By my bed, gathering a little dust now, is a small treasure box. I’ve kept it for over twenty years. In the box is an old 3”x5” photo, color slightly faded. It shows a scene of the observation deck at the old Beijing airport on a hazy summer day. In it, my mom, dad, sister, brother-in-law and my little niece are clustered together, with their backs facing towards the camera, gazing up into the sky. On the back of the photo is a short handwritten paragraph in Chinese:
The airplane rumbled into the sky, taking with it a daughter, sister and aunt…Across the ocean to the other side of the world. They gazed up into the sky, looking, searching and yearning…As if they could see her, tears in eyes. Her good-bye waves, slow and tender. Oh, a bird has just taken off from its home soil and flown high into the blue sky, farther and farther away…
A heart-felt farewell and blessing to our dearest daughter!
July 24, 1990
On June 23rd, 1990, I boarded on an Air China Boeing 747–the first time in my life I’d ever been on a plane. From there I started a long journey away from home, with uncertainty and foreboding in my heart, and yet full of hopes and dreams, heading towards America.
Twenty-seven years later, it still seems like yesterday. In the moments of reflection, thinking about the touching words from my poetic dad, I can’t help but feel emotional. Over the years, people have asked me time again: “Why did you come to America?” “What brought you here?” These questions seem no longer relevant to me now, but if you ask me this question instead: “Is your journey worth it?” My answer will always be: “Absolutely!”
But what made my journey worthwhile? Novelty in a new world? Opportunities in the land of dreamers? Promises of diversity in a melting pot? Well, none of these, I am afraid. Novelty can wear out, opportunities can become trapdoors, ambitions can dwindle, and cultural fusion can just be a fantasy. Rather, it would seem to me, it is the struggle for learning to define who I am that has made my journey memorable and worthwhile.
I was lucky to come to the US with a student visa and a full scholarship, and I had the freedom to pursue a higher education without enduring much financial hardship. Yet my story is still similar to those of million other immigrants. It is a story of constant struggles: struggle to become self-reliant, struggle to overcome homesickness, struggle to brush off the feeling of inadequacy, struggle to fight prejudice—veiled or not, struggle to feel comfortable in my own skin, and struggle to have my voice heard. It is through these struggles that I have grown from an innocent-beyond-articulation young Chinese girl into a strong, independent and feisty woman.
You may argue that, as humans, we are born to struggle, and that struggles are the necessary building blocks of character. All of that is true, but I would say that what makes the struggles distinctively immigrant experience lies in the fact that we have a unique brand of struggles.
Twenty-seven years ago, I flew across the Pacific with two large suitcases and $700 in my pocket. I not only uprooted myself from the comfort of my home and family–the cozy place that had every remnant of my childhood bliss and the very people who loved me unconditionally, but I also removed myself from the only culture that I knew well—its look, its touch, its feel, its smell, its landscape, its language, its holidays and its traditions…Suddenly, all my touchstones were no longer valid. A part of my life vanished. I was forced into situations that I didn’t have the references to understand.
I was completely alone and forever on the outside. But quitting was not an option. Self-reliance quickly became a necessity for me. I was no longer that naive Chinese girl who used to enjoy making ridiculous pranks on my dad without getting into any trouble. All the sudden I assumed a sense of responsibility–I became the front and center of my family, representing them in a new and distant land. I took refuge in my study, buried myself in a shell of solitude, with fierce determination and an iron will, charging ahead.
Every small achievement seemed like a giant step forward for me: my first English class that I could understand easily, my first “A” on a test, my first driver’s license, my first graduate degree, my first job offer, and my first paycheck in US dollars…For any native-born American, these might seem nothing extraordinary but simply part of the natural process into adulthood. But for me, these were hard-earned milestones when I could finally breathe a big sigh of relief and give myself a pat on the back: “I’ve made it!”
What was so remarkable about my immigrant experience lies not only in the self-reliance I have developed over the years but also in the confidence I have always had knowing my parents had my back no matter where I was. They were the strongest pillar in my life, helping me keep things in perspective with a sense of humor and positivity, and making my struggles in a foreign land bearable. In return, they took tremendous pride in me–the Zhao family representative in America–whose trivial accomplishments seemed so much amplified in their loving eyes. Till this day, my dad still brags about my “magnificent driving skills.”
Over the years I have never asked my parents what went through their minds on that hazy summer day of June 23rd, 1990, watching the rumbling airplane take away their younger daughter. But as a mother of a 12-year-old boy myself now, I can only imagine how hard it must have been. From time to time I take out that photo. Gazing at it, a cascade of emotions washes over me. My parents, by sending me onto an immigrant journey far away from home, did not ask me to realize their ambitions or to redeem their mistakes. Rather, with their hearts open, they gave me their blessing and let me make up my own story.
I am hoping one day I will be able to do the same with my son: sending him to a life-long journey–with an inquisitive mind, an upbeat spirit, and a great sense of humor: “Go explore the world, make up your own story, and I will always be watching you from afar!”