E.J.’s Immigration Story – Pasay, the Philippines to Anchorage, Alaska

“Our people have proved our resilience over and over again throughout history. The issue is not our resilience – the issue is oppression. Our resiliency is not permission for others to keep oppressing us.”


One of E.J.’s earliest memories is of his dad driving a jeepney in Manila. Jeepneys are remnants of America’s military presence in the Philippines. They were left by Americans, modified by Filipinos, and are now the country’s primary form of public transportation. Starting at three years of age, E.J. worked as his father’s “barker” (the person sitting up front in the jeepney barking out to possible passengers on the street where they’re headed). He specifically remembers yelling out ‘highway, highway, highway!’.” (audio below)

E.J., his older sister, and their parents lived in a little shack with a bathroom, a kitchen, and a bedroom, where they all slept in one bed. But when E.J. turned four, his father moved to the United States to find work. By the time E.J. turned six, his family built a house in Las Piñas, a nice suburb of Manila, with the money his father sent home.

A lot changed in E.J.’s life at age nine when his parents divorced.

“A lot of the responsibility for trying to better my family fell onto me because it was my dad who left. I took that to heart, and I wanted to help my mom.”

USA is Better

From an early age, E.J. learned that the United States is a better country than the Philippines. E.J’s mother used to take him once a month to buy an action figure from the toy store. The price of almost every toy was negotiable, but his favorite, the American G.I. Joe was not. E.J says his mother, “the best bargainer in the world,” would try each month to bargain down the G.I Joe price, but she never won. All the sellers had to tell her was that the toy came from the USA. (audio below)

The idea stuck with E.J. – everywhere else has a lower value than the United States.

“The message I received as a kid is that anything made in the USA is more valuable, more precious, and better than anything made in the Philippines.”

Pizza & Honey Buckets

After leaving the Philippines, E.J.’s father settled in Barrow (as of 2016 it is Utqiagvik), Alaska, remarried, and started a second family. He worked at the post office, as a cab driver, and at a pizza place. E.J. remembers that job because whenever his father returned to visit them, he would make delicious pizza. After that job, his father drove the town truck that retrieved “honey buckets” (sewage). 

“Disposing of human waste was the job that helped my family a lot.

Carrying Crucifixes

At 14, E.J.’s parents decided to send him and his little brother to Barrow to join their father. E.J. remembers feeling excited – especially about a trip to Disneyland and Universal Studios – but he was also unhappy to leave his mother behind. 

“My mom put her two very young children on a plane to cross the Pacific Ocean and go to a place she had never seen before. She didn’t even know if she would ever see it! She did this just because life would be better for my brother and me. That was a big sacrifice for my mother. In the back of my mind, I didn’t know when I would see my mom again, if ever?”

Aside from their checked bags, E.J. and his brother each carried a four-foot-tall crucifix as carry-on luggage. His dad had requested these from Pampanga, his home province – one for his house and one for the local Catholic Church in Alaska. 

 “We were walking in airports and onto airplanes carrying crucifixes all the way to Barrow, Alaska. It’s funny, but also symbolic. We were literally carrying crosses on our backs.” (audio below)

Los Angeles vs. Barrow

E.J. and his brother first arrived in Los Angeles, where their aunt lived. Even though their stay was short, she took them to Disneyland and Universal Studios. This initial experience set the bar high for what E.J. expected from this new life in the United States. 

Barrow, Alaska contrasted drastically with Los Angeles, California – no paved roads and wooden buildings that sat on stilts to avoid melting the permafrost. E.J.’s dad took him for a drive around the remote town of about four thousand people. E.J. asked to go to the city to get some clothes. His father informed him that the only way in and out of Barrow is by plane! 

Above: E.J. wearing #34, the jersey of Pamiuq, his late best friend.


E.J.’s dream growing up in the Philippines was to one day become a professional basketball player. He believed it was the one way he could make enough money to help his mom. Luckily, basketball is popular in Barrow, and this helped E.J. adjust to life in the United States. 

“Basketball kept me straight, away from trouble, and it gave me something to dream about. Basketball forced me to stay in school. To do well enough in my classes that I could remain eligible to play ball. In the process, I ended up doing pretty good in school!” (audio below)

Above: Junior year with his basketball teammates


E.J. had been going to an all-boys school in the Philippines, but when he started middle school in Barrow, he had girls in his class. It didn’t take long before he noticed Margaret, who is Koyukon Athabascan (indigenous to Alaska). E.J. knows that Margaret’s fair-skin increased his initial attraction to her. 

“I thought I was going to marry her, and we were going to have light-skinned kids together, and I could show them off to my Filipino family.”

Today E.J. recognizes the problematic origins of where the attraction to pale skins comes from.

“I grew up in the Philippines in a context where anything American is better than anything Filipino and being American is equated to being white, and anyone who is lighter skin is more attractive than dark skin folks. I grew up in a context when people were using skin whitening products – soap and bleach. People tell you not to go in the sun, and skin whitening clinics are everywhere.” (audio below)

They talked for the first time when E.J. asked to walk Margaret home. She let him walk her to the corner of the street, but no farther. E.J. reflects and laughs, “She didn’t want me to know where she lived!” E.J. and Margaret dated for a few years, broke up, then got back together in their senior year of high school. They’ve been together ever since.

The Santo Niño

Two years after arriving in the United States, E.J. and his brother went to the Philippines to visit their mother. His brother decided he didn’t want to leave. The Santo Niño (Santo Niño de Palaboy) has always been important to E.J.’s mother. She prayed to it for a child, and then became pregnant with E.J. Then before E.J. left the Philippines the second time, she gave him a Santo Niño de Palaboy (known to watch over the homeless and those with nowhere to go) [see the above photo]. She hoped it would take care of her 16-year-old son, who was leaving her again, but this time without his brother. (audio below)


E.J found it hard to live in his father’s house in Barrow, with his stepmom and step-siblings. He felt a lot of anger towards his father and consequently only went home when he had nowhere else to go.

“I ran away a lot and slept in friends’ homes and on couches. I spent my entire senior year of high school sleeping on my friends’ floorI really didn’t have a home. Basketball was my home.”

 Above: E.J.’s birthday with his dad and two of his three half-siblings in Barrow


After arriving in Barrow, E.J. tried to become as American as possible. He watched a lot of Boy Meets World and Saved By the Bell  – where he got a lot of ideas about how an American teenager should be. But Barrow, due to the Utqiagvik indigenous community, was different than the America depicted on these shows. Ironically, while watching this proud community resist the erasure of their language and culture, E.J. was trying to rid himself of his.

