Naheya Su is a wastewater and recycling engineer at First Solar. She currently lives in Perrysburg, a suburb of Toledo, and was born in Hohhot, China to a Chinese mother from China and a Mongolian father.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation between Naheya, Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) and Sam Chang (president of Midstory) on February 18, 2023. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Naheya Su (NS): So my question is, what is the American dream? Because everyone says that they come here …
Ruth Chang (RC): …come here to get their American dream?
RC: Well, I definitely think that it depends on the person. I think the American dream is a sense of self-satisfaction more than, you know, “Oh, I have a house and I now own a car.” Although I’m interviewing a refugee, that’s out in Akron, that is pretty much his American dream. He was very — he fled from Burma with his wife, and they have children here. And he’s very thankful to just have a roof over his head and a job that he loves, which is servicing other people. So for him, that was an American dream, but I’m sure that for his children, that’s not going to be enough. You know? It’s a big question.
RC: Where you were you born?
NS: That’s a very good question. I’m not 100% sure. But I’m pretty sure in Hohhot, China — it’s like in the northern part of China, inner Mongolia. And it’s not on the map. I want to say it’s about four hours north of Beijing. I may be completely wrong. But from my memory of living there, there was a lot of dirt. There were no trees. There was no grass. Okay, there is grass, but like patches of grass. So, growing up, I thought it was because we had heavy winds and sand blew everywhere. But recently in the last couple of years, I realized it’s actually a sandstorm because it’s in the middle of the desert.
RC: What was it like there?
NS: |t was really dry. Yeah. And back then, before I came here, you know, going to elementary school, we had to go to school no matter what the weather condition was, right? So if there was a sandstorm, my mom would wrap a scarf around my face — my head — and put me on a bicycle and take me to school. But after I came to the U.S., I guess one of the culture shocks was, when it snows really heavily, we get school off that day. So, that was one of the culture shocks. And the other one was automatic doors. I’ve never seen an automatic door until I came here. So that was very surprising. I came here when I was about 7 years old. And also the showers. I didn’t realize — ’cause back in China, we had to heat up the water before showering, whereas here, you had to kind of let the water run for a little bit. And I just thought everyone took cold showers.
RC: So, you moved to the United States because of your father getting a job here?
RC: Do you remember anything about that period of time? Because I remember when I moved here, I remember my first American teacher. Do you remember anything about that class or what it was like learning English?
NS: Oh, yeah, that was another culture shock. It was about 20 students in a room, whereas, in China, it was 70 – 80. And everyone was just so crammed together. I mean, learning English was — the most difficult part for me was the talking and the writing. I could understand everyone else. But the ability to talk was just “yes” and “no.”
RC: So, then you grew up in Perrysburg? And was there anything particular about the neighborhood where you grew up that you remembered?
NS: That’s a very good question. We lived in an apartment, so I never really went outside. I mostly stayed home and did puzzles. And played Tetris. So …
RC: I know your parents worked initially, but then later on, they started their restaurant business.
NS: S how my parents go from job one and job two and how you even got job one, I have no idea. How they all of a sudden one day decided that they want to open up a restaurant — I didn’t ask. I just knew as it became a thing, and I just wanted to help. So starting a business is rough. Because there’s this period in the very beginning of the first two years where starting a business, you’re not going to make anything. And that couple of years were rough. That was when my dad lost all his hair. He actually had hair and then…yeah. So, it was very stressful for them. But they were very grateful. Because if it wasn’t for the government lending out a hand, we wouldn’t be where we are right now. So, yeah, that was a lot of part of my life.
RC: Your family, you’re from Mongolia, like close to Mongolia. Can you tell me about your parents?
NS: My dad’s side is Mongolian.
RC: And did that influence the food cultures and heritage traditions of how you grew up?
NS: I’m going to be honest with how, you know my dad’s side is Mongolian, and my mom’s side is Chinese. But how the two cultures influenced each other? I’m not 100% sure. I mean, I’ve been there a few times to Mongolia. And I’m not 100% sure about that sort of the culture, but my dad definitely has, you know, the Mongolian — like Genghis Khan, and that part — but culture wise, I never really differentiated between Mongolian, and Chinese. I just always differentiate between American and Asian. Because it’s more distinguishable than [the alternative].
