When the plane landed at the Dayton International Airport, I followed the crowd off the plane and walked outside of the gate. At the time, people were allowed to go up to the gate to meet the passengers. I didn't see Professor Constable. Some people held signs with Chinese names on them. I understood they were there to pick up passengers from China. I looked for my name. None. So I waited at the gate until everyone left. I thought the professor must have not gotten my letter about my arrival date. Or, perhaps, he got the letter but wasn't coming. After all, at home we always heard Americans were selfish and would not help anyone without being paid. I felt lonely and homesick. After a while I started crying, didn't know where to go in a foreign country without really speaking the language. Thoughts crossed my mind that why did I give up a very comfortable life, a prestigious career, my family, and all my friends I had made at every stage of my life, to a foreign country, without knowing anyone, without the ability to converse in the foreign language, and without money to live on.
As I was feeling sorry for myself, I saw a young American with a badge on his neck, and a very friendly face. I figured he must work at the airport. I collected courage to ask him for help in my broken English. He couldn't understand what I was saying through my heavy accent, but it looked like he understood my situation. He asked me some questions which I couldn't comprehend. So he started to gesture, pointing to his own face, tilted his head and put his hands together to rest his head, and made a gesture to show walking with luggages. I understood that he was asking if a man supposed to be here to pick me up and take me to my destination. I didn't know how to answer the questions except nodding my head desperately. He said 'name' and made a gesture to talk into a microphone. I understood he was asking the name of the person I was looking for so he could use the microphone to call out. I remembered the name of the professor by heart. He signaled for me to follow him. We came to a service desk and called out the professor's name. Almost immediately, i saw the professor walking over and his wife and son. Not only professor Constable came to pick me up, he brought his family!
He told me that they were getting something to drink while waiting for me. Apparently, though it never happened, today my fight arrived early!
I thanked the young man who helped me furiously, and asked for his name. He waved his right hand as he started walking backwards. I understood he said that was ok, and he was leaving me to the professor and family.
Professor Constable's son looked like about 8 or 9 years old. He politely extended his hand for a handshake. "Hi, I'm Brian. Welcome to America." I was so impressed. Chinese children would never have done that. A polite Chinese child might have offered a slightly head nod, others would have just stood there.
As we walked out of the airport, I immediately noticed another difference between Brian and Chinese children. Brian was not stealing glances or staring at my leg. But he was not pretending he didn't see my limp as some polite Chinese children would have done. He just acted so normal like my limp was a natural thing as someone's shoes were different from everyone else. I
This was my first interaction with Americans on American soil, and I never forgot the young man's s friendly smile. I never forgot seeing the professor and his family walking toward me with big smiles on their faces. Growing up in China, the state propaganda always led us to believe that western countries are imperialists, and the people in those countries only recognize money. Without money, no one would stop for you. This was especially for a Chinese person, because people from China were communists. This experience started to change my false believes. After the first few weeks in America, seeing professors, students, and school administrators were all kind and eager to help, I vowed to do anything I could to change how Americans viewed my family and friends back home, and how they perceived what Americans were.
Later someone asked me if I felt a cultural shock how different the two countries were, with all the highways, color TVs, and all the hotdogs you could eat in America. I told them that I did feel a cultural shock, but the shock was how Americans liked to help people, and, how similar we were as peoples. I expected to find those material things in America so they didn't shock me, but I never expected to find so much kindness and similarity between Chinese people and Americans. We shared same emotions, things that made us happy or sad, same desires and same ??. In other words, it was a cultural shock for me to realize that both peoples were simply human beings. Growing up in China, especially living through the Cultural Revolution, this realization was earth shattering. It shocked me to my core. It made me believe coming to America was a well worthwhile endeavor.
Of course I soon came across Americans who were impatient and rude. Just as in China. It further enhanced my impression how similar our peoples were.
Professor Constable had arranged for me to spend the first night in Dr. Kang's house, as he spoke Chinese. Professor Constable thought if I couldn't understand what people were saying at the first night it would be difficult for me. He was right. I was very grateful to professor Constable and Dr. Kang. That I could talk to someone who spoke Chinese plaid a really significant role in calming down my nerves.
