My 10th Anniversary as an Immigrant


I arrived in the U.S. on Aug 22, 1997. It was a sunny day, just like today.

The moment I stepped out of LGA airport, I looked up and saw the sky. It was unusually high (I learned later that wasn’t unusual. It merely appeared higher because of the better air quality). Friends who came on the plane together with me, I still remember their faces clearly. We were picked up by a few senior students I contacted earlier. One of them has the same name as my brother’s.

The first trip to PathMark was a curious one. Because we were living in an apartment complex outside campus, shopping was a major problem. None of us had driver license. The senior students took us to PathMark right after we arrived so we could have something to eat for the night.

Everything was so expensive. Fruit and vegetables especially. One of things I bought was Taco chips, recommended by one of the seniors. It turned out to be one of my favorites in the early days. Almost everyone bought cup noodles. They were popular in China back in the time when we were growing up, and they were cheap. Graduate students’ monthly stipend was only $800-$900 and we hadn’t even seen the first paycheck yet.

During the first orientation seminar they offered free lunch sandwiches, very cold Turkey sandwiches. I’m sure it was very healthy and nutritional but I couldn’t finish them. It was tasteless (now I eat those sandwiches on regularly basis). Instead I went to the cafeteria at Student Activity Center nearby and bought a slice of pizza. I was the only new student that did that, though everyone seemed to hate the sandwich.

I met HM in an unusual way. My then b.f. was visiting me and an hour after he left for the train station, I got a call from a girl I didn’t know. She said her name was HM and she just met my b.f. at the train station. She said they had a little chat and he learned that she was also a new graduate student in CS dept of our school, and he gave her my number. I then invited her over to my apt and we chatted. Just like that, I got a new girl friend.

Computer Science Department building didn’t impress me when I first saw it, but that doesn’t matter. It was a very special place because of all the time we spent there, and all the people I met there. The computer room. The Ping Pong room. Our office. My lab. Library. Professors’ offices. The guy in my lab who quit (for a job) after only a few months. The two seniors with the same name Bao in the middle. The guy who took me to Flushing for the first time. The guy who introduced himself by saying he had a girl’s name.

And Theo.

Theo was the reason I bought a TV earlier than everyone else. He was (part of) the reason I was always looking to talk to non-Chinese students, trying to avoid, not very successfully, speaking Chinese all the time with only Chinese students. He said my English was not very good, even though I secretely thought it was alot better than most of other students. He suggested me listen to talk shows to improve listening. I did exactly that, but found the talk shows were much easier to understand than him.

He had a very heavy, thick Greek accent. None of the talk show hosts sounded like him.

Theo was my professor, who I was working closely with as a research assistant.

Not being able to understand him fully was the biggest challenge I faced in my early days. I don’t remember much about other courses/projects except some were harder than others. I did best in Algorithm but never got chance to take Networking in my 3 semesters’ stay. I enjoyed the 2-D barcode decoding algorithm I was working with Theo and the time I spent in SBL as an intern. It turned out to be the only working experience I had other than my current job. All the people there I still remember. My Polish mentor (his “top model” picture in his cubicle). Two Joes. The Taiwanese girl. Michelle.

Starting from ’98 summer, instead of cooking most of the meals I ate mostly on campus. Roth cafeteria. SAC cafeteria. Hospital cafeteria. Smith Haven Mall. I’d gotten driver license and bought a ’88 Toyota Tercel for about $1,000. It saved lots of time and energy. And I found out I was really good at driving and enjoyed every minute of it.

The end of SB era was a little blurred in my memory because something happened in my personal life that summer. All I remember is I had to put everything aside and start looking for a job. By then I had already moved to another apartment where I no longer had a roommate. But HM was there in my hardest time. I didn’t attend graduation ceremony. I can’t even remember the day I left.

For the next eight years, I worked. Some years flew by as if they were a few days. Some days felt they would last forever. I realize how impossible it is to write about the last few years. I realize there are experiences in life that cannot be expressed in words. You succumb to the power of life in awe and sometimes, in fear. But in all the times, you have no choice but endure, live on, and learn, so you can be better prepared for the next time.

17 responses to “My 10th Anniversary as an Immigrant

  1. It is amazing that when you look back, all the memories seem going back to the very beginning, of everything…there are inapproportioned amount of details for the first year to the remaining years…i guess that is because the world was so shocking to us then that all our receptors were open and all our senses were there trying to grab details and trying to understand…as the year goes by, as the routine emerges, it is hard to perceive the same life with the same level of excruciating details…our mind moved on to something else i bet…

    this is a touching article to read…shame on me i decided against one on my tenth anniversary!

  2. It’s a touching article, bringing all the memories back. After living in this new country for so many years, we all got used to things happened around us, although everything was a shock to me when I first arrived. Your articles brought back all the memories. I still remember the time when the plane landed in Detroit airport, I had to transfer to another airplane to Providence. That’s the first time I walked on the American soil. The first impression was there were so many foriegners and they all spoke English! Unbelievable! Then, I realized it would be a common thing in my future years.

