Fifty years ago when I was born and grew up in a poor peasant family in China, never had I thought that I would somebody be able to come to the United States of America, the best country in the world, to study, to find a job, and to establish a life for me and my family. Today I can proudly call it my home and my country.
In 1983 I enrolled at Xi’an International Studies University in China as a college student, majoring in English and American literature and studying America’s political systems, history, culture, language and literature. On August 15, 1997 I arrived in the United States as an exchange student and scholar at Bowling Green State University. And on November 8, 2016 I became a citizen of the United States of America. This journey took me almost twenty years to accomplish, but it sure is a great one with unforgetting experiences and stories.
First and foremost, the American dream is reflected in its political system as is written in the Declaration of Independence, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This guarantee of rights to citizens regardless of their country of origin, race, ethnicity, religion, and culture is a beacon of light shining on the path of millions of immigrants to America. In my twenty years of living here transitioning from an immigrant to a citizen, I have witnessed how these laws and values are protected and practiced by the country’s leaders and citizens. In the graduate schools I attended, the college I teach in, the community where I establish my residence, and the places I have travelled to, I feel safe and protected.
America is also a land of opportunities that provide its citizens and immigrants rich and unprecedented resources to help them to succeed. Such generosity dates all the way back to the first group of immigrants from the Mayflower Ship in the 17th century who sought political, religious and economic freedoms, to the Irish, East European, and Chinese immigrants in the 19th century who rushed to the Gold Mountain, to immigrants from all parts of the world in the 20th and 21st centuries who seek various opportunities: political, economic, educational, environmental, technological, etc. It is no exaggeration to say that no country in the world provides as many sources and opportunities for its citizens and immigrants as the United States. When I first arrived, I was shocked by the facilities and resources of Bowling Green State University (BGSU): Its clean and verdant campus, the air-conditioned classrooms, small graduate seminars with just five students, the long opening hours of the library, and the superb outdoor and in-door sports facilities that were state of the art. Later I moved to Ball State University (BSU) for my doctoral studies which boasts of more or less the same facilities.
The American dream also means hard work. As early as when I was 8-9 years old I started to work in the farm fields with my parents; throughout my ten years in secondary schools, hard work was the only way to put me into college when the admission rate was just 4 percent. Therefore, the hard living conditions my family faced and the competitiveness of the school system in China have made hard work DNA of my body, so when I arrived at BGSU, I was ready to put in my efforts to excel in my coursework and teaching of two sections of freshman composition. When I moved to BSU’s doctoral program in literature, I was the only international student who was focusing on getting a degree in literature. Imagine the readings I had to deal with in each course. To illustrate with one example, in one course I took entitled Victorian Novels, in addition to the articles, we had to read 7-8 novels, averaging about 500 pages each. I read all of them, posted my weekly journals on line, attended all the class discussions, and finished the required papers. In my five years at BSU, seldom did I go to bed before 11:30.
My American dream could hardly be fulfilled without the support and love from my wife and son. My wife joined me the third year after my arrival here, and our son joined us a year later. The company, encouragement, support, and immense love provided me with emotional nourishment and motivation to be my best, to overcome the obstacles on the road, and not to give up no matter what happens. However, to juggle our school work and taking care of our son was a challenge during the five years of our doctoral studies. We needed to make arrangements that one of us would stay at home with him, which means that when we selected courses, we had to make sure that we did not choose courses that fell in the same time slots. When one had to meet the deadline of a paper, the other would babysit our son. As he grew older, it became much easier. He would accompany us to the library on a daily basis. There are many study rooms in the library. While we were preparing for our readings, he would find his own books from the library’s children’s book section, ride up and down the elevator, much as a scholar himself. Once he got his books, he seldom bothered us and quickly entered the fantasy lands of his books. Over the years, seeing him grow physically, intellectually and emotionally, I thought what a blessing it was to have him all along. His curiosity about life, his energy, his smile, and his accomplishments in school, were an inspiration for me. Now he is a junior at Northwestern University. As his parents, we couldn’t be prouder.
In addition to our family love and support, the friendliness and hospitality of the American people played an important role in making us feel at home in the U.S. Though our country of origin is thousands of miles away on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, most of the seven years when we studied here we did not feel lonely thanks to them. Professor Bill Coggin from BGSU offered me to stay in his home when I first arrived in the U.S. I lived there for two weeks until I rented my own apartment, but from time to time I stopped to see him, and he told me that I could always drop by any time I wanted without calling him first. His words, “Suocai, this is your home” still ring in my ears twenty years later. His home and his comforting words provided the emotional support I needed – just arriving in this foreign country and living by myself.
On Thanksgiving and Christmas, Bill and his family prepared traditional holiday dinners and invited me and other Chinese students to share the feasts. Knowing that Bill was there for me no matter what happens sustained me over the years even after I left BGSU to move to BSU. In my twenty years of staying in the U.S., except the first two years when I felt a bit lonely because of heavy study and my wife and son not being able to join me, I never felt I was alienated in this country or was treated as a foreigner. Thanks to my colleagues and friends, I could feel their love and care for me and my family. In this vast and beautiful country, everywhere I do, there is enough air of love that I can breathe in my lung.