We had dinner at Dr. Kang's house. Professor Constable and Dr. Kang barbecued in the yard over open fire. They thought it would be interesting for me and they were right.
At some point, Dr. Kang said to me in Chinese, "Americans could be very primitive about eating."
Before bed, Dr. Kang's wife asked me if I wanted to take a shower. She asked me in Chinese, but said 'shower' in English. "Shower? Rain?" I was confused. She giggled and led me to their guest beautiful and spotless guest bathroom. She turned the shower on and I understood. In Chinese, we used a single word to describe washing yourself. So I made a mental note to myself. Here you would say shower, not bath. I told her that I could not shower standing up because of my leg, so I would be 'showering' sitting in the tub, could she show me how to fill the tub with water?. She was amused. "Oh so you want a bath, not a shower." The Americans, I thought to myself, why use two different words to say the same thing?
The next morning in the kitchen, I met Dr. Kang's mom. I said "Good morning, Aunt." She smiled and asked me: "Would you like a piece of toast?" I would love that I thought, but being a Chinese, I said: "Oh please don't trouble yourself. I'll just have the bread as is." In Chinese cultural, when you are guests in someone's home, it's customary to be humble and you always try to not cause any 'work' or 'trouble' to your host. So, even though I would love to try a piece of toast, as I'd heard of it but had never tried it. I told the aunt that I was being polite to say I'd prefer bread as is.
The aunt laughed. She explained to me that here in America, it's customary to tell your host what you want. If you be humble and not wanting causing work for your host, the host wouldn't know you are being polite and would take your words at face value. This was something you could learn by being in the country, not from textbooks.
"Would you like some orange juice?" the aunt asked me. Habitually, I said just plain water was fine. We both laughed. I told the aunt I would love some orange juice.
I knew it would take a while for me to feel at ease to accept what was offered, or even ask for what I wanted.
After breakfast, Dr. Kang kindly drove me to school. The first thing I noticed was there were no high gate and high walls around the campus. Potentially anyone could just walk into one of the buildings, without having to get permission first. Later I would anyone could even just go sit through a lecture without anyone to stop you. You don't even need any disguise as on campus there are all kinds of people, at a wide range of ages, dressed in all different ways.
Dr. Kang dropped me off at the international student office. The head of the office was a friendly man named Steve. I nodded at everything Steve said, too embarrassed to say I couldn't understand what his was saying. He gave me a form and gestured for me to go get registered. When he saw how confused I was, he smiled and asked a young man working in the office to take me to the registration office.
There was a long line of students waiting to register. When it was my turn, I handed the form I was given to the woman behind the window. She started speaking to me rapidly. Of course I could not understand a word. I just kept shaking my head. I didn't want to hold up the line, so I went back to the international student office. I handed back the form to Steven, and somehow gestured to let him know I could not get registered. Later it turned out that he told me to fill out the form, sign it, than go to register. I could only imagine the frustration the woman behind the window felt when I handed her a blank form without saying anything, and couldn't understand and answer her questions.
After registration, I went back to international student office to get a dorm assigned. Needless to say I didn't understand a word the girl said. I just kept nodding at the questions she asked me. With the key in hand, I walked over a long, narrow, and bumpy stone road with my suitcase. I eventually got lost after several turns and walked back to the office. When Stephen saw me walk in limping badly, he called the dorm office and told them that they placed a handicapped student to one of the furthest dorm rooms, behind a difficult walk path. The girl who assigned me the dorm room told Stephen that I didn't usher a word and kept nodding at everything she said, so she felt everything was fine.
The next day, a handsome young man named Stu, a graduate student who worked at the international student office, helped me to move to another dorm much closer to the main campus. When he saw I only brought one suitcase, he amused that his girlfriend would pack this much for a weekend getaway, let alone moving to another country.