“Not only did I literally leave my country, but now that I’m here, trying to erase or hide the little bits or pieces that are hanging on to me. It got to the point where I was discriminating against other Filipinos.” (audio below)

In his junior year of high school, someone left an anonymous message on his locker: “You are Filipino. Act like it!” E.J. knew that they had a point and started to reflect on his behavior towards other Filipinos. He realized he was trying to lose his “Filipino-ness” when most of his family and friends lived in the Philippines.

“Have I abandoned them? Have I forgotten them? Why was I trying so hard to get rid of my accent and be ‘American’?” (audio below)

Without the questions that this note spawned, E.J. wouldn’t be doing the academic work he does today. 

Alaskan Myths

E.J. knows that there are a lot of myths about Alaska. 

“We don’t live in igloos, or swim with whales, or hang out with polar bears!” 

One predominant myth E.J. often comes across is that Alaska isn’t a multicultural state. He explains how it is diverse not only because of immigrants but also because of the different indigenous groups in Alaska. Anchorage is exceptionally diverse. Some studies say the most diverse neighborhood in the country is in East Side, Anchorage.

Filipinos are the largest immigrant group in Alaska, and also the largest undocumented population in Alaska. E.J. explains how Filipinos have an expression for their undocumented population – “TNT” (Tago Ng Tago) – which translates to “always hiding.” 

“Filipinos are virtually invisible when it comes to the national conversation about immigration and undocumented immigration.” (audio below)

E.J. believes many Filipinos aren’t vocal about this situation because they want to remain under the radar. Their priority is to continue being in the United States and supporting their family – not change laws.

Above: E.J. wearing the uniform of his best friend Pamiuq. E.J. put it on, thinking he would have a uniform of his own soon.

Lucky Timing

E.J. didn’t grow up with a plan to go to college. As his dreams of playing professional basketball faded, and he found himself needing money, he enlisted in the U.S. Army after his junior year in high school. He planned to fly to Alabama and start basic training after graduation. 

In E.J’s senior year, Alaska started a program where full scholarships to the University of Alaska were offered to the top ten percent of the state’s graduating class. E.J. found himself in that top ten percent and in a position he could never have imagined. He decided not to attend basic training, as planned, and instead started studying psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage.

“I fell in love with psychology because it was helping me with my personal struggles. In eight years, I went from not going to college, to having a Ph.D.!”


E.J. works as an associate professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His focus is on the effect colonialism has on how people think about themselves, their culture, and their mental health. 

“I turned my personal experience into a career.”

Internalized oppression” is central to E.J.’s research. When groups of people are repeatedly told that their language, worldview, traditions, skin color, etc. aren’t good enough, these messages eventually seep into their minds. You don’t need to tell them these oppressive messages anymore because they start telling themselves those oppressive messages. They start believing it.”

“I see [internalized oppression] with my people. Skin whitening products are all over the Philippines, and nobody questions it anymore. The English language is the language used in all of our schools in the Philippines. The message is that English is the language of education. In this case, the idea that American things are better than anything Filipino has been internalized and institutionalized. We have built institutions that reflect this oppression.” (audio below)

E.J. has published four books so far [see the above photo]. His most recent, We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet (2018), is a series of letters to his Filipino-Athabascan family highlighting issues around colonialism, sexism, racism, and internalized oppression. 

“Oppression is redundant; it is nothing new. Be ready, but please don’t get used to it. Don’t habituate to it, don’t put up with it, and don’t accept it. Be fed up with oppression. Be sick and tired of it, be angry, be outraged, be devastated by it. It’s natural to be distressed by something so violent and wrong. I have been devastated by it many times, in fact, I am even permanently damaged by it.” (audio below)

Above: E.J.’s tattoo of his family that he keeps adding to


E.J. explains how Alaska is a “very red state” (that produced Sarah Palin) and the 2016 presidential election heightened E.J.’s fear and paranoia. At any time, he may be feet away from people who don’t want people like him around.  

“Bigotry and racist ideologies and anti-immigrant sentiments have always been a part of America. These are stolen lands – especially here in Alaska. We are aware that those things have always been a part of this country – colonialism, racism, and cultural genocide. 

On the positive side, E.J. believes the 2016 election encouraged more people to fight back and resist oppression.

Audio: An election focused reading from his book We Have Not Stopped Trembling Yet (2018)


E.J. thinks it is essential to include America’s indigenous peoples in the national immigration conversation. He feels like his mixed indigenous-Filipino family is at the intersection of the seemingly irreconcilable conflict between indigeneity and those trying to immigrate. 

“As immigrants, we need to acknowledge the indigenous peoples of this land and work with them. Until this day, they are still fighting the oppression of their culture. As immigrants, it is our responsibility to pay respect to the people and respect the lands. The most important way we can respect indigenous people is to work with them to make sure these lands stay welcoming, and that injustice and oppression do not happen here.” (audio below)

E.J. believes people should be careful when repeating statements like “immigrants make America great” or “America is the land of immigrants.” 

We cannot advocate for immigrant rights at the expense of further erasing indigenous people.” (audio below)

Beyond Economics

E.J. also thinks it is problematic how society often judges immigrants solely on their economic value.

“We shouldn’t put a price tag on people’s humanity and dignity. We play into this system that says we are only valuable because we contribute this much money. Are immigrants any less of humans? We don’t do that with the native-born, so why are we doing that to the immigrants?” (audio below)

Above: Margaret works as a midwife, focused on intergenerational healing and wellbeing. She is holding an Athabaskan baby belt, used to carry babies on one’s back


E.J. thinks it is important to question why people immigrate, and why life is better in one country and worse in another. A lot of answers lie in colonialism and exploitation. Unlike how a salmon instinctually swims upstream, humans aren’t naturally inclined to migrate. 

I wasn’t born with a ‘go to the United States instinct’ – to leave my family behind, and my culture. Nobody is born with an instinct to sacrifice everything you are familiar with. Why did I develop this dream along with so many others?”

E.J. explains how it becomes easier to understand why people want to leave the Philippines and move to the U.S. after one studies the Philippines’ complex history of resource and labor exploitation.

I’m here because America went there first.” (audio below)

Creating Superheroes

E.J. & Margaret want their kids to grow up understanding their Koyukon Athabascan and Filipino heritage. While E.J. tries to share Filipino culture, Margaret shares her language, food, and the stories her parents told her growing about her people’s history. These stories grounded her, and she hopes they do the same for her kids. 

“We try to tell stories, read stories, and talk about our family. They have the privilege of these different heritages. Along with that, they have this responsibility of figuring out how they want to help our community.” 

E.J. wants them to see their own diversity as a privilege. 

