Chapter Three--California - Part 5

This book is intended for a Chinese audience and tells the story of how I immigrated to America, assimilated into American society, and eventually became an American congressman. I hope my political experiences will be useful to those in China who wish to consider different forms of governance.

 

My Earliest Intellectual Interests

 

I have always loved science and still do today. I think this is true of many Chinese in China and of Chinese Americans. Some children love dinosaurs, but my first interest was astronomy, in part fueled by John Glenn’s trip into space a few years earlier and America’s continuing space program. There were large research telescopes in nearby Griffith Park and at Mount Wilson. Further away, the world’s largest telescope was at Mount Palomar, a monster with a 200 inch lens. I saved money to buy my own telescope. Coins diligently put into a plastic, moon shaped piggy bank eventually became dollars deposited into my own savings account. But however much I saved, I never reached my goal to own my own telescope: by the time I had accumulated the money to buy one of a certain size and quality, I wanted a bigger and better one. I saved enough money to buy a telescope with a two inch lens, a three inch, a four inch, a five inch, until I lost interest in astronomy without ever owning a telescope. Like the American military’s acquisition programs, mission creep had led to failure.

 

I loved astronomy because it is clean and elegant and beautiful. I abandoned it because (I swear this is true) I grew to fear the infinite. The vast expanse of interstellar and intergalactic space, the billions of years that stars burn, and the millions of years it takes for even light to travel from distant galaxies boggled my intellect and also depressed me. We are so small and evanescent-inconsequential in the grand scheme of things. Besides, I thought that astronomers worked all night, all the time at their telescopes, and I didn’t want to do that. It was an easy leap from aspiring to do depressing nighttime work on things far away to happy work done in sunshine on things close at hand: marine biology.

 

Southern California is surrounded by the life of the sea: tide pools with their starfish and sea urchins, in deeper water, fish and sea otters living in dense kelp forests in which the “trees” are huge strands of marine algae growing from the sea floor to the water’s surface. My first introduction to biology was learning about these marine organisms, and it became a lifelong interest. Given my interest in beaches, I also studied waves and their effects. I built my own wave tank to replicate the action of waves, and I came to see the beach as a dynamic place, its changing contours sculpted by the ocean’s energy. As an additional benefit, all of my research could be done in the California warmth and sunshine. I developed a lifelong love for science in general and the life sciences in particular, leading me to study biology at Stanford and then to Harvard Medical School. I would eventually serve on the Science Committee of the US House of Representatives.

 

Light and Darkness

 

Whatever else was happening in my life during those years in Southern California, I remember the sunshine. Everything was done in sunshine. Year round, we barbecued in it, exercised in it, and grew gardens in it. We didn’t just have it in summer, we expected it at Thanksgiving (in November), Christmas (in December), and Easter (in April) also. My life was filled with it and I didn’t even know how much I depended on it until much later, when I moved to darker, drearier places. I went to Harvard for medical school and hit an emotional wall in late November. I would not realize for years that it was seasonal affective disorder: short winter days put the body’s circadian rhythm, or biological clock, out of order and the result is depression which lifts with the light and warmth of spring. Places at high latitudes such as Harvard and Yale (Manchuria is at a similar latitude) have shorter winter days than Southern California. That first winter at Harvard, I met my as of yet unexplained enemy—darkness—and for three years at Yale Law School, I dreaded the late fall, knowing that depression was coming, and that it would not lift until spring. In retrospect, it’s a miracle that I performed well in law school, losing the time from November to May each year. At sunny Stanford, I could do well and enjoy all the other things the school had to offer. At Harvard and Yale, I had to spend all my time studying in order to do well, my efficiency diminished by depression, and the price was losing all the experiences I could have had outside of academics. In my third year of law school, I read a newspaper article about recent research on circadian rhythms and seasonal affective disorder and its simple treatment—a dose of strong early morning light that imitates sunrise. That simple solution, and winter vacations in warm, sunny places, permitted me to live in my beloved Oregon, which is at the latitude of Harbin.

Copyright David Wu 2017 All Rights Reserved

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Chapter Three--California - Part 4

This book is intended for a Chinese audience to tell the story of how I immigrated to America, assimilated into American society, and eventually became an American congressman. My political experiences hopefully will inform those in China who wish to consider different forms of governance.