Stu drove me to my new dorm. When got there, there were about 7 or 8 students talking and laughing. Stu said something, and the tallest girl stood up and said her name was Steph. She reached out and shook my hand. I figured Stu must have asked who lived in this door and I was their new roommate. Steph led us into one of the bedrooms. She pointed at the empty bed and said something. Then she led me to the closet and pointed at the shelves and the bathtub, and talked rapidly for a long time. I couldn't pick out anything she said, other than something about Monday and Friday, and 7am. I guessed she was saying she had the bathroom at 7a Monday through Friday. Eventually I would learn that was exactly what she said, plus she would be on volleyball training and matches on weekends so they would not be here. She pointed at some shelf space she allocated to me.
My new dorm room was so much nicer, close to being luxurious, I thought. We had two spacious bedrooms, each slept two. We had a big living room, a nice bathroom, and a fully equipped kitchen with a full refrigerator.
I had three American roommates. Two white girls named Trish and Steph, and a black girl named Jada. Trish and Steph were in their sophomore year for early child education. They both were traveling volleyball players and Trish was the team's captain. Jada was a freshman in finance major.
When I first moved in, Trish and Steph had an air of superiority, or at least that was how I perceived them. They spoke rapidly regardless if I understood or not. I couldn't converse with them and stuttered as I spoke. I felt a little intimidated. I felt like a mute, deaf, and dumb person. Jada was more friendly and humble.
Then one day I walked into the bathroom after Steph came out. It stunk like hell. They were human after all, I thought. Their waste stunk too. They were not superior. We were all equal. That was some sort of a wakening for me. We were all humans on this earth. We just grew up in different social and economic conditions. I found it funny that a stinking bathroom accomplished what books, lectures, and advices couldn’t accomplish. From then on, I never felt inferior again. Different maybe, but definitely not inferior.
Trish and Steph had cars but Jada didn't. The first week I was there, Steph asked me if I wanted a ride to the supermarket. Of course I said. That was so nice and considerate. I was very grateful. So Steph and two friends and I piled into Steph's car to go shopping. That was the first time I walked into a store or market in the States. Steph and her friends dispersed right after we got into the store. I stood by the entrance and took some time to orient myself. By the time I got to the cash register with some bananas and orange juice, Steph and her friends had already checked out and were waiting for me by the entrance. I saw Steph looking at her wrist watch repeatedly, and I knew I took too much time.
The following week I asked Steph if she could take me again when she went shopping. Not really, she said. I took too long last time. Why don't you give me a short shopping list and I'll buy for you, she offered. It was very sweet but I would want to look for items that were discounted. I thanked her and said I'd ask around for rides.
I never saw Steph or Trish offer to give Jada rides to supermarkets. I wasn't sure if they had asked her previously.
One day after I came home from classes, Jada was on the floor reading a book, while eating a piece of bread with peanut butter on it. I realized that was the first time I saw her eat. She told me her mom and her brother came by and dropped off grocery for her. She said: "I'm not hungry anymore."
Steph and Trish always had friends over. They would have textbooks open on their knees, TV blasting, but they did not read or watch TV. They talked and talked. I never saw them in the library. I wondered how they kept up with their grades.
One afternoon, I was studying in my room by my bed, when a student from the party stopped at my door. "Hey, you are studying all the time. We've never seen anyone working so hard," he said. Come out and party with us. Dance." As he was talking, he made a few dance moves. I thought it was so cute. With my broken English, I thanked him, and told him I was used to studying. He slightly shook his head and said: "Come on. Party with us." I thanked him again and he left.
I was busy catching up on my classwork while trying to improve my English. I carried a big English to Chinese dictionary with me at all times. I was nearsighted. At first I sat in the front row in class so I could try to copy down what was on the blackboard so I could study later. This one professor had the habit of asking a question, then pointing at a student in the front row to respond. When he pointed at me, not only I had not caught what the question was, I also did not know how to say can you please repeat the question. I simply sat there with a stare and open mouth. Other students would shift in their seats and try to see who was this mute girl. I moved to the last row in following classes. After class I would borrow notes from my fellow students and copied down their notes.
