Chapter 4: My First Year in America
On the Move: An Immigrant Child's Global Journey
In August 1990, my mother and I moved to America. My mother started her new job as a tenure-track assistant professor of sociology at Louisiana State University (LSU). My father stayed behind in Switzerland to take care of closing his failing restaurant business; he rejoined us six months later and went back to school to work towards his MBA degree at LSU. We rented a house in the suburb of Baton Rouge, the capital of the state of Louisiana.
It was somewhat an accident of history that my family ended up in America. After receiving her Ph.D. in the spring of 1989, my mother planned to stay in Switzerland only for a short time and then return to China to take up a faculty position in one of the best universities there. My father planned to stay a little longer running his restaurant until he had accumulated enough money to launch a new business in China. But the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in Beijing changed my parents' ambitious plans. After the Communist government's crackdown on students and intellectuals, my mother and many other scholars who were educated in Western democratic countries felt deeply uncertain about their future careers upon their return to China. Fortunately, with the help of her academic advisors in America, she was able to obtain a faculty position at LSU and initiate our family's journey towards becoming American.
Even though we lived in a tranquil suburban neighborhood, my mother enrolled me in first grade at Jackson Elementary School, located right in the middle of the downtown Baton Rouge ghetto. Why? Because it had a low-cost extended daycare program that lasted from 7:00 AM to 5:00 PM every day. My father was not around, and my mother was starting a challenging new job which required her to put in a high number of hours. The 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM schedule of a regular school (such as the one in our neighborhood) would not be sufficient since she could not possibly go to work that late or leave work that early to come home to look after me. She could not afford private after-school care, so sending me to Jackson was the most practical option.
The school officials were proud of their extended daycare program, telling my mother that it was the ideal choice for a working mother such as herself. She later learned that the locals used the term working mother as a euphemism to describe young, poor, often unwed single mothers living in the inner-city. These women had to work long hours every day (sometimes at multiple jobs) to support their children, thus creating the demand for after-school child care programs.
As a new immigrant, my mother was pragmatic yet naive. At the time, Baton Rouge ranked as one of the most crime-filled cities in the United States, and I ended up enrolled in a school in the middle of the most dangerous part of downtown. Despite having attended graduate school in America for four years, my mother still had not seen firsthand how different neighborhoods within the same city could manifest such vast disparities in social class. She was simply unaware of what attending a ghetto school might mean for a child's education and even physical well-being. She thought that she had found a good solution for making the best out of her time and financial constraints.
This extreme stratification in social class was unheard of back in China and Switzerland. In 1980's China, there was no concept of the "bad part of town" since everybody lived more-or-less equally-modest lives. Even in Switzerland, people were fairly homogeneous in race and socioeconomic status. The homogeneity that my mother grew accustomed to in China and Switzerland left her unprepared for the stark disparity between the "haves" and the "have-nots" in America and the astounding differences in material wealth and social environments between our suburban neighborhood and the downtown Baton Rouge ghetto. It was bitterly ironic that she placed me in the most dangerous part of the city for ten hours a day with the intention of ensuring my safety, but she could not think of a better option at the time.
As she had done in Switzerland, my mother tried her best to take care of me while I was at home, but I was all on my own while at school. Every weekday morning, she drove me to school in her second-hand Subaru that she bought for $3,000, a huge sum of money for us at that time. There were two things I remembered about our daily drives. The first was listening to All Things Considered, a talk show on National Public Radio (NPR) filled with classical music and the deep-voiced commentator discussing social and political issues far beyond my comprehension. During my first few weeks in America, I could not understand a word that man was saying, and that made me even more nervous as we drove towards school. It was like a daunting prologue to my next ten hours. If I could not even understand what Mr. Walter Morris or Alexander Stuart (or whatever stoic model-citizen-white-guy-name the NPR commentator's parents gave him) was saying during my ride to school, then how could I possibly hope to comprehend what my furiously compassionate black first grade teacher Mrs. Jones was spouting out in the classroom in her strong Southern-accented English?