“I want my kids to use their roots and see them as their superpowers. Just because you have superpowers doesn’t mean you are a superhero. You have to use your superpowers for good, otherwise, you are a villain. I want my kids to be superheroes.” (audio below)

*Update: Since the interview, E.J. and Margaret have welcomed the newest member of their family, Tala Raine Nodoyedee’onh.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Raul’s Immigration Story – Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic to Orlando, Florida


Raul enjoyed his childhood in Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic’s capital. He loved playing ball in the street on a rainy day or going to the river when the sun was shining. He and his friends never worried about their safety when they went out in the city unsupervised. Santo Domingo wasn’t the dangerous place that Raul hears it is today. 


Raul loves dominoes – a national pastime in the Dominican Republic. He learned how to play from his dad and all the men in his family play the game. Raul had his board and “bones” (the pieces) custom-made [see the photos below].

“My dad always loved to play dominoes. They would go out at six in the afternoon and play to four or five in the morning. I remember one time he was playing dominoes. He was so into it that he didn’t want to get up, so he gave me his cigarette so that I would light it!” (audio below)

Raul says that dominoes is more about the conversations with friends that happen during a game than anything else. He doesn’t think many things in life are better than a good game of dominoes with friends.

The Place with the Nice Smell

In 1981 his father left for the United States and lived with Raul’s uncle in New York. Raul loved the smell that would come from his dad’s suitcase whenever he came back to the Dominican Republic to visit them. 

When [my dad] would go back to visit us, I remember every time he opened his suitcase; there was this wonderful smell. To this day, I don’t know what it was.” (audio below)

In November of 1987, Raul, age 14, and his mother and three sisters arrived in New York to join his father. He remembers how cold it was, and he didn’t have a jacket. 

“I walked out of the airport – the doors open, and I felt this cold hit me straight in my face. I thought I was in a refrigerator. That totally blew my mind.” (audio below)

When they arrived, his father informed them they wouldn’t be living in New York – it was too dangerous and corrupt. Raul’s father decided to move the family to Providence, Rhode Island. Raul loved his high school in Providence and still gets excited every time he returns to visit his parents and sister Dhamarys, who still live there. 

“When I go back to Providence, it is like I’m going to the Dominican. Both places are very special in my heart.”


Raul’s friends in Rhode Island always talked about Florida. One day he decided to take a trip and see what everybody was talking about. 

“ The first thing I see when I walk out of the airport is people in t-shirts! No snow at all! What!? Where am I? That moment I said ‘I got to move.’” (audio below)

Raul has been living in Orlando since 1999. He loves how quiet it is in his neighborhood. Raul explains how Orlando is safe, primarily because of Disney.

“Disney has got a lot of power, so they are going to control crime and the nonsense of cities. Having Disney around is a major influence on the economy. They are always going to make sure the people who come here are going to feel safe. They try to help out the police in any way they can cause it’s to their benefit.”


In 2007 Raul “came to Christ”. He had been raised Catholic and went to church “once in a blue moon”. He was single and went out to a club where he met his future wife. She was part of the church and invited him to join her. 

“God started working in my life. Ever since then, it has been the most wonderful thing that has ever happened to me.”

At church, he met a former New York City drug dealer who now goes into prisons to tell inmates how Jesus can change their lives. He tells them a story about being shot at, yet none of the bullets hit him – an experience he believes demonstrates how God is real. Raul liked his message and was invited to join. Raul had never gone into a jail, but he felt God telling him not to worry, and he joined Orange County Jail Ministry in 2011. (audio below)

I’m the one who is going to guide you, I just need you to go there, and I’m going to speak through you. That’s what God has done. He speaks through me.”

He says it’s a moving experience seeing these tough grown men crying.

The Bible says that once you are in Christ, you are a new creature. That’s what we try to share.”

Audio: Raul sharing a favorite passage from the Bible

The Yard

Raul started his current job with Orange County in 2002. He does maintenance – roads, sidewalks, grass, trees, etc.

“We serve the community. Whatever the community needs, we go and do it. Hole in the road? Pipes leaking? We try to make sure the community is safe. I can honestly say, I love my job.”

His crew is part of the emergency responders, and since Raul lives closest to the yard (the place where equipment is stored), he gets called first. Technically he works regular hours Monday to Friday, but in reality, he is never off. When Hurricane Irma hit in 2017, he was the one in the yard for the storm, ready for anything. Immediately after the hurricane passed, his top priority was opening the road to the hospital, and that’s what he did.


Raul has two daughters in their early twenties from a previous relationship and a lot of regrets. He feels like he was too young and stupid to handle his responsibility correctly. 

“I tell them all the time, ‘I love you to death’. I was young and stupid, so I wasn’t there to see them grow. That kind of created a barrier between us for years.”

When he moved south to Orlando, they stayed up north. Not only was there emotional distance, but physical distance too – he couldn’t afford to fly to see them every week, so they talked on the phone. 

“It is hard when you are not part of their life; you can be responsible financially, but later on, you realize they needed you physically. I made a mistake. I should have never left and should have been close, so they knew what having a dad is like. It was really selfish and I tell them that.” (audio below)

Raul says they are trying to work things out. He is trying to call more and spend more quality time with them in person. Still, there is a lot of pain. Now that Raul is getting older, he says he is starting to see life differently, and how it’s the little things that are important. 


Raul hasn’t visited the Dominican Republic in almost three decades, but says that “the Dominican will always be in [his] heart.”

“I love and miss my country, but in all honesty, I love this country too. As much as I miss the Dominican Republic, I don’t see myself living there again.”

In the United States, Raul is devastated by all the hate he sees on the news and prays that things get better.

“What are we becoming as a society, as a nation? It’s sad. What I want for the future is for God to use me in an amazing way. We are living in the days when we need God more than ever.”

Audio: Raul sharing memories of 9/11 and hopes for the future

Ultimately Raul says his two main goals are to enjoy life and to be a blessing to the people he encounters. 

“I’m grateful for every moment that God has allowed me to live.” 


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Nikos’s Immigration Story- Oxya, Greece to Appleton, Wisconsin


Nikos grew up in a small village of ten families on the Greek Island of Skyros. He remembers a childhood full of challenges.

 “The clothes I was wearing as a kid had holes everywhere, and my mother was always trying to patch them. I was the fourth of seven kids, so I had to wear clothes from my older siblings. We didn’t have underwear to wear. I didn’t wear them until sixth grade.” (audio below)

Above: Nikos [right] with father and younger sister

The winters were harsh, but the summers were great – running, walking, and playing in the mountains. Nikos didn’t have a curfew, but he also didn’t have electricity. He remembers clearly how in 1976, when he was eight years old,  the village finally got power – “It was like heaven.”

