World Citizen: Where is home?
I like going to New York City, because I don’t feel like a foreigner there; I think I’m no different from anybody hurrying by me on the street. When the subway arrives on a station, passengers take their phones out of their pockets, and you can hear “Hello” in seven languages. However, the feeling of being a foreigner floods back when I return to Iowa City. I’m not saying I am excluded or alienated by natives; I’m just different. I think I don’t really mind being a foreigner, or an outsider — though it certainly contributes to an often overwhelming sense of loneliness, even when I’m surrounded by people.
In the meanwhile, however, I have also felt much less connected to home and to my country since I journeyed to the United States two years ago. So I began wondering if my predecessors who are now U.S. citizens feel at home in this country, or if they have ever felt alienated from their home country. I want to know if being ethnically Chinese while holding American passports means that they have to compromise or to struggle with their national identity.
The people I spoke with while pursuing this project all told me that they are world citizens, that after years of obtaining U.S. citizenship, they have taken their national identity less seriously, because only in this way can they survive without any inner conflicts and struggles.
• • •
Before I had a chance to talk with Professor Wenfang Tang, the University of Iowa Stanley Hua Hsia professor of political science and international studies, I learned a lot about him from Hualing Nieh Engle, the cofounder of the International Writing Program. She likes telling me that Tang only had $50 with him the first time he came to the United States in 1982, when studying abroad was barely on anybody’s radar in China.
“It was actually $40,” Tang corrected and laughed.
Tang, then 26, took the life-changing step in a gray Dacron Mao suit, leaving the just opened-up poor China for its exact polar opposite — the United States — to pursue a master’s degree in political science at the University of Kansas.
“I wanted to go back home every day while I was working [at my first job],” Tang said, now 57, who has lived in the States for 31 years. “When I got my first paycheck, I thought, ‘Now, I [have] money to buy a plane ticket. I’m going back to Beijing tomorrow.’ ”
Of course, he did not do that. He took the risk of losing everything in Beijing to study in America. It would have been seen as a failure if he had gone back home with nothing to bring back with him.
“I didn’t have the option to fail,” said Tang, who says he studied “crazy hard” in the ’80s. “So I couldn’t look back; I had to force myself to move forward.”
Tang encountered problems that many study-abroad students confront.
“In the first three years, I had no idea what my professors were talking about in class,” Tang said. “I suddenly came to understand their conversations one day, and I was like, ‘Is that what they’ve been bullshitting? I can do that, too.’ After that, nothing could hold me back anymore.”
For solving what he calls his “social problems,” his trick was to date American women.
“Don’t tell my wife,” he said, joking, referring to American-born wife Lisa Weaver, who teaches in the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communications.
After finishing a master’s degree, Tang thought about pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Chicago. Yet his loyalty to Kansas made him hesitant.
“My professor told me, ‘There is no such thing as institutional loyalty in America,’” Tang said. “I remember his words still today. It was my first step in Americanization.”
Given that he has lived in the United States for more than 30 years, I asked him whether he had been completely Americanized.
“Not entirely,” he said. “Professionally and academically speaking, yes, I have been Americanized, because academically, I grew up here.”
Tang said that it took him 11 years to get used to the American way of life. Only when you can be an individual in the diverse society can you be one of them, he noted.
“It occurred to me all of a sudden that if you want to get involved in the American society, you got to be yourself,” Tang said. It was 1993. “I started realizing that I [have] to hold my own ground instead of solely seeking Americanization. I have something commendable and likable to offer; why do I have to learn everything in an American way?”
Today, Tang still has nostalgia for the bustling life in China. He cited the closeness of people in China and their relationships in comparison with those in the United States.
He was doing a research project in Singapore this past summer, and he felt delighted to get together with his coworkers every day, talking and laughing at lunchtime.
“This is rare back in the States,” Tang said. “You [have] to set up a time two weeks before the lunch and mark the time on your calendar. It’s OK — I’m used to that while I’m there, but whenever I go back to China or Singapore, I would think, ‘Isn’t this great?’ ”
While he misses the Chinese lifestyle, three decades of living away from his family alienated Tang from them in Beijing.
“I failed every time I tried to share my happiness and bitterness with them,” he sighed. “They are not able to emotionally relate to my experiences here at all, and they don’t care, either.
“My connections now with my dad, sister and brother seem to be really superficial and abstract. In their eyes, I’m too Americanized.”
Tang thought about moving back to Beijing around 2000, when he was greatly inspired by flourishing China. But more recently, he has believed that he would trouble with readjusting to the life there, and the instability in China has worried him, too.
Having been an American citizen for two decades, he said, he had not realized how much he appreciates the country where he has lived most of his life until he was thousands miles away from it.
“When I was in the U.S., I felt like I was the only person who’s qualified to criticize my home country, China, and at the same time, I also liked criticizing America,” said the political-science professor, who noted that he has roots in both countries. “But here I am in Singapore; I’m not happy with anyone’s criticism of America.”
Having experienced both Chinese and American cultures, he pointed out that national identity has often a narrow vision, which people such as him better not take too seriously. Otherwise, conflicted feelings will easily flare.
