November 22 — 12:00 am, 2007

Minor accident becomes major tragedy for star pupil

shengkai3 Photo: Cam Tu Nguyen

An American tragedy took place in Philadelphia this fall, but the event didn’t even make local news.

Fender benders rarely do.

The ripple effects of a minor auto accident, however, hold profound implications for the future of Philadelphia and our country, because we might be losing one of its great minds.

One of the drivers involved, Yongzhong Dong, was arrested at the scene of the accident, because he was undocumented. He was also the father of Sheng Kai Dong, one of the best seventh-grade math students in Philadelphia.

I recently began my seventh year of teaching in a career that has involved two two-year stints in Philadelphia, and one year in both Los Angeles and Southern Sudan.

Sheng Kai is as driven and gifted a student as I have ever taught. When he was in fourth grade, he told me he came to America to receive a great education and intended to become a doctor. He was smart enough to skip fifth grade, never missed a day of school, always completed his homework, and often requested extra work.

All this ended in early October after authorities, searching for his father’s passport to expedite his deportation, ransacked his home and carted his father away.

Instead of going to school, the 12-year-old genius spent the ensuing weeks trying to hold his family and their restaurant together. Instead of honing his English grammar skills and expanding his mathematical knowledge – both of which are vital to his one day becoming a doctor – he fried shrimp and mopped floors.

At night, after working sixteen-hour days, he struggled to sleep, lamenting the loss of his father and his pending move to Flushing, New York.

Sheng Kai recently joined members of his extended family there. With his father gone, his mother was unable to keep the restaurant running because she needed to care for his little sister, an American-born U.S. citizen. They were forced to sell.

Meanwhile, Mr. Dong spent most of October in the York State penitentiary before being moved to a Los Angeles facility, where he awaits deportation to China, because he’s not an American.

Still, it’s hard to find a story that is more American than Yongzhong Dong’s. After all, we are a nation of immigrants and many of us don’t need to look too far back in our genealogy to connect with family members of a common experience.

Ten years ago, Mr. Dong arrived in America and opened a carryout restaurant in North Philly. He did this knowing that his life would be one of sacrifice, providing his children with opportunities he never had.

He worked sixteen-hour days, seven days a week. Whatever money he was able to save after paying his rent and taxes was sent back to his wife in China. His wife eventually joined him and later, so did Sheng Kai.

As soon as they arrived, Mr. Dong went through the legal process of attaining citizenship for his family. His wife was granted political asylum, because she – like her husband – is a devout Christian and has been persecuted for practicing her religion in China.

As the government issued green cards, Mr. Dong always put his family members’ applications in front of his own. One by one they were issued, first to his wife, and then Sheng Kai. His application was still being reviewed at the time of his unfortunate fender bender.

Anti-immigration legislation and rhetoric is rife these days. We’ve all heard that undocumented immigrants represent a threat to our national security, are a drag on our health and educational systems, and compromise our nation’s great values and traditions.

But the family I’ve mentioned contradicts every one of these stereotypes. In an age of apathy and declining work ethic, the Dongs set an example for the majority of Americans, who have become disconnected from the ancestors who toiled to create the comforts they now enjoy.

It is, and always has been, in the government’s best interests to educate great minds and reward great workers. Nurturing both has made our country great. Our fate as a nation will be determined by our ability to continue doing so.

A few days before Sheng Kai moved to New York, I sat in his home, crying with him. I thought of myself as a twelve year-old boy and how difficult life was at the time, even though my dad was always at home.

I realized his future is hanging in the balance. Even though he’s only twelve years old, he might be able to rally through his depression. Time may mend his pain and he might be able to refocus himself on school and even become a doctor.

But he could just as easily veer in an opposite direction. If that occurs, Sheng Kai and the rest of the Dong family won’t be the only ones suffering. Our city and country need them as much as they need us.

the notebook

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