My other prominent memory of those morning car rides was feeling physically ill: I always got a terrible pain in my gut, caused by fear and anxiety. Everybody can imagine the "butterflies in your stomach" sensation, that tense feeling in your gut when you have to make a first impression on somebody, when you initially move to a new place and have no friends, or when you are nervous about some important occasion. Everybody has experienced that weak but chronic tummy ache that won't ever go away, and that cold weakness in your bones and joints. I had that gut-wrenching feeling every morning as my mother drove me to school, and the soothing voice and classical music of NPR only exacerbated my anxiety. Where I was headed had no classical music or white guys neatly dressed in suits. Every day, the same agonizing pain pervaded through my body before I even reached the school's front doors. I never got used to going to school during my first year in America, and I knew it because that terrible discomfort never went away.
What is somewhat ironic but unsurprising is that I do not remember anything about ever being in the classroom during that entire year. I don't remember what the teacher taught us, who was in my class, or what kind of desks we sat in. All I remember is that I was by far the best student in the classroom. My teacher must have been shocked that, even though I did not know a word of English when I first started school, within a few months I could read and write better than anybody else in my class. I was a quick and voracious learner; my love of acquiring knowledge had developed naturally from a young age. I was able to read and write Chinese fairly fluently at a child's level by age three; I loved reading all of the street signs and shop names out loud whenever my grandmother took me walking around Guangzhou. At age three, I started learning math, both from preschool and from my step-grandfather, and became proficient at doing arithmetic that kids in America would not learn until third or fourth grade.
So why don't I recall any specific experiences within the classroom throughout that entire year? I think it's because that was the most normal part of my school day. Those six hours every day were well-controlled and productive, and I had so many new things to learn. I learned most of my English by listening to the teacher talk and tell us stories, and by watching her write on the board. It was the only time when everyone sat in their own seats with an authority figure present who could keep everything under control. Even the most bad-ass of playground bullies had to simply sit in their seats and struggle through reading children's literature passages out loud. When I focused on my work during class time, the terrible butterflies in my stomach finally went away. I was in my element inside the classroom because there I knew that I had an advantage over all the other kids. However, even though I gained self-confidence in terms of my academic abilities, I still remained quiet and humble. I never regarded my precociously-acquired knowledge as a mark of pride because scholastic intelligence didn't matter at all outside the classroom.
In stark contrast to my relatively calm classroom experience, the times I spent at Jackson Elementary during recess, lunch, and before and after school in the extended daycare program were beyond chaotic and overwhelming. The kids I had encountered in Switzerland a year earlier all came from middle-class families in a country known for social tranquility. I was not afraid of them because their docile environment gave them little impetus for aggressive behavior beyond good-natured roughhousing. However, most of the kids I encountered here had grown up on the turbulent, crime-ridden streets of the Baton Rouge ghetto. Many boys looked intimidating to me and flaunted macho tough-guy attitudes, ready to challenge authority or fight to defend their personal honor or ego. The vast majority of my classmates were black, but their race had little to do with their heightened aggression and antagonism towards me—put a white, Asian, or Hispanic boy in the ghetto for a few years (usually with unwed or separated parents) and he would develop the same street-tough sense of self-defense as well, pushing and shoving to assert his pre-pubescent masculinity.
When my mother dropped me off every morning at 7:00 AM, I went straight into the cafeteria, where teachers provided supervision for two hours before class began. There was always deafening noise created by kids playing with one another and a pervasive nauseous smell resulting from the mix of the humidity, the freshly-mowed grass outside, and the hot dairy-filled breakfasts (often creamy Southern biscuits and unlabeled plastic packs of milk) being served to the students inside. Hundreds of kids ran loose around the cafeteria—talking, yelling, screaming—but the teachers didn't do much to calm the rowdy atmosphere. After all, it was like recess, only before school, so it was acceptable to give the kids some amount of freedom.
I was overwhelmed by the amount of chaotic activity that took place before my eyes. It wasn't like any kind of school that I had ever attended or that I could even imagine. I tried to remain as far away from the center of attention as possible. I often sat alone in a corner and watched the other kids playing, roughhousing, and fighting with one another. I never ate breakfast in the cafeteria because it tasted really gross. My stomach was not used to the richness of American butter and cream (kids in China usually do not grow up eating much dairy products), and the constant grumbling of the butterflies in my stomach further quashed my appetite. I really don't remember what I did to pass the time during those mornings, but somehow I managed to survive until the bell rang and we all entered the more orderly world within the classroom. Knowing myself, I probably looked around a lot and tried to make sense of how the other kids behaved.
