If you ask me why I wanted to come to the USA in the first place, it was out of pure curiosity toward the unknowns and new adventures. I previously had some interactions with foreigners during my undergraduate time and got very interested in Western culture and English. Back in 2010 when I got my bachelor’s degree, the easiest and only economically possible way for me was to apply for graduate school in the USA, since there are scholarship opportunities. I always like university settings and learning, so it was not a difficult choice to leave my home country and set foot somewhere new. It has been 13 years since I first landed in this country. I am forever grateful for the free education, career opportunities, the generous acceptance of this Asian girl wherever I went, and the unconditional support and love from my village of people in the USA.
Not long ago, a very close American colleague and friend told me I am a “mixed pot.” By that, she means I still have a very Asian side that guides my principles of living but at the same time, I am very open-minded to new cultures and situations. When I meet people out of state who are not from Louisiana, they are often very curious about how I adapted to the Cajun culture and accents. To me, this question sounded unbelievably interesting that some Americans could have such a difficult time understanding a southern accent…I thought about it and replied, “My accent could be much more difficult to understand, so I guess I belong to Louisiana. I can cook gumbo and love crawfish, so I am Casian (Cajun + Asian).” Later, I pondered on my colleague’s “mixed pot” comment and the question I received, and I came to realize: In my 13 years of living in the USA, I have changed a lot.
Although I have always been an extrovert, I was very quiet when I first came here and didn’t really know how to interact with local people. Over the years, I slowly got more comfortable and gained some sense of belonging. The gap between Western and Eastern cultures shrank. Once the barrier between the two major cultures was overcome, any other cultures in the States became so trivial that I often find it easy to talk to people from any state with any background and can find fun stuff in any place I visit. I think some changes are due to my subconscious mind blending the Asian and American cultures, and some may be due to my wisdom of getting through life while aging. I couldn’t really 100% differentiate the two sometimes, so this sharing is only my personal opinions in retrospect of some very obvious changes from immersion in this Western culture.
Collective vs. Individual thinking
The Chinese culture I grew up in was a collective one. I remembered that I was always told by my parents and teachers to study hard so that I could be a useful person to my family and my community. I couldn’t remember how many times in my assigned essays as a kid or teenager, that I would write sentences with an exclamation like, “I love my family and people, I swear to serve my family and community when I grow up!” Now I really don’t understand how the young me could write something so altruistic. There are many good sides to this type of culture. For instance, we are very family- and community-oriented. Elderly people are taken care of by their children. Everyone in our small village knew each other and helped each other. The confusing part that I later found was that I barely thought at an individual level about what kind of person I wanted to be and what I was really interested in. In other words, I was very goal-oriented: I strived to be a high-level achiever who could be useful to my family and my community. That mindset lasted until my late twenties. When I was still in China, I studied very hard to be the top student in my class. If I got second place or third, I would be very sad and study even harder. My parents were also disappointed when I only got second place. I would also hold back my tears as I was told crying was not a thing for strong people. Nowadays, my friends and therapist let me cry it out if I want to, which is such a relief sometimes. I have also come to face my vulnerability, fear, and longing more honestly.
In the academic system I was in, we didn’t have letter grades such as A, B or C. The score would be exactly what you got out of 100. All the subjects were ranked separately among the same-level students (there were about 1,000 students in my high school), and then the total score would also be ranked. After each test, there would be one class with the teachers announcing your grade and ranking in front of everyone. For some important tests, the school would post the ranking on a board and place it in the farmer’s market where all the parents would see the results. I had to admit it was stressful whenever our scores and ranking would be announced in public, while at the same time, I was so used to it. Most of the time I even had some egotistical pride at that young age since I often ranked on top, which definitely made me think that I would be a useful person to my family and community.
Now that I have become an educator myself. I intentionally make a cover page for all my tests so that no one will see another student’s scores. I also found myself telling my students that your “A” in some subjects would be a “C”, because each individual is different; in some subjects, you may really struggle a lot. During my time in college, I was very numb when it came to the “C” language. No matter how hard I studied, I just couldn’t communicate with the computer. I still set my goal for “A,” but then I really suffered from mental anxiety and frustration. The mentality back then was that as long as I put in effort and much more effort than others, I could perform well or even better than others. Behind that thinking, I unconsciously followed the logic that only if I have good performance, I am lovable, namely, I am my performance. Now I firmly believe that everyone is born to be lovable and a unique human being, and that we each have different specialties. We each are strong and sometimes can be vulnerable. Being comfortable with who I am and trying my best to do my work and live my life is what I care about the most. My performance and my achievements couldn’t define me as a person, instead what I believe and how I behave do.
