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Lillian Johnson

Lillian Johnson

School Librarian and Daughter of Immigrants from Canton, China

Born: Galesburg, IL, United States
Heritage: Chinese American

What has enriched my life has always been to have a creative outlet. When you have that outlet you exprience a passion for something. Sometimes it gets you through difficult times and gives you a lot of joy. My advice to you is to find your passion and learn from it and practice it.

Lillian Johnson

School Librarian and Daughter of Immigrants from Canton, China

My name is Lillian Johnson. I was born in Galesburg, Illinois on July 3, 1950. I was the first American-born member in the family. My parents were born in Canton, China. It’s right across the water from Hong Kong. My dad came to this country as a teenager. I had to explain a lot to my parents because they didn’t understand American culture. My family motto is: Work hard and don’t get in trouble! If I heard “Don’t get in trouble!” once, I heard it a thousand times.

I spoke nothing but Chinese until I was four or five. When I started hanging out with other kids I learned English and dropped the Chinese. I could think in Chinese but couldn’t speak it anymore. That is something I regret. My parents spoke nothing but Chinese in our home.

By the time I got to junior high I had a large circle of friends. I was a cheerleader then. I remember having to explain to my parents what cheerleading was. In junior high I experienced my first milestone. A milestone is when something happens to you and you remember where you were at in that moment. President Kennedy was shot. I was in a class and heard about his assassination. For days after that I watched it happen over and over and over again on television.

I went to Western Illinois University, which was an hour away from home. It was there I experienced for the first time being treated differently in life. Although we were the only Chinese kids growing up in our school, I always felt like an American. I never felt different, perhaps unique, but it wasn’t until college I felt different. The English teacher treated me as if I couldn’t speak English. I never said much. I thought possibly it could be to my advantage to have her think this way or possibly I should speak up and let her know I could speak English.

After I left Western Illinois, I came back to Galesburg and went to work for the Illinois Power Company. I did that for ten years. Within that time I got married. The man I married was a friend in high school. We moved to Minnesota in 1984. I had a job working for the city of Edina. I did their water and sewer bills. After a couple of years my daughter Alex was born, in 1987. I decided to stay home with her after she was born. I got to share her childhood and kind of experience childhood again.

I never got interested in Chinese culture until I was an adult, when I read a book from Chinese authors. The books reminded me of my childhood and family. America is a melting pot. It’s easy to come to this country and assimilate. I have never gone to China, but I would like to go. My mother has never been back since she came here. For some reason she’s always been afraid to go back. I would like to experience that with her.

I’m the library clerk at FAIR School. I do all the physical work to maintain your library. My favorite part about being a librarian is finding out what children are interested in reading and finding out what you want. It’s also introducing new things to the children.

Notation: Download PDF

Honoring Lillian Johnson

When You Have a Passion

When you have a passion / For something
It gets you through
Learn from it / Practice it
It will always be there for you

I was born in Galesburg, Illinois
In the hometown of Carl Sandberg
And George Ferris who invented
The Ferris wheel
My parents both were born
In Canton, China
Across the water from Hong Kong
Dad came here as a teenager
Then went back to meet my mom
Wasn’t long until they married
When they did my brother born
Had to stay with family
All because immigration law
Would not accept my brother
It wasn’t ‘til I was five-years old
He could come over
I spoke nothing but Chinese
Until I learned English
And when I did I dropped Chinese
Which later I regretted
My family owned a restaurant
Neighbors owned a laundry
Work hard. Don’t get in trouble
Was my family’s motto
In grade school I always vied
To get the best grades in my classroom
It was between this girl and I
Who didn’t care for gymnastics
Because of that I always won
Good to be well rounded
Except for boys I did not enjoy
Touching them when square dancing
The funny thing about TV
I recall now that I’m older
Running to get my mom
When I saw a Chinese person
On TV it was rare
To see someone Chinese
in the movies
I guess like you, like everyone
Wants to be included
In high school only boys
Could play sports when I was younger
If a girl you took home-ec
Tried out to be a cheerleader
When I did a coach came in
To explain it to my father
Because my mom and my dad
Didn’t understand American culture
I never felt different
Until I went to college
When a teacher treated me
Like I could not speak English
I thought possibly it could be
Used to my advantage
But instead I spoke up
And said, “I am American!”
In 6th grade I was picked
To work in the library
Which prepared me for today
Working with you children
Finding out what you like
to read
Helping you discover
There is so much to learn
In this world of wonder

Words by LARRY LONG and Mrs. Valme's 4th Grade Class of FAIR School
(Crystal, Minnesota)

© Larry Long 2006 / BMI