Jean stared nostalgically at the window for a couple of minutes before mustering up the answer “I guess.. New York.. I guess it can be summed up as the land of opportunity and freedom but it is so much more than that to me.. I don’t know how to explain it.. It’s my home and everything I am.. everything I have become is from bits and pieces New York has built me up to be.” Jean moved to Fresh Meadow Queens in 1986 when she was only 17 years old. She came with barely any money and came with barely any ability to speak English. But she was willing and determined to achieve the better life others spoke of. She yearned for the better education, government stability, freedom of religious and freedom of speech. In China, the large population made it nearly impossible for her to get into college. Students must take one test called the gaokao that determines their admission to the university. Not only are the universities highly competitive to get into, but they also choose a certain number of students per province. Peking University and Tsinghua University takes 84 students out of every 10,000 Beijingers, 14 out of every 10,000 students in nearby Tianjin, 10 out of every 10,000 students from Shanghai, three out of every 10,000 candidates from Anhui and two from every 10,000 students in Guangdong. The instability of the government also made it difficult for the people to speak their mind or practice religion. The governments cruel reign can be accurately portrayed by the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989 when soldiers fired and killed several thousand protesters trying to block the military from Tiananmen square.
So Jean moved to America with hope for a better education and more freedoms. She rented a basement in Fresh Meadows to live in along with her father and mother and she began attending Jamaica High school. When she started attending Jamaica High school, the language barrier brought many obstacles. “I remember on the first day of school other kids would shout and yell at me. I knew they were making fun of me for not knowing English but I had no idea what they were saying.” Between the bullying, Jean struggled with her studies. “I especially struggled with biology and history. I would stay up until 2am searching up every word in the dictionary. What was even worse was that I would be studying with a tiny dim lamp while my mom would be blasting the TV. She did not care that I was studying to try to get into college. She wanted me to just finish high school and become a secretary.” But the hardship only pushed Jean to work harder. “I would look at the basement I was living in and think to myself I am not going to live like this for the rest of my life.” So Jean spent her days in the library studying and when she was not studying she was working at a cashier at a restaurant to provide for her family. She worked in a small Chinese restaurant a few blocks away from her home. Many Chinese immigrants also worked there. “I actually felt really at home there because other young workers there understood the exact same thing I was going through. It was like a piece of home in a place that felt so far away from home.” There she could comfortably speak Chinese and not be made fun of and it was there that she made a lot new friends that were also bullied for their broken English. “These people felt like my real family.”
It was not until Jean made her first friend, Chelsea Bryant in Jamaica High school that things seemed to start turning around. “Chelsea was honestly one of the biggest blessings. I haven’t seen her in years but I recently found her on Facebook. I met Chelsea because she sat behind me in English class and she saw me struggling and decided to help me out.” When Jean began talking to Chelsea frequently, it exponentially helped her English. Chelsea not only fended Jean from the bullies that made fun of her English, she also helped Jean make more friends and helped Jean with her studies. After Jamaica High school, Jean continued onto St. John’s University and obtained a bachelor’s degree in Chemistry. She then went on and became a pharmacist. “It took me one try to get my pharmacist license. Even my cousin who was born in the US, knew English and was very well off had to take the pharmacist license test three times before passing. When I first got my license, I thought to myself everything I worked for finally paid off.” After working for 5 years as a pharmacist and managing her parent’s money, Jean was finally able to move out of the basement and purchase her first house on 167th St. in Fresh Meadows.
It’s been almost 33 years since Jean has been back to China. “I don’t remember that exact moment when I stopped considering China as my home. It was probably when I bought my first house in Fresh Meadows with my own money. It was like this house is mine. This house is built off my blood and sweat. This house is a piece of me and an example of why I gave up everything to come to the US.” In the same way, Jean’s favorite place in New York is her home. To her, there is nothing else that expresses her love and gratitude towards New York as her house. But other than her house, her favorite place is Rockefeller center because the first time she went to the city was during christmas and she went to Rockefeller center. “It was almost like a new world. I’ve never seen so many lights.” In China, Jean never really celebrated Christmas but in New York it was her first time encountering such enthusiasm for the holiday. “I would just walk around and there would be people left and right dressed like Santa. They expected us to sit on this dressed up man’s lap!” Jean feels as though the cultures between New York and China vary significantly. She feels that people are much more free and friendly in New York whereas people in China are more uptight. “In China, everyone always tells me I’m too fat or too dark. I have a few freckles and my mom wanted to remove it with a needle! I also have to polite and gentle because I’m a woman. Everything about me is critiqued to the littlest detail. In America, it seems like they preach that every person’s body is beautiful in their own way. They encourage people to love their imperfections.”
One of the things Jean is the most thankful for in New York is the religious freedom. Jean has never heard of Christianity until she entered college. “In China, I learned that there were spirits around me from Chinese folklore and I always believed in that.” She saw a flyer introducing christianity and her friends convinced her to go. Reluctantly she went, but when she left she felt at peace. From then on she began attending a christian small group and even converted her father towards christianity. 1% of China’s population is christian and its difficult to reach these people. Jean is currently an active member of Queens Herald church and attends church 4 days a week for meetings and outreach groups. A majority of her friends are from church so she feels she has a community at church. “I think Christianity has shaped my life the most because anytime any good or bad thing that happens to me I always think to myself that it is God’s plan and I feel comforted. I feel like Christianity has shaped me mentally and into a better person.”
Jean plans to return to China next year for the first time in 33 years. “I am scared to see my old home and how it has changed and see how I have changed. I’m afraid the Chinese people will judge me for my American accent when I speak Chinese.” Jean does not get to speak Chinese as much as she wants to because the only people she speaks it with are with her parents. So she feels as though her Chinese has gotten much worse but she is happy that her English is fluent. Her advice to immigrants moving to New York for the first time is to learn English as soon as possible. “Since my biggest problem when first coming here was the language, I think the faster you learn the language the more opportunities you have. You’ll make more friends and feel less like an outsider.” Although Jean considers her true identity to be Chinese, she also feels like she is a New Yorker. To Jean, New York is filled with opportunities and ideas. But most importantly, to Jean, New York is a piece of her and New York is her home.
Fu, Yiqin. “China’s Unfair College Admission System.” The Atlantic 19 Jun. 2013 Web. 13 May 2018
Lusher, Adam. “At least 10,000 people died in Tiananmen Square massacre, secret British cable from the time alleged.” Independent 23 Dec. 2017 Web. 13 May 2018
Roberts, Dexter. “This Is How China Preps for the Big Test.” Bloomberg 2 Jun. 2016 Web. 13 May 2018
“Tiananmen Square Fast Facts” CNN 28 May 2017 Web. 13 May 2018