New York - Part 3
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.
The Cuban Missile Crisis
I remember two world events that occurred during our years in Latham. The first was the Cuban missile crisis. The then Soviet Union placed medium range ballistic missiles in Cuba in the fall of 1962. Cuba is only 90 miles away from the tip of South Florida and the flight time of those missiles to Washington was extremely brief. The United States immediately confronted the Soviet Union and demanded removal of the missiles. Our television was filled with nightly pictures of President Jack Kennedy and Party Chairman Nikita Khrushchev. American destroyers challenged Russian ships, while airplanes from both countries flew over and near Cuba. The world was as close to nuclear war as it would ever be, at least up to the present day, and it is now hard to recapture the feeling that our world could come to an end in one day. We students may not have fully understood how dangerous the situation was, but we knew enough to be frightened. We practiced ducking under our desks for protection. To this day, those old enough to remember the drills wonder how any sane adult thought that hiding under a desk would protect us if a nuclear bomb exploded nearby.
John Glenn and America’s First Orbital Space Mission
John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, and the most excited people in the country were children. Our school had multiple TVs focused on his successful launch and short four hour, three orbit flight, but just before the perilous descent, a sensor indicated that his heat shield was loose, meaning that the capsule might burn up on reentry. There was palpable relief when his parachutes opened and his capsule splashed into the ocean, soon to be picked up by a helicopter and placed on the deck of an aircraft carrier. I was hooked on space for the rest of my life. Glenn emerged from his mission a national hero. The Kennedy family immediately saw him as a political ally and encouraged him to run for election to the United States Senate. He would eventually win a Senate seat, and unsuccessfully run for president.
Childhood Tours of American Historical Sites
My father felt it was important to show us as many American historical and cultural sites as was accessible from Latham. In New York City, we saw the usual suspects: the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, and the Empire State Building. Up the Hudson River, we visited West Point, where we learned about its role in American history. The two things I remember most clearly from our visit there were the spectacular beds of tulips blooming in the bright spring sun and the corps of cadets marching on parade in perfect step. We visited places less well known to foreign visitors, such as Tanglewood (in western Massachusetts), where the Boston Symphony plays outdoor concerts in the summer, and Fort Ticonderoga (on New York’s border with Vermont), site of Revolutionary War battles between American and British forces. Again, the most memorable things to me were not historical or military. For example, the motorboat ride we took on Lake Champlain was both exciting and a completely new experience for my sisters me—we had never been in a motorboat.
Small Town Summers
Summers on Dan Del Drive were idyllic months of warmth during which you could bake the long winter out of your body. On really hot days, I watched with fascination as tar bubbles lazily formed on the pavement of Dan Del Drive, which was always empty of cars in the middle of summer days. The kids on the block spent hours playing in the woods that surrounded us, which had trees larger than any I had seen in Taiwan. My friends introduced me to pussy willows and cattails that we used as swords to fight the wars that little boys fight. Just like our neighborhood in Taiwan, there was water nearby, except this was not a reservoir, but a natural pond rich with frogs, fish, turtles, and other denizens found in fresh water. Tadpoles were our favorite quarry because they were plentiful and easy to catch with bare hands—it was much harder to raise them into adult frogs in captivity.
Moving From Latham to the Big City, Los Angeles
Moving is more common in America than in China. It is a part of the American tradition and mindset. There has never been anything like the Chinese hukou system, or anything similar intended to register people and keep them in one place. In fact, the right to move and to be treated equally regardless of where you live is protected by law. As a matter of economic efficiency, this mobility permits people to go to wherever jobs and opportunity draw them. My father moved our family after the end of the school year in 1963 for exactly this reason. He found a good opportunity, a job as a research metallurgist for Northrop Corporation, an aerospace company in Southern California. As a bonus, he would escape the frigid New York winters and enjoy California sunshine and warmth year round. For the rest of his life, when I telephoned home and asked, “How are things?” his unvarying answer would be “Very good, it’s bright sunshine,” spoken with childlike enthusiasm. Our neighbors were excited for us. My friends told me that California would be a wonderful place: Disneyland, Hollywood, mountains with snow and beaches with surf and sun. This was Los Angeles as seen through small town eyes. While true, I learned later what I would miss about small towns, and the downside of big cities.
Lessons from Latham
Latham, New York was a wonderful introduction to America. My mother and we children lived there for only fifteen months, but it left important, indelible imprints on us and formed many of our views about America. For a Chinese reader, here are a few key points: the material aspects of life in America were and are impressive, but the most important are nonmaterial. Our neighbors in Latham were hard working, open, warm, and welcoming people by nature. That became our impression of Americans in general, and I think it remains true today. They mixed with each other well, despite being from different ethnic backgrounds and of different national origin. Again, I think this is generally true of Americans (with notable exceptions for some ethnic groups). Because we lived in Latham as virtually the only Chinese family and were well received by the community, we did not learn to look at American society through the lens of race. Our subsequent experiences would reinforce that. Different people mix well in America, better than in just about any other country. Adolf Hitler called America a “mongrel nation,” intending it to be an insult. I think it sums up one of America’s great strengths. The strands of a rope weave together to give the rope strength. America’s diversity gives it more strength and resilience. The examples of that strength and resilience grow more numerous as our diversity has increased since the founding of our nation. I think my mixed blood children are an example of improving upon both my wife’s German and my Chinese heritage.