Like many young Fujianese seeking better opportunities, he paid a smuggler to take him to South America. Then, from Suriname, he and other young Chinese men made a treacherous journey by boat and foot across Central America. Three months after he left Fujian, he crossed the border into the United States. It was 1996.
“We were so young,” said Mr. Wang, 47. “We didn’t know what it meant to be afraid.”
Mr. Wang quickly found work in the back of a Chinese restaurant in Cleveland. He stayed in the job for several years, living in a workers’ dormitory and earning about $800 a month, most of which he used to pay off the $40,000 debt he owed to his smuggler.
In Cleveland, he met Ms. Zhang, who also worked at the restaurant and had come to the United States by a similar route. Both Ms. Zhang, 44, and Mr. Wang said they understood that learning English would broaden their lives, and had tried several times to study it. But they eventually gave up.
“It just never really sank in,” Ms. Zhang said.
In 2002, the couple married and briefly moved to New York City, a hub for Fujianese immigrants in the United States, to have their first baby. Ms. Zhang (traditionally, Chinese women keep their names) gave birth to a healthy, eight-pound baby boy in Brooklyn. They gave him the Chinese name Mengjie. “Meng” was a family name. “Jie” meant “hero.”