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Serving Together

Al celebrating his birthday with other members of AACI Senior Center
Al (on the left) celebrating his birthday with other members of AACI Senior Center.

Al Ching is a man of many hats: entrepreneur, engineer, volunteer, tai chi practitioner, refugee  (twice over), family man, expert dishwasher from his early days in Chinatown, tri-lingualist, and board member of two organizations he cares deeply about.

He speaks Chinese, Spanish, and English as a result of his extraordinary immigrant and refugee history. Fleeing Communist China when he was 8 years old, he and his father landed in Cuba in the late 1940s while the rest of their family stayed in China. For the next 13 years, young Al was immersed in a rich Cuban culture, living amongst a throng of other Chinese immigrants who had settled into a strong community.

In Cuba, Al grew into young adulthood, even beginning university classes among entirely Spanish-speaking schoolmates. With his trademark smile and easygoing demeanor, Al made friends with Cubans and Chinese alike. However, in 1959, Cuba converted to Communism and his father encouraged him to flee once more, but this time alone. At 21 years of age, Al escaped from Cuba to the U.S. to create a new life from scratch.

With the U.S. political landscape at a fever pitch, Al focused his resources on one goal: make a living and bring his family back together. His first days in the U.S. consisted of knocking on doors at Chinese Associations in San Francisco’s Chinatown, hoping to find someone from his home village. Perhaps they could help him with a place to sleep, a job, or just friendship.

His connections paid off and Al landed work as an assistant dishwasher and then bus boy. Day and night, he devoted to working any shift and saving every penny, taking any job to earn more. Though exhausting, Al’s memories are not of toil and hardship. Rather, he brightens and talks about all the friends he made, new friends who were also working odd jobs to make ends meet. They provided the kindness and camaraderie that helped ease his longing for his family.

In time, Al began classes at John Adams Adult Education where he picked up English. “It was a challenge,” he said, “but I knew I had to do it.” It would be the only way he could fulfill his dream to make a living, become an engineer, and build a life.

Through his intense focus, and his willingness to step up to every challenge, Al eventually got his electrical engineering degree and then his MBA. In 1968, he married the love of his life--also a fellow Chinese Cuban immigrant--and in the succeeding years, he would work at IBM, become a father of three, help reunite all of his family in the States, start his own company,--Datamag Inc.--an equipment design company, sell it, and settle into a very active retirement.

Reflecting on his life, Al speaks of the great fortune he has experienced. The story he tells is not one of hardship and escape, but of opportunities and friendship. It was a friend who was a volunteer at AACI’s Senior Center that first introduced Al to AACI. Once he joined the program and began taking tai chi classes, his quick smile and willingness to lend a hand quickly won over the staff and his fellow Senior Center peers.

When asked if he would join the AACI Board, he embraced the opportunity to “give back to society.” Al regularly supports senior programming at AACI because he recognizes that although seniors come to take English classes, join dance lessons, or sing karaoke, what is more important is that they find friendship. His service to AACI is his way of providing that friendship.

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