“I’ve felt more and more strongly about one thing — national identity is actually not that important to everybody,” he said. We’re all world citizens.”
• • •
I was surprised when I first spoke with Ramon and Victoria Lim — they speak Mandarin with a distinctive Southern China accent, a native dialect of Fujian Province, China.
“Fujian dialect is our first language, Mandarin is the second, and English places in third,” said the Lims, the Philippine-grown couple who had not been back to their ancestral home of Fujian until they were in their 40s — and decades after moving to the States.
UI neurology Professor Emeritus Ramon Lim, who is 80 years old, was born in the Philippines. UI internal-medicine Professor Emeritus Victoria Lim, is the same age. She moved to the Philippines with her family from Fujian at the age of 3. Growing up in Chinatown in the Philippines, they both went to Chinese schools, where they received traditional Chinese educations.
They moved to the United States in 1959 and 1961, respectively, after receiving M.D.s in the Philippines. For more than 10 years, there was no country for them to go back to.
Although he was born in and she was raised in the Philippines, the Lims were not citizens there, because their parents were Chinese nationals. But at that time, the United States did not maintain diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China, so the passports they held to enter the United States had been issued in Taiwan.
“There was a time when we were like people who had no nationality,” Ramon Lim said.
“We were Chinese, but we hadn’t set our foot in mainland China,” Victoria Lim said. “We had not been to Taiwan, but we got our passports issued there.”
Although the Lims were legally Chinese, in the days of martial law — 1949 to 1987 — they were not allowed to enter Taiwan without a special permit. But they could not go back to the Philippines, either; their re-entry permits to that country had expired three years after they left the country.
It was not until in the 1970s, when they became U.S. citizens, that the couple were able to travel outside American borders.
They sit in their home close to downtown Iowa City, talking matter-of-factly about their past — a tough time they went through that was hard for me to imagine. Being unequally treated, working long hours, financially struggling, these days, they shrug all the hardships off, laughing when mentioning them.
I had tons of questions for them, but I was mostly curious about their identity after hearing their history of being “homeless.”
“Am I Chinese? Of course I am — my roots are in China,” said Victoria Lim, proud of her Chinese heritage. “But at the same time, I’m a U.S. citizen. I’ve been Americanized, and I feel like I belong to this country.”
She said she likes Chinese first lady Peng Liyuan.
“I don’t know how Xi Jinping is doing, but I’m really glad that we finally got a first lady who is presentable and elegant,” she said. “Her predecessors were not good.”
She is also passionate about presidential elections in the United States. The Obama supporter said she was “torn between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama” in 2008, and she always feels guilty for not voting for Rodham Clinton.
Since 1983, the two have taken their three children and six grandchildren to China four times so they could discover their roots. They have traveled to more places in China than I have been.
But did they feel like they were strangers when going to Fujian?
“No,” Ramon Lim said, who was not born in his parent’s hometown. “We were there shortly, plus, we speak the same language as my folks do. So I don’t think there was a gap between us.”
Ramon and Victoria Lim see themselves as world citizens. They said that their ethnic and national identities never conflict.
• • •
Zhang Lv reluctantly left home for Iowa City in the spring of 1992, graduating from high school in his home city Qingdao, China.
“I felt really lost after getting my F-1 visa approved,” said Lv, a computer science graduate of the UI who is now working at General Dynamics Information Technology in Coralville. “I was upset as I realized what was waiting for me in America was a rough time.”
Unlike most of his predecessors, Lv arrived in the United States with less financial and mental stress. Unlike his descendants, either, he did not have as much exposure to the world at the age of 21.
He said he was lucky enough to have a smooth adaptive phase during his initial years in Iowa City. One of the few Chinese undergraduates, he quickly became friends with international students from Malaysia, Singapore, Japan, Hong Kong, and Indonesia.
“We liked gathering together,” he said, recalling his eventful college life. “It was just there weren’t many Chinese undergraduates as there are now.”
But he had not thought that he would settle down here, seeing off groups of fellow Chinese undergraduate students every four years. To Lv, it was logical to obtain the U.S. citizenship after he got a job offer in America, because it was unpopular to be a Haigui — an overseas returnee — in the 1990s.
“Now I consider Iowa City home, although emotionally I have a deeper connection to Qingdao,” said Lv, who said he goes back to China almost every year. “Qingdao is where my memories are.
However, it’s not the city that I was familiar with anymore. It’s been changed too much, just like any other places in China.”
The big Hawkeye fan said he has never painstakingly tried getting involved in the American culture, and he has not felt like an outsider, either; his embracing nature allows him to feel comfortable with wherever he has been. However, his America-born Chinese friends’ bitter experiences with identity recognition and their painful feeling of being excluded made him think of his own children.
“I guess my children might also be confronted with those issues as they grow up,” said the 42-year-old, now raising a first-generation of Chinese Americans in his family in Iowa City. “So I take every opportunity to take them to travel around, wishing they will be open-minded and embrace differences as often as they can.”
After 20 years of living abroad, Lv said, he has blurred the national boundaries. As he likes to tell his two boys, wherever they go and whatever they do in the future, they are world citizens.
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