Above: Nikos holding a photo of his mother


Nikos’s parents both came from hard-working farming families in the same village. Their families arranged their marriage, and after the wedding, his father moved to Athens to find construction jobs. He would return to the village once or twice a year – during Christmas or Easter – visit his wife, make a baby, and leave again. Nikos remembers how every member of the family was always working, trying to survive. While his father was away, his mother raised livestock and tended to the garden. Everything the family ate, they raised or grew. When Nikos’s oldest brother turned 12, he was sent to Athens to work; then, when his next brother turned 12, he was sent to Athens. His sister didn’t go because going to the capital city to work wasn’t for girls.

Nikos remembers dreaming of moving to Athens like his brothers- fantasizing about the big city he read about in history books. Nikos wanted to go to school, unlike his siblings. None of his brothers made it past elementary school (the highest level of education available in his village).


When Nikos was 11, he and his mother moved to Athens so he could continue studying. While there, his mother couldn’t farm anymore, so she started washing dishes in a hotel. 

Nikos was 12 when he got his first paying job. He would deliver flowers at night – paid only in tips – sometimes taking the bus alone for an hour to make a delivery. At age 14, a hotel hired Nikos as a busboy and eventually promoted him to server. It was at this hotel where he started meeting lots of foreigners and dreaming of visiting other countries like Australia one day. Athens, the big city he once dreamed about, was starting to feel too small, and Nikos wanted to see the world.

Greek Navy

When Nikos turned 19, he did two years of mandatory service in Greece’s Navy. Towards the end of his service, he was back at the hotel bartending. It was here where Nikos met his future wife, a university student from Minnesota doing a semester overseas and staying in the hotel. They would talk as he served her coffee, and Nikos told her, “I’ll show you Athens by night”.

After becoming pregnant, she returned to the United States to give birth to their daughter. Nikos desperately wanted to be there for his daughter’s first moments, but his visa kept getting rejected. When he finally received the approval, his daughter was already six months old, and that’s when Nikos finally held her for the first time. (audio below)

Above: Nikos holding his daughter Selena for the first time


They married in Greece and tried living in Athens. He had a decent job, and his wife could stay home with their daughter. But adjusting to this life wasn’t easy for his new wife. After two years of being in Greece, and the birth of their son, Nikos’s wife decided that she needed to move back to the US to be with her family.

Nikos felt like he had no choice but to try and join his wife and children in America. He also knew, from his previous visa experience, it wasn’t going to be easy.

“I was kind of forced to come to the United States. Every week I would go back to the American Embassy. Every week I would get rejected, and they would ask for another document.”

To get the visa, he went to a doctor for a physical he will never forget. 

“I walked into his office, he asked to see my hands and said, ‘I want to make sure you have strong hands. If you are going to go to the United States, you are going to work very hard.’ Oh, boy, he was right!” (audio below)


On November 5, 1993, Nikos flew into Appleton, Wisconsin, to join his family and start their lives in America.

“I walked outside, and there was snow and was like ‘Where am I going? What the hell am I doing here?’” (audio below)

There were no other Greek people in Appleton.

“I had nothing in common with anybody. I faced discrimination. It’s not like I was in Chicago; I was all by myself. It was a shock, the first couple of years in Appleton.” (audio below)


Nikos’s first Christmas in America wasn’t like anything he had experienced in Greece. His family had been too poor to buy gifts. 

Above: Nikos first Christmas in the United States, 1993

“The only gift I ever got from my father was a bag of balloons. When he came to the village, he would give each of us boys a bag of about 20 balloons. I remember we would get so excited. Here I am, and I have these two kids, and we give them everything. I remember we had a Christmas tree and ten boxes under it, and it still wasn’t enough.”  (audio below)

Nikos recalls many moments in those first years in the United States, where he wanted to leave. 

If I didn’t have my kids, I would have left. 

Despite all of the difficulties adjusting, Nikos didn’t give up on life in Appleton. He wanted to learn the language and blend in too. 

His first job interviews in Wisconsin were in sales, thanks to his father-in-law’s connections. Nikos didn’t speak English, so nobody wanted to hire him. As a young man looking to provide for his family this rejection really hurt.

Above: Nikos across from the hotel in Appleton where he got his first job

Frustrated, Nikos walked into a local hotel restaurant and told the manager he needed a job, promising this stranger he would not be disappointed. The manager hired Nikos on the spot, “My gut is telling me you are going to be a very good server.” Nikos started out doing room service, preparing breakfast at five every morning.

In his second year in the US, Nikos heard that another Greek who had married an American was going to be opening a local restaurant – the Apollon. Nikos got a job working there until close after he worked room service at the hotel in the morning. Some days he would coach soccer in between his shifts.

Above: Nikos outside the Greek restaurant where he worked


A turning point was when his daughter was in first grade. His daughter asked him how to spell a word in English. He didn’t know the answer, and it really affected him.

Nikos grew up without his father around, and he didn’t want to be that type of parent. He wanted to be there for his kids, to be able to help them with their homework, and have the time to show them how much he loved them. (audio below)

Nikos knew he didn’t want to be a server his whole life, and he decided to further his education. 

The University of Wisconsin accepted Nikos to study finance and international business. His life became even more chaotic: university classes, working at the restaurant, coaching, and trying to arrange all of this around his kids’ schedules. He remembers going whole days without sleeping during his midterms. Shortly after he graduated, the community bank hired Nikos and he has been there for almost two decades.

Above: Nikos at his graduation from the University of Wisconsin


Nikos says he lost everything when he and his wife divorced. It was this shock that led him to take some financial risks that have paid off. He no longer lives paycheck to paycheck and now buys properties, fixes them up, and rents them. There were moments after arriving in the US where Nikos felt like he had lost his Greek identity. Since the divorce, he goes back twice a year to Greece. He feels like he has rediscovered his identity and feels more Greek than ever.


“Soccer is my passion. It’s like the affair I had with another woman. It’s something I have in the bottom of my heart.”

Nikos played soccer anywhere and everywhere as a child. The village didn’t have a pitch, let alone a field, but that didn’t stop Nikos and his peers. He remembers playing soccer on the rocks. In high school, a club coach recognized Nikos’s talent and invited him to play semi-professional, which he did for five years. 

Soccer was also a crucial factor in his adjustment to Wisconsin. It was on the soccer pitch, where he met other immigrants.

“Soccer was a connection for me to blend in with others. No one made fun of my accent anymore. I was talking with my feet – it’s a universal language.” (audio below)

When the local high school needed a junior varsity coach, Nikos volunteered. Since then, Nikos has been coaching clubs, clinics, his son’s team, and now he coaches at the local university. He still plays, with passion, once a week. 

“You tell me to do something with soccer, I jump.”


For Nikos, oregano is symbolic of summers in Greece [see the photo below]. 

