Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Part Twenty Nine

In Chicago – I faced two problems that just would not go away.

One was finding a roommate to share the expense of an apartment
-- and the other was getting help with my university studies.

Switching over to the Masters program in Computer Science at DePaul University was a rather daring thing to do, since I had zero background in computers – indeed, due to the cultural revolution, I had zero high school education, and Beijing Foreign Language Institute #2 taught me nothing but English.. I used to be really good at math – but that was way back in grade school. I knew about binary numbers – but had no idea they were applied in computers.

So I was in big trouble in my classes – and I couldn’t really afford to pay for private tutors in addition to the $7,000 / year tuition I was borrowing for tuition – where, by the way, I was the almost only student from mainland China in my class (yes, there were plenty of Chinese students in computer science - but they were Chinese from Taiwan, or Hong Kong, or the United States. The students from the mainland weren’t there because they couldn’t afford it – even if they came from good families, the Chinese economy was just too poor back in the early eighties)

Once again, I looked within the local Chinese community for help, and soon I found a small, young Chinese girl to be my roommate. She had come to the US in her teens, completed high school here, and was about to graduate from college. When I first interviewed her, she said that she could help me with my math – but it soon became apparent that she knew less than I did ! Still – we got along pretty well – so she moved into my apartment (just west of Chicago’s Chinatown)

But what was I going to do about tutoring ? I desperately needed help – and eventually I found it – but it got me into trouble as well.

The young man who helped me was a real computer whiz. He was a typical Cantonese –i.e. he was very thin but he loved food, eating all the time, but never gaining an ounce. He was in his last year of the program. He knew everything – and he was more than happy to share that knowledge with a desperate young woman like myself. He really helped me get started in my studies.

His grandfather had come to Chicago from Canton at least 50 years earlier – and had a cleaner shop in Chinatown. His wife was finally allowed to join him in the 1960’s , and both of them got by without ever learning English.

But his parents had stayed in China, and had been separated when the border with Hong Kong was closed. His father ended up taking a second wife while the first one stayed in Hong Kong. Polygamy is traditional in Chinese culture, and was still legal in Hong Kong at that time –but it was strictly forbidden in the People’s Republic, so when local officials got wind of this arrangement, his father was stripped of his position (at a university) and given a strong incentive to leave the country. Fortunately, his father had already moved to the United States, so he had a sponsor, and he ended up working as a cook in a Chinese restaurant in Chicago.

Had his father really been a university professor ? I don’t know – the whole family certainly seemed to be very blue collar to me – but that was his story, and at least it served to make me more comfortable with marrying him, which is where this relationship was going. I met his family –but kept our relationship to myself for a while. I did not know how to tell my family that I met someone at school. His family background made me very uneasy and I did not have a strong feeling for this guy, even though he was helping me with my studies.

But I eventually I sent pictures of him to my family in Beijing. My family did not say anything about him to me, I knew that my mother was very critical of each of my dates. If she liked one, she would let me know, but she did not say a word about this one in my dad’s letters. (My mom very seldom to wrote to me - usually it was my dad who wrote all the letters)

My sponsor, the priest, was very bullish about our union – and made me not a little uncomfortable with his blunt frankness about the exchange that was taking place. I would get the tutoring that I wanted – and citizenship by marrying an American citizen, and the tall, skinny computer whiz would get a woman that he wanted – and I surmised that the priest would get what he wanted too: to have me establish a family in Chicago, where he could be included..

I didn’t really love this man – but we had begun dating –and soon we were making plans to live together. Once again, just as with my first husband, I was a bit fatalistic about it: perhaps this was my destiny.

Meanwhile, he graduated from DePaul and got a job with AT&T Bell Labs with a fine starting salary of $40,000 a year. In fact, I think both his sister and younger brother were already working there as well. Where would American technology be without all the smart, hard working Chinese ?

Since his job was out in the suburbs, that’s where he wanted to live, so we bought a house in Aurora for $70,000. Where did we get the down payment ? My sponsor, the old priest, offered me $20,000 to encourage us to buy a townhouse together.

But now, the real problems began – because Aurora is about 45 miles from my school in Chicago, and I didn’t have a car. So every day I needed to be driven back and forth to the train station –and then, of course, take the train, or actually, two trains to finally get me, 2 hours later, to school.

And now that we were living together, my prospective husband had no more interest in tutoring me. He had enough to worry about with his new job –and what he really wanted was a traditional Cantonese wife who would make a home, have children, and cook a lot of good Cantonese food for him.

So it soon became apparent – that I had made a big mistake – and we began to have some furious arguments – culminating one night with him putting his hands around my throat. That was the moment that I decided to leave him.

This had never happened to me before – and it was never going to happen again – so even though it was late at night, I called up the old priest, and we drove into the city, that very night, to sort things out.

The three of us talked things over – it must have been midnight – and we agreed that we’d both go back to Aurora and try to move forward. But there really was nothing to work out – and after a few weeks had passed, we agreed that I would move back to the city. I called up my last roommate – the little Chinese girl – and soon we were back together, a few blocks from Chinatown.

(it would take me 18 months to get back the money from the down payment for the house --- and eventually, all I got was $15,000. The priest didn’t want it back, so I used it to begin my first savings account. It was painful and humiliating, but I guess it wasn’t a disaster after all. Nobody’s heart was broken, and my never-to-be-husband soon took a trip to China where he found and married a peasant girl who would be the kind of wife he really wanted)

But meanwhile --- how was I going to get my diploma in computer science ? Who was going to help me ?

I finally connected with a group of fellow Chinese students who had been diligently collecting tests from each of the DePaul instructors for several years, and I begin to follow that age-old process of studying old tests to cram for each examination. . I never really learned the principles of programming – I just learned how to pass the multiple-choice tests – i.e. I had become an ordinary American college student. I didn’t learn much – but I would get my degree – the university would get its tuition – and everyone would be happy.

Not that it was easy, though.

I really had to work at it – and I had to take the final test twice before I could pass. (which was a very close call – since students were only allowed to take it twice – and if they failed both times, they would never get that master’s degree from DePaul.).

Back at the apartment, my roommate had graduated and gotten her first job. She was so happy ! She was mainland Chinese, just like me, and she had an uncle in America who had sponsored and paid for her education.

She was in her twenties, for some reason, she always dated older guys. One time her fat, older boy friend called me, and asked me for a date. I don’t know why, but I felt really insulted, got very angry, and began screaming at him over the phone, calling him a pig, and telling him that if he dared to call me again, I would report it to the police.

Meanwhile my Cantonese boy friend was trying to get us back together. I firmly rejected him. Then he secretly started calling my roommate. One time, when I was playing back the messages on our answering machine, I heard a message that he had left for her. I didn’t like her sneaking around with him, and I asked her to move out. Eventually she did – so once again, I was looking for a new roommate.

Actually, I found a pair of roommates, two girls from DePaul University who had come from Taiwan – and we were all jammed together into my small apartment. Both had fiancés who were PHD students at the University of Wisconsin, so during the weekend, I had the apartment to myself, and that worked out very well. And since we were all in the computer science department, we could study a lot together.

We got along alright – but I never really respected their behavior with men, since they had no problem with being engaged to one while sleeping with another. Indeed, they gave me the impression that every office girl in Taipei was sleeping with her boss. I know that I am no angel – but somehow, having grown up in the rather puritanical Peoples’ Republic, I just found this behavior unacceptable.

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