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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