Mount Morris valedictorian: Hard work at school and family business prompts success
by: Mary Chao
Along the main route that leads into Mount Morris, New Mun Yuen Chinese Restaurant sits in a dated strip plaza with a Save-A-Lot supermarket as an anchor. Its outdoor signage is faded with age, matching the vintage of the plaza. Inside the restaurant, the Lin family and their six children are scattered about, with dad Din Zhao Lin handling the wok duties, stir frying Chinese American dishes such as sesame chicken, while his wife Li Feng Chen prepares the orders.
Life at the Chinese restaurant is the bane of Nelly Lin’s existence since arriving in Mount Morris 12 years ago. The family had lived on the lower east side of Manhattan when they saw an ad in the Chinese newspaper World Journal for a takeout restaurant in a small town in upstate New York. Weary from working until midnight and not seeing their kids, Lin and his wife decided to give life in a new area a chance. They arrived in the Livingston County town not knowing any one, with minimal English skills, and hoping for a better life for their children. Mun Yuen means abundant sources in Chinese and it was the family’s hope that their new hometown would be filled with prosperity.
Nelly, 18, the oldest of the children, didn’t speak English when her young life was uprooted from New York’s Chinatown brimming with new immigrants. But with help from her teachers and through sheer determination, she will graduate as valedictorian of Mount Morris High School on June 25, walking down the aisle to receive her diploma as the first in her family to attend college as she is bound for the State University of New York at Geneseo.
12 hour days, 364 days a year
In many ways, the Lins are akin to other Chinese immigrants: Work and save to open a takeout restaurant that requires minimal English language skills and hope that the second generation will fare better. Life is not easy for these families or their children. Instead of Little League or recitals, free time is spent at the restaurant helping the family business. There are no weekends or holidays off. The Lins work 364 days a year, 12 hours a day, with the only day off being Thanksgiving. In order to make enough money at a small takeout, they do not hire additional help.
The Lin children arrive at the restaurant after school and work on their school projects and play games with each other. Five more girls followed Nelly: Linda, 16; Ian, 13; Anna, 11; Holly, 10 and Monica, 7.
As the eldest, Nelly takes charge of her sisters’ care in addition to her duties at the family restaurant and school. Education is serious business for Nelly as she realizes that it’s the path to a life outside restaurants.
“They’re always emphasizing education,” Nelly said of her parents.
Both her parents are from the Fuzhou province of China, where there was a big influx of immigration in the 1990s, after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre in China gave them enhanced consideration for asylum. Chen arrived in 1995 and her husband Lin arrived in 1997, meeting in the restaurant industry in New York. There was little work in Fuzhou back then, Chen, 43, said in Mandarin Chinese. She paid a syndicate $40,000 for transport to the United States and blended into a sea of immigrants in New York working in the back end of restaurants.
Chen met her husband while both working at a restaurant in Manhattan. Nelly was born in Brooklyn but the family moved to the Chinatown area. Chen worried that her daughters weren’t picking up English in an ethnic neighborhood and hated having to work until midnight and not seeing her children. The restaurant in Mount Morris was within their financial reach and was a way to reconnect with her kids. The long work days are not ideal, but at least the entire family is together, she said.
“We are happy as a family,” Chen said in Chinese.
Life in a small town
The town of Mount Morris on the edge of the popular Letchworth State Park has a population of 4,465 as of the 2010 Census. More than 95 percent of residents are Caucasian and less than one percent are Asian. The Lin family do not know any other Chinese families in town.
Getting to the top of the class wasn’t easy for Nelly as her parents could do little to help with her homework since they speak very little English. She would arrive at school early to get the extra tutoring she needed, asking teachers before class started.
“She is one of the most hardworking, conscientious people I’ve ever met,” said Becky Chenaille, principal of Mount Morris High School. “She is very self-motivated.”
Twenty-six percent of the students in the school district are English-language learners, mostly from Puerto Rico, she said. The school district is cognizant of the needs of English as Second Language students and has three ESL teachers on staff to ensure they succeed.
Nelly Lin has an incredible work ethic, overcoming the obstacles of being an English-language learner, said Ryan Humphrey, who was her eighth-grade living environment teacher and her 11th-grade chemistry teacher.
“It seemed as if she never could learn enough and always wanted to know more. She always wanted to know what she could do better or how to improve. These types of maturity and motivation are something I hadn’t seen very often, let alone in an eighth- grader,” Humphrey said.
As an 11th grader, she was taking regents chemistry, with many seniors and other accelerated classmates.
“She had the strongest work ethic out of all the students and that paid off with the highest chemistry Regents score that year for her class,” Humphrey added. “I will never forget Nelly asking two months before the Regents exam asking if she can have some practice exams to get a head start. Mind you, Nelly would find time for all of this extra studying and reviewing while helping run the family restaurant.“
The motivation to be a high academic achiever while helping her family does come with personal sacrifices. Nelly was in the chorus in ninth grade but dropped out to focus on her studies.