By Shaohua Hu

The year 1989 was an eventful one in world history. The first half witnessed nationwide protests in China, my home country, concluding with the bloody crackdown in Beijing. In November, the Berlin Wall fell. On Christmas day, Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife were executed by firing squad.

Amidst these revolutionary events, I opened a new chapter in my life as well. On August 26, I landed at New York’s JFK Airport to begin a doctoral program at American University (AU) in Washington, D.C. Twenty-eight years later, I am still in the US, an associate professor of government and politics at Wagner College. The United States has become my home.

An illustration of a human figure opening a doorway that is designed to look like the U.S. flag.
©2009 Brad Yeo c/o theispot.com

During the first half of 1989, I was studying in China at the Hopkins Nanjing Center, a program of the Johns Hopkins University at Nanjing University. We Chinese students were taught by American professors, and we lived with American students, in rooms equipped with AC and showers — a luxurious lifestyle by Chinese standards back then.

The Nanjing Center helped me overcome several obstacles that stood between me and enrolling in an American university. First of all, the center paid Chinese students’ fees for the TOEFL exam, a requirement for study in the US. The fee was rather high, and US dollars were hard to come by. In 1989, Chinese GNP per capita was about $350; my monthly salary was 150 yuan, or $40. My American roommate helped me draft a letter to submit with my applications, saying that I could not afford the application fees but would pay them after I was accepted.

“The first fortune cookie of my life said, ‘You will be at the top of the world soon.’ I found it amusing and auspicious.”

Among the five universities to which I applied, only AU provided me with a scholarship, which included free tuition and a $9,000 annual stipend, in exchange for working 20 hours per week. The next hurdle was that for some reason, I had to contact the university. Back then, the Internet was yet to be born, and few Chinese families had phones; one could only make international calls in select post offices. I spent one third of my monthly salary for a 5-minute call.

International travel was even more difficult. One could not purchase an airplane ticket over the counter; you had to know somebody at the airlines. Although I worked in Beijing, I had to go to Shanghai, where my sister helped me secure a United Airlines ticket. My siblings pooled their money to pay for the flight. I took with me exactly $45, the quota for a study abroad trip at that time.

My friend Martin met me at JFK Airport. We knew each other from Peking University, where I was an undergraduate student and he, a doctoral student at Columbia University, was doing research on Premier Zhou Enlai. We took a bus and a subway to his small and hot rent-controlled apartment near Columbia. Then, we ate at a Chinese restaurant, where I received the first fortune cookie of my life. It said, “You will be at the top of the world soon.” I found it amusing and auspicious. The next night, I boarded the Greyhound bus to Washington. Miles of lights made me feel as if I were traveling in a fairyland. After staying with a friend for several days, I rented a room in a house near campus for $350 a month.

Nothing special happened in my first semester — an indication of how easy it was for foreigners to live in America. Nevertheless, several minor things deserve mentioning. First, the fall semester was not as tough as expected. In China, American colleges were said to be places where students worked so hard that they had no time to sleep. That didn’t happen to me; however, if I had burned the midnight oil more, my grades might have been better than an A, an A minus, and a B plus. Second, people were polite and kind. I felt relieved to discover that there was no need to compliment women’s appearance or to hug and kiss people. I did practice saying “How are you doing?” hundreds of times. Smoking customs surprised me. Back then, most Chinese men smoked, but few women did. Among my cohort at AU, almost all women smoked, but few men did. In addition, food was abundant. Coca-Cola was like a luxury in China, and all-you-can-eat buffets unheard of. If communism meant potatoes plus beef, as Khrushchev apocryphally said, was not America a communist paradise?

Finally, cars were ubiquitous. In 1984, when President Reagan visited China, a Chinese citizen made history by becoming the first to buy a car. During my first week in Washington, I did not know about the shuttle service between the subway station and my campus. Walking along Nebraska Avenue, I barely met a living creature on the sidewalks, and only saw cars zooming by. This was depressing for me, since even a small Chinese town teemed with people walking everywhere.

Concluding my first few months in America during my winter break, I was exposed to two different American lives. First, I went to southern Illinois to visit the parents of my American roommate from the Nanjing center, who was still in China. The town was peaceful and beautiful. A respected lawyer, Mr. Dove took me to several places, including the local jail. Seeing the only inmate combing his hair in front of a mirror, I joked that I would be glad to write my dissertation there, since he seemed to have leisure time and necessary support.

On the bus back to Washington, I was seated next to a man who looked like the Amish I had seen in the film Witness. He turned out to be a Mennonite who occasionally went to China to buy kerosene lamps. To my pleasant surprise, he invited me to visit his community in Pennsylvania, and I interrupted my trip to take him up on it. A buggy took us to his farm, where he worked on his own plot, and owned a used book store. I distinctly remember the tastiness of his cage-free chicken, the frigid morning in his unheated house, and how time seemed to slow down. The next day, we attended a church service in a one-room schoolhouse. After the service, we all went to lunch in one family’s home. The children were learning how to sing in German. They called all outsiders “English,” and, upon request, this “Englishman” sang a Chinese children’s song. It was relaxing to listen to them chat about their communities in the Midwest and Belize.

The year 1989 is the most memorable year in my life. I was thankful for the opportunity to come to America. Without it, I would have returned to Beijing. Living there in the wake of the Tiananmen tragedy would have been very hard. Seeing footage of the bloody killings brought tears to my eyes. Like many observers and participants, I had little interest in talking about it. Luckily, much has changed since then. China has transformed from a traditional and communist society into a more modern and open one, and the world has also become more peaceful and prosperous.

Shaohua Hu, associate professor of government and politics, specializes in East Asian comparative and international politics. His book, Foreign Policies Toward Taiwan, is forthcoming from Routledge.

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