America is the Land Where Children Do Not Get Beaten

The American flag made of balloons, at the end of the Election Night Watch Party hosted by The University of Chicago Institute of Politics. The vibrancy and the fragility in the idea of America.

“How lucky are you Yangyang? You are going to America! In America, parents cannot beat their kids.”

It was late summer of 1998, in a medium-sized city in southeastern China where I was born and raised. One of my mother’s best friends dropped by for a visit. My mother was not at home. Her mother, my grandmother, was looking after me that day, and we all sat down on the living room couch and chatted my imminent prospects: I was going to America.

My father, a young professor in material science and engineering, had just started a position as a visiting scientist at the University of California, San Diego, after completing a stint as a visiting scholar at the University of Birmingham in the UK. My mother and I were not able to visit him in the UK, a significant reason being that my dad’s 400GBP monthly stipend, paid by the Chinese government, was near impossible to support a family of three.

My father’s position at UCSD was sponsored by the lab there, with a salary of just over two thousand dollars a month: it’s not much by any standard, but enough to get by with care. “And this is America, you must come here; bring Yangyang and come here.” My father wrote to my mother in his letters home. Internet was not really a thing in China at the time: we had a desktop computer at home, a Windows “586”, a rare luxury obtained for my father’s work; but now that he’s not home, neither my mom nor me knew how to use it.

I was eight years old at the time. I did not know much about America, or what made it so special in the eyes of my father.

One thing I did know, as reaffirmed by my mother’s friend’s sincerely congratulatory comment, was that in America people have rights; in America even children have rights; America is the land where children do not get beaten.

I was always beaten, by my mother. My father did not beat me but as a young academic he was not at home much, at least not when I was awake. He traveled a lot for work, and then he went to the UK, and then to the US. My mother told me my father went abroad so he did not have to see me since I was a terrible child; I was unloved, and unlovable.

I did not believe my mother because I knew my father loved me: he always told me so when we spent time together. But we spent so little time together. And then he was abroad.

And my mother always beat me, at home, in the public. For minor transgressions, for no apparent reasons, for getting sick.

I was sick a lot as a kid, constant respiratory issues. It was never anything too serious. I did not have asthma. But I was still always sick, which must have been my fault and hence I must be punished for it, physically and verbally. When I grew older I realized words could cut deeper than knives, but as a child I just wanted to be protected from physical pain.

As a child I believed the United States of America would protect me from physical pain. With its rule of law. With liberty and justice for all.

I wanted to go to the United States. I was so happy I was going to the United States.

After a long and stressful visa application process, my mother and I joined my father in sunny La Jolla on November 26, 1998. One of my father’s colleagues, a graduate student from China, drove us back from the airport, as my father had just used his savings to purchase a second-hand Nissan, and was still learning how to drive.

It happened to be Thanksgiving, so my father and his colleague did not have to take time off work. We made dumplings at our one-bedroom apartment, our first meal in the United States of America, together as a family on Thanksgiving day.

I enrolled at a public elementary school just across the street from our apartment. I did not speak any English. There were a few kids from China in my year and adjacent years. They’d been in the US for at least a year and spoke fluent English, or it seemed to me at the time. Some of the Chinese kids were very nice to me and helped me translate the most mundane things. Some could not bother to spend any time with me.

My mother no longer beat me in public, or at least only so rarely. Once it was at Sea World, and a lady standing next to us at the sea lion show yelled “You almost hit me!”

Everyday, after I got home from school, and before my father got back from work, that’s when the storm happened. In our tiny one-bedroom apartment behind closed doors and shaded blinds, America could not protect me from pain.

I had turned nine-years-old at the time. In my nine-year-old mind, I was not disappointed in America for its apparent inability to protect me. I felt America could not protect me because America did not know I was suffering. There were countless weekends and weekday nights when both my parents were away getting groceries and such, I’d be at home alone, debating whether or not to call 911. I imagined America in the form of tall, uniformed police officers who would rescue me with all its force and righteousness, and then I would belong to America, become American, and be free.

I never called 911. I had overheard from local Chinese circles, of how some Chinese American parents faced jail time after their neighbors reported them for what I deemed minor offenses compared to what I was living through.

