My Years at Harvard – READ
My Years at Harvard
By Yilu Chao
It was the fall of 2004, and the campus at Harvard was beautiful. With ten other new students, I sat in a circle outside under a large tree. For orientation, we were supposed to get to know one another. However, I couldn’t understand much of what they were saying. The words they used had not been in the English textbooks I had studied in China. That is when I started to panic.
I tried to look and sound cool, but I failed. A student from California made a joke, and the rest laughed. I only stared. They other students were relaxed and easy, lying on the grass. I sat like a statue. Soon, people stopped talking with me. When the time came for hamburgers, everybody moved toward the grill, and I walked behind the others wondering what a grill was. “Where was I going?” I wondered.
Soon, my panic turned into doubt. Why was I here? I had been happy in China. When night came, I wanted to cry.
However, there was no way back. My mother had spent a whole year’s salary, $800, just to fly me here. ”Yilu, this is your chance,” my mother had told me. My mother had never finished high school. She worked in a textile factory, bent over a sewing machine day after day. Even though she had little education herself, my mother had a great passion for her only child’s education.
Consequently, I spent every afternoon after school with my grandparents, whose one-room apartment was bigger than my parents’, memorizing English words from vocabulary books. I would sit with my back facing the color TV, which my grandmother watched with earphones. On the other side of the room, my grandfather sat in bed with earphones, holding a radio tuned to the BBC’s Chinese-language programs.
Even when I was very small, my mother had told me that I could do anything and be anyone, and that smart people went abroad to study. Now, here I was.
One evening, my four American roommates and I decided to have dinner at a fancy Italian restaurant near our dorm. They put on makeup and perfume as I watched them in our bathroom. Neither item was familiar to me, because Chinese high schools did not allow them at the time. As we walked to the restaurant, they sang a song they had all learned as kids. I couldn’t sing along. Even though I wanted to belong, I didn’t know the words.
At the restaurant, I found the menu confusing, so one of my roommates ordered ravioli for me. However, when it came, the first bite sent me running to the bathroom. I wanted to throw up. They had looked like Chinese dumplings, but the cheese inside was unfamiliar to me. I had never eaten cheese before.
Later, back in the dorm room, I thought about how much I missed my high school friends in China. Americans are different. For them, good friends are people who want to get together once a week or so, but the Chinese are always together. Maybe this is what people mean when they say Americans are more individualistic and independent. I thought it felt lonely.
The next evening, my roommates decided to give me a class on ”useful” words. “You need to learn to talk like an American,” they said. They taught me slang that they used every day, but was unfamiliar to me.
”Now pronounce the word after me.”
”No, no, no, that’s not right. You’ve gotta say this word like this.”
Together we laughed and talked. The next day when I told them “I gotta go to the library,” they cheered. I started to feel like I was part of their group. One night we ordered pizza with cheese and ate together. I started to feel that cheese was not too bad.
I spent most nights in the library studying. My readings seemed endless. I had enrolled in a humanities course. It was supposed to introduce us to Western philosophy, literature and history. Western civilization was different and mysterious to me. I yearned to understand the American society. I hoped this course would help me understand it.
However, I had difficulty knowing how to learn. The professors here do not teach in the same way that teachers in China do. Studying humanities in China means memorizing all the ”correct” answers. During lectures, the professors tell students exactly what they should think. Here, professors toss out questions and let the students argue, research and write papers on their own. They encourage students to think independently. In my school in China, independent thought had beed discouraged. Thus, at Harvard, I often waited for the end-of-class ”correct” answers, which never came because my professors expected me to come up with my own answers.
I had to do things differently in the U.S. First, I borrowed my classmates’ notes so I could learn the skill of note-taking in English. Then, I visited the professors in their office for every paper I turned in. The professors always seemed happy to see me. “What do you think, Yilu?” they would ask. No teacher in China had ever asked me what I thought. I lingered after classes to talk with the professors and ask them questions.
Slowly I made progress. I began to understand how to succeed in this new system. I learned how to be an independent thinker. Every paper of mine came back with an A.
I had wanted to be a writer since I was little. Although I had arrived at Harvard wanting to become a journalist, that dream had seemed crazy when I arrived. ”You don’t even understand English well, and you want to write for your career?” I had thought.
Nevertheless, four years later, I spoke better English. I got good grades for my papers because the professors liked my original ideas and the way I communicated them.
Thus, during my senior year, I applied to a graduate program in journalism at UCLA. I moved across the country and discovered a new part of the United States. Now I am a writer at the Los Angeles Times. I have lived in the United States for more than ten years, more than a quarter of my life. Moreover, I have fallen in love with my adopted country. I love being a part of this country, a nation of immigrants, where I am no longer a stranger.
Back To the Beginning – READ
Back To the Beginning
by Maria Muñoz
I came to the United States from Cuba with my parents when I was almost five years old. We left behind grandparents, aunts, uncles and several cousins. As a little girl I would wake up crying because I had dreamed of my aunts and grandmothers, and I missed them. I remember my mother’s trembling voice and the sad look on her face whenever she spoke to my grandmother over the phone.
I had to go to kindergarten even though I did not know much English. I had been in this country only a few months, and although I understood a good deal of what was said to me, I could not express myself very well. On the first day of school I remember one little girl’s saying to the teacher: “But how can we play with her? She’s so stupid she can’t even talk!” I felt so helpless because inside I was crying, “Don’t you know I can understand everything you’re saying?” However, I did not have words for my thoughts and my inability to communicate frightened me.
Back at our small apartment, I asked my mother, “Why can’t we go back to Cuba?” Cuba was too dangerous my mother told me. The schools there weren’t always open, and it was not safe to go. “Your future is here in America,” my mother told me. Education, my mother insisted, was the most important thing. “Education,” she said, “ is the key to success.” My mother pushed me to succeed. “Memorize everything,” she ordered.
As I grew a little older, Latina meant being automatically put in the slowest reading classes in school. Although my English was now fluent, the teachers always assumed I was somewhat illiterate or slow. I recall one teacher’s amazement at discovering I could read and write just as well as her American students. I was surprised that she was surprised at my ability! As a child, I began to realize that Latina would always mean proving I was as good as the others. As I grew older, it became a matter of pride to prove I was better than the others. Indeed, the other kids at school began to notice that I always, somehow, knew the answers. They started coming to me for help.
I even studied during the summers. I applied for a summer program in English literature in New York City. I had to ask my teacher how to get there on the train because I had never been out of Brooklyn. In my senior year I was selected as valedictorian.
I still remember how difficult it often was to grow up Latina in an American world. As an adult I have come to terms with these memories and they don’t hurt as much. I don’t look or sound very Cuban. I don’t speak with an accent and my English is far better than my Spanish. I am beginning my career as a journalist and looking forward to the many possibilities ahead of me.
Nevertheless, a voice inside me is constantly saying, “There’s something missing. It’s not enough.” This is why when I am now asked, “Do you want to go back?” I say “yes” with conviction.
When I try to review my life, I almost feel as if I’ve walked into a theater right in the middle of a movie, and I’m afraid I won’t fully understand or enjoy the rest of the movie unless I can see and understand the beginning. For me, the beginning is Cuba. I don’t want to go “home” again because the life and home my family and I left behind are long gone. My home is here and I am happy. I have to return to Cuba one day because I want to know myself better.
Like all immigrants, my family and I have had to build a new life from almost nothing. It was often difficult, but I believe the struggle made us strong. Most of my memories are good ones.
Even so, I want to preserve and renew my cultural heritage. I want to keep “la Cubana” within me alive. I want to return because the journey back will also mean a journey within. Only then will I see the missing piece.