Chapter 13: East to West
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
After my wonderful year in New York City, my parents decided to send me to live with my relatives in China for the summer, figuring that it would be a good chance for me to brush up on my Chinese language skills and to experience Chinese culture firsthand again. Their plan was for me to fly from New York to Hong Kong, spend the summer with my mother's family in Zhongshan, China (my birthplace), and then fly back to Los Angeles at the end of August to reunite with my mother, who was about to start her new job as a professor at UCLA. My father had to stay at his job in New York, so he was not going to immediately move to Los Angeles with us. My 12-year childhood journey concludes in 1995 with a summer in China and one final relocation to Los Angeles, California.
I had visited China with my mother two years earlier, but this was the first trip there by myself. I remember sitting next to a friendly older Chinese-American guy on the plane. He saw that this 11-year-old kid next to him was all alone and struck up a conversation. He told me that he was 18 years old. At that age, 18 seemed ancient! Nevertheless, we had a good chat, and the 16-hour flight went by quite smoothly. When my plane landed in Hong Kong, my uncle picked me up and drove me to a nearby Planet Hollywood (a gaudy chain restaurant founded by American movie stars) where we ate burgers and fries. He wanted to give me an American-style welcome. When he saw that I was gawking at a display case containing a denim jacket decorated with the Planet Hollywood logo, he instantly bought it for me without saying a word. He also let me use his cell phone to call my parents in New York to tell them that I had arrived safely—wow, an international call on a cell phone in 1995! Let the spoiling begin.
That summer was the peak of my uncle's career in China as a real estate developer and import/export entrepreneur. He made loads of money and never hesitated to spend it on me. He was my mother's younger brother, and she had taken good care of him back when they were kids, especially during tough times in his pre-teen years while my grandparents were in labor camps during the Cultural Revolution. He remembered my mother's compassion, so he wanted to give me the best possible treatment to repay her. Family loyalty is a strong Chinese value.
My uncle and I took an hour-long boat ride from Hong Kong to Zhongshan, where the rest of my mother's family greeted me with open arms. They set me up to live in a guest bedroom in my grandparents' house. I was still the only boy of my generation, and they treated me like royalty; they had far more money now, so they gave me even more preferential treatment than when I had grown up there as the Little Emperor a decade earlier.
Excessive food was the most prominent manifestation of my pampering. Every morning, my grandmother would go down the street to the market to buy fresh meat, fish, and vegetables for the day's cooking and make me porridge for breakfast. Almost every single day, some relatives would take me out to eat dim sum at different upscale restaurants throughout the city. They knew the managers and waiters by name since my uncle and grandfather were prominent figures in the city of Zhongshan, my uncle known as a wildly successful businessman and my grandfather as the chief architect who oversaw much of the development of this modern city. My grandmother would spend all afternoon in the kitchen preparing dinner, and we all ate together as an extended family when everyone came home from work. Usually, almost a dozen people gathered around the table—cousins, aunts, uncles, and grandparents. Sometimes my aunts or uncles would take me out to eat a midnight snack and cruise around town on their motorcycles.
Everybody marveled at how pudgy I grew during those three months. Look at that cute fat boy. Fat boy! Among the older generation in China, it was a compliment to call kids fat because fat was synonymous with health and wealth—the exact opposite of the perception in modern Western society. Back when my parents were growing up, almost nobody in China could grow fat since the majority of people received barely enough food to survive: rice, vegetables, and occasionally some meat. Accustomed to images of emaciated, malnourished children, the older generation thought that kids who were pudgy were healthier than kids who looked too skinny. The only people who could grow fat were members of the privileged class in society—high-ranking Communist government officials and their families. Thus, being fat was also a symbol of high social standing.