An Early Romance

In addition to my formal education, more memorable things happened. In sixth grade, I developed a crush on Montel Steffan, a quintessential California girl with long blond hair, blue eyes, and a smile that could light up a small city or a young boy’s heart. I pursued her, not very hard, really, but with an appropriate diligence. Furtive glances in class, talking with her at recess, even asking for a dance, never more than one dance, at school sockhops (school dances where you took off your shoes and danced in socks only). I was awkward with girls. In those days before email, cell phones, text messaging and other technologies which lower the stakes of human contact, those few phone calls I made to Montel were preceded by heart stopping moments which stretched on for an eternity: staring at the telephone—do I dial or not dial, do I have the courage to wait for an answer or panic and hang up, if a parent or sister answers, what do I do? If I connected, she was always willing to talk, but could I keep up my end of the conversation? For another 15 seconds, another minute-how long could I continue talking, in my distress? As I write these lines, those tense feelings surprisingly come back to me. In retrospect, I was, as Americans say, like a dog chasing a car (I’m sorry to use that metaphor, Montel). I wouldn’t know what to do if I finally caught her. I remember the very moment when she made her affection for me clear in seventh grade. I fumbled it like a pop fly ball, didn’t know what to do, and turned away from her in nervous fear…and she quickly took up with someone else. I have since learned that my biggest regrets in life are those things that I did not do.

Athletics, Differences in American and Chinese Educational Culture Part 4

On the athletic front, I was improving—still awkward, still the last to be picked, but at least I was trying hard and actually volunteered for an extra, unrequired sport: flag football, a low contact form of American football played with a removable (the miracle of Velcro) flag on each hip. A ball carrier is “tackled” when the defender pulls off a flag. There was a league of children’s teams and games were played on the nearby elementary school field on Saturday mornings. Mr. Auslander, our neighbor across the street, was a sympathetic coach who understood that I could follow simple instructions requiring discipline but no athletic skill. I was a defensive end, charged with holding the outside edge of the defense, an important but straightforward task. A runner who gets to the outside of a football team’s defense can run rampant down the field—watch any American college or professional football game today and observe the phenomenon. All I had to do was, when the ball went into play, step forward, turn toward the ball, and make sure no ball carrier got outside of me. More athletic defensive ends might start chasing the ball and fail in their first and most important task, but my lack of athletic prowess and an iron discipline locked me into the ground like a tree: no play ever got outside of me. On those sunny Saturdays, I would take the short post game walk from the field to our home or for a short visit at coach Auslander’s house, all the while basking in the glow of success. I learned from these elementary school football games that more than native ability and skill, discipline and determination lead to victory. Flag football taught me most of what I needed to know to approach sports, school, and later life. I had lived my own, small version of the British saying “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eaton.” Still, I have a hard time convincing Chinese parents that their children studying in America should play sports and learn the important lessons they can teach.

The Magic of California Summers

California summers are special for young people, all young people, even if they don’t live there. An entire culture has grown up around California summers. People around the world, even those who live far from the ocean, listen to music about sand, surfing and sunshine. Lines of beachwear may be sold in China, whether the wearers know their roots or not. Adults say that California is unique not in summer but in winter when it stands in stark contrast to the cold and gloom of the rest of America. Not so for students, who are held in captivity while day after day of perfect weather taunt them from just outside the schoolroom door-left open during class because it is sunny and warm outside. We loved summer-when we were released from school and could play every day in perfect weather, roaming our vast housing tract endlessly, going to the beach regularly, confident that our world, and by implication the American world, would go on forever without change, just like the weather. In 1965, the United States had prevailed in every war since our revolution. Thirty cent per gallon gasoline fueled a car culture in which large, high powered beasts with huge, inefficient engines were used for recreation as well as for transportation. People were safe in the suburbs. Crime was unheard of. Every day, we went to the beach. Our mothers took turns driving us there, dropping us off and picking us up hours later. There was no adult supervision in between. Both parents and children thought that our world was that safe. This is unimaginable in today’s world, where parents assume danger and children are taught to stay away from strangers. I deeply miss that time of innocence, which was based in part on an unintentional ignorance. The world was changing and within ten years, much would be different, all except for the sunshine in California.