I did not want my mother to go to jail. If the choice was between her going to jail or me continuing to endure what I had been enduring for as long as I could remember, I thought I might as well hold on a bit longer.

Home did not feel safe, but it was only a transient entity in space and time. Every day I left home for school. One day I might leave home forever.

I was growing up. I believed time was on my side. I believed America was on my side. What America stood for, with liberty and justice for all.

I started learning English. After what seemed like an endless stretch but in fact several months of not being able to comprehend others or express myself, I suddenly realized I could understand more or less my teachers and classmates during the day, and Scooby-Doo on Cartoon Network in the evenings. I made some friends at school, Lisa whose mother is Mexican, Darien from Canada, a freckled red-head named Paige that reminded me of Pipi Longstocking, a black boy named Michael and a white boy named Jordan who would often sit together in class and call themselves “Michael Jordan”. I was even able help some newly arrived kids from China translate some school work.

One evening, I asked my father if I could become President of the United States. My father looked up in the law books, and told me regrettably no, because I was born in China to Chinese parents.

About half a year after my mother and I arrived in San Diego, one evening my mother was making a list of groceries to get. My father sat by the dinner table in silence, and suddenly made a comment, “Don’t get too much rice.”

It’s always cheaper to buy rice in bulk, so my mother asked why not.

“We have to move back to China soon.”

As my father later explained, the lab funding had been cut, and his position as a visiting scientist, temporary as it was, was among the first to be sacrificed.

My parents had made quite a gang of Chinese friends, from work, from church, from the neighborhood. Most of them were a decade or so older than my parents, who were in their mid-30s at the time: they had been in the US much longer, with children much older than myself. In the weeks after the fateful announcement from my father, many of them learned the news and came to visit us at our tiny apartment. Some of them brought me small gifts, books or toys that their kids had outgrown. One lady brought me a whole set of Goosebumps books, “my son is going to college; these are yours now”. I never opened them. The covers alone were so scary, I could not imagine anyone wanting to read them.

These kind people came to talk to my parents. They told my parents of their stories, how they, at the time among the most privileged crop in China, gave up their comfortable lives and used all their resources to come to the US, and how they sacrificed their careers and worked jobs from the most menial in order to stay and make a living, so that their children could grow up in the United States of America.

“Your daughter is nine years old, and she has a bright future ahead of her. If you go back (to China) now, in ten, fifteen years, your daughter will be following the same path as you are on now, facing the same obstacles and enduring the same hardships, to try to come to the US, and to try to stay.” Almost every conversation ended with this stern prophecy.

My father was a tenured professor back in China, working at one of the best universities in the country. Tenure-track positions in the US were all but impossible for someone educated in China as my father; there would be non-tenure research positions from time to time, but securing one usually takes a good amount of time, and much sheer luck. Without my father’s employment to sponsor a visa, our family could not stay in the US.

My father’s contract ended in June. The US government allows a couple months of “grace period” before one’s status would no longer be legal. Our family decided to stay in the US through the grace period, so I could attend summer school and learn some more English, which was still “very limited” as my teacher wrote in my report card. We had no income. I do not know how my parents saved enough from prior months to sustain our family through the summer, but they did. They even took me to Disneyland: the trip was expensive and we did not have any extra money for souvenirs from the gift shop, but my parents felt it was very important to them, that they took me to Disneyland, a symbol of America that their daughter deserved to see.

I had somehow scored into the highest possible percentile in California’s GATE (Gifted And Talented Education) program during the past school year, and was set to start in a designated program at the best elementary school in the city in the coming fall. I dreamed of my future through that program, the hopes and promises America had in store for me. It would prove to be just a dream, as by the time the new school year started, I would already be on the other side of the Pacific. “Could we stay just a bit longer so I could spend one day, just ONE DAY at the new school with the program?” I asked my parents.

No. The grace period was up. We had to go back to China, by law.

Just a couple of weeks before our set departure date, I was playing in the park next to our apartment, and was approached by a girl from my class and her older sister. They made me take off my shoes and demanded my wallet. I took off my shoes but I did not have a wallet or anything of value on me. They said terrible things about me to my face, and that I was that terrible “because you are Chinese”. They told me to go back home and fetch my mother’s wallet. I went back home and cried. I did not step outside again that day.