RC: Growing up, what were some of the things that you guys did that made you feel like “this is an Asian household”?
NS: So, you know how, like the Asian heritage, it’s — they mainly want boys, right? Yeah. So, that was the thing. So, like, growing up, I was just kind of there. My parents didn’t really pay much attention to me. I just did whatever I did. And then my brother was born, so he got all the attention and that kind of made me a little upset, you know — this was still when I was younger. But outside of that, I mean, even working at the restaurant, I did the majority of the work. I mean, he is 10 years younger than me, but even growing up he is kind of spoiled. So, in a way, it’s kind of difficult getting to him trying to get the best of his life, right? Because after you graduate high school, you kind of have to make an effort in the real world to earn what you want, right? But he’s just not — he’s still not there yet. So, in a way, I feel like that side of the Asian culture kind of affects certain people negatively.
RC: So starting the family restaurant, was there anything about the way that you had to market the restaurant in this area?
NS: Yes. That’s a very good question. We realized that not a lot of people knew that we were there because it’s very small on a corner. So my dad and I, we made these little coupons. I think it was “buy a meal and get one egg roll free” or something. We went to every single neighborhood and we put these little coupons on everyone’s door. So then everyone would know more about us. And I do remember getting chased by a dog. Yeah, it’s an experience. It’s, I mean, it was terrifying at the time. But now when I look back, it’s very amusing.
RC: So then tell me a little bit about just growing up here. Because you talked about the culture shock in the beginning. Then finding your identity here in Northwest Ohio — was that easy? Was it hard?
NS: I was always so busy trying to help out at the restaurant. Because I was there on the weekends; even after high school or during summertime during high school, I was there 12 hours every day from open to night so my parents can take some break, right? So even throughout college, I didn’t really have time to kind of compare and think about it.
RC: Some people don’t have to do these things, but you had to support your parents, which I think is a very grown-up thing that you have to do. How did that inform your outlook on life? Or did it sort of propel you forward?
NS: Yes. Absolutely. Did working there give me something that other people didn’t have? Absolutely. I just didn’t realize that at the time. I just always saw it as a chore, right? But after getting my first job, I was able to apply a lot of it to the company, because even though it’s a small business, there’s the raw material, right? There’s the profits, there’s the ins and the outs. And once it clicked, I was like, wow, there’s not a lot of difference, except that the number is a lot bigger for a company and more laws. And so, that’s what kind of blew my mind a little bit, because I’ve worked there for more than 10 years. During the entire time, I just had a negative feeling, a negative attitude when I was working there because I hated it. I hated every single second of it.
RC: At the restaurant?
NS: Oh, yeah. The restaurant was awful. But it was something I had to do because our family — the way we live, essentially is based from that, comes from it.
RC: Have you had new thoughts coming from that experience that — it’s been a while since you’ve had to be in that environment, right? Again, have your thoughts about the way you grew up changed?
NS: So, before I get there, I’m going to continue my story through college. Throughout college, when I was in engineering, the program was four and a half years, I graduated in two and a half. Well, one of the reasons was because I took a lot of electives while I was in the other degrees. And then the other reason was that I was a full-time student, so I did halftime research. I had a publication in my research. And on top of that, I also had to work at the restaurant for 30 hours. And certain days, I also had to help my brother, pick him up from school, take him to tennis, and those semesters were so stressful. I had two mental breakdowns every single day. And there were times where I had to pull over and finish crying and then continue, right? And now, working when everyone’s saying, “Oh, I’m so stressed.” And I’m like, I don’t feel stressed. So, that’s how it kind of helped me to cope with stress and cope with time management, that even though it was stressful, when I reflect on it, it was rough, but if I had a choice and go back, would I do it again? Yes, absolutely.