As China opened up its economy to the global market, American fast food chains such as McDonald's and Kentucky Fried Chicken invaded Chinese cities. Parents loved taking their kids out to these fast food joints because they felt like they were experiencing a slice of Americana—an unhealthy cholesterol-laden slice. My relatives sometimes mailed us family photos taken at fast food restaurants because those were viewed as cool and trendy places to hang out. The increased availability of high-fat, low-cost foods combined with the old-school view of pudgy equals healthy led to the explosive growth of child obesity in China during the 1990's. The one-child policy exacerbated this epidemic: Because parents placed all of their resources into keeping their single child happy, they were more reluctant to refuse requests to eat junk food all day. Neither parents nor kids received proper nutrition education about calories, fat, cholesterol, or the long-term dangers of obesity. Since millions of Chinese parents had grown up without much food on the table, it was absurd for them to ever deny their kids the privilege to indulge just because some arrogant Western doctors were saying that it was unhealthy.
I was such a gluttonous pig. I could not stop myself from eating everything in my sight. All of my relatives encouraged me to eat as much as possible, and I could not resist. I had absolutely no self control. I did not exercise one single bit. It was so hot and humid in Zhongshan during the summertime that it was painful to even take a walk outside of the house. My relatives relished in how fat I was growing, and they just laughed and kept feeding me more and more. They loved to parade me around town as the fat boy from America. Whenever I went shopping with my aunt, she would tell the merchants, "Look, that's my fat nephew from America. Look at how healthy he is, that American boy!" I gained over 20 pounds that summer.
I became so spoiled that I even began to think at the time that I might actually be spoiled. Whenever I saw a toy that I wanted, my uncle would buy it for me without asking any questions. When I returned to America, I ended up filling three huge suitcases full of expensive model cars, name-brand clothes, video games, and other toys that my uncle had bought for me throughout the summer. My relatives often took my two female cousins and me to amusement parks, arcades, and hotel/resorts to go swimming or to play tennis. We dined at the finest restaurants with first-class treatment. My uncle loved to take me around to do cool manly things like driving go-carts, building gas-powered remote controlled cars, and riding around the countryside in a Porsche sports car, speeding over 120 miles per hour. At that time, he owned several luxury cars including a Mercedes S500 sedan, a Ferrari, and three Porsches. My mother's family had cell phones, expensive cars, recognition at local restaurants, hotels, and shops, and all other material luxuries that money could buy. I was the corpulent prince of that empire built upon my uncle's newly-acquired wealth.
But, wait a minute—this was China, a place I had described earlier as where everyone grew up in relative poverty. Even if a family like my mother's had prestige in their local community, they still could not accumulate significant monetary wealth to buy excess material goods. Then how was all of what I have just described even possible? Well, this was definitely not the same China where, only a decade before, nobody made any money beyond what was necessary for bare survival. Starting in the late 1970's, under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, China underwent a nationwide economic reform, opening up its economy to global interests. By the mid-1990's, it was possible for a fortunate and savvy few to make huge sums of money as entrepreneurs.
I didn't know how long our family's wealth could last before the Communist government launched another campaign against the nouveau riche: people like my uncle and other like-minded entrepreneurs who were getting too wealthy too fast. But I wasn't thinking about the future at the time. I had everything that I could possibly imagine in terms of material goods and personal entertainment. I visited my father's family in Guangzhou a few times during the summer, but I had already been spoiled by the luxuries I received while living with my mother's family in Zhongshan. In all fairness, I should have stayed longer with my father's family, but I was an 11-year-old kid who saw nothing but toys, arcade games, and endless amounts of good food. My father's family lived a much more modest existence without these luxuries. I had never experienced such extravagant material wealth before that summer, and I doubt that I ever will again. Unfortunately, my uncle's luck in business ran out a few years after my visit, and my mother's family can no longer afford to live like they did back at the peak of his career in the mid-1990's.