Home had never been a safe place for me. But that day I needed to stay at home to feel protected from what was outside, the people and things that hurt me, which were also a part of America.

After nine months in San Diego, we flew back to China on August 26, 1999. I started middle school. My father returned to his professorship, and was receiving grants and awards for his work. He said I should work very hard to improve my English. If he could find another research position at a US institution, then we could go back. The American dream was an ocean away, but still alive.

My father passed away very suddenly in the middle of the night, in February of the year 2000. Years later my mom would still ask me, “Had we found a way to stay in America, do you think your father would still be alive?”

To help me learn English, my dad had bought me many tape recordings of notable speeches in the English language. He would play them at the dinner table, day after day. Most of the content were way beyond my grasp of the language at the time, but my father taught me one line that contained only very simple words, yet so powerful,

“Ask not what your country could do for you.

Ask what you could do for your country.”

I kept playing those tape recordings in the months and years after his passing. I eventually learned enough English to understand most of them. Roosevelt’s wartime call to arms helped lift my spirit. I mourned at the voice of Bobby Kennedy reciting Aeschylus to a grieving crowd at the news of King’s death. I listened to Dr.King, telling myself that unearned suffering was redemptive, trying to carve a stone of hope out of a mountain of despair.

I despaired. My poor mother found within me an outlet for her grief. I dreaded going home everyday after school, because it was a very dark, chaotic, and painful place. Though school was not entirely a refuge either: I was constantly mocked and bullied; once a classmate threatened my life with a razor blade, and a couple others watched and sneered.

Night after night I went to sleep not knowing if I ever wanted to wake up again. Day after day I woke up searching for the will to carry on. Should I stay alive? Why should I stay alive? What was there to live for if I stayed alive?

If I stayed alive, one day I might be able to go back to America.

America would accept me. America would protect me. America is the land where children do not get beaten.

My American dream did not die with my father.

My American dream stayed alive.

My American dream kept me alive.

Years flew by. I was a college senior majoring in physics, preparing for the GRE and writing my graduate school applications, for universities in the US. I had stayed alive and kept my American dream alive, and I was getting so close. I knew there was an election going on across the oceans. I watched the presidential debate online, as the young African American senator concluded by recalling memories from his father, how the day he came to the US from Kenya to study was the happiest day of his life, because “there was no other country on earth, where you can make it if you try”. I watched the victory speech from the same young African American, this time as President-elect, as he spoke these words against the most magnificent skyline, “If there is anyone out there who still doubts that America is a place where all things are possible, who still wonders if the dream of our founders is alive in our time, who still questions the power of our democracy, tonight is your answer.”

I never doubted America. That moment America affirmed my beliefs.

I moved back to China from San Diego with my family on August 26, 1999.

My plane touched down at O’Hare International Airport on August 22, 2009, a full ten years later, almost to the date. I was back in America, by myself, as a 19-year-old college graduate, to pursue my PhD in physics at the University of Chicago.

In Chicago, to get to Chinatown, one takes the redline train to a stop called “Cermak-Chinatown”. Born in Kladno, Bohemia, Anton J. Cermak was elected mayor of this great city in 1931. To his opponent’s ethnic slurs, he responded “It is true I did not come over on the Mayflower; but I came over as soon as I could.”

I too came here as soon as I could.

My English was already fluent. I could read and write, hear and be heard, communicate and express myself freely in this land, still new to me with much to explore and understand, but I already called “home”.

After my first semester at the University of Chicago, I received my evaluations as a teaching assistant. Most of them were generous and complimentary; a few of them remarked that this TA spoke with an accent.

I burst into the department undergraduate chair’s office and demanded an answer, “Do I speak English?”

“Yangyang you speak perfect English. I know why you are asking because I read all the evaluations. You should know that students complain about my accent in their evaluations all the time, and I am from New Jersey.”

We both laughed. What I did not tell him was that comments about my accent were not new to me. Back when I was still in China, for several years from middle school through college, I participated in numerous public speaking competitions in the English language. I won some. I lost some. The most common criticism I got was that my English was not authentic, because it did not sound American.

