When I first arrived in America,
even though I had nothing in my wallet,
I lived like a queen,
even though I had nothing in my wallet,
I lived like a queen,
... or at least like a queen’s best friend.
Indeed, during those first few months, I have never lived so well, before or since.
There was wealth – there was romance – it was just like life in the airport novels that the American tourists used to leave behind on their bus seats.
But first, let’s get me on the plane.
I spent my last night in China in my husband’s apartment (it was still OUR apartment) but the entire night, he never came home. I had hoped that at least he might show a little bit support or something, but no, he was spending yet another night with another woman. My older sister showed up early the next morning, and the first thing she said was “what had happened to you ? you look terrible !” I told her that I could not sleep at all --but I did not tell her why.
Then I went to the airport -- in the two-piece polka dot dress I had bought in Hong Kong, with my hair cut short and permed (so I could save time and money on hair care when I got to America. Money would tight there – because every dollar I spent would have to be borrowed)
My entire family joined me at the airport, and since we were a little bit early, we started talking. They were all telling me to be careful -- you will be all alone a strange country -- please take good care of yourself.
I was holding my tears back so hard, I was speechless.
All my young nieces were bouncing around, so happy to be somewhere strange and different. Then my oldest niece, Bing Bing, came up to my side, and asked me, “ Auntie, why were you crying?” As soon as she said that, I could hold my tears back no longer. I told everyone I had to leave, and I was the first passenger to get on the plane.
Everything ahead of me was unknown. I was 33 years old, and I had to start my life all over again.
When I was preparing to leave China, I had written letters to some of the American tourists whom I had met as a tour guide. I had shown them around my country, and maybe they would be kind enough to give a cheerful, sincere person a place to stay until my American school started in the Fall ? I sent three letters – and got two invitations.
Both came from San Francisco, and when my plane finally landed, I was met at the airport by a wonderful lady in her mid-forties.
Her name was Meg, and when she and her husband had visited China on a private tour, I had been assigned to be their private guide. They must have just come from a beach in Hawaii, because they were both very tan. (our driver thought they had come from the countryside) . They enjoyed their Beijing tour very much, and we enjoyed each others’ company, so we had promised to keep in touch. Back then, I had not been 100% sure that I would go to the U.S., but since I was already in the process of applying, they had been expecting me to come.
Meg and her husband lived on a hilltop just outside the city – well, actually, they owned the entire hill. They had a tennis court, swimming pool, guest buildings, and magnificent gardens that provided fresh flowers that were cut daily and placed throughout every room of the house.
Did I say that were wealthy ? Was this a lifestyle that every American could enjoy ? I was so glad I had come here ! (I knew this was not a normal Americans life style. But I did not know how much separated the poor from the rich.)
(and I have to mention their neighbor’s dog – a black, fluffy poodle that was the size of a small pony. At first, I thought it was some kind of statue – but when it began to move I shrieked. I had never seen a dog that large)
My hostess had been a school teacher, but after marriage to her wealthy husband, she retired to a life of shopping, traveling, and regular visits to the psychologist. She was a very thoughtful and generous woman, and it was a wonderful vacation for me to spend almost a month with her – tooling around the surrounding hills in her white, 1930 Mercedes convertible (which drew attention wherever it was parked)
Her husband was a wonderful and very gentle man – and very successful in business. When his oldest son , from a previous marriage, had gotten married, his wedding gift to him had been a $300,000 house.
Among his investments were 10 restaurants in Napa Valley – so they were into food. Every evening he came home and fixed us dinner.
Much of the food was unfamiliar to me – soft shell crab ? I had never heard of that before. How did I handle all this gourmet dining ? Somehow, I survived – including visits to what must have been some of the best restaurants in the world. I’m sure they were expensive – but for some puzzling reason, the waiter didn’t always bring her the bill , but sometimes she would just stand up and then we would walk out.
I think my hostess may have been a little lonely – she was pretty much on her own throughout the day. She told me that she had a college girlfriend with whom she kept in close touch. She hinted to me that they had been lovers, but I told her this was a concept I could not understand. This was a very different world for a girl who had grown up in the puritanical Peoples Republic !
Eventually, my hosts had to travel – so I had to find another place to live – and I accepted the second invitation that I had gotten from one of my tourists – a single man in his forties who also lived in the San Francisco area.
He was not as wealthy – but he had enough money to live without working. He had a large, hillside residence with 2 or three bedrooms and a newly built library - and he graciously offered one of those bedrooms to me.