But while it lasted, we had a good time. At the beach, we spread large towels and relaxed on the warm sand, listening to 1960’s beach music and eating junk food: hot dogs or a beach specialty, tortilla chips fried to a crisp, covered with melted yellow/orange cheese. The cheese had more likely seen the inside of chemical factory than of a cow. In the water, we body surfed. People assume that surfing means surfing with a board. Not so. We surfed with a pair of fins on our feet to accelerate into a wave, riding in the wave like a porpoise or seal. Catching a wave was a short trip into nirvana: feeling the water course around your body, then the smooth drop, and seeing the wave pull the surface ahead into a mirror yet to be cut by your ride.

On dry land, there were two activities that may have been unique to that time and place. The housing tracts in our area were surrounded by expanses of undeveloped land, the clay soil tilled and broken into dirt clods of all sizes. Just as the boys of Dan Del Drive in Latham, New York fought with cattail and pussy willow swords, we had dirt clod fights. Small clods were flung at each other at high velocity and a flat trajectory-large ones lobbed like a mortar shell into the forts we built. They hurt far more than a snowball. At the elementary school ceded to us for the summer, we held coed water fights, but with a twist. Instead of water balloons or squirt guns, we held the water in our mouths. Loading up at the drinking fountains, we chased each other and if we came in range, we spat the water on our intended victim. Anyone you liked received special attention and in my case, I spat the most water on Montel.

Copyright David Wu 2017 All Rights Reserved

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Chapter Three--California - Part 3

This book is intended for a Chinese audience to tell the story of how I immigrated to America, assimilated into American society, and eventually became an American congressman. My political experiences hopefully will inform those in China who wish to consider different forms of governance.

Different Communities, Different Incomes, and Fairness in America 

Palos Verdes is a suburb of Los Angeles perched on hills overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Lawyers, doctors, bankers, and other comfortably upper middle class to upper class families live on its winding streets in uniformly new (in 1964), well appointed homes, some with spectacular sunset views of the ocean. Westminster is classically working class Orange County. On the town seal, the phrase, “The Heart of Orange County” is emblazoned over a seemingly endless, flat suburb with a grid of streets stretching to the horizon. The homes were a mix of new and old, ranging from those in brand new, not yet completed housing tracts to well worn, “ranch houses” common in California. At the upper income end were the aerospace workers common in Southern California. At the lower end were the unemployed about to drop out of the middle class. There were no lawyers or bankers living there, but eventually one retired Army doctor moved into our area—temporarily.

Had I attended the public schools of Palos Verdes with their well heeled students, I would have gone on to the elite, private universities I later attended with less sense of indignation about economic inequality in America, and perhaps even with a sense of personal entitlement. Instead, graduating from Westminster High School and going on to Stanford made me acutely aware that America does not apportion opportunities equally, that the claim political conservatives make that there is equality of opportunity in America is based on either ignorance or deceit. At Stanford, I was surrounded by the children of the lawyers, doctors and bankers who lived in places like Palos Verdes. There were fewer students like me, students from Westminster and white, working class towns like Westminster. At my high school, there were many bright, hard working students who never considered attending college, students who may have worked hard in school, but also had to work after school to support their family, students who never aspired to go to college because their families had not gone and therefor didn’t value college, students who volunteered for the Marine Corps or Army because that’s what you did. Post high school, even during the years I aspired to be a scientist, I had a sense that something was wrong in America, that the claim about equality of opportunity was at best a national aspiration yet to be achieved, and at worst something that makes the privileged feel good about themselves, and makes the poor blame themselves rather than their society.

Because of my experiences in Westminster, I favor affirmative action, but based on income rather than race. I grew up in a community where the poor were white and I learned that life could be unfair to people of any color. Furthermore, the early exposure to inequality of opportunity became a major motivation for my later involvement in politics.

