After graduate school, I became the youngest research fellow in the World Economy and Politics Research Institute under China Academy of Social Sciences.
In the fall, my research institute sent me to an academic conference. The conference was to exchange schools of thought among professors and researchers from different countries on international economic relations and global trade. I was excited about the conference. Not only it would be my first time to exchange academic ideas directly with researchers from different cultures and economies, it would also be a valuable opportunities to pick up some spoken English. We learned some basic English in college, and I could read simple text with a English Chinese dictionary, but what we learned was not nearly enough to carry conversations. I had never had a chance to speak to a native speaker.
The conference was held in Qingdao Island in Northeast China, a famous summer resort. It is about a four-hour train ride from Beijing. I arrived the day before the conference's started.
I had never stayed in a hotel before. The few times I traveled within China, I stayed at friends’ college dorms.
When I got to the hotel where the conference was situated, I couldn't believe my eyes. It was a beautiful and grand hotel that I had only seen foreign movies. I didn't even know this kind of hotels existed in China. The hotel was specifically built for international visitors. Chinese citizens were not allowed to stay there unless you were officially invited to conferences or other official business. Of course today in China it is completely different. Grand hotels like this are now everywhere. Chinese people stay in these nice places all the time now.
A Chinese doorman in a dark red uniform and white gloves stopped me at the front door. I showed him my official certificate stating I was a conference participant. He opened the door for me and slightly bowed to me and politely said welcome. Inside the door, uniformed young people lined by the door ready to receive guests. There were a few foreigners in the beautiful lobby, with marble floors, who spoke softly. A contrast to always crowded and rather loud Beijing. A girl from the line of the service staff came up to me and politely said: "My name is Mayhua, big sister. Welcome to our hotel. I'm at your service. I'll see to it your stay is pleasant and trouble free." It was customary in China for girls and young women to address each other as sisters. Mayhua looked like she was in her early twenties. She took my bag from my shoulder, and waited half step behind me while I checked in.
Throughout this whole time, not a single person stared at my leg, or tried to steal glances. No one showed a slight surprise. I was not used to this kind of reaction. For a splitting second I wondered if I was still in China. It was apparent that the hotel staff was very well trained. Chinese culture is changing for the better, I marveled with delight.
As we walked to my room, Mayhua asked me why I was staying at the hotel. I told her I was attending an international conference and was scheduled to present one of my papers the next day. Mayhua showed an almost amazed look on her face.
"Big sister is a college graduate, right?" I said yes, and she asked me where I worked. When I told her I worked for a research institute in Beijing, she said: "Big sister is representing a research institute at an international conference? Wow, big sister must be so smart. Unlike us. I'm from a small village and I only went to middle school. And look at me, I'm a server. Compared to big sister, our lives are wasted."
I was really saddened and touched by what she said. "Please don't think that way. It's not true. I was just very lucky and have had opportunities. Little sister just didn't get any opportunities. You are obviously very smart, and with same opportunities, I'm sure little sister would have done much better than me." I said to her sincerely. "And you are working in a grand hotel for foreigners. You are the envy of so many girls out there. I meant every word I just said."
"Big sister is too kind."
"Look at me," I said, "I've never been to a grand hotel like this. Well I've never been to any hotels actually. So you have to teach me the right manners and etiquette so I don't embarrass myself." At that we both laughed.
It was my first time to experience this kind of service. My room was very spacious and sparkling clean, with a beautiful washroom. I couldn't believe it was just for one person. I liked this trip so far.
After unpacking the light clothes I brought with me, I went downstairs to attend the reception.
There were about 30-40 people standing around in the room. Young waiters in white shirts, black vests, and black bow ties held trays with glasses of wine. People in different skin tones, facial features, and clothing talked to each other quietly. No one shouted or laughed out loud. I walked around listening to different accents of English. Couldn't catch much of what was being said, but I loved the accents.
