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Immigration / Thriving

What does thriving mean for older immigrants in Los Angeles? Health, social connection and generational torch passing

Five Angelenos share how they’re navigating life’s later stages, as well as the opportunities and obstacles they faced along their journeys to economic security since they first arrived in the United States.

(L to R) Corazon Gutierrez, Rachel Perumean and Judy Yum. (Photos by Anne To)

This report is part of Thriving, a yearlong storytelling initiative from Technical.ly focused on the lived experiences of Philadelphia and comparative city residents. The goal is to generate insights about the economic opportunities and obstacles along their journeys to financial security. Here's who we're focusing on and why.

For hundreds of years, those who left their home countries for the United States could agree with the xenophobes fighting to keep them out on one thing: faith in the American Dream.

This unique social adhesive, which promised success and fortune for anyone who sought it, drew millions of immigrants from all over the world to US shores and population centers. California, especially, offered a prominent landing zone for many such travelers. The state now has the county’s largest immigration population, counting 10.5 million in 2021.

The State of Immigrants in LA County 2022 report by USC Dornsife found that as many as one out of every three residents in Los Angeles County are immigrants. Of this, more than two in three immigrants in the county are Asian American and about two in five are Latinx. Over four in five of the county’s immigrant population have resided in the US for over a decade.

Many of the bright young people who traveled to the States in pursuit of the American Dream have now grown old, and passed this dream off to the next generation. Many now also deal with declining health while seeking fulfillment in their later years. Do they feel their dream was realized? Are their lives better in the US than their home countries? And how does living in LA help or hurt their progress?

Thriving in Los Angeles

Technical.ly spoke with several older immigrants living in Los Angeles to learn how they’re navigating life’s later stages. To them, thriving means everything from being able to travel with their family and see their children and grandchildren succeed, to being able to play ping pong and stay active.

Technical.ly interviewed these Angelenos at two senior centers in LA County, Potrero Heights Senior Center and Langley Senior Center. These centers serve not only as hubs for activities but also as much-needed social interaction for a population struggling with chronic loneliness. Lunch, sports and lessons are provided at the centers to let senior citizens focus on staying healthy while connecting with their community.

These Angelenos shared their stories for this latest installment of Thriving, a yearlong reporting series highlighting the lived experiences of people in Philadelphia, DC, Atlanta and other cities to understand the opportunities and obstacles along their journeys to economic security and freedom. Here’s what they told us.

Rachel Perumean, 79: ‘Just take it a day at a time’

Rachel Perumean came to the United States from Chihuahua, Mexico when she was 5 years old in 1950. She lived with her mother and four siblings in a garage when they first arrived in California. While Perumean grew up low income, she told Technical.ly her mother raised her to not allow circumstances to define her.

“She never complained. It was always the future for her,” she said. “’Take it a day at a time. Do your best, keep going.’ She never complained about having five children to raise. She never complained about the bills. … I see that in my siblings, because being the youngest, I was more observant, and we’re all the same thing. We don’t whine and complain, we just take it a day at a time, move forward and encourage our children, like our mother did.”

Rachel Perumean. (Photo by Anne To)

Her mother valued education for her children, taking a second job in order to send the three youngest ones to private school. Through the encouragement of her mother, Perumean entered East Los Angeles College and studied to receive her secretarial science certificate.

“My dream was to be an office worker, be a secretary or be an administrator,” she said. “That was my goal, to be educated, to have a prominent position — and I did.”

Now 79 years old, Perumean is focused on staying healthy, as her health has declined with age. She joined Medicare when she turned 65, which she said has been “tremendous” for her because it costs significantly less than the hundreds of dollars per month she was paying for Medi-Cal Kaiser coverage.

She also has a goal to “enjoy every day.”

“What has helped me is that they have a lot of opportunities for engaging.”Rachel Perumean

Yet with age came loneliness — “I don’t talk to a lot of people anymore, being this age and not being out there in the workplace,” Perumean said. So she frequents the Potrero Heights Senior Center, one of the many senior service centers within Los Angeles County, where she can join activities from art and dance classes to holiday get-togethers. “What has helped me is that they have a lot of opportunities for engaging.”

Perumean said she never received retirement income due to her work, and her husband was ineligible as he passed away younger than the age of retirement, but she has still managed to live a comfortable lifestyle.