    The earlier years were tough for everybody even for us with scholarships. It was like reborned. We needed to learn everything from very beginning. I am not sure about you but I think this exprience has a negative impact on the self-esteem of a lot of new comers, including me. We used to be the well respected students in China and suddenly, we have to prove ourselves again in U.S. using a unfamiliar language. The language was really a barrier and I believe many people never got over it. It’s like a ticket to enter the new world. Only sometimes you wonder why someone was born to that languange and we must learn it in a hard way. It’s kind of unfair.

    Anyway, our lives were changed from the first day we entered this country. Many many things happened afterwards. All because of that day. Thanks for the reminder!

    Btw, I still remember that Christmas when you and CH came to visit me in Providence. That’s a cold winter. I was having a very hard time then. And your visit was really a sparkle that lighted up the sky. Thanks!

  3. My 10th anniversary quietly slipped by last week. I tried to pause for awhile and to recall the details of what happened the first day I landed, and what happened next day, a month afterwards, a year afterwards, and afterwards… The longer I traced back, the murkier the journey I could recall. I had to pretend that that day was a nonevent. But for a moment I could sill feel the original sense of excitement and helplessness…

    Many people are so submerged in their routines these days that they simply forget to recollect their true past. It is amazing how this past 10 years has shaped my life in various forms. Not a lot of us could survive unscathed. Life has left its marks on our hearts, and probably on our faces and bodies.

    Thank you for a touching recount of your early moments.

    May we all gain strength from the past. Life journey has yet to be expanded
    and story to be told.

  4. It was your first day in the US, my twentieth. I took the NJT to Penn Station for the first time and witnessed firsthand what diversity truly meant, although some of those then really really weird-looking guys and gals now seem so common and expected. There was my first NYC subway ride. What a big, old, and ugly system. I got off at Columbia university to transfer to M60. There was no “bus stop” per se, just a small sign tacked on a post. It took me a while to confirm that I was at the right place. (Harlem did not have a good reputation back then.) The first bus didn’t even stop to pick me up.

    Then I saw you coming out of the gate at LGA (not JFK!) and the wait was finally over. You guys were quite lucky that those senior guys actually picked you up from the airport. When we first arrived, I took the Aiporter shuttle and paid $19 for the ride and tipped $2 for the first time in my life. :)
    I don’t remember what we bought at PathMark that night now, but I remember I cooked stir-fry snow pea which was not very good.

  5. If everybody write down their first days’ memory, we can put them together and publish a book…

    I even have a title suggestion, how about

    “The Stranger Days: A Series of Unfortunate Events”


  6. After a long and exhausting work day, I was about to let this 10th anniversary quietly slip by. Now reading your blog brought back to me all the vivid memories of that first day landing in America and that beautiful, beautiful season of Fall 1997! The blue blue skies, the clean roads and towns, the curious and exciting everyday happenings while settling in – right now I’m too tired to write anything, but I remember them all so well :-).

    Life went on and rarely returned to that pure, curious, and exciting moment again (unless we are to migrate to another planet with even bigger promises and sweeter dreams, maybe). But having that experience once in a lifetime is sufficient for me to cherish and feel grateful about. Thanks!

  7. haha, 10th anniversary is just the beginning. Life will go on. And this experience may repeat, say, when we move to France or Japan or Australa. Everything is possible. But this first experiment in a new country will always be unique. Hope we can all draw strength from it!

  8. forest and blusky, welcome… when are you gonna have your own blog? ;-)

  9. A really touching story. Congratulations to your 10th anniversary as an immigrant! Your article reminds me to think of my first day abroad which seems to me that it just happened like yesterday….
    Life is hard, especailly harder for those, who live in a foreign country! However, you survived the 1st 10th, you would live much better for the 2nd and 3rd anniversity….. ;-)

  10. thank you siyu… From what little I know, life in Germany is as hard if not harder for a chinese immigrant… congratulations to all of us who survived :-)

  11. 我一直极清晰的记得我来香港的第一天,4年前的6.16日(嘿嘿,BB,巧吧),从北京100多平的房子到狭小的两人共处的宿舍,再看到食堂玻璃窗里的内容,很想哭。




  12. 买饭听不懂,就跟他们说英语! :-D


  13. 呵呵,我也看完了。




  14. 没有什么选择是有必要后悔的,一旦选了,就不存在对错了,因为你已经选了,剩下的就是向前看了。

    btw, thanks for visiting…

  15. 只要是自己的选择就好. 可惜很多时候,特别是我们年轻的时候, 自己做的选择太少了

  16. 因为我们(那一代的中国孩子)成长的太慢了,由于教育体系和父母影响的原因,除了擅长考试,很多人生更重要的道理都没有学到。 那时候很多东西即使给我们机会去自己选择,可能也不知道自己真正想要的是什么。

  17. 10年前,差不多的也是8月底,离开家乡南下到桂林上大学。从此四处飘荡,个中艰辛,只能自己品尝,但痛并快乐着,从未后悔,因为是自己选择的路,选择了不断探求未知的世界,未有的生活,一路走来的经历是自己最骄傲的资本。10年后的我虽然也开始向往些许安定的生活,但这安定也只会是相对的,无论身居何处,心在四方。

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