“I remember my mother making us pick oregano, to sell, and to have for ourselves. We would go up in the mountains, pick it, let it dry out, remove the leaves, and fill up bags for money.”

When Nikos returns to Greece every summer, he still picks some oregano to bring home to America.

Audio: Nikos talking in Greek with his mother on the phone


Today Nikos says he has made a name for himself in Appleton. 

Above: Nikos in his office at the bank

“I love people. I will talk to any stranger. That’s how I meet people. I have a personality that people remember me for. Not always good. Not saying that everyone likes me, but that’s the way it should be.” (audio below)

The restaurant manager who hired him for his first job in Appleton is now on the board of directors of the bank where Nikos works. Nikos will never forget the people who trusted him when he needed it most.

His hopes and dreams are now for his two kids, who are in their twenties. He wants them to continue doing well, start families, and keep decent jobs. Nikos wants them to feel successful and know that it isn’t all about money. 

He has always dreamed of building a house in Greece, and he finally did that. He also became an American citizen in 2011. Nikos’s ideal retirement would be living half the year in the United States and half the year in Greece. 


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.

Thierry’s Immigration Story – Le Mans, France to Pasadena, California

Le Mans

Thierry was born ten weeks early in Le Mans, while his parents were visiting his grandparents, but raised in a suburb outside Paris. To keep it simple, when people ask where he is from, Thierry tells them Paris. 

Once a year, Thierry and his three siblings would visit one set of grandparents in Le Mans and the others in Les Vosges. The maternal grandparents in Les Vosges had a farm, and he loved picking blueberries there. It was the same farm his mom and her eleven siblings grew up on and were fed by. He considers himself lucky to have had a “boring happy childhood”. He started going to sleepaway “holiday camps” in the summer at age five and bicycling to school alone when he was only six. His parents encouraged his independence. 

Thierry’s mom worked in management for French telecommunications, and his dad worked for Air France. He actually started with the company as a carpenter, at a time when planes contained wood! The perk of his job was that the family could travel a lot. They weren’t wealthy but were never in need of anything. 

“I guess because I was flying all the time, I didn’t feel like borders were a thing. I always felt like I could take a plane and be somewhere else.”


At 18 Thierry moved to Quebec to go to university and be with his first girlfriend, a Canadian. Despite how Canada is commonly perceived, Thierry didn’t find Canada to be as welcoming a place. He also found it unusual that he had to do a French test – and barely passed with a 60% – even though he is from France!

It was in Canada while studying that he started developing an interest in photography.  Thierry’s first photographs were landscapes inspired by Canada’s natural beauty. Thierry got a “real camera” and attempted some portraits. The first portrait he felt looked professional was of a little child he spotted looking out the window when he was at his brother’s wedding in the South of France [see the photo below].

When he was 20, Thierry and his Canadian girlfriend broke up. All of his friends in Canada were connected to his ex-girlfriend, so he decided it was best to move back to France. For the next five years, he lived in Paris, researching in a lab, pursuing a Ph.D. in cancer research. The fact that his father was battling cancer heightened his passion for the field. Sadly, all of this time in a lab meant less time with his father who was dying. He found it hard to stand the 60 hours a week inside in a lab environment and was happy when it was over. At age 25, with a Ph.D. in cancer research, Thierry decided to switch careers and become a photographer.


Thierry already spent so much of his free time on photography and wanted to see if he could make a career of it. After his father passed away Thierry left France and traveled with his camera to Brazil, Thailand, Morocco, Japan, China, and even spent a few months traveling in the US. The first time he went to Los Angeles, he fell in love with the weather and the people. He also thought it was the perfect place for him to work as a photographer.

“I knew there was something different for me in this city. It was the place to be for me. I felt very stuck in France. I knew it would be a challenge because everyone is a photographer or model here.”

Above: Thierry’s father was particularly fond of Russian cameras. Thierry found this one in Thailand, as it felt like something his father would have used had he been a photographer. 

Thierry can’t see himself in any other career – photography is his way of expressing himself. Thierry’s late father always loved photography. Thierry knows that his father would have loved to be a professional photographer. For someone who started working as a carpenter at 14, it simply wasn’t a realistic career option.

“I feel like photography is a mission, not only for me but for my father, to do what he would have loved to do. I hope he is proud of what I am doing.” (audio below)

Scientific Approach

Thierry feels like, in a roundabout way, his studies in the sciences are useful for his work as a photographer.  

“I still have the scientific approach – trial and error, and statistics. The way I photograph, I think about the physics of it. A lot of people take photos in a very experimental way. I think in many ways, my knowledge of physics allows me to do a little less trial and error.” (audio below)

All those years studying and researching for his Ph.D. taught Thierry discipline, a quality he believes he needs as an artist trying to live from his craft.

Above: Young Thierry dressed as a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle


Thierry has found that Americans often think the French hate them, and if you go to France, you shouldn’t mention you are American. He thinks this is wrong.

“We fantasize about the US, like how the Americans fantasize about France.”  

A lot of the French TV shows he watched during his childhood were just reproductions of American shows. The French government had to create laws making it mandatory that radio stations play a certain quota of French music or else it would be all American. Thierry believes that if a company is “American,” it will succeed in France. 

“Even though Starbucks is the worst coffee, it’s American, so people in France go there. We have much better coffee in Europe than that, but it works. There is a fascination about America, and I think it comes from after WWII they were seen as our savior.” (audio below)

Despite this fascination, Thierry never imagined himself living in the US.


When Thierry first moved to the US in 2014, he moved to Orange County, California. In 2017 he moved to Pasadena, a city northeast of downtown Los Angeles. Thierry thinks LA is a city you either love or you hate, and having a normal job is anything but a nine to five. He also thinks it is a place where if you are good at what you do, you can succeed. 

“What I like here compared to France is that if you are good, people will give you a chance. In France, they like what you are doing but they already have a photographer. People aren’t willing to change unless there is a major problem like the photographer died or he’s blind. People here are more open to change and to try and experiment. It is more performance-based. If you bring them more money, everything is good.”

Most people Thierry encounters in LA work in the entertainment industry, but most of them also need to supplement their artistic endeavors with another job like bartending.

“It’s very easy to get lost because a lot of people are doing five or six different things. There are so many distractions and events going on. It’s easy to be at events every day.”

Los Angeles is a city where people from outside the US, and people from inside the US, migrate. Thierry knows it is more diverse and open-minded than most places in America.

“In Temecula Valley, two hours from LA, I was doing a photoshoot and I made a wrong turn. I stopped to make a call on my cell phone and someone came out of their house with a shotgun. ‘Get off my property, or I’ll shoot!’” (audio below)


Thierry and his ex-wife [see the photo above] didn’t meet on a set, even though she is a makeup artist, and he’s a photographer. A friend of a friend introduced them, thinking they would get along. Thierry knows that his career can be a challenge in any relationship. 

