I came to the United States in 1985 when I was 4 and a half years old. My mom came first in ’82, then my father in ’84, and I came in ’85. It was incredibly difficult to get out of China at that particular time in history. It’s still difficult, but it was near impossible back then. I came to America with my grandmother, and it’s a pretty remarkable story because she’d never flown in a plane before. My grandmother’s from Tianjin, and it’s a major metropolitan city now, but back then, it was still pretty low to the ground. I remember playing with the buttons while we were on the plane and my grandmother being incredibly nervous.
I remember arriving in the United States. I remember having scrambled eggs and thinking they were disgusting. But there’s this beauty in this childhood experience with differences in culture.
You’re so adaptable so it seems more seamless. I remember, as much as I can, having the sense that, “Whoa, this is really different. There are no Chinese people here.” But at the same time, the transition was relatively smooth. Because you’re a kid, you can do it. I think that’s something that we lose as we grow up. As it pertains to the experience of immigrants and as it pertains to this globalizing culture and to the experience of immersing ourselves in this early stage of globalization now, I feel like we should try to rediscover that. The process of being an immigrant, a lot of it is about adaptability and finding familiarity in universal human things. That’s what really helps immigrants.
I remember my grandmother. She didn’t speak any English, but she would interact with our neighbor. The neighbor was just this White, American guy who didn’t speak Mandarin Chinese. My mom was very shocked, but things like that get you by. You need human contact, you need human interaction, and there are ways to go about it that are nonverbal but still very sincere.
China has a heaviness that the United States doesn’t have. In that sense, they’re direct opposites, yin and yang. America is built on this very light, youthful sense of possibility and sense of freedom. Freedom in the sense that you feel like you can do what you want to do; you don’t have that many obligations to the family or the previous generations. Not like you do in China. In China it’s like you are bound by this complex structure of what your family wants for you and what you owe to them, in a sense, for raising you and taking care of you. There’s also a sense of duty, a sense of responsibility. When you’re 4 years old, they tell you you’re 5 When you’re 7 years old, they tell you that you’re 8. There’s this constant sense of imposing the awareness of a responsibility, of greater responsibility. You don’t just have this absolute freedom to do what you want; as you get older you have increased capacity to take on responsibility for the family. I think those are the things that really define China, and then also the things that you see in photos. China was a world that was more tied to the ground than it is now—closer to the ground, not as many tall buildings, and with an agricultural mentality in a lot of people. I find that even in the big cities, in Beijing, when I would visit as a child, people have this Old World sense of things. They could lick their pinky, stick it in the air, and they could tell you if it was going to rain in a day or two. This was a more Old World connection to the bigger picture.
I think that culture is a programming, so to speak. It’s a way of shaping what’s inside of you and shaping the means through which you measure the reality around you. Culture creates a measurement device for individuals. You feel the outside world through your culture. In relation to others, even to Chinese kids who were born here, my observation and my interaction with the world around me is a bit heavier than most people around me. A lot of it has to do with the sense of selfsacrifice and duty and with these massive emotional and symbolic weights that Chinese children are taught to carry around for their mother and father. You’re told from a very young age, “We made these sacrifices for you. Our hardships, our burdens, our pains are a form of investment in your future and the decisions you make.” There’s an extreme heaviness there, and also the sense of sacrifice so great that you feel a certain obligation to resist your own desires, to some extent, to a pretty meaningful extent, for the sake of those around you.
I will say this in general about the whole immigration process, and in particular, immigrating to America: America, to me, is like a petri dish. There’s not enough definable culture here to restrict people. What I mean is this: if you come here, you’re able to evolve in the way that you want to evolve.
Traditional culture is like a very rigid outfit. It’s like a suit; it’s like a jacket. There’s not much mobility in there. If you’re raised in a dominant, traditional culture, it’s hard to deviate from that. I think American culture in general encourages exploration, it encourages reliance on the self, it encourages audacity. It encourages this sort of mentality that says, “I can do what I want and it’s right for me to do what I want because it’s to fulfill my own destiny.” I think that there’s a really powerful thing that happens in the convergence between this American mentality and this American nature with a more traditional nature. Because I think the value, and an incredibly important thing for the future, is to be able to take the things that are the best from the multitude of cultures and merge them together.
America is the first country that has demonstrated that to the world. I think in the future, in a century, two centuries, five centuries, people will look at this point in American history and global history as the moment that marked the beginning of the fusing of the world’s cultures. It’s happening in the United States at a level of intensity and a level of maturity that’s far beyond anywhere else in the world. It’s not just about finding what’s Chinese, so to speak, inside of me, it’s about learning to reconcile and make greater forms of my Chinese self and my American self. The American self embodies influence from White, American culture, which is diverse in itself. You have California culture, Midwestern culture, Southern culture, Black, American culture, which is very, very influential in American identity. All of those things fuse together—my experience of America with this rooted Chinese culture that I’ve been raised with, and it creates the opportunity for new forms.
The ideal is to create forms that are better than the previous ones. That’s the definition of evolution, right? It’s the idea of taking elements previously foreign to one another and bringing them together for the sake of creating something better. I think you are seeing that to a great degree in the United States. I think there are things here that are challenging and difficult, because the culture is kind of light and kind of shallow. I think there’s a lot of important life matters that Americans aren’t educated or conditioned through culture to take into more serious consideration. I do feel we look at relationships and things like that in probably more of a shallow or frivolous way than we should, but at the same time we have this openness, this opportunity to say, “Okay let me explore all these different cultures, let me bring them together, let me seek something new and better and let me feel comfortable doing that. Let me feel safe and let me feel compelled and encouraged to do that.” I think that’s a tremendous part of growing up as an immigrant in the United States.