No one said they could not understand my English; in fact many said they liked the way I enunciate. If only I sounded American.

I was told that I could easily win any of these competitions at the highest levels, if I could make some effort to “sound American”. There were even bootcamps for them that I was recommended to.

I did not bother to go to any of the bootcamps. I knew the Chinese language comes in many dialects and accents. The highest leaders of China spoke with various accents reflective of the regions they came from. For a country as diverse as America, who sounds American?

During my time in Chicago, I started watching US broadcasts. I watched Christiane Amanpour, Fareed Zakaria, and Jorge Ramos speak from their namesake shows on US television. They spoke the same language. They sounded very different. They all sounded truly American, their accents a living manifestation of their American journey.

I had a subscription to TIME magazine. In early 2011, there was a column by Fareed Zakaria, an immigrant from India who came to the US to study at about the same age as I did. It opened with these powerful lines,

“I am an American, not by accident of birth but by choice. I voted with my feet and became an American because I love this country and think it is exceptional.”

I pinned that snippet of the column by my bedside. I read it everyday, a reminder to myself of what I believe in, and my heart ached each time I came across the first four words:

“I am an American.”

Because I am not, by the definition of law. I hold a Chinese passport. I cannot vote or run for office in this country. My visa sponsored by my university, my presence in this country is a courtesy but not a given; each time I leave this country, I fear to my core that I’d not be able to come back.

China raised me. America saved me. I am too foreign for home, but am I also too foreign for here?

What defines American? Who deserves America?

After the 2012 elections, Senator John McCain came to speak at the University of Chicago Institute of Politics. He spoke of a naturalization ceremony he attended at a US military camp in Baghdad, where a room full of soldiers in combat would be sworn in as US citizens. In the front row there were a few empty chairs, cleanly folded uniforms placed on them with combat boots in front, but no one was seated in them. The uniforms and boots belonged to the soldiers who had made the ultimate sacrifice in war, fighting and dying for a country that had yet to acknowledge them as citizens.

Were they American?

What defines American? Who deserves America?

In the months and weeks and days leading up to this year’s election, I was worried, but by and large hopeful. I believed in the diverse, inclusive America as I always had, the nation of immigrants founded on an idea, “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”, the idea of America that kept me alive.

I have asked myself many times since the outcome of November 8, if I’ve stayed alive all these years by telling myself a lie, by believing in a fantasy. On election night as I watched the live updates of the electoral map, state after state going from grey to red, the sorrow I felt was not partisan or even political; I felt I was watching the idea of an America slipping before my eyes.

Political scientists and campaign strategists will be spending months and years analyzing and rationalizing the outcomes of this election. No single factor fully explains what happened, but one should not and could not start dismissing certain fundamental factors simply because the sound of them makes one uncomfortable. Some factors so fundamental, that they date back to the original sins of this nation’s founding, and are deeply embedded throughout its history: sometimes blatantly exposed, sometimes cleverly disguised, but always present.

No amount of economic grievances justifies racism and bigotry. Love and compassion are basic human values that one learns in kindergarten, before one learns how to read or write. The sad truth about society is, the oppressed often contribute to their own oppression or the oppression of others. Living oppressed often deprives one of the capacity to empathize. When the abused becomes the abuser. My mother was terribly mistreated by her family. The two girls who bullied me on the playground in San Diego, who called me racist names, they were not white, they were Latina. When one is hurting and feels vulnerable, a natural tendency is to project one’s own insecurity onto others, by hurting the ones even more vulnerable.

When I was a child growing up in China, for much of the time my city was still very much under-developed. There was this overpass at the intersection in the heart of downtown, connecting the only four department stores the city had at the time. There would always be panhandlers on the overpass, raising a chipped porcelain bowl asking passersby for change.

My mother and I walked across the overpass many times, encountering the panhandlers each time. My mother is a school teacher, and would never let a moment of educating me pass by. Some of the panhandlers were children just like myself, and my mom would remind me of how fortunate I was that I had a home and could go to school.

Some of the panhandlers were adults, and my mom would whisper to me as we’d walked by “Look, if you do not work hard at school, you’d end up like them.”