The more that my mother's family pampered me and gave me everything that I wanted, the more complacent I became. I began to lose my fierce independence and cosmopolitan savviness. Back in New York, I loved being able to have the freedom to do everything by myself. I could navigate the streets and subways with ease. But here, I did not have any freedom to go my own way. Even though my relatives answered my every demand, I relied on them to do everything for me. My childish materialistic desires were always fulfilled but my mind was not challenged. I had grown up as a quick-thinking boy who excelled in school, but now for an entire summer, there was nothing around to stimulate my mind. None of my relatives knew my love for learning. They just viewed me as the cute fat boy from America. As a result, I grew lazy and sluggish, both mentally and physically, giving up any attempts to think independently and just taking every day four to five meals at a time.
I remember being emotionally empty during that summer. I would sometimes cry at night and not be able to figure out why I was crying. I had everything that an 11-year-old boy could possibly want, but I didn't have my parents. I was without a home again, my family in the midst of a cross-country move between the east and west coasts of America. I felt like I was a visitor in my own birthplace of Zhongshan, like I didn't really belong here. By putting me up on a pedestal and treating me with such excessive kindness, my relatives made me into an honorary guest—an outsider—instead of an ordinary family member.
I started to miss some of the friends I had made in New York City, but I tried to shut them out of my memory because I knew that nostalgia would upset me even more. Eventually, I learned to put my feelings aside and to live every day by eating incessantly and demanding material goods and entertainment. As the summer came to an end, I did not remember having any serious feelings of attachment. I was grateful for my family's wonderful hospitality, but nothing about that summer left a strong emotional mark on me. It had been a fun ride, but a frivolous one. My mind was not challenged except by one recurring question: What should I buy or eat next?
Several days before summer ended, my aunts thought that it would be cute for their hair stylist to give me a trendy haircut and perm before I went back to America. The stylist, who had never been to America before, emphatically told them that perms were fashionable in America. "Those Americans love the big wavy hair!" Too bad that advice was for the wrong decade. I came out of the salon with awkwardly wavy hair that smelled like toxic chemicals.
In late August, I flew by myself from Hong Kong to Los Angeles International Airport. After spending an hour passing through immigration and customs, I pushed my luggage cart down the arrivals ramp to try to find my mother in the midst of a huge crowd of people lined up to meet the flight's passengers. When my mother first spotted me, she barely recognized her own son. In the three months since she had last seen me, I had accumulated over 20 pounds of fat and sported a new wavy permed hairdo. She just laughed in disbelief. "Oh my God! What has my family done to you?"
My mother and I moved into our new home, a three-bedroom house located in a suburb 30 miles northwest of downtown Los Angeles. I started seventh grade at a local public middle school. On the first day of classes, my mother told me to insist to my guidance counselor that I deserved to be placed in the most academically-challenging classes for my grade, which were the gifted classes. She had to go to work early in the morning to beat the rush hour traffic, so she couldn't go to school to speak on my behalf. She told me to stop being shy and humble and to show off everything that I knew. She (correctly) predicted that if I were in the gifted classes, I would find myself surrounded by the more studious and well-behaved students. She wanted to start me down an academically-focused path, but I was new in the school district so I had no California standardized tests on my record to prove that I could excel in the gifted classes. She told me to show off my knowledge to the counselor so that he would put me in the gifted classes even though I did not have the proper paperwork.
When I met with the counselor that morning, I was nervous because I was a shy boy who never liked boasting, but I listened to my mother's advice. I managed to answer his questions with confidence and successfully requested to start in the gifted classes. The stage was set: One more big adjustment to a new school, and one more new set of friends to make. I thought that I had everything under control. I was a cosmopolitan boy from the big city. I didn't have anything to worry about. It wasn't even that difficult for me to adjust to school in New York after moving from Louisiana. How hard could this transition be?
Excelling in academics came naturally, but fitting in at school was much harder than I had anticipated. I was now in middle school, so kids had already formed into tightly-knit cliques—stoners, skaters, surfers, jocks, drama queens, band geeks, preppy snobs, studious nerds, and the loser outcasts. I was part of the last category. Entering middle school in seventh grade gave me a huge disadvantage on the social scene because everybody had already formed their cliques one year earlier in sixth grade. If I had not skipped a grade, then I would have started middle school in sixth grade at the same time as everybody else and stood a better chance at finding a social group to join. But what was past was past; I had to adapt to the circumstances presented to me in the present.
