Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"Why Did You Come to America?"

A reader named "anonymous" questioned me, "So why then did you come to America? Most immigrants from Europe LEFT Europe behind, but you did not leave China behind." He seemed very upset about that.

Well, since there is some interest in knowing why I came to America, I might as well tell the story. Actually, I've already told it in a personal essay titled "On Becoming an American," recently published in the Michigan Quarterly Review's issue on China. The essay has 6000 words, too long to reprint in this space. So I'll just post an excerpt here. You can probably find the magazine in your local Barnes & Nobel.

"On Becoming an American" (Excerpt)

I went to graduate school in the Chengdu Branch of the Chinese Academy of Sciences in the mid-1980s. Though our once fomenting childhood slogan "Down with American Imperialist!" had become simply a cue for laughter, even then I would find my bile rising at the most random of triggers. (An incompetent American man who was teaching our English class might have been fired because of a trick my roommate and I played against him.)

It should be explained here that at the time, among mainland Chinese people, any balanced attitude toward foreigners, especially Americans, was rare, and I was not an exception. The veneration of white foreigners for their superiority was as common as the revulsion for their vile actions, and the roots of both could be traced back to the Opium War. I was in the latter camp, a heritage from my parents whose hatred toward America developed in the 1940s.

Studying the work of American and other western scholars and scientists had given me respect for their intellectual achievement. Still, my attitude toward Americans was recalcitrant, and it was only reluctantly that I agreed to go and listen to a foreigner's lecture on a warm spring afternoon in April 1987. The lecture, at a neighboring university, was on System Dynamics, a subject I was studying.

Imagine my astonishment when the lecturer jumped down from the stage, walked against the dissipating crowd toward a back seat in the auditorium, and spoke tender English to me. In instinctive panic, I ran away from the tall American, who wore a shy, childish smile. But the determined man found me again the next afternoon, and, as we toured downtown Chengdu on bicycles with two other friends, Bob and I had a chat in my broken English and his pidgin Chinese, an intelligent and humorous chat that would change my impression of Americans forever. Many years later when I read the late American journalist H. L. Mencken's noted essay, "On Being an American," I could not help but be amazed how the author's general depiction of Americans matched perfectly my first impression of Bob: "They are, by long odds, the most charming people that I have ever encountered in this world. They have the same charm that one so often notes in a young girl, say of seventeen or eighteen, and perhaps it is grounded upon the same qualities: artlessness, great seriousness, extreme self-consciousness, a fresh and innocent point of view, a disarming and ingratiating ignorance." That was the portrait of Bob.

In retrospect, it was love at first sight, despite politics, despite nationality, despite myself. But I wouldn't admit it. I did not trust my intuition. A classical dogma I’d adhered to from birth, whether I realized or not, was die-hard.

Two months later, in June, my institute sent me and a classmate to Shanghai to attend the International System Dynamics Conference, which Bob was helping organize. One day after dinner Bob asked me for another chat. We were in Shanghai Mechanical College, and we climbed up a small hill covered with privet bushes, which seemed to be the only green place on the campus. At first I thought we were alone. A while into our conversation, some slight but discernible rustling sounds led to my discovery that hidden behind every bush on the small hill was a student couple kissing. I was stunned.

Before I recovered from my discovery, a new couple climbed up the hill. They paused briefly when passing us; I could feel their inquisitive eyes. Even in the dimness, a foreigner, especially with Bob's big puffy beard, was easy to distinguish. Did they think I was dating an American? I began to panic.

At that moment Bob said, clear and calm, "I love you."

"But you are a foreigner!" I burst out. "I'm a man. You are a woman," he said, a bit surprised by my reaction, with his charming ignorance of my crisis. It was a genuine shock, what he just said. For the first time I became aware of the sharp difference in our way of thinking: growing up as Chinese I had always placed political identity ahead of gender, ahead of the person. He was himself and I had not been. And that was the turning point for me to begin separating the individual identity from the political identity—the country, the race, or the religion.