With this mindset, one of my former master’s students texted me that he wanted to quit his Ph.D. program in a highly-ranked school where he tried very hard to get in. I found myself texting him back immediately without any hesitation: “Follow your heart, I support your joy and happiness.” I remembered when I was a junior in college, I happened to work with a bunch of social workers from Hong Kong in a community service event, and I became so fascinated with it. I considered switching my chemistry major to social work or getting a second degree. I didn’t receive much support for that idea. Unfortunately, or fortunately, no university in China back then even had this major, so I abandoned this idea after some research and mental struggles. Now if I look back, I probably wouldn’t change my major after all because I really like what I do now. What I really needed was unconditional trust and support from people around me so that I could freely choose my path, and that they would be there for me if needed.
Sex and Death
Anything related to these two words is taboo in my culture. Growing up, we barely touched on these two topics in my family. We also didn’t have any education about sex in my school or in my family back then. I can still vividly remember how uncomfortable I felt if my family was watching a movie together and the characters started kissing, especially if I had the remote control in hand. Back then I seldom saw lovers kissing in the airport or other public places in China. I never saw any couples in my family hugging each other in front of family members. A few years ago, I went to a football game with my ex for the first time. During halftime, the camera started to capture the audience on the big screen. When it reached couples, they would kiss, and they showed up on the screen; I’d never seen a “Kiss Cam” before. In my head, I was thinking, “Wow, wild Americans” yet at the same time, I hoped the camera never came our way. Now, whenever I see people hug or kiss at the airport, my heart also feels love and warmth.
Talk about death was treated similarly. It was considered ominous to mention it. Here, people can talk about it and elderly people even plan for death well in advance. It is very interesting to observe that I can feel very free to talk about death with my Chinese and American friends now. I even considered drafting a will in case something happened to me. However, I would still feel very uncomfortable with my Chinese friends, even very close ones, discussing sex, but I could freely share my opinions or thoughts with my American friends whenever the topic comes up. It was also interesting for me to see how many people use dating apps here, and I’d heard from my friends that dating has unexclusive and exclusive stages. Although I am very open to hearing other people’s stories, even some very crazy ones, and agree that computer-based matching could work very well statistically, Chinese culture definitely has the upper hand on me. No matter how many times my American friends told me to get on it, I was resistant to the idea of actively looking for a relationship rather than unexpectedly meeting someone somewhere. I still have an out-of-date belief that love is something that I can’t plan for or try to find. I have to wait for it to come to me and then make every effort to cherish it.
In addition to my thoughts, my lifestyle also changed a lot. Due to poverty, like all other kids in my village, l didn’t have access to many sports (e.g., tennis, swimming, golf). The only sport I started early and became good at was table-tennis because the setup was so affordable. After getting my current job which allows me the advantage of time flexibility, I started learning many sports in the past years such as skiing, golf, swimming, scuba diving, horse riding and ice skating. In my ice skating class, I am this 35-ish-year-old woman. My classmates were around 3 to 7 years old. My teachers are younger than 20. I didn’t feel embarrassed at all. The moment when my teacher handed me my completion of level 2, I was almost tearful like I had just received an Olympic medal. This reminds me of another difference between Chinese and American culture: Almost all college students are the same age; in the States, people of all ages could show up in the same classroom. This was another culture shock I had when I first came.
Recently, I got my scuba diving certificate. In order to get it, I first learned one semester of swimming then I attended an undergraduate class at my university as an imposter student. I am also getting better at skiing. I am not sure if it is due to my own curiosity or cultural influence. I now really believe that age is just a number, and I don’t have that much age anxiety. I broke free from the idea that I had to fulfill certain social roles like being a wife or a mom at certain ages (but I do hate the wrinkles creepily showing up around my eyes). I find myself really enjoying learning, not only new things but also overcoming mental fear (in the cases of scuba diving and skiing). The fear would sometimes resurface in my mind. I thought about the reason I am afraid but realized I still have to try new things. It is out of the unquenchable enthusiasm for life that I am so willing to push myself forward to take some calculated risks, explore and experience the unknowns, and live life to the fullest. On my gravestone, it may read: “This person loved, cried, smiled, struggled, lived, very human after all.”
As a first-generation immigrant, I don’t have any immediate family here, but the priceless love and generous support from the extended family around me is what always keeps my heart so warm and helps me to keep my head above water in some torrential life moments. It is the kind people I met who weaved the most and best memories and wonderful experiences of my years in the States. Their love and kindness sometimes came as a cooked meal, a handwritten note card, a silly text message, a hilarious joke, a phone call, a hug I needed, or correcting my pronunciation. It is because of them I know love is always there and has so many forms that transcend color, language, kinship, and race. If I have to conclude my immigration experience, it is an exciting and unceasing self-growing/exploring journey of the most authentic and comfortable self as well as a heartwarming story full of love and acceptance.
So, here I am! I am happy where I am and who I am.
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