My kind-hearted mother pitied them, as she’d always give them some money; but pity is not the same as empathy. It’s very easy to dehumanize people whom you know nothing about. It’s very easy to fault them for their struggles in life, so it’s their problems in the entirety, not mine. I have enough problems of my own to deal with.

But what if I were that child holding out a pan on the overpass, in blazing sun or bitter cold, working hard at school would not be an option for me because school itself would not be an option to me, what then would my dreams be? Would I be able to see a life beyond the overpass? Would I be able to have a life beyond the overpass?

The adults on the overpass, what were their childhoods like? Was it something like mine, or was it more similar to the children on the overpass?

I could have been that child holding a pan on the overpass. Born into a slightly different time or a few geographical coordinates away I would have been that child. But instead I was given access to some of the best education China had to offer. In the darkest hours of my life, I held onto my American dream, because my education allowed me to dream that dream, and my education ultimately turned that dream into a reality. I worked hard at school, but my education is primarily a result of the circumstances of my upbringing, of no merit of my own but the lottery I drew at birth.

I did not draw the lottery of a US citizenship at birth. I came to this country to seek higher education and am staying in this country as a PhD scientist. Is my American dream valid?

For the ones who did not grow up with the same access and resources as I did, who do not use the prefix “Dr.” before their names, but still aspire to America, are their American dreams valid? Are their American dreams just as valid as mine?

What defines American? Who deserves America?

When I was in my junior year in college in China, making plans to apply to graduate schools in the US, news hit our community that a recent alum of our university had just passed away. He was three years ahead of me in school. I knew of him during the one year we overlapped, because he was famous, brilliant and accomplished within and beyond academia. He was pursuing his PhD at an elite institution in the US. One night he was attacked by three teenagers in an attempted robber: fleeing for his life, he was struck down by incoming traffic.

The three teenagers who attacked him were African American.

I crossed off the university he was studying at from my list of US institutions to apply to, because the personal pain was too much to bear.

In the days that followed, messages in response to this tragedy filled our university’s online forum. Messages of grief, messages of remembrance, but also messages of anger and hatred from fellow alums studying in the US, accusing not just the attackers, but the entire African American community.

Eight years later, I watched the now President-elect, through the course of the campaign, parade grieving parents in front of pained and angry crowds, who told and retold the stories of losing their children in senseless crimes, committed by undocumented immigrants.

Who is the face of the attacker? Who is the face of the victim?

Who are the enemies I should fight? Who are the tribesmen I should protect?

To whom am I bound by blood? To whose flag do I pledge allegiance?

The 442nd Regiment in WWII was the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in the history of American warfare. It was comprised almost entirely of Japanese Americans. They fought with such valor and conviction enduring grave sacrifices, for a country that had rounded up their families behind barbed wires at internment camps. Some of the soldiers themselves walked behind the barbed wires onto the frontlines of Europe, fighting under the American flag. Returning from the war, they were greeted on the White House lawn by President Truman, who told them, “You fought not only the enemy, but prejudice. And you won.”

I thought of the story of the 442nd Regiment a lot in the aftermath of this election. And then I’d think of another Japanese American. Born and raised in Japan and trained as a physicist, he was drafted into the Japanese army during WWII to conduct radar research. He survived the firebombings of Tokyo, and came to the US in 1952. He became a naturalized US citizen in 1970, and spent most of his career at the University of Chicago. During my first year of graduate school there, his office was right next door to the common workspace for new graduate students. My classmates and I spent quite a bit of time gazing in awe at his nameplate on the door. His name was Yoichiro Nambu, 2008 Nobel Laureate in physics.

I thought of the 442nd Regiment. And I thought of Professor Nambu. The America the 442nd Regiment fought for, the American Professor Nambu pledged allegiance to, that America is still the America I believe in: when faced with immense challenges, the nation had made grave mistakes responding to the worst of its people, but the American democracy has retained its ability to self-correct, because of the best of its people. This is still after all, a nation not bound by color, geographical origin, or religious creed, but by an idea, an idea so strong and so encompassing, that as long as you believe in that idea, and live up to that idea, you can feel truly American.