Conference pamphlets spreaded out on tables. I looked through the attendee list. These professors and scholars were from China, US, UK, Germany, French, Iran, Argentina, and India. I was excited to see a familiar name on the list. A classmate named Hong from Being School of Political Economics was representing his research institute at the conference. I ran into a young Chinese woman who introduced herself as an interpreter named Meimei. She said she had an English name, Lisa. She told me she would be translating for me when I presented my research paper the next day. We arranged a time for later that day to talk through the content of my paper.
My paper was a study of optimal foreign trade policies and practices, focusing on the adaptability of David Ricardo’s classic doctrine of internal trade. During the revolution, Mao Zedong effectively closed down our national borders, both physical borders and diplomatic and trade borders. Mao insisted that China must stay self-reliant and self-sufficient, in order to defend ourselves against imminent offensive aggression and attack from the ‘imperialist’ countries in America and Europe. This doctrine stifled national economic growth and standard of living in China stagnated. Now we were re-establishing foreign trade practices, and one of the research themes at our research institute was to seek and define the optimal balance between free trade and protectionism.
The next morning, breakfast was being served picnic style on the lawn. There was bread, butter, eggs with ham, hotdogs and fresh fruits. For drinks there was coca cola and beer.
As we ate, I heard one of the American professors, Professor Constable, said that there were three things that he found amusing about this breakfast - picnic in the morning, beer served in the morning, and no Chinese breakfast items were served. "Do you always drink beer at breakfast?" He asked me through Lisa. I told him that in Chinese culture, our hosts always serve what we believe our guests are used to and like. Apparently our hosts thought this was what the conference attendees liked. Professor Constable explained that in US, hosts would serve something that's different from what their guests are used to. He asked what an traditional Chinese breakfast would serve. I told him the most traditional food would be porridge, fried dough, and some pickled eggs or tofu, foods in that nature. At this time, other attendees were also joining in our conversation, and we ended up having a lively time.
Later I mentioned to the secretary of the conference that we might want to serve traditional Chinese food at meals. Our guests would enjoy that very much. The secretary wondered if the foreigners would be reluctant to eat fried food in the morning. I thought it was a legitimate concern, and suggested perhaps serve a mix of Chinese and Western foods.
Over the conference, I got to know Professor Constable. He looked like was in his forties, curly hair, and fair complexion. He was from Wright State University. The university was named after the Wright brothers, in Dayton OH, Wright brothers' hometown. I couldn't carry a full conversation with him in English, but via our interpreter, we discussed a wide variety of topics.
One of the topics was about the different higher education systems between our two countries. Professor Constable explained that in universities and graduate schools in America, much classroom time was devoted to lively discussions between professors and students, and among the students. Students were encouraged to challenge their textbooks and disagree with their professors and lecturers. This was quite different from China’s classrooms where students were still encouraged to memorize what was in their textbooks. Challenging or disagreeing with your professors was considered a lack of respect and was discouraged. This culture was partially due to the revolution, where Mao aimed to control your minds. This piqued my curiosity and longing. How can I go to see for myself what it is like in America? I couldn’t help wondering.
I told Professor Constable that I would like to go to a graduate school in America to experience the education system there. The professor liked the idea. He said that his school was just kicking around ideas to have some kind of exchange program with Mainland China, to help them learn about economics research in China, and build a channel to exchange students and professors between the two countries. He promised to check it out for me.
The prospect of going to America made me restless. I fantasized living in a society where no one would stop and stare at you like you were a freak just because you wore a ‘wooden leg’, and kids would not mock you and call you a cripple. The treatment I received at the conference spoiled me.
Just two weeks after the conference ended and Professor Constable went home, I got a letter from him. With a dictionary, I read the letter. The Dean of Economics at Wright State would very much like to explore having me and one of his research fellow as exchange scholars. Wow, my jaw dropped at the efficiency of Professor Constable and Write State.
I asked Professor Constable to send me an official letter stating the Dean's plan. That letter came one week later. I immediately brought the letter to my research institute. The heads of the institute also liked the idea and opportunity, and told me to gather more information.
