Coming to America
Immigrant attorneys share their journeys to, and visions of, America
Published in 2021 Pennsylvania Super Lawyers magazine on May 26, 2021
Qiwei Chen and Weihong Hsing both came for a better education. Leno Thomas’ and Ruben Honik’s families were looking for more opportunity.
Each of these Pennsylvania attorneys began their journey in another country and had various hurdles to overcome along the way. But each has embraced their new home and sought out their own version of the American Dream.
Leno Thomas, Solomon, Berschler, Campbell & Thomas, personal injury, India, 1977: Back in the late ‘70s, America was taking nurses from the Philippines, India, and all these Asian countries for all the GIs coming back from Vietnam. My mom was a nurse, so she was able to come over here first. Then she sponsored my dad and us to come about a year and a half later.
Ruben Honik, Honik Law, class action, Cuba, 1960: I was born and raised and lived in Cuba for the first five years of my life. Then I came to the U.S. with my parents as a child in the fall of 1960. … We are Jewish, and in the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, splinters of my family were lucky to leave Eastern Europe and Russia, and in the case of my family, they found a very welcoming home in Cuba and really threw themselves into Cuban culture and society. We were happy there for decades until there was this other upheaval in the form of the Castro Revolution. By the time we left in 1960, the new Cuban government was firmly in place. Hundreds of thousands of Cubans had left before us, so my father went every day to the U.S. embassy to stand in line and wait for an interview to obtain a visa. Strictly by tenacity and some luck, my father finally got an interview and had his visa application for our entire family approved.
Weihong Hsing, Ice Miller, intellectual property, China, 1989: At the end of the ‘80s, China started opening doors to Western culture. During my last year in college, many of my friends were doing their GRE and TOEFL tests and were trying to go to graduate school in the U.S. I just followed, basically. The University of Massachusetts Amherst accepted me in their graduate school microbiology department.
Qiwei Chen, Obermayer Rebmann Maxwell & Hippel, business litigation, China, 2011: My college in Shanghai had an exchange program with Indiana University of Pennsylvania, which is located in a typical college town. It’s very small. It’s kind of suburban Pennsylvania. Because my college paid for the tuition for me to come over, I thought, “Why not?” This was a good opportunity for me to see the world.
Chen: When I first arrived, I was surprised by how beautiful it was, and how peaceful and tranquil. I think there are about 14,000 residents in the town of Indiana, compared to Shanghai, which has 20 million. I enjoyed being in a place that has no traffic, no noise. You really can actually enjoy nature.
Thomas: I think once we landed here, it started to sink in a little bit, like, “Wow, we’re in a different country, people are different from us, they don’t wear Indian clothes, they don’t eat Indian food.” It was a little bit of a culture shock.
Hsing: I had English before I came, but it definitely wasn’t at the level I wanted it to be. I remember we had an immunology professor, and every time before class he would make some kind of joke, and I had no clue what he was talking about. But people were laughing, so I just thought, “OK, it’s something funny.”
Honik: When we first arrived, we lived in the South Bronx—a very different South Bronx in the early ’60s than what it is today. We lived in walking distance to Yankee Stadium. My father and I were great baseball fans, and we spent a lot of time in old Yankee Stadium.
Brave New World
Thomas: Once my parents got here, their primary goal was to get us stabilized and make sure that we were taken care of, that we had a place to live and food and clothes. But as soon as that was taken care of, their next goal was to bring all of their sisters and brothers over. Growing up, I had an uncle or an aunt or sometimes a whole family living with us. So that sense of community and family was instilled at a very early age—just because you make it doesn’t mean you’re done. You’ve got to put your mind and effort into making sure that your loved ones make it, too.
Chen: My country does not have diversity. Everyone is the same basically, from almost the same ethnicity. But here, it’s so interesting to actually see different groups of people commingle together, and they often bring their culture to the community. I never had Indian food growing up; I never had Turkish food. But here, I can have food from all over the world. Although American Chinese food is very sweet—it’s very different from my hometown food.
Hsing: Everyone drives here! I was so afraid of driving. I thought it was such a scary thing and thought, “I don’t need to drive.” So throughout graduate school, I just took rides with people. Same thing with the first part of my post-doc. But when I was pregnant with my daughter, my first child, I figured I had to learn so I could drive to the doctor.
Honik: I didn’t speak English, and I was immediately put into grade school. My mother would pick me up from school every day and speak to me in Spanish. All a 6- or 7-year-old wants is to fit in. Even though I looked like everybody else—our appearance was European for the most part—I felt very different. I was really embarrassed when my mother would pick me up and speak to me in Spanish.
Thomas: The world wasn’t as PC as it is now. There were definitely hurdles—racism and stereotypes that we had to deal with and overcome. My parents instilled from a very early age that you need to get a good education, and then get a good career, and then you can handle anything that life throws at you. But did we have to face racism and stereotypes? Absolutely. I remember when my mother would wear Indian clothes to parent-teacher conferences, and I would get funny looks or kids would say mean things later on. But you learn to deal with it. You learn that most people aren’t like that, but some people are, and that’s an unfortunate fact of the world.
Honik: We came over like many Cubans of that era, with nothing but our luggage filled with personal effects. My father was always hustling to get work. He really persevered and ended up becoming quite successful, but it took many years. We lived in a walk-up apartment building in a very modest part of New York, and initially my father had all kinds of odd job and worked very, very hard. It took years for our family to get on its feet economically and otherwise.
