Current generations: carrying on familial legacy

The Wong Family V

While Mary and her siblings often faced the prospect of integrating American values of individualism and competition with the traditional values established by Yee Shee, Mary said that she has always remained true to her family values.

Throughout her life, these values of hard work, honor, respect and generosity were modeled by Yee Shee and her older siblings. Mary acknowledges that she was "protected" in her childhood, as the community was “especially kind in retrospect,” which gave her a support system that helped her throughout her life. 


Her next-door neighbors, the Lofts, exposed Mary to experiences and places she wouldn't have had, especially as Yee Shee had no car and never went on vacations. The Lofts “treated Mary like one of their own,” taking her to their lake cottage on a nearby lake, including her on visits to their families, taking her out for ice cream almost every summer night and giving her a job in their ladies clothing store.

“Throughout my entire life, I have been supported by my older brothers and sisters. With any challenge, disappointment or problem, someone would always be there for me,” she said. “And, because I followed six siblings who were excellent students, active participants and leaders successful in school and in the community, they made my path to adulthood easier.”

Because of their well-known restaurant and the reputation of Mary’s older siblings as excellent students and leaders, Mary said she saw less racism from their neighbors. She said that many of her friends, all Caucasians, were immigrants from Europe and accepted her totally, never mentioning her ethnic origin. Even so, she was warned about the racial tensions that were especially exacerbated during World War II.

“I was most aware of my race and ethnicity during WWII, when kids would call me a ‘Jap’ or the enemy,” Mary said. “Beginning when I went to school my mother would tell me to say I was Chinese not Japanese.”

She never realized why Yee Shee stressed that differentiation until decades later, when she was married with two children in Berkeley, California: After moving to the state in the 1970s, Mary had learned that one of her best friends, a Japanese American woman, was relocated to a camp during the war as part of a larger movement where the U.S., in fear that citizens of Japanese ancestry would act as spies, forcibly relocated and incarcerated them along the Pacific Coast. The woman's parents had "lost everything," and her younger brother's education was severely compromised as a result of the relocation.

In addition to the racist name-calling she experienced in school, Mary also encountered several cases of discrimination in her own education, a recurring pattern that continued well beyond adulthood. However, Mary had developed a strong sense of character from the teachings of her mother, skills that helped her establish deep friendships and find support in the communities she lived in, despite discrimination.

At high school, Mary’s locker mate was an African American girl. While the two became good friends, Mary reflects that the teachers may have paired them up as two of the few minority students at their school.

Those same years, she met her husband, David Palmer, and they married after college in 1959, a time when interracial marriage was still prohibited in many states. The pair moved to California after David was offered a job at UC Berkeley to retrain as a medical physicist.  

“I find the Bay Area refreshing where intermarriage is so common,” she said. “Yet, I feel a sense of dismay at the increase in violence against Asians. It was only after reading about the history of Chinese immigration and then getting my family’s immigration records that I understood how great violence against the Chinese has historically been.”

Her granddaughter Dimock expresses similar sentiments. While Dimock feels that she didn't have a grasp of the significance of her great-grandparents' immigration to the U.S. when she was younger, she said she's now more aware of how meaningful and courageous their move was. After absorbing more stories about the assimilation and the experience of growing up Chinese American from her grandma, she also recognized the importance of keeping her great-grandparents’ legacy alive through the generations by maintaining them herself.

“As a white American with parents born in the United States, I don’t share the same experience of assimilation as my great grandparents and my grandmother and her siblings, but I do encounter that same importance of community and support within families,” Dimock said. “That in itself can speak to the significance of passing down family values and a sense of empathy, especially for those in situations that I cannot personally relate to.”

That emphasis on family is expressed throughout her family’s traditions, Dimock said — it's a value that "so heavily defined" the assimilation of her grandmother and her siblings to American culture, and one that successive generations continue to carry on through storytelling traditions and their biennale Wong all-family reunions.

These reunions have taken place across the West Coast and Midwest, from Seattle and Beloit to Salt Lake City. Several third-generation family members take the lead in planning the event, holding entire-family and individual family dinners for smaller gatherings to catch up, according to Dimock.

At the reunions, the Wongs celebrate family history. Their latest reunion, in the summer of 2022, involved a panel with three surviving members of the second generation, who answered questions about their experiences growing up in Beloit.

Dimock also spends a lot of time reconnecting with her cousins, four of whom are fully Asian, while a fair amount are a quarter or three-quarters Asian. As a result, she said that her family's mix of different racial combinations has influenced her generation's varying perceptions of themselves as Asian Americans.

“I can recognize that my own family has had more generations since immigration, and that makes my approach to the concept of immigration — especially being a white American—much less shaped by personal experience,” Dimock said. “While I can never understand the experience of being a first generation immigrant-American, I hope that I can continue to be mindful of these differences and the ways in which my own life has been shaped by earlier immigration within my family.”​


Although Dimock said she wished she was able to speak Cantonese and had a more comprehensive understanding of Chinese culture, she is thankful for the means to stay connected with her heritage: cooking Chinese food with her grandmother’s stories.

She now recognizes that her family's story attests to how “life-changing” providing support to all people of the community, especially times of difficulty, can be.

Her family's history has inspired her to give back to the community through her involvement with social justice. As a Wellness Helper and a member of Sources of Strength and Culture of Consent, she has learned how to connect her own goals of ensuring that all peers have support systems they can access with her family values of supporting the community.

“I hope that our legacy of selflessness and support for others can inspire members of all communities, regardless of their race, to turn to families, friends, and neighbors for support during times of adversity,” she said. “As a member of the younger generation, I hope to uphold these same values and contribute to a greater sense that help is always available to those in need.”

Photo courtesy of David Palmer.