After a few months of back and forth and red tapes on our side, Professor Constable let me know that a graduate assistantship was offered to me. I would be enrolling in the graduate school of Economics at Wright State, and assist a professor in their research for 20 hours a week. The assistantship would cover my tuition, and give me a monthly stipend of $200.
At the time, international calls were only allowed at a single location, the Beijing Telephone and Telegraph Building. And only outgoing calls were allowed, not incoming calls would be accepted. It was very expensive to make those calls. Something like 5 Yuan per minute to the US when the average income was 30 Yuan.
The building was about 15 miles from my house. So to call Professor Constable, I would take public buses to the building. But there was no way to set a time to talk, so I would go to the building, dial, and hear a woman's voice saying something I didn't understand. But somehow I knew that was the professor's wife or daughter, and the professor was not home. But because I could not understand what she was saying, I didn't know if the professor was coming back soon or I should call back on another day. I would wait in the building for about one hour, and dialed the professor's home number again. If it didn't sound like the professor was home, I would wait for another hour and try the third time.
In the month before I got my visa, I would make the trip to the Telephone & Telegraph Building just about every day. I got ahold of the professor three times. After I purchased the air ticket, because of my language barrier, I was not able to understand if the professor would go to the airport to pick me up. I figured I'd just try my luck and see what would happen when I landed in the US.
At one of the calls, I understood that a Dr. Kang from Write State would be visiting Beijing for one night. Dr. Kang was from Taiwan and spoke Mandarin. He would bring some paperwork from the school for me to sign.
I was of course beyond being excited to wait for Dr. Kang. Just one problem - the date he was going to be in Beijing was date of a concert in Beijing by Luciano Pavarotti. This concert would be the first ever that Pavarotti gave in China. The tickets for the concert were not sold to public. You must have connections in the Ministry of Culture to get any tickets. Pavarotti was only giving that one concert in Beijing. I just couldn't let it go.
I tried to see if we could move the time around a little but I never got ahold of professor Constable again. I wanted to discuss with Dr. Kang about the concert, but I had no way of calling him. So in the morning of that day, before the set time to meet, I took my trusty buses and found the address that Professor Constable had given me where Dr. Kang would be staying for the night. When I got there, I was told Professor Kang was visiting some schools. He would not be back in time for me to sign the paperwork and then go to see Pavarotti. So I left a note for Dr. Kang explaining I could not give up Pavarotti as that was his very first visit to China and he would only give one concert at that night. I said I would come back after the concert.
In Chinese culture, entertainment like movies and concerts were considered luxuries. Young people were not supposed to give up serious matters like school for entertainment. It was more so in this occasion as it was concerning leaving China for America, which was a huge deal and you wouldn't do anything to sabotage it. So I apologized furiously in my note to Dr. Kang, and said I was not taking the school paperwork lightly.
After the concert, I went back to Dr. Kang's hotel. He wasn't there. He was at a working dinner. He had read my note earlier, and left my paperwork for me to sign. I signed the papers. I never got to meet Dr, Kang until I arrived at the Dayton, Ohio.
Later Professor Constable let me know that Dr. Kang was a little upset about my behavior. It was unthinkable for me to risk such a critical moment of an extremely precious opportunity. Professor Constable couldn't understand the reason behind this sentiment. I explained to the professor that in Chinese culture, a concert should never come before school matters no matter which artists were performing, not to mention this was no ordinary school matters. I told Professor Constable that I completely understood why Dr. Kang was so upset over this, and said if I was in his shoes, I would get upset too.
Mom and Dad kindly paid for my airplane ticket. With $60 in pocket, which equated to an average annual salary in China then, one suitcase, some broken English, and a lot of energy and enthusiasm, I left China for the United States.
It was my first time to get on an airplane. My friends insisted on seeing me off at the airport. Before I went inside to check in, we said goodbyes as we watched airplanes disappearing into the clouds. One of my friends said, “You are flying over the rainbow.”