Chen: The reason I decided to keep a small portion of my practice as immigration law is, as an immigrant myself, I understand that every single immigrant needs help in navigating the system. That’s something I can really relate to. For a lot of immigrants, they may not see a lawyer for their entire lives, but they need an immigration attorney to help them to start their lives here. I’m happy to contribute to help them make a life-changing decision. I feel like I got a lot of help when I first started here—particularly from my current employer and the Asian Pacific American Bar Association of Pennsylvania, because they really helped me a lot along the way—and I want to give back to the new immigrants who just arrived. I feel like it’s my obligation. It’s not just a job; it’s a sense of responsibility as a citizen.
Thomas: I’d always wanted to stand up for my friends and fight for what is right; that naturally translated into a path that led to law school. When I was 13, I got hit by a car and I fractured my leg. My parents used the personal injury settlement from that to send me to military school—Valley Forge. And that’s where I really began to focus on going to college and getting into law school. So, weirdly enough, my education was funded by a personal injury accident.
Honik: In Cuba, high school was six years, and most people didn’t go on to college unless you were going to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. With the exception of my mother, who was a musician and went to a music conservatory after high school, no one in my family went to college until I did. So I feel very close to those working-class roots, and I think it’s deeply, deeply influenced my choices professionally. Those roots keep me representing the kinds of people I represent now, and have continued to, for 40 years of my legal career.
Chen: I liked to watch American TV shows when I grew up, and I imagined a lot of small-town America. I watched Twin Peaks, the David Lynch TV show. I also watched a lot of legal dramas, like Boston Legal, Law & Order, things like that. It kind of shaped my view of how the American court system looked; after I started practice, I found out that did not reflect reality, but the legal practice here looked fascinating. I’ve realized since that there is a lot of need in the Asian community. We have a quite large Asian community in Pennsylvania, yet there are only a few Mandarin-speaking litigation attorneys. I like the litigation work. That’s something that I always wanted to do—advocate for your client in court. There are some corporate attorneys who speak Mandarin in Pennsylvania, but there are probably only a handful of Mandarin-speaking litigators. So I realized that there is a way I could really apply my skills to help a lot of Asian clients. That’s why I decided to stay.
Hsing: I really wanted to become a professor. Then I was offered this opportunity with Johnson & Johnson to be an in-house patent specialist, which also sounded very exciting. So I was debating whether to take the J&J job or stay at Princeton working on my research and preparing for my academic job applications. I talked to Lee Rosenberg, who was the chief scientific officer of Bristol Myers Squibb before he went back to teaching at Princeton, and he told me, “Make a decision and then make it right,” an Abraham Hicks quote that has served me quite a bit. Now I help clients with their new inventions and their transactional work, making sure they have proper protection of their inventions and don’t infringe other people’s patents, and that their transactions go smoothly. It’s good to feel that you’re part of something bigger, helping come up with new and effective treatments for many of the really hard-to-treat diseases. Meanwhile, I also get to fulfil my dream of being a professor by working with a team of young, talented, highly specialized PhDs on my team, who keep me on my toes. Knowing that what we’re doing matters and can translate into new medicines that helps society at large—that’s definitely something I enjoy.
Hsing: When my kids were young, every year around the Chinese New Year, I had them wear Chinese outfits, just for that day. And I made the red envelopes for them with chocolates for the classmates. I think [their classmates] liked it. It was always around Valentine’s Day, and they would get double—the regular Valentines plus the Chinese red envelopes. I think they enjoyed doing that. But once they started middle school, I couldn’t convince them to dress up anymore. I also taught the adult conversation class for a couple years at our local Chinese school, and I enjoyed it a lot. My students sent me flowers on Valentine’s Day—a dozen roses. That’s the thing I remember so many years later.
Honik: After the Soviet collapse, things dramatically changed in Cuba. In 1989, 1990, the Cuban government started to open up its borders a little more readily to outsiders. That’s how I eventually got back there. … I got involved with [a charitable] organization and made my first trip back to Cuba in December of ’94. I helped to deliver pallets and pallets of over-the-counter drugs to Cuba, wheelchairs, Judaica, dried milk, all kinds of stuff that the community needed, especially in those early years when things were economically depressed. So I became very involved with Cuba in the mid-’90s and started to travel there with some frequency. I continued to do that for 10, 12, or 15 years.
Hsing: I always try to put myself in the other person’s shoes; I can see how they look at me or how I look at them, especially when I deal with people from a different cultural background—I can totally see, because I’m just like him or her. And also, my experience helps me view things from their perspective. … I’ve always felt I’m a pretty lucky person. I know I work hard, but not everybody who works hard would be able to get what they want, and I’m pretty happy about what I have and where I am.
Chen: As an immigrant, I knew there would be a lot of challenges—language, culture—I anticipated that. But I enjoyed making improvements, trying to really get my life adapted into a different society by watching a lot of American TV shows and hanging out with the local kids and stepping out of my comfort zone. Also, I read a lot of newspapers: The New York Times, Foreign Affairs. I really enjoyed the process. I think very few people are willing to take that risk and take that challenge, and I’m really proud of myself.