“It’s very hard to be a photographer and be in a relationship, no matter if your partner understands or not. Last year I did ten publications in Playboy [see the photo below]. It’s not necessarily easy being in a relationship when you do that.”


In 2017 Thierry became a father. 

“I discovered what unconditional love is. With my daughter, I can’t even imagine, no matter what she does that I will not love her. There is this deep connection, and it changed my life.” (audio below)

Thierry reflected on his finances after having a daughter.

“I changed from whatever comes is good; to now, I need to make money and feed my kid. Before having my daughter, I would accept a lot of unpaid jobs. Since then, I have focused on my need to make an income.”

Photography an industry where people are always trying to push to pay you less. Thierry is invited regularly to events, where people think he will take photos and share them for free. Now he is straightforward about it; for his daughter’s sake – he needs to be paid.

“You don’t invite your dentist to your house and expect them to fix your teeth!” (audio below)

Green Card

Thierry’s green card came through marriage. He can’t believe the complexity of the process.

“There is no one that wants to move out of their country unless they have a very good reason for it. Either they are fleeing something, or they are aiming at something specific like me. It’s much more comfortable for someone to stay where they are. I don’t think that crazy strict regulations on immigration are a good thing. One of my hopes for the future is that emigrating will be easier, and ideally, borders would be a thing of the past.” (audio below)


Thierry loves cooking healthy natural foods. 

“After my dad passed, I started being very health conscious because I didn’t want to be on the same path. His cancer was very related to food. I think, for the most part, most cancers are related to lifestyle. Even things like smoking are not even close to being as bad as having bad eating habits.” (audio below)

Thierry wants his daughter to know where her food comes from. When he was young, he did. His grandparents were raising about 30 rabbits at any time, and that was the main meat they ate.

“I remember seeing the rabbit, playing with the rabbit, then you take a rabbit, you skin it and you eat it. To most people, it seems really rough, but to me, it made me appreciate it. I would never waste any meat because this was something that was living.” (audio below)


Thierry is busy doing commercial photography, weddings, running a studio, working as a director of photography for TV shows, and he has even acted in a few. Despite all of this work, his number one priority is his daughter. 

Thierry feels a sense of duty to expose his daughter to as much of the world as possible. He believes a lot of the world’s problems stem from peoples’ lack of exposure and knowledge. Traveling and experiencing different cultures and ways of life was one way that Thierry thinks he became more empathetic to others. The more you travel, the more you realize that people have the same basic needs. 

“When you meet a family from a country you had a misconception about, you see that no matter what, they love their kids and would do anything for their kids. Anywhere you go, you will see that people love their kids and would do anything for them. My hope for the future is that we raise children that travel more and understand other cultures and are empathetic to others. I think that the new generation is more open. I’m hopeful for that.” 

Borderless World

Thierry likes to believe that we are moving towards a better world – that people are starting to see how “hard borders” are creating more problems than they are solving. It makes sense to Thierry that if it is incredibly hard to get from Mexico to the US, once someone does, they are going to stay because they paid so much money and went through so much trouble to migrate in the first place. If it were easier, like it was in the past, people would come and go, back and forth. (audio below)

Thierry believes that just because someone is born in a certain country, it shouldn’t give them any more right to be in that place. He dreams of a borderless world for his daughter’s future.


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Ihab’s Immigration Story – Basra, Iraq to Harrisonburg, Virginia

Ihab is the son of a Jordanian father and an Iraqi mother. His paternal family – the Sadoons – have historically been bedouins distributed between Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. His father was an orphan, living in a society that did not welcome his people. Despite this, at age 18, Ihab’s father was accepted to study medicine at Johns Hopkins and Columbia University.


The family was living in Iraq when Ihab was born in 1979, because of the war and the country’s need for doctors. They would move from one place to another, depending on what hospital needed his father the most. For the first ten years of his life, he and his three siblings grew up surrounded by war.

“I remember our house was hit once with a bomb. I remember packing so many times – packing our stuff and going from one place to another. And I remember losing my friends. We didn’t live more than two or three years in one place – we kept moving, which was very frustrating – it just became so much harder for me to make friends. It’s not worth it to make friends, then lose them in a year or two. We had to leave so many places.” (audio below)


In the 1990s, the economy was failing in Iraq, so the family moved to Jordan, and that’s where Ihab attended university to become a dentist. In 2007 he was accepted to NYU’s graduate program in implant surgery. He did an internship in Maryland and a residency at Columbia University in NYC. Ihab planned on returning to the Middle East, but with the Arab Spring happening, and his daughter in the US, he decided to stay. 

While away from his region of birth, Ihab keeps letters from his late father and his sister close to his heart.

“Every time I feel bad, I open these letters. I start reading and feel good. My dad always reminded me that I came here for a reason – ‘don’t waste your time; do not forget that there are lots of people that are waiting to be helped by you. Always be kind to others. Don’t forget me.’”

Other than his father, he has always been close to his younger sister. Ihab cherishes a letter she wrote saying how much she loves him and can’t wait to travel with him.

“I was having a tough time with my marriage, and my sister always tried to say positive things and remind me to focus on my daughter.”

While living in New York, Ihab became very interested in outdoor activities like hiking, snowboarding, and biking. It was challenging in NYC to get out into nature. This changed in 2013 when he moved to Virginia, which has plentiful and easily accessible outdoor recreation opportunities. 


When Ihab first moved to Harrisonburg, Virginia, it didn’t feel like a welcoming community, but that has since changed.

“I feel like Harrisonburg is becoming a good hub for the multicultural community. Once people know you they open their arms, but it takes a while. For the first couple of years, people weren’t welcoming. Locals are not used to foreigners that much. If you go to the countryside where my patients are from, they are not used to accents or different colors.”

Above: A gift Ihab’s daughter made him for the religious holiday Eid


At the mosque he attends on Fridays, almost everyone is a refugee. In New York, he was used to meeting people in his community who were highly educated professionals. The Harrisonburg immigrant community is mostly farmers, taxi drivers, and factory workers. He believes this diversity within the community sometimes leads to cultural misunderstandings and has brought both good and bad to Harrisonburg.

“It’s like if you take a guy from West Virginia and dropped him off in India.”

Ihab is trying to get more involved in the Muslim community and local interfaith initiatives, especially after the election in 2016. He is happy that when local churches and synagogues gather, they invite the mosque now.

“We need to show we are part of the community and that we belong.” 


Ihab works as a dental surgeon at the hospital, primarily with geriatric patients, as well as covering the emergency room. In New York, he treated a lot of gunshot victims or people in traffic accidents, but here he is doing a lot of extractions.