He was also in his forties, and though not Chinese (he was Jewish) – he was a true Mandarin scholar who had never worked a day in his life. He lived on a trust fund – indeed he managed the accounts for the charitable foundation established by his parents – and he devoted his life to scholarship. He had degrees in literature and history from Harvard, Yale, and Oxford. His library was enormous, and every day, without exception, he closeted himself with his books for further study, filling the margins of selected pages with his thoughtful notes. He was truly a gentleman, and we had the kind of dreamy romance that fantasy books are made of.
He often arranged short trips for us – like to the redwood forest, or a winery. One day he drove me along the ocean to a very large, nice beach area. We did not swim, but we strolled along the beach, hand in hand , and we walked up to a famous lighthouse, with a small, historical museum on the top floor.
It displayed some old weapons and exotic things that had come from other countries, and I spotted some old-style Chinese characters on the top of a lacquered box. They looked to me like the Chinese characters for ‘hair’ ( but later, I realized they meant ‘silk’. I’m afraid that traditional Chinese learning had not been part of my education)
Even if we didn’t go out for a trip every day , we were at least hiking nearby. He showed me some raspberry bushes, and we picked and ate them right there on the spot. ( this was all very strange to me – since we had always washed everything before we ate it).
After a few days of settling into his house, I offered to cook for us. He really liked my cooking -- and so did I, since I missed Chinese food so much. We went to the supermarket, but I had difficulty finding Chinese ingredients (I did not know that they could easily be found in San Francisco) . I missed having my typical Chinese breakfast: i.e. porridge with salted vegetables. Toby did not cook, but whatever I made with the limited ingredients I could find, he always liked.
We had become lovers, but I never really fell in love with him. He was just too --- too self absorbed.
One time he asked me if I would like to bear his child –but I declined.
Before I left China, I had promised my family to call them as soon as I arrived, but I felt awkward asking my new friends to help me place a phone call to Beijing. After a couple of weeks, I finally I had the courage to ask for help, and my first call was received by my oldest brother. Everyone was worried about me and I wanted to talk to my parents, but they had gone to Tianjin to visit my uncle. I told oldest brother that everything was OK and that I would be all right. But after I hung up, I cried uncontrollably. I missed them all so much.
As you can tell, I was having a wonderful time in San Francisco -- but now the summer was ending, and I was supposed to be going to school in Chicago. Was I still sure that I wanted to go there ?
San Francisco was so beautiful – I was living the life of a fairy tale princess –and Americans were so nice to me. (this was something that really amazed me when I first arrived – people on the street are friendly in America ! Even on the bus, they smile and say “hi – how are you?” If someone did that in China – they’d be known as crazy.
Where would I live in Chicago ? The only person I knew there was the old priest who had gotten me enrolled in the university. He was my uncle’s good friend, but I didn’t really know him very well. So I made some inquiries – but it was too late for me to enroll in a California university.
So I was off to Chicago – and my kind friend from the hilltop mansion made all the arrangements – buying me a plane ticket and finding me a room in Evanston.
I was very grateful for that room – but it soon became apparent that it would not work out.
My landlady was a psychologist who had her office in the same building. Whenever she had clients, I was required to stay in my room and not leave until the client had left. But Chicago can get very hot in the summer, and my top floor room didn’t have any air conditioning. I felt trapped and very uncomfortable. The landlady was nice, but she was much older than me. I did not feel that we could become friends.
So I was desperate to find another place to live.
The Chinese student association set me up with a Korean girl who had a studio “garden” (i.e. basement) apartment in the Uptown neighborhood. Her current roommate was leaving, so she would have a vacancy – but the roommate still had a few weeks before she left. I was desperate to escape from my room in Evanston, so finally they let me join them – though I had to sleep on the floor.
For those of you unfamiliar with Chicago – the multi-ethnic Uptown neighborhood is a rather rough place to live. The rent can be cheap – but the neighbors can be very tough. I will never forget the first night that I spent there.
My two roommates were fast asleep on the bunk bed , and I was sleeping on the floor – when I felt something crawling over my covers.
It was a big rat and I swear it was a foot long !
I may have lived with millions of mosquitos and mice back at the big farm, but certain animals, like rats and snakes, continue to terrify me.
I bolted upright – the rat scurried off – and I stayed watchful and awake the rest of night.
The next day my roommate complained to the landlord. He gave us a trap, and we caught the frightful rodent.
I felt much better after that – but still -- everybody here had his or her own life.
For the first time in my life, I felt completely alone and did not know what to do. I was waiting for classes to start – and I was waiting in that dark basement room , with one, single window,
about two feet from another apartment. I felt scared and depressed.
This was quite a change from the romance and palatial splendor I had been enjoying just a few days earlier !