I stayed out of trouble by using my animal instincts because that was all I had with me. Of course, I never consciously thought to myself, "Hmm, what's my next move" or "What am I going to do now?" or "How am I not going to get whooped?" Rather, I just followed my gut feelings and tried to avoid arousing the attention of the most threatening-looking kids. Like a small animal in the wild, I learned to stay alert and to instinctively avoid places where there might be trouble. I wouldn't go near groups of larger kids who were playing ball games; I tried to stay near the smaller kids in order to camouflage my physical differences. I never actively joined in to play games with anyone. I kept busy by talking to myself and by observing other people around me. I was that loner kid who always sat by himself in the playground, but I was most comfortable when left alone.
When I started first grade, learning English became a top priority since nobody else knew French or Chinese. I employed the same tactics of learning through silent observation that had worked for me in Switzerland just a year earlier, naturally becoming more adept at it since it was my second attempt. During those first few weeks, I was very cautious when kids approached me to ask me questions since I could barely understand what they were saying. Some may have been malicious, some may have been making fun of me, some may have been curious, and some may have really wanted to be my friend, but I was always curt with my responses. I could say yes and no, just like how I could say oui and non while I was in Switzerland. Once again, I had absolutely no idea what the other kids were asking me at first, but judging from the tones of their voices, I knew that they were being inquisitive, so I alternated my answers between yes and no. As my sense of the English language became more refined, I could better understand people's questions, and my replies became more accurate and realistic. I soon started moving up to phrases and then sentences.
Within three months, I could understand pretty much everything that kids around me were saying, and I could speak a good deal of it myself without any sort of foreign-sounding accent (as a consequence, I completely lost my ability to understand or speak French due to lack of practice). I sounded like everybody else around me in school because I had learned to mimic their speech patterns, which meant that I talked exactly like a black kid from Louisiana. I spoke with a thick Southern accent mixed with black slang. One time when I tried to order food at McDonald's, I articulated my request quite eloquently in my Southern black accent, and the black guy who manned the cash register enthusiastically told me, "Kid, you speak GOOD English!" My parents love telling that story to their friends. My unique accent faded the following year when I enrolled in a suburban school, which consisted mostly of white kids. But throughout my first year in America, whenever I moved my lips, it sounded like there was a Southern black kid standing behind me speaking the words that came out of my mouth.
After school ended at 3:00 every day, teachers and other staff members shuffled the kids who enrolled in the extended daycare program into various classrooms and locations on the athletic field. For the next two hours, the adults supervised activities such as sports, arts and crafts, and additional tutoring until our parents (i.e., our working mothers) came to pick us up at 5:00. The only activity I did was related to computers, since that seemed to require the least amount of physical effort. The school had a computer lab containing old, run-down Apple machines with huge 5.25" floppy disks. Our supervisor for the computer activity was a white woman who seemed fairly young; she was one of the only white people I saw in that school, and she was definitely younger than the teachers. Perhaps she was a high school student who was volunteering to help kids in the inner-city.
This supervisor lady taught us to play educational games on the computer, which usually involved solving math or spelling problems. Unfortunately, I almost never got a chance to play the games since the bigger kids always hogged all the machines. I would often sit behind those kids and watch them play. I always knew the correct answers or how to properly maneuver through the game (often playing through it in my head as I watched them), but I was too timid to ask for a chance to use the computer. I would point to the screen to help out the kids who were playing, but I never received any credit for my assistance. One time I was standing behind several big kids, watching them struggle with the keys on the keyboard. I was so eager to help them out, except I was nervous about how they would react when I gave them advice. I ended up sporadically pointing my finger here and there on the screen and keyboard, giving subtle hints to them so that they could magically "figure it out" on their own.