“It’s not crazy here like it used to be in New York.”

When Ihab first moved to Harrisonburg, a lot of patients were referred to him because of his specialty. Some of them thought he was too young, and that they couldn’t trust him because of his accent and background. He would give these patients their treatment plan, but they would go to someone else for a second opinion – the local “American” doctor who grew up in Virginia. Ihab explains how it was funny because that doctor would usually say, “no, you need to go back to him [Ihab] – he’s the specialist!”

“They tried to run away from the Middle Eastern guy with an accent. Now a lot of those patients don’t want to see anyone but me!” (audio below)

When Ihab goes bow hunting in the countryside, he knows people look at him funny because of his appearance and accent. Today a lot of the locals know him as “The Jordanian.”

“The more time I spend here, the more bond I feel I have with the locals.

Ihab has faced discrimination in Iraq and Jordan, so when he was leaving for the United States, he was worried. However, the country surprised him. The US is the place where he feels most at home.


Ihab didn’t plan on becoming a father when he did. At the time of his daughter’s birth, he wasn’t economically stable, and his marriage was already in trouble. He wasn’t sure he even wanted a child.

“To tell you the truth, my daughter is the best thing that ever happened in my life. She protected me from committing suicide. I had lots of pressure in my career and then the divorce. She is the only thing that makes me really happy.” (audio below)

Ihab has his daughter over every other weekend and for most of the summer.

“I wait so passionately for these days. This is my fun time. My daughter does everything I do – we bike together, we kayak together, we climb together. Being a father – I’m so blessed to be that guy. This little thing comes and isn’t planned and becomes the pleasure of your life.”


Ihab hopes to set a good example for his daughter, like how his father did for him.

“My dad was my role model. He was always willing to help people. I just wanted to be like him.”

Ihab’s father came to visit him in Harrisonburg before he passed away in 2016.

“When I lost him, I was in Kenya on a mission trip. I was going to come back for his funeral, but if he were alive, he would have told me to go back and help people. This is what he would like me to do.” (audio below)

“This is a letter my dad sent me before he died. He asked me to open it after he died. He was writing his will. Every week I open and read it. ‘We are all going to die. Do good things and try to be good to family and your patients.’ He was a religious guy, so he wrote, ‘God will always take care of you.’” (audio below)


Ihab has traveled a lot. He has three passports filled with stamps.  

“Every stamp has a story.”

India is one place that continues to have a lasting impact on Ihab. Even though people have so little materially, they seemed happy. It was shocking. He returned to America, knowing that instead of buying luxury items, that money could feed people in need. He subsequently began to donate to those who are less fortunate, and he buys only what he needs.

 “India changed my lifestyle forever. I try not to be luxurious at all and try my best to remind those around me of this. I want to share this with his daughter.”


Ihab is hopeful for the future. He used to be argumentative and willing to fight. Today, he believes if you speak softly, others will eventually understand you. In response to the current administration’s rhetoric towards Arabs and Muslims, many of Ihab’s patients have reached out with compassion to let Ihab know that they don’t believe what they hear from this administration about his people. They want Ihab to know that the president does not speak for them.

“Lots of immigrants don’t have a life anywhere other than here. They are more American than Americans themselves, because they don’t take it for granted. They are great assets for the American mosaic.”

“Regarding my future – the road is open. Sometimes I think about taking a few years off and going on medical missions. I don’t know what I’m going to do in my life. If I’m here in the US, I will help bridge the gap between the right and left of the aisle.”

Ihab says he doesn’t have many childhood friends because he didn’t live in one place long enough while growing up. This inability to stay put for long has continued into adulthood. Ihab has been in the US for a little over a decade and has already lived in four different states.  

“I am living like a modern bedouin. I get bored and always find an excuse to move. I’m not sure how long I’ll stay in Virginia, but I’m definitely enjoying my life. There is lots of goodness in the people here. They try to be good neighbors.”


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love (and passion). If you would like to support the project’s continuation it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.

Taichi’s Immigration Story – Yamashina-Ku, Japan to Seattle, Washington


Taichi was born in the 1970s and grew up in Yamashina-Ku, Japan. His hometown is now known as a bedroom community for commuters to Kyoto. Taichi remembers when it was mostly farms and rice paddies. Near his parents’ house, there was a small brook where he used to catch freshwater crabs, tadpoles, and any other creature he could find. When Taichi goes back to visit, he laments the changes to this environment.

Grandma Emiko

Taichi was close to his Grandma Emiko, growing up. She was a well-known tailor in the neighborhood, who with her heavy-duty cast iron sewing machine, created clothes that lasted.

“She’s one of those ladies that had a hard life but was never bitter about it. Instead, she has a sense of humor.”

Japanese cafés

Taichi’s father, Jiro [serving coffee in the above photo], has always been a very ambitious man. A famous Japanese café called Inoda Coffee hired Jiro at only 15 years of age. Japan’s movie stars and wealthy business people would eat toast and drink coffee there: a real status symbol at that time. Jiro became the manager in his early twenties and met Taichi’s mother, Misa, who was working there as a server. At the age of 25, Jiro opened his own café, and then eventually another. Today, Taichi’s younger brother runs one of their cafés, and his father still runs the other.

Connecticut Chocolate Cake

The family’s cafés were “western-style.” Taichi’s brother roasted the beans, and his mother baked. She was famous for her thick, rich flan cake and her “Connecticut chocolate cake.” Taichi has no idea why it was named “Connecticut.” Since he can remember, his summer job was at the café washing the dishes and delivering coffee, rain or shine, on an old beat-up bicycle.

“I never got paid, but I was fed good!” (audio below)

United States

It was a family trip to Disneyland when he was in tenth grade, which made Taichi seriously want to learn English. He remembers the frustration of seeing crowds of people with which he couldn’t communicate. He also wanted to see North America, so in 1990 he signed up for a summer homestay program in Seattle through the English conversational school he attended.

“I always loved the image of the Northwest – mountains, water, and clean air. Everything Kyoto didn’t have. Oh, I wanted to go to Canada. I wanted to go to Vancouver. I looked at the pamphlet and saw Seattle was cheaper and a 3-hour drive from Vancouver.” (audio below)

Fitting in

After his homestay, Taichi decided he wanted to spend his senior year of high school in the United States. Trying to fit in wasn’t easy, but Taichi imagines this is the case for most teenagers.

“For the first few months, in the lunchroom, it was always, ‘Who am I going to eat lunch with?’ Trying to learn Shakespeare in English as a Japanese kid was hard, but I absorbed everything like a sponge.” 

Being a good swimmer and joining the relay team helped Taichi make friends. Working as an assistant in the Japanese class and marking exams also helped, since other students “had to be nice” to him.