If you thought that you were dorky back in middle school, I guarantee that I could beat you. When I started seventh grade, I was overweight with pale white skin and unnatural-looking wavy hair. I wore FOB clothes straight from China (FOB stands for Fresh Off the Boat, which is self-deprecating slang used to describe recent immigrants not in tune with American culture or fashion trends). My relatives bought me the most expensive name-brand clothes in China, thinking that it would be so trendy in America. But they were dead wrong. They bought me neon pink and green shorts and brightly-colored T-shirts covered with English phrases that didn't make any sense. I looked like a disaster out of a bad 80's movie. I wore shorts so short that they would ride up when I sat down in my seat so that everyone could see my fat white hairless legs. People thought I shaved my legs since I didn't have any visible hair on them at the time. I was the laughingstock of my class, but in retrospect, I don't blame my classmates. If I were in seventh grade and saw a fat pale Asian boy with a perm and neon-colored shorts that almost came up to his butt, I would have also laughed.
Kids were vicious at that age. They looked down on anybody who didn't dress in the same clothes or talk the same way or like the same types of music as they did. I was fine in the classroom because I could concentrate on learning, but the lunch hour was torturous. I would sit all alone by myself at a lunch table and observe silently while everybody around me chatted and giggled, messed around with their food, and then ran up to the basketball courts to play after they finished eating. There was no possible way that I could just sit with a crowd of kids and become accepted. This was definitely not elementary school anymore. We were all friends in our tightly-knit gifted class in Louisiana, and although I wasn't friends with everybody in my class in New York, we all got along reasonably well. But this was middle school. These pre-pubescent kids were so image-conscious that the last thing they wanted was to be seen around an embarrassingly out-of-place new kid.
Throughout the entire year, I did not find a single clique to join. I wasn't even cool enough for the nerds. I was part of the losers at the absolute bottom of the popularity hierarchy who roamed around the cafeteria every day and sat alone somewhere in a corner. I eventually made one good friend, Peter, who was also new to the school. We hung out together at our own lunch table, so at least I didn't have to sit alone anymore. Even though Peter was a new student like me, he knew that he was going to move to Ohio after the school year ended. Therefore, he didn't want to bother with the social formalities of finding a clique to join. He didn't give a damn what other people thought of him, and I liked that about him. We got along really well and often went over to each other's houses to play. He had the same free spirit that I saw in myself a year earlier when I lived in New York City. I knew that I was only going to be in New York for a year so I didn't give a damn and had the time of my life, and now Peter knew that he was going to leave this school in a year so he didn't give a damn either. I knew that once he moved away the following year, I would have to start all over again to make new friends, but at the time, I didn't give a damn. One friend was better than none.
My 12-year childhood journey across three continents concludes here as I begin middle school in suburban Southern California. Fortunately, my social life started to improve after my horribly awkward seventh grade year. I attended karate classes several times a week, which helped me to lose the fat I had gained during my gluttonous summer in China. I wore baggier shorts so that my pale thighs were no longer exposed. I got a trendy parted-down-the-middle haircut. And, most importantly, I finally made friends and joined the clique of kids who were mostly in my honors classes, so that I no longer had to sit by myself during lunchtime.
I spent the rest of my childhood (the next six years) facing the usual challenges that all teenagers must inevitably face: dressing to conform to the fashions of the day, overcoming the fear of talking to the opposite sex, figuring out how to navigate the school social hierarchy, balancing academic and personal lives, determining when to and when not to listen to parents, and preparing for the transition to college. However, my teenage experiences were not nearly as unique as those of my early childhood, so I have chosen not to write about them.