After a few weeks, my actions finally caught the supervisor's eye, and she actually gave me some recognition. She let me roam around to help other kids who were having trouble with their respective games. I learned to remain humble even if I knew the correct answers while the other kids did not and to refrain from showing off my knowledge since it might make others feel inadequate or embarrassed. I figured that kids who felt uncomfortable weren't likely to treat me well, so I kept my mouth shut to protect myself—survival instinct. Of course, I didn't consciously think that I was learning an important life lesson; everything happened very naturally.
There was not much room for higher-brain activity during my first year in America. I mostly went with my instincts because that was all I could rely on. I was not exactly going with the flow because I was not even part of the (metaphorical) river. I had to carve out my own stretch of land, fill it with my own water, and then swim upstream in my own river. But the most important thing is that I somehow knew how to do it. I somehow innately knew how to survive. I never had to consciously make an effort to learn like I had to do with math or science. We humans have an amazing ability to adapt, and this self-preservation instinct was what kept me going throughout that entire year.
My mother left work and picked me up from school at 5:00 PM every day. At around 4:45, the extended daycare activities ended and the teachers lined up all the students by the front entrance. We sat along the wall in the hallway and waited for our parents to come pick us up. By the end of each ten-hour school day, I was anxious to see my mother and to go home. Whenever I saw her Subaru pull up in front of the school, I would almost burst into tears in relief that everything was okay. I was deathly afraid that something might happen to her one day and that she would not come to pick me up. I didn't know what would happen to me if that ever occurred because I knew nobody else in this country.
I always stared at my wristwatch or at the school clock as 5:00 approached. As soon as the minute hand hit the 12 to indicate that it was 5:00 and my mother was not yet in sight, I sometimes began to cry incessantly in panic, worrying that something horrible had happened to her. Whenever she was stuck in traffic and came only five minutes too late, she would often find me bawling in tears. Concerned over my all-too-punctual daily cries, the teacher who supervised parental pick-ups at the front desk gave her diagnosis to my mother: "You know what your son's problem is? He knows how to read a clock. If he didn't know what time it was, then he wouldn't cry so much." My mother was shocked and thought to herself, "He's six years old, how is it possible that a six-year-old kid doesn't know how to read a clock?" We did not realize that many six-year-olds in America could not read analog clocks with hour and minute hands. We had always taken that skill for granted since I had known how to tell time since I was three, just like my cousins and many other Chinese kids. I never forgot those feelings of utter hopelessness and anxiety which struck me the moment the clock hit 5:00 every afternoon. I could not accept being separated from my mother even for a second longer than scheduled. I could tell time like a champ, but this accuracy became a burden since I lived in an imprecise world that I had no way of controlling.
Halfway through the school year, my teacher saw my academic potential and told my parents to sign me up to take a standardized aptitude test. If I passed that test, I could enroll in the gifted and talented education program in my suburban neighborhood school in the following year. One of the few vivid scenes I distinctly recall from first grade was when I walked into a classroom to take that test. It was administered in one of those makeshift portable buildings; I had to walk up a slightly inclined ramp in order to enter the room. It was very cold and dry in there, so cold that I got goose bumps on my skin. It was often very hot and humid in Louisiana, and I cringed at the shock of walking into an air-conditioned room after being outdoors in the sticky heat. I easily passed that test and won my way out of spending another year at Jackson Elementary, saying goodbye to long drives with my mother into downtown every morning while my stomach tried to digest itself, and saying goodbye to being at school for ten hours every single day.
I wasn't traumatized by my first year in America; rather, I made the best of my situation. I never thought that I deserved a more stable childhood. I never even knew what a normal childhood ought to be. I expected nothing more ideal because I was never shown anything else besides my own life. I grew strong during that year because I learned about my deepest weaknesses and fears. I also reinforced many of the skills that I had acquired in Switzerland since I faced similar challenges, albeit in a far harsher environment: Again I had to learn a new language and culture, keep myself safe and entertained when nobody else looked out for me, and cope with prolonged separation from my parents. Those two years marked my transition from an outspoken and spoiled Little Emperor in China with high prospects and extensive family connections to a reserved and independent immigrant boy.
Copyright © 2007 Philip Guo