I did not cook in the dorm. My daily meals consisted of vending machine hotdogs and popcorns, so much so that hotdogs and popcorns are my least favorite food to this day.
The international student association hosted a monthly all-you-can-eat pizza party. Before each party, I would starve myself for a week, then gotten sick from stuffing myself with several big slices of pizza until I couldn't move. Up to this day I could tolerate but do not like pizza.
We'd heard of computers at home, but never seen one, not even a photo. Professor Blake had a set of data on workers' conditions in Britain in the early 20's. He asked me to do some research using this data to run regression models to identify if there was a causal relationship between productivity and working conditions.
Back home in China, we didn't use data modeling to do research, and college and grad schools did not cover them. But I had done a lot of reading on data modeling and was familiar with regression modeling. However I did not know how to use a computer, more accurately, a terminal of a mainframe computer.
A fellow graduate assistants named Robert spent a lot of his own time and helped me tremendously to get my work done. Fairly quickly, I picked up how to run data modeling on mainframe computer. I was amazed at what a computer could do. My love of data analysis was born.
After a while, I noticed that every Friday afternoon, I'd see a long line of graduate assistants waiting at the student credit union. I was curious so I asked a classmate what they were doing. "Cashing their paycheck," the classmate said.
"Why wouldn't they wait until Monday or something when there is no line?" I asked.
"They want to spend it this weekend."
"Are you saying they don't have any money in their bank accounts?"
"That's right. We call it 'living paycheck to paycheck'."
"But they don't save for emergencies?"
"Apparently not," my classmate said with a grin and a wink.
I couldn't believe it. In China, we always save for the rainy days. It doesn't matter how much you earn, you don't spend it all. You always have cash in your bank account. After I emerged into American society, as I got to know more and more Americans, I found that if I have $10, I'll spend $1. For most Americans, if they have $10, they spend $10. Still there are some Americans if they have $1 they spend $10 on credit/borrowed money. I learned the concept of credit economy. When I left China, we did not have credit cards. so when i got here, i only spend what i had. never thought a credit card was necessary. later friends told me you need a credit history to buy cars or houses.
A HUMBLE RESUME
Economics department chair, Dr. Tracie, was a friendly, outgoing, and quick witted man in his late forties. Dr. Tracie was interested in development in China, so I often chatted with him after class. He had invited me to his hours for dinner a few times. I loved spending time with his family, his wife, his taughter, and his son. They were such nice and cultured people. It gave me a wonderful chance to observe an American family life.
Before the first school year ended, I started looking for a summer job. On school job boards, I saw an amusement park was looking for temporary workers in anticipation of the summer visitor rush. They were looking for workers for food prep, laundry, ticket windows, cleaning, and so on and so forth. I figured laundry would be a good job for me.
I asked Dr. Tracie how I should go about applying for the laundry job in the amusement park. Dr. Tracie said he would help me get an internship position in a corporation. "You would do that for me?" I couldn't believe it. "Yes I would," Dr. Tracie said.
He told me that the first step was to prepare a resume. I didn't know what resumes were. In China then, careers and jobs were assigned by the government, there was no use for resumes.
Professor Tracie explained to me that resumes were what you used to 'sell' yourself to potential employers. He showed me the format of a typical resume and told me to write a resume that would impress potential employers.
The next morning, I brought to Professor tracie my first ever resume. the professor read the resume and burst out laughing. With such a humble resume, he said, I would have no chance to even get an interview.
In Chinese culture, we grew up believing that one should not boast one's capabilities, talents, and achievements. Instead, one should be humble and always point out what we are not good at, our weaknesses, our failures and what we learned from them. This tendency is compounded by Dad’s way of keeping me on my toes.