“I never even thought of me being 79, so I’m very limited financially,” she said. “It’s not too bad. It is bad, but I can live with it because I’ve never been very ambitious in terms of material things. In fact, I went full circle because I have been living in a garage for the last five and a half years.”

Perumean remodeled the garage within her home into a studio apartment to live in so one of her sons and his family could move into the house.

“That’s fine because the tradeoff is, I’m not by myself, and as an older person you don’t want to be by yourself,” she said. “It’s worked out perfectly and I don’t need anything … and I’m so grateful.”

Alex Chung, 55: ‘I want to give back to society’

Alex Chung came to the United States at 35. Immigrating from China, he found himself working 40 hours a week while also studying ESL.

When he first arrived, “I have to start with the scraps,” he told Technical.ly. “I did not have a car and I did not have my house. My English was very poor at that time. … That was very difficult for me, to survive at that time.”

He recalled that his biggest worries included paying rent, figuring out how to use the bus and learning English. Chung studied at an “adult school” and eventually received his high school diploma. He furthered his education at Cal State LA, studying electrical engineering. By the time he was 40, he had received his bachelor’s degree.

His experience arriving in the States required Chung to adapt rapidly, which he considers an important skill for any immigrant to thrive in the US.

“You have to be good at multiple things. You have to be very skillful in your career field. You have to be able to get along with other people.”Alex Chung

“You have to be good at multiple things,” he said. “You have to be very skillful in your career field. You have to be able to get along with other people because we, as new immigrants … it is very difficult to plan into American society. In the work I am holding right now, the work environment is consistent of different people of different ethnicities. So we have to adapt to different cultures here.”

Chung views California as a place with many opportunities — including a state program that allowed him to attend university by receiving financial aid. With his degree, he was able to go from working at a restaurant and supermarket to working as an engineering technician.

Chung is now 55 and still working. He was always interested in electronics and finds enjoyment and a sense of fulfillment in his work. He has no plans to retire any time soon.

“I like to work, if you will. I like to meet people,” he said. “Instead of staying home without contributing to society, I want to give back to society.”

He hopes to be promoted to an engineering position after working as an engineering technician for five years.

“I wish I could come here sooner,” Chung said. A factor affecting his promotion is his lack of experience in the field. But, “I think I’m getting there.”

Judy Yum, 65: ‘Enjoy everything’

Judy Yum immigrated to the US from Taiwan at the age of 13.  She disliked her experience living in the US when she was young, but lost her familiarity with Taiwan at the same time.

“I always [expected] to move back to Taiwan, but that never happened,” Yum said. “Everything, a lot of stuff changed, and your lifestyle is different than when you were a little girl.”

Judy Yum. (Photo by Anne To)

While residing in the Bronx, New York, she experienced bullying and discrimination in school. She was one of only a few Asian immigrants. After moving to California, Yum’s experience in the US improved. She worked multiple jobs before she retired — bank teller, officer worker in her ex-husband’s auto repair shop, salesperson and activity director at an adult day care center.

Now that she is retired at the age of 65, she receives alimony and retirement funds that she said don’t amount to much.

“Who can survive on that? I still have some savings, so hopefully that can survive until I drop dead,” Yum said. “Who knows, because the way inflation is, it’s kind of hard.”

Because of high inflation, Yum started to go to food banks to get her groceries.

“Before, I just go to the market and I’ll buy whatever stuff I need,” she said. “Now I look at the flyer and look for the sales to try to shop from there; if it is something I cannot get from the food bank or free produce, that’s the way.”

“When you ask people, seniors, what is ‘successful’? They’ll probably have the same answer.”Judy Yum

Thinking about today’s younger generations, Yum said she felt pressured by family and societal expectations to fit a certain norm when she was young, which made her lack bigger goals in life.

“You go to school, you have a family and then you get the kids,” she said. “It’s like everyone’s first step is going down that path. At that time, people wasn’t thinking about, ‘Oh you stay single, you don’t want to get married.’ You always like, this is the way your parents is, your uncle, your aunt, that’s how they are doing and so you just follow the path.”

Yum tried to break this cycle when she was raising her son, encouraging him to follow his heart and do what was best for him.

Now, she wishes to spend the rest of her life with the goal of remaining healthy and enjoying the little things in life.