Westminster

We purchased a brand new four bedroom, two story house in a not yet completed housing tract that was part of one of the perfectly gridded parts of Westminster. Every house had a yard, but the backyards were separated from each other by six foot tall cinder block walls, unlike the open backyards of our homes in Latham and Taiwan. Every family was new and had every incentive to get to know each other, but in all the years we were there (36 years in the case of my parents), we only became friends with our neighbor to the right and our neighbor directly across the street. This was not uncommon in the area, and as I grew older, I came to understand that the level of alienation in California suburbs is extremely high, and that they do not have the sense of community of small towns like 1960s Latham. When we moved to Westminster, no one came to greet us with the neighborhood welcome wagon as they had in Latham. Jobs, sunshine, and the prospect of a house with its own lawn drew people to suburban Orange County and to California, and the new freeway system connected the suburban homes to the jobs in far away Los Angeles. The result was urban sprawl, long commutes, and at least one parent absent for most of the day. The intimacy possible in an older America fell victim to this new arrangement.

Fourth grade, Differences in American and Chinese Educational Culture Part 3

Things were very different in school—all the students had just moved to the area and were eager to make new friends. In contrast to the long commute that adults had to make, I walked a half block to my elementary school. It had just opened the year that I enrolled as a fourth grader, and all my future friends would enroll when I did or the next year, which eased making friends. Everywhere in the new suburbs of Orange County, it was as if huge flocks of children were dropped into vast rookeries designed for the purpose of educating them, freeing their fathers for work and their mothers for the duration of the school day. I quickly made friends, but I was an odd duck in some respects. I performed better and better academically and stubbornly believed that good grades were the most important thing for enhancing my popularity, despite mounting evidence that this was not so in American schools. Every day for classroom show and tell, I brought in articles from the Los Angeles Times in order to discuss current events in the world. Other fourth, fifth, and sixth graders brought in items that were much more closely related to the life of an elementary school student. Despite my idiosyncrasies, I do not remember being ostracized—I must have had open-minded classmates

A trait that I ascribe to my Chinese cultural heritage was an unusually strong sense of social order. In my view, Chinese believe that there is a right way and a wrong way to organize society and for people to relate to each other, what some have called moral rectitude or right thinking. This runs deep in Chinese history, back to Confucius and earlier, and continues today through the Communist Party and Chairman Xi Jinping, who cites Confucian values to support Party policy. If democracy ever comes to China, that democracy will be very different from its western counterparts, it will be uniquely Chinese and must accommodate this penchant for order.

In school, the high value I placed on order manifested itself as a badge. I was elected the safety chief, responsible for enforcing rules, and I wore a gold plastic badge during recess. What rules my fellow students were to follow I didn’t know, but there must have been some rules, or perhaps like the Party, I was not constrained by any rules myself and simply told other kids to comply with my sense of right, which might change at my whim. My way of thinking was very different from the minimalist western approach to rules, which prohibits a limited set of activities and sets a standard below which the governed shall not sink. In my elementary school mind, school rules should be standards for right conduct and set a high aspiration toward which all are required to strive. Failure to do so was cause for sanction. This division between the western and eastern approach to order (I didn’t see it in such terms then) played out on the playground one day when I called a student to task for a now unremembered infraction. My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Hansen, whom I respected deeply, pulled me aside and asked me why I had done that, implying that I had been in the wrong. I gave her my best explanation, again unremembered, and she said something that I will remember to the day I die, “We don’t do it that way in America.” I was shocked. How could a great country live in a constant state of chaos, rudderless, with no guides for individual conduct, no shared central purpose? I put this challenge into a black box for later examination and did not fully come to terms with its contents until very near the end of my law school education.

Copyright David Wu 2017 All Rights Reserved

Chapter Three--California Part 2

This book is intended for a Chinese audience to tell the story of how I immigrated to America, assimilated into American society, and eventually became an American congressman. My political experiences hopefully will inform those in China who wish to look at different forms of governance.

 

 

 

Gardena

 

We found an apartment in Gardena, a close-in suburb of Los Angeles. Our plan was to stay there for a year while looking for a more permanent place to live. My sisters enrolled at George Washington High School, while I entered third grade at Purche Avenue Elementary School. I struggled. Many nights, my nose bled because of the dry California air. Our second floor apartment was in a classic Los Angeles style apartment complex where each unit opened to the outdoors. We had many neighbors close at hand, but unlike Latham, no one was really friendly, spoke much with each other, or built any close relationships. My only positive memory of that apartment was when, on Sunday afternoons, my parents gave money and asked me to walk to the neighborhood pizza parlor and bring home Sunday dinner. In California, a sunny walk can compensate for a host of miseries.

