl & Turtle can ship around the world — all you have to do is email them through their website at http://www.owlandturtle.com and let them know if you’d like me to personalize a copy. The manager’s name is Joseph, and he’ll be happy to assist you!


  7. MarkYoung
    MarkYoung says:

    Thank you for sharing this, Tess. This is what has made our country great. Many people, from every corner of the world, coming together, working together, sharing a dream that began so long ago. I am proud to be an American.

  8. april
    april says:

    What a nice Fourth of July post – in honor of your country but also of your family! I can’t say our country is perfect, but it’s just as advanced as countries who are much older than ours. We’re young yet and still learning. I couldn’t live anywhere else.

  9. Iona
    Iona says:

    Hi Tess,
    Yes I knew I could order a singed copy though the website, I just wasn’t too keen on sending my credit card information by email, to anyone for that matter, even if it’s in separate emails. But it’s okay, I’ll just get a non-singed copy then from the book store here. 🙂

  10. PackingPadre
    PackingPadre says:

    Iona and others,

    You do not have to send your credit card information via email, which granted is not entirely safe. The Owl and Turtle accepts orders by phone and, given it’s an established Maine business, that’s a safe way to provide payment information.

    Please note I have no connection with the store. I just like Tess’ books and independent book stores.


  11. Michael
    Michael says:

    I’d love to own a signed copy and I didn’t that was possible through Owl & Turtle bookshop. So I went to their website and tried to contact them but I keep getting an Yahoo error after submitting the message.

    Does anybody knows if they have an e-mail?

  12. off2paradise
    off2paradise says:


    I stumbled across this post searching for Tom Lai’s. Way back in the late ’60s and throughout the ’70s, this was my family’s favorite San Diego restaurant. Altho we lived in Escondido, we ate at Tom Lai’s at least 3x per month…

    One of my fondest memories was the hostess — her name was Leila (or Lila or ??). Would that be your mother by any chance???

    Am back in town for my 30 year high school reunion and the trip down memory lane is certainly interesting.

    Good luck in all you do…

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