This is not the time to doubt America because some do not live up to that idea.

Values cannot be abandoned because some act in ways to the contrary.

America is a country of many contradictions: the same country that elected and re-elected Barack Obama also elected Donald Trump; the founders who wrote “all men are created equal” also owned slaves.

America is a big complicated place. I lived in the city of Chicago for six years, the so-called “most American city”: it is most American not because it is perfect, but precisely because it is not.

In the six years I lived there, I dreamed its dreams and witnessed its nightmares. The magnificent skyline that glowed in the sun, the endless nights of violence on streets where the lights don’t shine; neither is more or less American than the other, but if we choose to only look at one because it’s easier or seems more relevant to oneself, then we lose the full vision of America. If we in an effort to understand America’s many complexities and contradictions, reduce it to a two-sided problem of a dark America and a white America, we’d never be able to see America for the full colors that it is.

One notable fact from this election, as well as the Brexit referendum if one may draw a parallel, is that the more diverse, open regions voted for the more diverse, open option; while the more homogeneous, closed areas voted the opposite.

Fear of the unknown is a survival instinct. But civilization means that we do not live by the rules of the jungle. Government is a form of organizing society, when at its best, citizens may rise up to their highest virtues, not sinking into their deepest fears, and darkest instincts.

The cure to bigotry is not silence. The cure to bigotry is not closed doors. Populism cannot stem the tide of globalization, nor could it offer solutions to the challenges globalization brings. Some doors, once opened, may never be closed again.

America, with its innate openness and diversity, can still lead the world as humanity wades into uncharted waters, of infinite challenges but also boundless potential.

The world is watching. As it has watched America lead its allies out of the rubbles of WWII, and for the seven decades since, with many fumbles and tumbles along the way, carry on as a global force for good.

Seventy years ago, a Jewish boy named Samuel survived the concentration camps that killed his parents and sister, only to be sent on a death march as the end of the war drew near. At some point, he ran for his life and hid in the nearby forest. An allied tank came some time later, and out of it stepped an African American GI. The boy uttered the only three words in the English language his late mother had taught him,

“God bless America”.

The GI lifted him up, into his tank, and into safety and freedom.

The boy’s name was Samuel Pisar, one of the most influential lawyers on the global stage. His stepson is Antony Blinken, current deputy Secretary of State.

“God bless America”, devoid of religious denominations: it was not a call to the deity; it was a call to our common humanity. The common humanity that America, since its founding and at its best, still cherishes and defends, both within and beyond its borders.

America’s strength is not just the size of its economy or its military might, but its ability and responsibility to wield that might to defend the most vulnerable, and to uphold what’s right.

The world still needs America.

The Statue of Liberty made of rubble, by Syrian artist Tammam Azzam

The Syrian artist Tammam Azzam, recently created an image of the Statue of Liberty, made of rubble as much of Syrian cities had been reduced to. The artist described it as a message of optimism despite all the destruction in Syria. If you were a child waking up in Aleppo after election day, could you still hold onto the hopes, that America might still be able to come to your rescue?

The image from Syria reminded me of another fleeting “Statue of Liberty”. Not a digital creation, it was built out of scrap material by university students, and erected on Tiananmen Square, in the spring of 1989. If you were an activist inside repressive regimes, could you still look to America and the value inscribed in its founding documents, as the beacon of hope to carry on the fight?

I was born in mainland China, in the year 1989.

My lifetime did not overlap with the events at Tiananmen. I was born in the fall of that year, days before the fall of the Berlin Wall.

I moved to America on August 26, 2009. In the many years before that date, the idea of America kept me alive.

I came to America to pursue my PhD in physics at the University of Chicago. I defended my thesis in November of 2015, and now work as a postdoctoral researcher at an Ivy League institution in upstate New York.

In my thesis acknowledgement section, which I indulgently wrote several pages to thank all the people who made it possible for me, I put in a line dedicated to my younger self:

“To that young girl scrappy and stubborn at whatever life threw your way, thank you for hanging in there: if only I could go back some ten, fifteen years and let you know, that even in your worst nightmares, your dreams are valid.”

My American dream is as valid now as it was then.

I still believe in America.