The first time I told my mother about Bob, she was shocked. Her shock quickly turned to a deep worry. "American men can not be trusted," she said, "he is playing with you!" Her inveterate opinion had probably been formed from her early experiences, but by then I knew Bob well enough not to listen.

Bob proposed a year later, after a long and winding underground courtship, after my parents had gradually altered their view of him from that of an abstract American to a dear person, a handy young man who could fix their broken shower head and leaking sink. My Communist father's condition for allowing him to marry me was "do not let my daughter get involved in any politics!" Which Bob gladly accepted. Bob probably would have accepted any condition that day, as long as he was not asked to live in China for the rest of his life, but to him my father's requirement was such an easy one because I was apolitical. Or so he thought. I had actually asked Bob—quite hopefully—if he'd like to live in China with me. He answered in an end-of-discussion tone, "No." Why, I asked, and he said simply, "I love America." As much in love as I was with Bob, it was still strange for me to hear that.

After being married in Chongqing we returned to Chengdu, so that I could finish my Master's degree. Upon learning about our marriage, Boss Yang summoned Bob and me for questioning. Always dour, with cigarette stained yellow teeth, Boss Yang was verging on angry. He was evidently very unhappy about my choice, probably because I had never asked for his approval. During the meeting, Boss Yang had a translator stand by his side while he asked us all sorts of personal questions. At one point he changed his authoritative tone to a fatherly voice and said to me, "Why do you want to marry an American? He'll divorce you in no time. We know American men always divorce their wives. I'd hate to see you be abandoned in an alien land like that." I just smiled and said, "He won't." Boss Yang wasn't alone in this opinion– to Chinese, the concept of American freedom meant an arbitrary attitude toward sex and marriage. Today, 19 years later, Boss Yang's prediction about my marriage has still not come true, and during the years I've seen more divorces among Chinese couples (including my sisters) than our American friends. So we were married (not without trouble), moved to Boston, and, though I would have liked to say "we lived happily ever after," the story is not over.

Update: A related story -- Boss Yang and Teacher Gene


Anonymous said...

This is a lovely story. Thanks for brightening my day :) No Barnes & Noble in China, but I'll look for it when I'm back in the States!

Anonymous said...

Hi Xujun
I've said it before, and I'll say it again: you're a wonderful storyteller with very interesting life experiences.

May I ask a question that's somewhat irrelevant to this particular post? You say your English was not very felicitious even in your college years ("broken English" is how you describe it). I've always thought that fluency in English wasn't easily acquired in later years. How did you go from someone who's English was "broken" to someone who - and I repeat - is a most engaging storyteller, with an astonishing mastery of the language. Did you also enroll for some creative writing course? I'd be happy to hear from you on this.

BTW, there's another story from this post that's just waiting to be told: how you got that American professor sacked :-)

Xujun said...

Thanks Andy. Glad to brighten your day a bit. :-)

一桥, thanks for your kind words. I've never enrolled in a creative writing program, though I did go to writers conferences for a few summers (not this year). However I regard those conferences more as an opportunity to meet other writers and hear their stories than learning about writing. You do learn a bit in those conferences, but the main path of learning is a lone journey. I might have a storyteller's nature, but writing in a second language has always been tough. Each published piece is edited again and again and again. On my desk is a big pile of dictionaries, C-E, E-C, E-E, C-C, you name it. And reading, tireless reading of others' good writing. I don't see another way around this. To me writing is always a hard and slow process. I still don't feel confident about my English today as I'm typing this. :-) So if you find errors, don't be surprised.

alfaeco said...

Yes. Lovely story. :-)

Linda Austin said...

My Japanese mother heard the same comments about marrying an American man (1958) - "He will dump you; you'll see, American man does not take responsibility. You will be far away and we cannot help you." Well, that did eventually happen, but after many years of happiness and raising two children.

Xujun said...

Thanks for the lovely words, alfonso. :-)

Linda, very interesting about the similarity between us. I think it was true that three decades ago, compared to Americans, Asian men were more serious about marriage and less likely to divorce. But nowadays there is hardly a difference any more.