New York - Part 1
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.
New York was our introduction to America. It was a good place to start our new life, as generations of immigrants had found before. The propeller airplanes of the early 1960’s had much more limited range than the intercontinental jets of today, and our family hopscotched across the Pacific and US for three days: Guam, Honolulu, San Francisco, New York City. We were all exhausted from the long trip and the constant drone of the propellers, and I refused to eat any more airline food on day two. In perspective, we had it easy. America’s earlier immigrants crossed the ocean in ships, and its pioneers crossed the continent on foot or using horses and wagons. We didn’t have anything like their problems, but we did share their excitement and anticipation about what awaited us at our destination. All that I can remember of the first moments after we landed at LaGuardia Airport in New York City is that I was scared to meet my father, and that he didn’t look like his photographs. We rode in his new Ford Falcon the 160 miles up the Hudson River from the city to the then small upstate town of Latham. It was October, and the fall foliage was in full color. Coming from tropical Taiwan, none of us had seen leaves turn yellow, orange, and red. Along the way, he bought an entire bushel of apples at a roadside stand. Apples had been expensive and scarce in Taiwan. We had arrived in a land of plenty.
We were not just physically in America. That was obvious and had been our goal for over six years. We were culturally, linguistically, and politically in it too. You can move to a new country in a day, but it may take a lifetime to adjust to the new culture, language, and polity. My sisters and I needed years to make these adjustments. My mother never did. The first part of this book is about the adjustments we made and what they say not only about us, but also about America. We started the process in Latham, and were very fortunate that we did—there could not be a more warm community, and its people made us feel welcome and a part of local life rather than strangers, or foreigners. It was only a start, but a good start, and would continue in every community I have lived in, including Washington, D.C., the one I live in today.
Big Cities, Small Towns
Chinese think of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and other large American cities when they think of the United States. I believe the Chinese have an inherent urban bias, despite the fact that one billion continue to live in China’s rural areas. Perhaps the real China is in its small towns and farm country-I don’t really know. What I do know is that the real America, the nation’s bedrock values, culture, and self image, is in the countryside, on its farms and in its small communities. It is this that any foreigner needs to understand in order to understand our nation. It is easy to believe that the glitter of Hollywood or sophistication of Manhattan represents America, but the suburbs of Portland Oregon or Pittsburgh Pennsylvania have much more in common with the rural areas around them than with either Los Angeles or New York City.
Latham, New York is only 160 miles up the Hudson River from New York City, but it is a different world. I don’t think that any place could have been better suited as an introduction to America. A small community surrounded by woods and farmland, 1960’s Latham had movies and high school sports as its weekend entertainment. The sport changed with the seasons: American football in the fall, basketball in the winter, and baseball in the spring. Families went to the diner (a casual eatery with low prices and simple food) for a big evening out, and met at the local soft serve ice cream shop afterwards. In the summer, we went to the drive-in movie theater, a uniquely American institution that is now almost extinct. You drove your car, filled with family and friends, into a large open area covered with either grass or asphalt and watched movies (always a double feature of two movies) from the car with the sound coming from a speaker hanging on a post next to each car. It was in essence a parking lot with a gigantic movie screen, and its existence demonstrated the comparative wealth and power of 1960’s America. Only cars that were so common as to be a household item, large enough to hold an entire family and fueled by inexpensive, plentiful gasoline, and land so inexhaustible that it was used to show summertime movies, could support an institution like the drive-in, and in 1960, no other country had those resources.
We lived at 6 Dan Del Drive. The Karanovs were across the street, the Wasilenkos katty corner, and the Leloups, with children Lynn, Laura, Lance and Leif, lived next door. The street had been developed by old Mr. Simmons, an independent builder who worked alone. He was as different from the developers of Shanghai’s apartment towers and Los Angeles’ endless suburbs as can be imagined. Mr. Simmons built each house by himself, one at a time, extending the street and carving it deeper into the surrounding woods. Winter and summer, I followed him like a puppydog, fascinated by his construction work. Dan Del Drive was named after his two daughters, Danielle and Adele. That I can remember all these names after more than 50 years is a testament to the close personal bonds between the families on the street, and of those more intimate times. Perhaps even more surprisingly, the neighbors remembered me. When I returned to Dan Del Drive during college, with long hair down to my shoulders and carrying my possessions in a large backpack, Mrs.Wasilenko opened her door and shouted from across the street “ David Wu! I knew you would come back someday.” Decades after that, when I return again with my teenage daughter, Mrs. Karanov welcomed us warmly and insisted that we have milk and cookies with her, and told my daughter about the time I broke her picture window with a baseball.
The whole street knew that KC Wu had bought house number 6, and that it was for his newly reunited family. The night that we arrived, our neighbors dropped by our house one by one. They brought cakes, apple cider, cupcakes, and all manner of things that we had never seen in Taiwan. To this day, I remember the visits of that evening fondly, and believe that the American tradition of the “welcome wagon,” common in smaller communities, speaks to the good nature and generous spirit not only of 1960’s Latham, but also of Americans in general. Chambers of Commerce and Foreign Ministries are well served to remember the power of a cupcake. It is the ultimate soft diplomacy.
The neighborhood welcomed us, and how we fit in remains a mystery, but fit in we did. My sisters became good friends with the LeLoup sisters. I became friends with Leif next door and the Karanov and Wasilenko boys across the street. I didn’t speak a word of English, but that was no impediment to friendship. We ran around chasing each other and playing in two languages, and no one thought that was odd. Somehow we understood each other in a language that children share. Our street was all Caucasian except for us, but it was still a mini United Nations given the varied European ethnic groups represented there. Our family never lived, then or later, in a neighborhood with a large Asian population and we successfully bridged a large psychological gap. We didn’t think it was odd to eat rice and mapao tofu at home and to eat hamburgers and pizza when dining out. For us, it was just part of being in America. Families may not just have different cuisines, but be of different ethnicities and have different first languages, cultures, and religions. Heterogenous communities are common in America. They may have existed in China historically, but there is nothing like them in China today.