My late father-in-law was an immigrant. He was also one of the most American guys I ever met — if you believe that what defines our national character is a willingness to pull yourself up by the bootstraps, a love of family and community, a thirst for knowledge and, of course, a really green lawn.
Boen Tong — known as “Tong” or “BT” to his wife and friends, “Dad” and “Grandpa” to his kids and grandkids and “Tom” to the slightly deaf old Jewish ladies with whom he played bridge in his later years — was born in Indonesia in 1919. He spent his childhood working in the family batik business, pedaling his bike through the Javanese jungle to pick up the beautifully dyed cloth for which Indonesia is known. He spoke Malay and Javanese, but when his parents sent him to study at Dutch schools, Dutch became the first of four foreign languages in which he would eventually become fluent.
By age 19, BT showed signs of grit and determination that would put a John Wayne movie character to shame. He left Java for Holland to study chemistry and pharmaceutical science at a Dutch university in the late 1930s, first as an undergrad, eventually earning a doctorate from Leiden University in 1947.
Check those dates. Yes, my father in law, with impeccable timing, arrived in Holland shortly before the Germans invaded and was there for the duration of World War II. So while his educational resume is impressive, what makes it more so is that he earned those degrees despite the time he spent in a German prison during the war. We know BT was in the Resistance before he was captured. We know he was freed through the intervention of a well-connected Dutch friend. We know he saw horrors.
But there are so many details of his narrative missing from those war years because BT preferred not to dwell on those things. In that sense, he embodied the American traits of optimism and forward movement. When the war ended, he came to the U.S. Because Indonesia was in the throes of revolution when BT arrived to Ellis Island, he was designated a political refugee. Once he was finally allowed to move on from Ellis Island after weeks in detention there, he went on to earn a PhD in Pharmacy from the University of Wisconsin.
I share all of this because I want you to understand with what exquisite grace BT inhabited the role of “American” in the years between 1951 when he arrived here and when he died in 2008 at age 89.According to my husband, BT was a Gaugin of green grass, carrying around a Frisbee filled with various types of grass seeds so he could place them meticulously in spots needing a boost.
He took that public university doctorate and worked as a researcher in the pharma industry, eventually being elected by his peers to serve on the U.S. Pharmacopeia, the standards-setting authority for all prescription and over-the-counter medicines made and sold in the U.S. There are an awful lot of Americans who can thank my father-in-law for his contribution to them not having adverse pharmaceutical reactions.
He married and was a steadfast support not just to his wife Helen and their four kids but also to his Indonesian family and his wife’s family, whose forbearers came to America decades earlier. At his 80th birthday party, Aunt Weezie, my mother-in-law’s sister, presented BT with a beautiful handmade glass lantern. “BT, you have been a lamplighter for our family,” she said. “You have always helped show us the way.”
An informed citizenry has — at least in the past — been a critical part of sustaining American democracy. BT did his part, reading every article in the New York Times every day and clipping out to send along what his four kids, their partners and his three grandkids should also read. There was no topic too small for BT to have some knowledge of it, some ability to sustain a conversation. If the topic was American sports, you’d have to strap in because his knowledge was formidable and his opinions strongly held.
Americans value education, or did before Betsy “Jesus Grizzly Schooler” DeVos took over. My father-in-law was a walking Fiske Guide To American Colleges. Not only did he know where every school was, he knew what departments were standouts, which were overrated and what their mascots were. (He passed this gift on, undiluted, to my husband.)
If you need any more proof that my immigrant father-in-law was an exemplary American, you need look no further than the front yard he maintained. What’s more American than a lush green lawn? According to my husband, BT was a Gaugin of green grass, carrying around a Frisbee filled with various types of grass seeds so he could place them meticulously in spots needing a boost.
It was an ongoing battle because of where he ended up settling his family: a small town just outside the Adirondack Park in the northernmost reaches of New York. For a guy who grew up in the tropics, BT demonstrated an impressive impassiveness toward the cold. (Maybe it helped that he could get over the border to Montreal quickly and stock up on sambal oelek and krupuk from their Asian markets.)
So let’s pause here for a minute. My father in law — a thirty-something single man with no ties, a non-white guy from a predominantly Muslim nation — came to this country to start a new life, in a place where he knew basically no one. It appears that this was easier to do in 1951 than it is 66 years later under the new administration’s hard line against the exact type of immigration that has fueled our country’s arc since day one.
My sister-in-law, Suzanne, tells me that she once asked her dad whether he’d been a victim of discrimination in the U.S. and he answered her, “No, never.” It’s hard not to compare that to the story we recently emailed each other of the Tibetan restaurant owner in that same small Adirondack town. The day after Trump was elected, two men in camouflage jackets in the parking lot of the Walmart approached this longtime resident of the area and reportedly said, “‘Hey chink, get the f— out of my country. Go back to where you came from.”
There’s one other thing you should know about my father-in-law (and every other immigrant who found their way to citizenship in America): BT made a deliberate choice to make America his home. He proved he understood what America stood for when he took his citizenship test.
Now, in our reaction to the immigration ban, the promise of a wall and the deportation sweeps the new administration is trying to force through, we’re facing a citizenship test of our own.
And I, for one, plan to do BT proud.