In my resume, I started with my weaknesses, most severe being my poor English (despite I felt good about my progress and people always complimented my English for being in the country for less than one year). I pointed out that I needed a lot of guidance and practice when I wrote academic papers to make them easy to consume by people in the US. I also mentioned my understanding of US commerce and market was still limited, and I still didn't know everything about computers as I never saw one before coming here. After I listed what I needed to improve, I said that despite my weaknesses, I would work really hard to give my absolute best, and knew I could complete any tasks assigned to me, regardless how difficult the tasks were, as I had always done that throughout my life.
I told Dr. Tracie that I was very uncomfortable boasting, and would want to demonstrate my abilities by doing rather than telling. Dr. Tracie said that with such a humble resume, I would have almost no chance to get hired, therefore I would not have opportunities to demonstrate what I could do. He said I needn't to boast or exaggerate my abilities. Just state facts, he told me.
It reminded me a story I knew that would speak to this cultural difference. A Chinese official came to the US to visit. He held a state dinner at Chinese embassy. He hired a well known Chinese chef to prepare the dinner. Right before the dinner, he gave a speech to his guests, saying that he didn't have very good food to offer today, but please know that he had very good intentions, so hope the quests please forgive him and try to enjoy the company. This was very common in 'China to say to your guests to be polite and humble,
The chef who immigrated to the US years ago was furious at the official. He said what the official said number one was not true, number two, damaged his reputation, and number three it was confusing to say your guests you did not have good food to order, if not rude. He asked the official to apologize to his guests, and let them know that the chef was one of the best and the guests were in for a rare treat.
With the patient help of Dr. Tracie, many drafts later, I finally had a resume that was appropriate for American businesses. Dr. Tracie sent my resume to Mead Corporation, with a strong recommendation. Mead Corporation is headquartered in Dayton. They were one of the biggest paper products companies in the country. After interviews, I was offered an Internship with their soft drink packaging division. In addition to Dr. Tracie's recommendation, I got this lucky break because the division was in the process of developing a joint-venture with China. The division head thought my experience working at the Academy of Social Sciences of China could prove valuable.
Overcoming the urge to be 'humble' turned out to be not very easy.
One day I was talking with my boss, and he said he saw I worked hard, but needed to work smarter. I said I couldn't work smarter, but will work harder. He was surprised at what I said, and pointed out that everyone can work smarter. I explained that when I said I couldn't work smarter, I meant I was not smart enough, and hopeless to get smarter. A typical Chinese expression.
After the first quarter at school, I decided to move off campus. In addition to school housing be expensive, I also felt I needed to explore the area and interact with the locals. That would help me to immerse myself in American culture and people.
I rented a room for $110 in a small cottage in Oregon District, a residential neighborhood and a preserved historic area. The house is 8 miles from the campus. Rain, snow, or shine, I would put my gigantic backpack on my back and walk to the bus stop. The bus has a stop for the campus so I didn’t need to walk on that end. At the end of the day, after classes, study sessions, and research work in the computer lab, I would take the last bus home. In the winter, the Sun set early and I would walk from the bus stop to the house in the dark. I never had any adverse experience. In fact, people were extremely kind. Sometimes a neighbor would see me walking on the sidewalk after dark and they would stop and offer me a ride.
On weekends, I went out to explore the town. One day I saw a small movie theater, with a sign that read "Art Movie". I got really excited. At home I loved artistic movies such as Amadeus. I walked in and bought a ticket. When I entered the auditorium, I noticed all people there were men. And they all stared at me. I made a mental note that it seemed men liked artistic movies more than women.
Then the movie started. It took me no time to realize why the audience were all men. I left the theater faster than I walked in. I learnt that art movies in America did not mean the classics, artsy, sophisticated movies.
One Sunday, I was browsing around and decided to go into a Burger King to try to order a meal. I walked in, and there were no customers. The girl behind the counter talked 90 miles an hour. I pretty much didn't understand a word she was saying. The girl saw my dazed expression, quickly repeated what she just said. I still didn't understand a word. She was getting impatient and repeated herself again. still the same speed.
