New York - Part 2
By: David Wu
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.
Learning English, and Staying Connected With Our Roots
I learned to speak English with lightning speed. By the time we left Latham, I spoke it with a New York accent. But reading and writing was harder. One night, when my sister was teaching me the English alphabet, I grew frustrated and asked whether I could skip the alphabet and learn to read first, and then learn the alphabet. To this day, there are times when I’m not sure whether there are 24 or 26 letters in the alphabet. And I’m still more drawn to speed rather than precision when time is of the essence. During the time that my sisters and I were learning English, my mother asked my father whether we should speak English at home to help the children learn it faster. My father replied that learning English would be no problem. In the long term, retaining our Chinese would be the greater challenge, and his wisdom saved our connection to Chinese language and culture.
Foreign Graduate Students, Then and Now
We were in Latham because my father came to America in 1955 as a foreign graduate student and chose to attend the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. RPI was in nearby Troy and has a stellar reputation among engineers. Having already received his undergraduate degree and then worked for ten years in Taiwan, he came to work on his master’s degree and then PhD in metallurgy. The daily lives of Chinese foreign graduate students in 1955 were not appreciably different than they are today. The students frequently lived with each other for reasons of language and culture. They cooked together and sought out stores where they could find the ingredients to make Chinese dishes. Group road trips provided entertainment and education about America. It wasn’t discrimination that kept these students with each other, but rather a personal choice based on psychological comfort and culinary preferences (few people in the world value cuisine more than the Chinese). There are three significant differences between then and now. There were much fewer such graduate students in the early 1960’s than there are today; most of the students were from Taiwan and not Mainland China; and they were on average about ten years older than the students of today and had left behind a spouse and children in Taiwan. Life for the family members who had been left behind was undoubtedly harder, but I sometimes wonder whether being in America without family was solely a hardship of loneliness, or whether it was also a chance to be young and carefree again.
Sometime that autumn, the first snowflakes began to fall; my mother woke us and we ran to the windows in wonder at the sight. Later, we learned that it wasn’t a rare event in upstate New York, where the annual snowfall is measured in feet rather than inches, but at that moment, it was beautiful, even magical. My father showed little enthusiasm, having already endured six winters there. The children adjusted well. I had thick wool snow pants, rubber snow boots, a thick coat, a warm hat that looked like the winter hats worn by the Chinese army, and multiple pairs of gloves (tied to each other by a string running through my coat sleeves so that I would lose fewer of them). In these, I went to school, performed chores such as shoveling snow, and spent countless hours playing outdoors. The kids sledded on the slightly inclined street. We tobogganed down the steep hill at the end of the “block.” We ice skated on a frozen pond that was between the hill and the end of Dan Del Drive.
Learning to Swim
We came to America not knowing how to swim. It’s my impression that few Chinese children of that era were taught this important skill. My father knew that this was a safety issue in America and made arrangements to teach us how to swim at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) pool in nearby Troy. The YMCA was founded in London in 1844 to build a “healthy body, mind, and spirit” along “Christian principles.” In the West, there is a long tradition dating to classical Greece of developing the mind and body together. In contrast, traditional Chinese society seems to have separated these attributes, focusing on achievements of the mind, and that seems to remain true today, regardless of modern efforts to change old cultural habits. This “unity of mind and body” in the West manifests itself repeated, especially in education. As one example, Rhodes Scholarships are awarded to high achieving college graduates. The selection criteria require academic achievement, but also reward athletic and other abilities. American education reflects these values and so does the American popular mind. It was very difficult for me to adjust to this way of thinking and took me many years to do so.
Troy was one of the early industrial centers of America and by 1960 had become a gritty city that had seen better days. The winter snow was black with soot, it always seemed to be dark and cold, and the Saturday morning trips to the YMCA pool were depressing. That, along with the strong stench of chlorine rising from the indoor pool and my total incompetence at learning to swim, led to a lifetime of despising the activity. But at least I learned to swim a few short pool lengths, and to survive for a minute or two in the pool by treading water. I had mastered my second skill in America. As I remember it, learning to swim was much harder than learning English.
American Schools, the First Two Years
Starting first grade in October after the school year had begun and before I knew a word of English was a bigger challenge than blending in with the kids on Dan Del Drive. I don’t recall anyone being mean to me, but I remember it was difficult without any specific reason why. Perhaps it was the long winter when class, recess, and every other school activity were held indoors: this was hard on a child from a tropical climate accustomed to constant outdoor activity. The struggle with winter and darkness, and for warmth and sunshine, would be a part of my life in any northern climate for the rest of my life. I didn’t enjoy first or second grade despite the best efforts of my teachers, who were kind and forgiving of the mistakes made by someone completely new to America and unfamiliar with its language and ways. Given how I would do in later life, my grades from that first year were quite disappointing. Starting with a mix of C’s and D’s in the January report card, I managed to improve to a mix of B’s, C’s and a sprinkle of A’s in the June report card.
The teacher’s written evaluation to my father was more hopeful:
“It’s been a real pleasure to see David learn our language and ways. He’s so quick to learn! And next year he will do even better, because he will know more English.
He’s such a nice boy! We’ve enjoyed his sense of humor and his impressions of life here.
It has been a learning experience for me to teach David, and I am delighted to see how quickly he catches on.
I hope both you and Mrs. Wu are comfortably settled. I’m sure it is a real joy to you to have your loved ones with you. You have every reason to be very proud of David.
Sincerely, Sally Hanson”
Later that summer, a hand written note came:
"To the mothers and fathers of "my” children. You are cordially invited to come to my wedding with your child and to stay for punch and cookies after the ceremony. An invitation will follow in the mail. Please omit gifts. Have a nice summer! Sally Hanson”
The wedding was scheduled for Saturday, July 21, 1962. I don’t remember whether we attended the ceremony, but hope that Miss Hanson is still happily married to the same man. I would never be invited to another teacher’s wedding. We moved to a much less intimate community after leaving Latham.
Differences in American and Chinese Educational Culture, Part 1
There are huge differences between the educational culture of China and that of the United States. I became a teacher’s pet (a student more favorably treated and who may receive more attention) and would usually be one throughout my years in school. This term has negative connotations in America. Unlike in China, an American teacher’s decisions—and selection of whom to favor—are not automatically respected. They can even be challenged openly by both parents and students if perceived to be sufficiently unfair. My grades slowly improved, and I did not receive a grade below an A after I started high school in the 9th grade. This earned me no social cache. The determinants of how much respect and popularity a student has up through high school are social and athletic, not academic. In America, academics are not valued more highly than social abilities until college, if then.