While in the United States, Taichi stayed with many different families: one Mexican-American, one Mormon, one vegan and liberal, and one conservative Christian. He says religion played an essential part in his first years in America.

“This country needs religious disciplines. In Japan, you don’t need to be religious, but there are all kinds of rules and customs. You are supposed to do things a certain way, and you have no idea why you are doing it. In the USA, I found religion plays an important role in providing guidance.” 

He remembers going to church with the Mormon family, and one time they all went on a church-hosted camping excursion.

“In the middle of the evening, they pulled down a screen and put on a movie about Joseph Smith [the founder of Mormonism]. It was educational. They did create many opportunities for me to talk to missionaries, but they never tried to force me into their religion.” (audio below)

After living with the Mormon family, he moved in with a conservative Christian family. Taichi remembers them telling him he would go to hell if he doesn’t convert, yet still, Taichi says they were friendly, and he appreciates that they were trying their best to “save” him.


After high school, Taichi studied International Studies at Seattle University. On the first day of class, a lady approached him and asked if he would like a job at a Japanese restaurant. He felt a little guilty that his parents were paying for everything, and he wanted a new fishing rod, so he said yes. Before he knew it, he had a full-time job.

“I was working 40 hours a week, and at the same time, I was going to college. In my college years, I do not remember much about my campus life; I remember working in a Japanese kitchen.” (audio below)

Taichi wonders how he managed to graduate from college. He became a skilled chef, but regrets having never done “all those fun college things.”

“I don’t know how I did it working that much. I have to look at my diploma to believe it.”

Sushi God

Midway through college, Taichi started working under Shiro [pointed at in above photo], who Taichi regards as Seattle’s “Sushi God.” He started out working in Shiro’s canteen but longed to work alongside Shiro.

“Shiro is the happiest man I know, and he was making a lot of people happy at his sushi bar. He is introducing the beautiful food culture of Japan and people respect him. I was like, ‘I want to be happy like that guy.’ The day I graduated, I asked Shiro to train me as a sushi chef.”  (audio below)

Sushi Kappo Tamura

After two years working alongside Shiro as a sushi chef, Taichi moved to another restaurant. A couple of years later, he received his green card [permanent resident card] and felt ready to open his own restaurant. It was 2001, the restaurant opened, and the city was experiencing an economic boom. Then 9/11 happened, and that boom stopped. Still, his restaurant survived, and they built a loyal customer base. Taichi believes this challenge made him grow as an owner and manager. The business environment eventually started to improve in Seattle, and Taichi bought his current restaurant, Sushi Kappo Tamura, in 2010.

Taichi finds being a sushi chef to be a very intimate experience where you get to know your customers very well. 

“They were single, they get married, have children, and now they come in with their children. One of the joys you have as a sushi chef is you are growing together with the community that you are serving. It is love. I’m someone they can always count on seeing and sharing their stories.”


Taichi considers himself a chef who is driven primarily by the ingredients themselves.

“If I see a beautiful fish, I want to serve sashimi or sushi with that. I don’t like fancy sauces or spices. I want to showcase the original flavor of the beautiful ingredients this area has to offer. To me, it is a crime to mask any of that.” (audio below)

Meeting Kaoru

Taichi met his wife Kaoru, who is from Osaka, during the construction of his first restaurant in 2001. In 2012, their daughter was born in Seattle. They are creating opportunities for their daughter to connect with their Japanese culture while being raised in the United States. The public school she goes to has half-day Japanese immersion.

“Another beauty of American culture is how you can be as Japanese as you want, and that makes you American. You can feed her Japanese food three times a day, make her wear a kimono, and pound mochi for the New Year. It’s available because the Japanese community in Seattle does a good job.” 

“The exposure to multiculturalism is great and something hard to find in Japan. Every kid has a different cultural background something I did not have when I was her age. One day she is going to say, ‘I come from a Japanese background,’ and it is up to her how much she is going to embrace that.” 

Being a Father

Taichi finds being a father to be both challenging and rewarding. 

“I look at my daughter, and she looks exactly like me, which is unfortunate [laughing]! I want her to become an individual who can think and deal with real-life situations, so I tend to be hard on her.” (audio below)

Fly Fishing

Taichi feels happiest when he is fly fishing – a necessity for his sanity.

“My favorite form of solitude is fishing the clear mountain streams for trout. If I can do that, I can balance my life – I am happy. When I fish, I just think about fishing. How can I get this fish to take my fly? You wake up early, drive to the river, get to a particular spot where you think there is fish, cast your fly in a perfect presentation, and if the trout takes the fly, that’s one of the happiest moments. After fishing, I feel re-energized and can go back to work with a smile on my face and make my customers happy. To me, that’s the American dream come true.” (audio below)


Taichi misses the professionalism and pride that people have in Japan. He explains how a garbage collector in Japan would take pride in how they collect it, and this pride results in greater happiness. He also misses the respect people have for elders in Japan and a healthcare system that takes care of them. 

“I love America, but I haven’t given up my Japanese citizenship because if I become sick and am not able to physically work and lose health insurance, I don’t know what I would do. If I go back to Japan and I need senior care, the quality is nice and affordable. Here if you want nice elderly care, it is unbelievably expensive. I know because we had to look for that for my in-laws. I do miss that sense of security. What if I get hit by a car, and I don’t have insurance? What if my child becomes seriously ill?” (audio below)


Taichi is also disturbed by America’s gun culture. 

“It’s about people having guns in a critical situation. The idea that if he feels threatened, he might pull out his gun and shoot me, so I better shoot him first. That psyche is in nobody’s head in Japan because people don’t have guns. If I’m walking around Seattle, there is always a chance someone is going to pull out a gun and take my wallet. Someone might try to take my wallet in Japan, but they aren’t going to pull a gun on me.”


Taichi loves Seattle, seeing it as a place where urban and outdoor life can be balanced. He says it is exciting times, to be in this growing city. He dreams of establishing a cuisine that you can only eat in Seattle.

If Japanese people visit the city, and they eat this Japanese cuisine, it will be unique to Seattle.I want to make Seattle pride – American pride. Beautiful American food that is only available here.” 


Taichi hopes more people will take the time to consider the story of the food they eat, especially wild seafood like he serves at his restaurant. A “miracle” has to happen for that piece of sashimi to arrive on your plate. Taichi thinks food tastes better if you think about how lucky you are to have it. (audio below)


To receive updates on the book release and exhibition of “Finding American: Stories of Immigration from all 50 States” please subscribe here. This project is a labor of love and passion. If you would like to support its continuation, it would be greatly appreciated!

© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Janice May & Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes edited for clarity and brevity.