Fifteen years ago, two scientists in their twenties gave up their respectable jobs and their cozy apartment, bid farewell to their family and friends, left their hometown, and came to a new country—America. All they had were a yet to be born baby, 4 suitcases and a thousand dollars. They studied hard, worked diligently and raised their child through hardship in this new, unfamiliar country. For a living, the wife worked as a waitress, and the husband as a delivery boy and later as a video store cashier.
Eventually, the wife became a software engineer and the husband a university professor. They are now naturalized citizens of the United States, having two children and owning a decent house. They are my parents, and their story is one of the millions of stories of the immigrants who came to America for a better life.
I was born two months after my parents arrived in America. In their minds, because I am born here, I am born to success, opportunities and freedom. When I was eight years old I asked my mother why children under eighteen could not vote. I didn’t understand why kids should not have same rights as older people. My mother said she could not answer my question and she suggested that I write down my ideas and send them to the Washington Post.
The Washington Post quickly responded to my submission with an invitation to publish my ideas in the paper. Later, when my mother told my grandfather, he was surprised at the news and proud of me. He asked a copy of newspaper, brought it back to China, and showed my writing to his relatives and colleagues in China. They were amazed that the writing of a kid could be taken seriously in a prestigious newspaper—a freedom I take for granted here in America all the time, but one that people in different countries do not possess. It was the first time I felt proud about my American roots.
When I was ten years old I visited China during summer break. My cousins and neighbors gave me a very warm reception. They were interested in how my life was in the United States. They had so many questions. They were envious when I told them I had three months of summer vacation, and at the time, minimal homework. They told me they did not have enough time to relax due to a large load of summer work. In China, there is a lot of peer pressure, competition, and high expectations from parents and teachers. The level of competitiveness between students for the limited opportunities is an incredible stress factor to many young Chinese kids. While listening to them I realized I was lucky to be an American.
On a return trip to China, my grandmother who was a supervisor in a clothing and textile factory, brought me to her place of work. She wanted me to see workers producing the “Made in China” merchandise sold in the United States. I dropped my belongings off at my grandmother’s office, which was a comfortable and spacious room with air conditioning. We then went down a long narrow walkway and stepped out into the warehouse room factory. The workers were mostly middle-aged women were cramped into one room operating sitting in front of table with sewing machines. I learned that they were drawing designs by hand for the clothes and packaging clothes into boxes.
The room seemed like a football size sea of desks and people with their heads down. The room was hot and humid and had no air conditioner but rotating fans. It was a stark contrast from her office. The workers seemed focused and very determined to complete their jobs. After the tour of the workroom my grandmother took me upstairs. In a room about as big as the workroom there were ten sets of bunk beds and a large, round table. An elderly woman greeted me and told me she was the cook for the women who sometimes stayed to work overtime and slept at the factory. I bought a big pack of ice cream to help the workers cool off during their lunch break. As I handed out the ice cream, the workers were friendly and told me that they were working to save money so their kids can go to a better school and may go to America in the future. They worked so their kids could have a much better future than they had, just as my parents did for me. After observing how highly the kids—and adults—in China thought of America, I was started to become proud to be an American.
Back in America I think how so many of my belongings started in a place like where I visited with my grandmother. But I try not to think about all those women who shared their American dreams for their kids. I just think how lucky I am that parents took on such great personal hardship and gave up almost everything they had to bring me to this land of opportunity and my national home.
Living in the culturally diverse suburbs of a large city, I have benefited from being raised in a mixed cultural environment. My early education from my parents gave me a solid foundation in math and science and I feel that my American teachers always emphasize critical thinking and creative learning, which is something I think that is less stressed in my cousins education in China. I have had teachers that make me believe that learning is an art.
However, for me, the benefit of being an American, comes at a price of certain responsibilities. I was really moved when President Obama urged the students of America in his back-to-school speech at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia that, “this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country.” His words continue to echo in my mind, as if they came directly from someone who may have inspired my parents many years ago to pursue something new in a land far away.