 

 

Third Grade and Differences between Chinese and American Education   Part 2

 

At school, things were not much better. The other kids were slow to warm up to me in part because I was the new kid in school and in part because I showed up speaking English with a New York accent, clearly labeling me as an outsider. My grades improved to all A’s and B’s, the exception being a string of C’s in physical education, the cause of my social misery. On the playground, I was inept. For example, when trying to catch a baseball, I frequently misjudged it and the ball would fly over me, or I would fumble the catch and drop it, or I would hold my baseball glove too low and the ball would skim over it and hit my head. I dreaded having a pop fly ball come in my direction, and this morphed into a general fear of being on stage for any key athletic moment. When my classmates picked teams for playground competition, I was always the last one selected. As a participant in recess, my humiliation was total and unredeemable.

 

In China, I don’t think I would not have suffered much because of poor performance in physical education, and this reflects another major social and academic difference between America and China. In China, academic performance, and particularly performance on high stakes tests, is the sole measure of success in school. In fact, the score on one big, crucial test taken at the end of high school determines where you can go to college, your options for majors, and may shape the rest of your life. The test literally affects the trajectory of the life of a seventeen year old Chinese student. In America, good grades and standardized test scores (such as the SAT or ACT) are only one of many measures of achievement. Success in sports is important to social standing and also can be for student evaluations of the type used for college admissions. Showing leadership, participating in extracurricular activities, and getting to know teachers at a personal level so that they can write good letters of recommendation are almost as important as grades and test scores for college admission.

 

When Chinese parents (who live in China) ask me to tutor their children who are enrolled in American schools, I invariably tell the students to take up a sport, participate in extracurricular activities, show leadership, get to know their teachers, and let teachers get to know them by speaking up and by frequently asking questions. This is not just advice for success in American schools, it is also advice for success in American society. For a student from China, the tendency is to take six Advanced Placement courses believing that only academics count and that more is better. Better to take 3 AP courses I tell them, and to participate in other activities important in the United States. Chinese parents frequently oppose this advice, but America values academic performance as well as a fully rounded individual who questions authority, is capable of living in a pluralistic society, and has the potential to lead it. Here, the training starts in school and continues into later life. When tutoring in the United States, I use a gentle version of the Socratic method (the Greek philosopher Socrates taught not by lecturing his students, but by asking them questions) whenever possible in order to get students more comfortable with the back and forth of American schools and society. When giving “town halls” in Chinese universities, I begin by asking each student to talk a little about him or her self so that they are comfortable speaking, and then devote the rest of the session to their questions. For many Chinese students, it is the first time they have asked questions of an authority figure rather than be lectured to.

 

I left Purche Avenue School without distinction—academically, socially, athletically, or in any other way that would matter to an eight year old. We had looked for a new and more permanent home in most of Southern California, but focused on two areas, Palos Verdes and Orange County. My parents’ choice to buy a home in the Orange County suburb of Westminster would make more of a difference to my values and later life than I would realize for many years.

Copyright David Wu 2017 All Rights REserved

Chapter Three--California - Part 1

This book is intended for a Chinese audience to tell the story of how I immigrated to America, assimilated into American society, and eventually became an American congressman. My political experiences hopefully will inform those in China who wish to look at different forms of governance.

 

 

While New York was my introduction to America, California was where I integrated into American society. I developed a fluent English that was completely accentless except for the few nuances peculiar to the way working class Californians speak the language, one example being cutting off ing’s to in’s, such as fishin rather than fishing. These peculiarities would go unnoticed until I started school at Stanford, where perfect English was the norm. I became completely comfortable with my schoolmates, who were almost all Latino (originally Spanish speaking) or Anglo (originally English speaking), the two dominant ethnic groups in Southern California. I did not view them as different from me in any meaningful way and in return was treated in a similar fashion. By the time I went to college, I felt completely American.