“You don’t think about much, you only think about being healthy and being able to take care of yourself. Try not to trouble your kids. Be happy, enjoy everything,” she said. “When you ask people, seniors, what is ‘successful’? They’ll probably have the same answer.”

Lawrence Yee, 86: ‘We come to this country working hard’

Lawrence Yee came to the US from Hong Kong, as his father was a citizen, with the goal to earn better money. He worked in a restaurant for more than a decade.

“In 1967, they paid me $1.75 an hour,” he told Technical.ly. “Then after that I get the tips, of course, otherwise I cannot pay the rent.”

While working at the restaurant, Yee saved his money to invest in real estate.

“One of my aunts tells me, ‘You have to buy the house for your own. If you have money, invest all the money in real estate. Better than something else,’” he said.

Lawrence Yee. (Photo by Anne To)

Instead of pursuing college, he followed his father’s advice and entered the workforce after high school. The goal of his work and earning money was to secure a future for his children. His wife held multiple jobs in sewing and babysitting, as well, in order to provide for their children.

“We want the younger generation [to have an easier] life,” Yee said. “Not like I, you know. We come to this country working hard, having to make money to support the kids to go to school.”

Thanks in part to his work and savings, Yee now has six grandchildren who have been able to pursue higher education.

After following the advice of others in order to find success in his early years, Yee now has time to enjoy his life.

After following the advice of others in order to find success in his early years, Yee now has time to enjoy his life. Yee visits the Langley Senior Center every morning from Monday to Saturday to socialize and play various games.

“I play ping pong, sometimes play mahjong with my friend, and take my lessons,” he said. “Life, you know.”

Yee has also found time to explore his interest in handyman work.

“I usually work with my own self to prepare everything more for myself,” he said. “I only have time when my family get something wrong, and then I can repair it.”

Corazon Gutierrez, 74: ‘I don’t want to be dependent on anybody’

Corazon Gutierrez moved to the United States from the Philippines in her 20s. She had grown up poor, but her parents valued education and managed to send all seven of their children to college. At first, she told Technical.ly, she wanted to be a teacher but switched to nursing when an older sister who also studied teaching couldn’t find a job in the field.

Her brother took a semester off of his own studies in order to allow Gutierrez to study nursing. After becoming a nurse, she was selected by a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee to migrate to the US.

“I told myself, if I [was] fortunate enough to migrate come to United States, I can help my younger sisters and brothers down the line,” she said.

When she arrived, Gutierrez’s perception of the country changed quickly. It wasn’t the clean, colorful place of opportunity she’d imagined. Though segregation officially ended with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Gutierrez described witnessing multiple instances of segregation and discrimination.

“What is very real is there’s still discrimination when I was there in 1973,” she said. “I’m a little bit disappointed, because it’s not the picture of United States that is in my mind, but I got used to it.”

Corazon Gutierrez. (Photo by Anne To)

After moving to California, Gutierrez continued to work as a nurse and rose the ranks to become a director in critical care for ICCU within 10 years of arriving in the US. She worked to take care of her sons after her husband passed away when her kids were still toddlers and saved her money throughout her career in order to have savings available for her sons to go to college.

“My son always complains when I say, ‘This is how much you spend for this,’ but when he graduated, he said, ‘Mom, I wasn’t really very happy when you tell me everything about the expenses, but now that I finished, my classmates are worried about how deep are their loans,'” Gutierrez said. “‘Thank you.’ That makes me feel that even though I’m stretching them, we survived.”

“I’m not giving up if I can still walk.”Corazon Gutierrez

Gutierrez, now 74, wants to spend the rest of her life spending as much time as she can with her children and grandchildren. Age has brought about health issues, but she has found a gateway to stay healthy through the Potrero Senior Service Center.

“Six months before I retired, I was having problems with my heart. I was so scared that I might not even enjoy my retirement, but thank God they found the cause of them,” she said. “One thing when you’re always busy: There’s no time to exercise … so I said, let me check the center, and they have the activities that I was told by my doctor to go.”

She started a walking program at the center and joined a swimming program, but recently, her health has been declining. Despite, this she wants to continue to be as independent as possible.

“I found out that my physical and mental ability is regressing,” Gutierrez said. “It’s hard for me to accept that I’m aging. Maybe I’m losing my mind sometimes … but I’m not giving up if I can still walk. I won’t give up because I don’t want to be dependent on anybody.”

Series: Thriving

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