My First Taste of Freedom

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In January 1989, I came to the United States to pursue my graduate study. Like thousands of Chinese students, coming to America was not merely a chance for academic advancement. It was a way to seek a better future in this “land of opportunity” and “country of freedom.”

Today, these phrases sound more like clichés. But for those of us who had not known the meanings of words like “opportunity” or “freedom,” America was a place for the impossible, a romantic version of what the world was not, and a fantasy land with the glittering skyline of New York City, wild cowboys in California, and humming boatmen on the Mississippi River. For me, America was a dream coming true.

Shortly after I arrived, I went on a school-organized field trip to Washington DC for a conference. The world was still in the grip of the Cold War. Even to this day, I still cannot fully grasp what it must have meant for me who grew up in a country where the United States was viewed as an enemy. I visited the White House, National Museums and Memorial Parks. The chilly winter air could not inhibit my exuberance.

As I stood at the Lincoln Memorial and read the Gettysburg Address, the reality that I was really in a free country finally hit me. I found myself at a loss for words and overwhelmed by my emotions. I remember the afternoon sunlight casting long shadows of the Lincoln Memorial, and flocks of birds flying freely above the Reflection Pool, and viewing the capital from the top of the Washington Monument.

Later that afternoon, I took a walk on the National Mall. Along the way, I was about to sit on a bench and eat a Sandwich I bought from a street vendor. I was thrilled to see those birds flying closely around me, as if they were enjoying the freedom with me. Some of them landed on the ground, picking up left-over food. Suddenly, a bird dove toward me. Before I realized, it grabbed a big chunk of my sandwich and flew away. I was dumfounded. “This is indeed a country of freedom,” I thought to myself. “Even a bird can pick on me.”

In China, this would be totally impossible. All the birds were afraid of people. They would never dare to be near any person, not to mention to rob food from a human’s hand. Otherwise, they would most likely end up at someone’s dinner table.

I remember seeing a boy who caught and killed a bird in such a wicked way, and we – a group of what seemed heartless adolescents – all cheered for him. He must have been around fifteen at that time because we teased him for the sparse young hairs on his upper lip. We called him Big Brother as he was the oldest and acted as a “pact leader” among us. But in secret, we called him “Little Mustache.” I remember that Little Mustache wrapped the poor bird with chunks of wet mud and choked it to death. Then he threw it onto a hot coal stove and cooked it for his dinner. We were all excited, screaming and jumping around as we watched Litter Mustache roast the bird.

It didn’t occur to any of us that this was inhumane, cruel, or perhaps a violation of the animal’s rights. In a country where food was rationed, some people were starving, and eating meat was considered a treat, the concept of protecting animals, or the environment for that matter, was then non-existent.

That was my first taste of freedom in America.

Twenty years later, China has changed to a very different country. Each time I went back, I saw amazing changes. Its cities are bigger, skylines more impressive, and more things are happening there than in any other part of the world…. (To be continued).

5 thoughts on “My First Taste of Freedom

  1. I liked your essay, up to the point where you aborted it to sell your book.

    I write blog posts to sell my stuff, too, so that’s great. But let me give you a tip: if you do it this way, the reader will resent being taken in. Go ahead, finish the essay. It’s a good one. Then explain that you will soon be selling a book on the topic. Obviously your book is more in-depth than a single blog post. You don’t have to give everything away, but don’t be stingy, either. Don’t leave your reader feeling like they’re just a “mark” for your sale.

    Also… you have no way for me to register to hear about your book when it’s ready, and I can’t preorder it on Amazon (no link), etc., etc. So you’re priming me to buy it, but giving me no way to do it. The likelihood that a person will remember and come back is very low.

    I hope these tips help you. Best of luck with your book launch!

  2. Amy,

    Thank you very much for your tips. I really appreciate it!

    Currently, the best way to register to hear the updates about my book is to sign on the email list. We respect your privacy. We only send one email per month at the most.

    Thank you so much. Hope to see you back often!

    Best,
    Helen

  3. Similarly to your experience, I went to U.S. in 1989 and returned to Beijing in 2004, and have since been living and working in Beijing.

    These days, China is becoming the land of opportunities (and risks)…

    Just read the New York Times, China topic becomes a daily must, for better or worse, U.S. and the world take China’s development seriously! These days, if you travel around the world, people will not ask you whether you are from Japan or Korea, they will most probably ask you whether you are from China, sometimes, asking you whether you are from Beijing or Shanghai!

    To truly know China, you must and have to live in it to really experience and feel and appreciate its transformation.

    Welcome to China — the land of opportunities (and risks); and to Beijing — the crossroad between the past and future, the East and West!

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