I studied the menu. Whopper Jr. Sourdough King Single. Quarter Pounder. Huh? I said to the girl, I want to buy a hamburger. The girl came back with a series questions which I didn't understand at all. Later I would learn she was asking what I wanted on my burger - did I want Cheese? Ketchup? Onion? Mustard? I saw there were a couple of other customers. I didn't want to hold up the line so I just left. I felt like an idiot. Couldn't even order food. Why my listening comprehension was still so poor? Then I realized since I got to the country, I had mostly interacted with my schoolmates and professors. They always tried to speak slowly and pronounce each word clearly to make it easier for me to comprehend. I was not an idiot, I thought. It was ignorance. She probably had never been out of US and never saw a lot of foreign people in Dayton. I had read that to some Americans, there was America, and there was the rest of the world.
My landlady, Mary, was a really nice woman. She was in her 50's and lived alone. She never married. After we got to know each other, she slowly told me her story. She had a younger sister, Virginia. Virginia's husband, Bob, was Mary's boyfriend first. When Bod left Mary for Virginia, Mary's heart was broken. She never met another guy she wanted to marry.
I really liked Mary. She was down to earth and hard working. I was happy to be able to have such a good opportunity to live with a 'real' American. I learned a lot about the working class Americans. Both good and not so good.
The first week I moved in with Mary, I saw on the newspaper that a church was having a fundraiser to sell second hand clothes. I took the bus to the church and couldn't believe my luck. So many beautiful dresses, shirts, jackets, and everything. It only cost 10 to 20 cents per item. I glady bought myself a full wardrobe for less than $20!
But I hadn't thought of how I would get the clothes home. They were in two large garbage bags. The bus stop was 3 or 4 miles from the church. I carried the heavy bags walked a few steps and had to stop to take a breath. I walked like this for about a half hour when it occurred to me that the last bus for the day was leaving in another half hour. So I kept going without stopping. When I mounted the bus, the driver couldn't believe I tote so much stuff from the church by foot. I was super tired and super happy.
Mary didn't have a washer or a dryer. She went to a laundromat for her laundry. I had so much clothing, it would take several loads to washj them all. I figured that would add up to the cost of the clothes. Back home washers and dryers had not been introduced to private citizens, and we washed our clothes in a basin with a washboard. Then we hang the clothes in the yard to dry. I had seen the same thing in old American Westerns, so I just thought it was OK if I washed the clothes I bought from the church by hand to save some coins. I asked Mary if she had a big tin basin. She didn't, and she said I could use her bathtub. After I finished washing all the clothes, I remembered I had come to the States prepared for the occasion. Mom had packed some thick laundry ropes for me in case I couldn't find any in the States! I put up lines with the ropes and hang my wet clothes in Mary's backyard, as well as in her front porch. When Mary came home, she said: "You don't want to dry your clothes on the front porch. Only blacks do that."
Among the clothes I bought from the church, there was a long dress in yellow, in the style of 19th century England that I saw in movies. The dress came with a round hat without rims and with a face veil attached. On that Halloween, I was invited to a professor's home for a party. I put on the dress and the hat, with the veil on. It fit me perfectly. I liked what I saw in the mirror. The professor's house was a couple of miles away. I confidently went outside and started walking to the professor's house. A neighbor saw me, and asked: "Are you the queen of England?" I responded: "No. I'm from China." I saw the neighbor seemed a little confused. I thought wow he probably really thought I was English. This outfit did a fabulous job disguising me. So it went like this all night. People asked me if I was from England and I would respond I was from China. Eventually, some good hearted soul explained to me, that, when people asked you who you are when you are in a halloween costume, they were asking what character you were playing.
Mary worked in a video rental store. One day she came home and said she was let go. She speculated it was because she was older, and the store wanted younger female employees to attract customers. I felt really sad for her, but she said she was lucky that I was paying rent each month on time. I told her I was the lucky one to live there. She found another job cleaning other people's houses.
Mary could not pronounce my name Dandan. She called me Dondon. One day she had a friend over. I was in my room. I heard the friend asked Mary: "What's your cute roommate's name?" "Dondon," Mary said. "Oh that's cute. But come on, what's her real name?" I thought it was hysterical.