RC: I think there’s a saying that whatever doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger. You had mentioned to me a little bit about how you got into engineering. Can you share that with us again? What led you into the field?
NS: So I thought chemical engineering, right? And my parents definitely were against it. Because from where they’re from, engineering is a male’s degree and a female should be a nurse. So they wanted me to be a nurse. And at the time, I was kind of “Okay, sure, why not? I’ll give it a shot.” And I hated it. It was awful. Because my parents were so against me going into engineering, I changed my degree from nursing to undecided, and then from undecided to electrical engineering, because I was terrified to go into the actual degree I wanted to go into. And then went from electrical to chemical, and I didn’t tell them. When I did tell them, I got no support whatsoever all the way up until graduation. There was still no support until I got my job. And it was very, very successful. So that is when their view and attitude kind of changed.
RC: So how do they feel about it now?
NS: They’re happy.
RC: That’s good. They can be very proud of you.
RC: It seems like in this journey of going through, initially, an immigrant’s story, working hard, making life here — do you think that you’ve achieved some kind of an American dream?
NS: I think so. Yeah. ‘cause, in my opinion, we all live up to a certain point, right? And however, you get from point A to point B is how you make it. And as long as I’m happy, and that’s what matters. So, I’m very happy.
RC: Do you identify as Chinese American? Do you feel very connected with that heritage now as an adult having gone through this whole journey?
NS: Being connected as Asian American with the Asian culture versus the American culture — being connected on both sides? I feel like I’m more towards the American culture side. Yeah. Because that’s the culture I grew up in. Because my parents were always so busy, I didn’t really have time to talk with them on a daily basis. Because even in elementary school, I went to bed before they came home. And I wake up by myself and make my own food and do my own homework. So yeah, even growing up, I didn’t really see them much.
RC: The most obvious thing you think about is Chinese food versus American food, now do you identify more with American food, American culture, American way of relationships, American way of living and attitude towards even finance or job — these kinds of things?
NS: Yeah. So food-wise, I’m definitely still not used to American food. On that aspect, no, absolutely not. But financial-wise, yeah, everything else is mostly more towards the American side, alongside you know, relationships.
RC: What makes you feel proud of this experience that your life journey has led you through?
NS: It was just a really hard struggle, trying to start from scratch. When we first came here, my parents and I didn’t speak any English. So getting a regular job was difficult. Because how do you work when you can’t communicate with anyone? And I think that’s the part where a lot of people don’t understand: just because you can’t speak the language, that doesn’t mean [you’re] incapable. I mean, even today, from day to day, I kind of deal with it, because I get sometimes brain farts and I can’t remember certain terms, and the other person just automatically assumes I have no idea what it is.
RC: Obviously, there’s been lots of conversations about Asian Americans recently [in light of] anti-Asian hate. Do you feel it’s important to share about your background and your story like you’re doing today?
NS: From time to time, I do come up or see articles about people who hate certain races and whatnot. It’s essentially that when a person looks at another person, they don’t realize that they have an entire history or background; in a way, they don’t see the other person as a person, more so as an object. And the realization is, [it] comes to having them know that we have families, we’re here to live and just be a normal day-to-day person.
NS: Yeah. Sympathy.
RC: Oh, there was one last thing. You said, when I first called you, that no one calls you Naheya anymore.
NS: Yeah. Yes, so Lucy. Every time when I meet someone, they always ask me the same three questions: What is your name? Repeat it. Can you spell it out for me? I was like, Okay, I’m just gonna pick a name, where everyone can just say it instead of asking me the same three questions all the time. So that’s where it came from.
RC: [Did] you choose it?
RC: And your original name is Naheya Su. Where did that [come from]?
NS: That’s Mongolian.
RC: Is there a Mongolian language as well or dialects that your parents speak?
NS: No, it’s a completely different language. Yeah, so while our last name in Mongolian was a lot longer, but when we came here, my dad was like, “Well, it’s too long. I’m just gonna keep the first two letters.” If you met my uncle, they have a different last name because they decided to keep the first five letters instead of the first two. But it’s pronounced “Naheya.”