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.






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