In the fall of 2004 I moved to the City Colleges of Chicago to begin my teaching career, and my thirteen years of working here have filled me with good memories of my colleagues, who are all professionals in their fields. Though I am a recent immigrant and newcomer to the department and college, never have I run into any comment from my colleagues that allude to my foreignness or question my belonging in the institution. They treat me as a member of them and do their best to make me feel welcomed whether in the department and college meetings, committee work, get-togethers, and many other functions. From them I see the spirit of the American dream—America’s big heart to include immigrants from all over the world, to value their contributions, to appreciate their differences, and to have the good will, courage and patience to work with and help them to succeed. Their attitude to me shows America’s deep belief that differences, instead of separating us, bring us together, that in them brew creativity, innovation, motivation, energy, new perspectives, new solutions, and America’s better future.
My immigration story would not be complete without my mentioning some challenges along the way. While I was anticipating my arrival in the United States, I could not predict the challenges I might face once when I was there. The first challenge was how to juggle among study, teaching and life. I heard about the large volumes of reading in graduate school, but until I actually sat in the classroom it did not sink in. Often overwhelmed with readings and papers, I spent as many hours as I could in the library.
Teaching was another big challenge. Though I had taught for seven years in China and had quite some experience of designing teaching plans and working with students, here I was facing a totally different audience in a foreign country. The American students in my composition I and II courses were much more active and involved in class, thus calling for a series of changes of my teaching philosophy and my interaction with them. I had to shift from a faculty-based teaching model to one that focused on students. I also had to grade a lot of papers with detailed comments, which I was not used to. And occasionally I ran into situations when I did not know a sports or music figure they mentioned or just did not understand what they were saying. There were a few embarrassing moments, but I humbled myself and learned to manage them with patience and goodwill til I became better with each passing day.
The third big challenge was how to manage my life without my family with me. It was as hard as my study and teaching, if not harder. Having been used to the married and family life for seven years, the sudden bachelorhood threw me off balance. After finishing each day’s busy study, teaching, and grading, I found myself alone in a shared apartment, having nobody to talk to because my roommates were also busy and had not come back from the library or lab. Facing the walls and the carpet floor, my heart cried for company and comfort. Neither did I know how to cook with the American kitchen setting and groceries. The first few weeks after my arrival, I was running around so frantically that I barely had time to cook anything. All I had was some tasteless bread and lunch meat stuck in its middle, which was my lunch and dinner. I left it in the fridge of the student center and wolfed it down during the few minutes between classes or teaching. By the end of the first semester, I had lost all my appetite for food, and my stomach virtually halted, not able to digest the food I took in. By the end of the second semester, I ended up in the hospital for a thorough diagnosis and medication.
Until the winter holiday of 1998, a year and half when I was away from my wife and son, I returned to China to pay them a visit. I’d lost about 30 pounds. Seeing my skeletal bones wrapped by thin and lusterless skin, my wife shed tears.
Apart from the physical, mental, and psychological challenges, I also faced challenges of the immigration system itself. Overall, the system worked. I followed its steps and waited for my turn. Yet the time it took to go through every step was painstakingly long and put a lot of stress on the applicants, me included. I filed my I-485, application to register as permanent resident, in 2006 and I did not get it approved until July of 2011. Because of long distance and inconvenience of traveling out of the country without a green card, I had to delay visiting my parents and relatives for eleven years from 1998 until 2009, and in 2007 my father was in critical condition and finally passed away in China without me attending his funeral, to my great regret and guilt.
From my arrival in the United States in 1997 with a student visa to my being granted citizenship, it took me twenty years. The delay was not due to my fault but the various restrictions of the immigration system. On November 8, 2016, I took the oath of allegiance in Chicago’s Dirksen Courthouse to become a citizen of the United States of America. My excitement and happiness were beyond words. Looking back at my twenty years of studying, working and living here, I am always filled with profound gratitude for what America offered me. Its open, fair, democratic, and equal political system, its abundant resources, its competent, friendly and hospitable people, constitute a land and system that has never been seen in human history. My family and I are the beneficiaries of the American dream, and our examples demonstrate that though America faces a lot of challenges in the new century, its ideals are permanently embodied by the declaration, the constitution, and the Statue of Liberty.
I must say that I am not the only one who made it in America. Thousands of immigrants have made America their home over the past four hundred years, and it still attracts people to arrive at its shores every day, which proves that the American dream is still alive and vibrant, and so long as you play by the law and work hard, you can make a big difference in your life. Fifty years ago when I was born and grew up in a poor peasant family in China, never had I thought that I would somebody be able to come to the United States of America, the best country in the world, to study, to find a job, and to establish a life for me and my family. Today I can proudly call it my home and my country. May the American dream continue to attract and guide its pursuers for a better life. May the bright beacon from the Statue of Liberty continue to shine upon “the tired,” “the poor,” “the huddled,” “the homeless,” “the tempest-tossed,” from here and everywhere.
This story was submitted by Professor Larry S. Su who teaches in Chicago, IL.