During my first three years in California, I lived with my mother while my father continued working in New York. He was advancing rapidly in his job and did not want to lose momentum. He flew over to visit during summer and winter vacations, and sometimes my mother and I took trips to New York to see him. We voluntarily separated because it was best for the family. My family has always been accustomed to living apart: When I was a young child growing up in China, my mother went to graduate school in the United States and my father went to work in Switzerland. Many of my friends thought that my parents were divorced, because it wasn't normal in American households for husband and wife to live separately for such long periods of time. In reality, their marriage has always remained solid, strengthened, ironically, by the physical separation, and perhaps more importantly, by the adversities they faced. Throughout my childhood, both my parents endured difficulties far greater in magnitude than what I have experienced, and their shared immigrant struggle to make it in America has tightened their bond to each other.
My parents had to move wherever career opportunities arose, and I had no choice but to tag along for the ride and adapt to the diverse foreign environments I encountered along the way. Like many immigrant children, I stayed home alone frequently at a very young age, usually for a few hours each day after school. My parents taught me how to protect myself around the house, left me with their friends' phone numbers in case of an emergency, and were themselves only a phone call away. I was a latchkey kid starting in Switzerland when my mother worked full-time and didn't come home until 6 PM every night and my father lived and worked in another city. Naturally, I was scared at first, but I understood that my parents had no other options, so I made the best of my situation. Since I had no siblings, I had to learn to entertain myself during all of those hours I spent alone. I immersed myself in reading science books, playing with LEGO blocks, and imagining ideas for wild inventions and sketching out their "blueprints" in my notebook.
When my parents came home in the evenings, I would often be eager to talk to them about what I had learned from reading or what crazy inventions I had dreamed up. And here is where I give them the most credit for my upbringing: They would listen intently and ask questions to encourage me to think and talk in more detail. Even though they were probably tired, stressed, and didn't really care about my childish drawings or discoveries, they would always make an effort to allow me to talk about what I wanted and try to engage in dialogue with me to stimulate my critical thinking. At the time, I felt that it was so natural and fun, but looking back, I am now extremely grateful that they didn't just brush me off and shut me up like some parents in their position might do. It definitely takes a determined effort to listen to the excited, high-pitched ramblings of a little kid when you have more serious adult issues on your mind, and only in retrospect do I appreciate my parents' patience.
I was an inquisitive kid by nature, and my parents wisely recognized my personality and tried their best to nurture my curiosity rather than stunt it by being overbearing or imposing. I have a feeling that many children who have a naturally strong sense of curiosity get their passion for learning quashed by nagging parents. Whenever someone forces you to do something, it becomes a chore, and chores are no fun. Quite a few of my Asian friends suffered through their parents making them do extra homework or practice quizzes on the weekends, memorize SAT vocabulary flash cards, rehearse class presentations to the point of frustration, and other activities that sapped the excitement out of learning and made them view the acquisition of knowledge as a chore required to earn good grades, get into a reputable college, find a stable job, and ultimately please their parents.
Fortunately, my parents never imposed their will on my hobbies, so I always found learning and creating new things to be interesting and fun. They never forced me to learn anything that I didn't want to learn, such as piano, violin, tennis, supplemental material for more advanced academic subjects, or other extracurricular activities that Asian parents would often tell each other to make their kids do because they were supposedly beneficial for the kids' development.
Even though my parents were often too busy to spend much time with me throughout my childhood, I never felt like they were absent; whenever we did spend time together, they would always make an effort to pay attention to me and to make me feel like my opinion and insights mattered, despite how immature or irrational my thoughts might have been at the time.
Like most other kids, my own childhood journey has ultimately been about finding my place in the world—intellectually, emotionally, and socially. There is only so much that parents can do to guide their kids, because kids are influenced tremendously by their environment and especially by their peers in school. I feel that my parents played their role well, and their greatest contributions to my upbringing were providing a home environment conducive to learning and open communication and then leaving me alone to let me find my own way.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo