PALO ALTO -- The land of endless transformation and rebirth often has greeted newcomers abruptly: with imprisonment on Angel Island, sudden vistas of wealth, and often mixed and confused identities.
On Sunday afternoon, eight storytellers distilled the mosaic of immigrants' lives in an afternoon program at the Mid-peninsula Community Media Center in Palo Alto.
"Foreign Correspondents: Immigrant Odysseys" was part of the Media Center's "Made Into America" history project, which invites the community to post family stories online -- to preserve and share them and to build understanding of immigrants. On Sunday, project director Elliot Margolies said, it "gives us a chance to walk in someone else's shoes for a while."
While they stretched from more than 100 years ago to the previous decade, and represented various countries of origin and circumstances, the stories shared both a sense of wonder and gratitude toward an adopted home, as well as an ambivalence and sense of duality.
Living between two countries, "there's a richness -- and a little pain in the heart," said Jim Shelby, a drama teacher at Gunn High in Palo Alto, who related the story of his wife Lorenza, who is from Bologna, Italy. "When you are here, you are not there, and when you are there, you are not here."
And for some, amid the longing, is a desperation not to be sent back to their former homes and families. Maria Marroquin, who overstayed a visitor visa in 1997, eventually married and won permanent residency, but not before she sold tamales door-to-door, worked sorting clothes at a thrift store and worked the graveyard shift preparing airline meals -- always living in constant fear of an immigration raid.
Chiu Yook Lon emigrated from China in 1928 to join her father in Gilroy, and skirted the strict Chinese exclusion law by pretending to be Foon Yen Wong, the "paper daughter" of a merchant. She endured five weeks' detention on Angel Island.
"She never felt it was a humiliation," said Bill Warrior, whose wife Pam Wong is Wong's granddaughter.
At age 6, Kim Le fled Vietnam with her mother and baby brother on a leaky boat. They survived a refugee camp and made it to the United States, but ended up occasionally homeless, huddled in a van.
"From that experience, I told myself, 'Kim, you always have to be self-sufficient.'"
She put herself through college, had multiple job offers and founded an accounting firm.
Chike Nwoffiah, of Nigeria, was awarded a new identity within hours of arriving in the United States 25 years ago.
"I've always been me, the son of my father, the grandson of my grandfather," said Nwoffiah, who grew up in a middle-class family and attended British boarding school. His only other identity had been as a member of the Igbo ethnic group of southeast Nigeria.
But in the United States, "I became black," said Nwoffiah, who founded the Oriki Theater in Mountain View and is an adjunct professor at Menlo College. "I had never, never in my entire life been identified as black.
"There was no handbook for what to do with this identity that was given to me."
Asked what to do, an acquaintance just laughed and told Nwoffiah, "You will find out soon enough."
Which he did. "I got followed in grocery stories, I got followed in shopping malls, I got interesting stops from the cops."
At some point, he was handed a new label: African-American, but that, too, posed a challenge. "I had never been to other parts of my country, much less the rest of the continent," Nwoffiah said. "How was I to represent 1 billion Africans?"
He became an American citizen, and is forging a third identity between the old and the new, in the space he has carved out. "The values of my upbringing informs the present," Nwoffiah said. "In this space I find who I have become."
Dey Rose, an instructor at Stanford University, told a story about her grandma Ida fleeing the pogroms of Russia around 1908. Ida and her husband Izzy worked six days a week in a laundry. Rose heard the family history once her grandma retired and would knit and watch TV. "The one sort of programs she could never watch were war movies," Rose said. "They upset her, no matter which war they depicted." But she loved Westerns, especially John Wayne. "I guess it's because the Duke didn't remind her of anyone at all."
"I wish," Rose said, "I had asked her so much more."
Contact Sharon Noguchi at 408-271-3775. Follow her at Twitter.com/NoguchiOnK12.