 

California is at least four states combined into one. The one Chinese have heard the most about is Southern California, from the Mexican border north to roughly Santa Barbara. This is the California of Hollywood, Beverly Hills, Disneyland, and beaches with their surfing lifestyle. The sunny, dry Mediterranean climate has drawn millions of people from around the country as well as the movie industry and large aerospace companies, whose business benefits from good weather. What is referred to as “Northern California” stretches from Santa Barbara to about where the redwood trees start to grow north of San Francisco. This is the California of Silicon Valley and the extended metropolitan area around the small, 7 mile x 7 mile square city of San Francisco that has a population of only 800,000 people, which was one third Asian in 2016. Besides San Francisco itself, the best known features of Northern California in China are companies like Apple, Google, and Intel. The real Northern California stretches from where the redwood trees begin to grow north of San Francisco to the Oregon border. An original California, before millions of people came, survives here. Harvesting timber, commercial ocean fishing, and agriculture sustain the economy. Except for some wealthy people who have moved into the region to enjoy its beauty and quiet lifestyle, most of the people have lived here for a long time, sometimes for several generations. The last California that I will mention is its interior. The Central Valley is home to the largest agricultural economy of any state in the United States. East of the Valley are tall mountains that reach over 4000 meters, and east of them are some of the most desolate deserts in America.

 

 

Driving Across America

 

Much of my hands-on learning about America occurred during my cross country road trips. By my count, I have now taken six and each has been a great adventure and very educational. On this first one, we drove across the country in our family car, a 1961 Ford Falcon compact, the same car in which our father had picked us up when we arrived in America. This was before America’s interstate highways had been built and most of the drive would be on two lane roads. California was three thousand road miles away and five people in a Ford Falcon is a tight fit, but we started the trip with great enthusiasm and anticipation of what was at the other end of the road. Our first stop was Niagara Falls. It was spectacular—and frightening. Above the falls, the river accelerated forward and in my childish imagination, I felt it was luring me in, to be caught in the current and swept over the falls. To this day, I can see and feel the scene. The boat ride in the Maid of the Mist on the river below was not frightening, but even more impressive. The boat pushed through a soaking mist right to where the falls ended in thunder and spray. However, what I remember as a lesson for life, and for my later legal practice, occurred at one end of the Rainbow Bridge between the US and Canada. We wanted to walk across the bridge to Canada, something which many other tourists were doing that day. However, my father forbade it. We had permanent resident immigration status, and although it was 99.99% sure that we could walk over the bridge to Canada and then return to the US, there was a narrow but deep crevasse for our family, that we would be stopped at the border and locked out of the country for god knows how long, that our family would lose everything we had worked for all these years. We were not like the others, the people around us who were citizens, who never had to look at that border through immigrant eyes.

 

I don’t remember much about the onward drive until we arrived in Illinois, where we started driving on historic Route 66. It is the oldest and most famous multistate highway in the United States, built in the 1920s to connect Chicago and Los Angeles. Most of it remains a two lane highway. We stopped at Springfield, the capital of Illinois, to visit a Chinese family who had been our friends in Taiwan. Our father continued to give us a large dose of American history and we loyally followed him to retrace President Lincoln’s footsteps there. Springfield was where he practiced law and got his start in politics.

 

We headed west onto the Great Plains and then across the desert. America is a big country, and for an eight year old child, enduring a drive across it is a challenge. Imagine driving from Shanghai to Urumqi on two lane roads. All I remember is that I didn’t like it, especially crossing the desert, where the heat and dry air gave me nose bleeds. We had no real air conditioning-our window air conditioner was a device now extinct: a metal cylinder wedged between the car window and window frame. The moving air outside the car came into the cylinder and exited through a vent, into the passenger compartment. In between, water evaporated from wet sheets of paper and provided the cooling effect. Very frequent refills were needed. When we got to Needles, California, the temperature was well over 100 degrees, and we sat in a diner deciding what to do next. We went to a motel that had a swimming pool. Despite this first long drive, I would later love taking road trips across America. Ironically, I especially liked driving across deserts, with their stark landscape, bunchgrass, tumbleweeds, and gravel that crunched underfoot.

 

Copyright David Wu 2017 All Rights Reserved

 

New York - Part 3

David Wu writes about American society and politics as seen through the fresh eyes that immigrants can have. Not only did he become American, he became a congressman, an ascent possible only in America. This section is the last of three focusing on New York. Stay tuned for excerpts soon! #DavidWu

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