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.
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