My first teaching job in China was in 1988.  Over the years and with continued visits to China, my contact with my students and their families deepened into lasting friendships.  During my last visit in May of 2007 and updating for 2008, I have written a personal portrait of several of them covering the tumultuous years of change in China during which their lives took divergent paths.  Looking at these particular Chinese students gives a broader picture of the choices and decisions made by the Chinese students of the 1980’s, who barely allowed themselves to dream of a fate different from their parents, and then surpassed their dreams with varying degrees of happiness and self-fulfillment.  The names are fictitious; the people are real.


     Whereas living in Germany turned Dennis into a hybrid, Arthur is an example of a Chinese person living in an American environment.  That’s not to say he didn’t make some mental adjustments, but they were not basic to his personality and character.

     Well educated in Shanghai, Arthur took  an opportunity in the early 1990’s to get a two-year work permit to work for a Chinese hotel in Macau.  After the two years, he chose to remain in Macau teaching Mandarin Chinese.  Macau residents spoke Cantonese like Hong Kong did, but Macau saw reunification with mainland China coming quickly upon them in 1999.  Being able to speak Mandarin Chinese would be important then.

     He married a Macau resident who was formerly from mainland China and they had a baby daughter.  Although he made good money in Macau with teaching and tutoring, he and his wife decided America was their future home because it offered more opportunities for their daughter.  Neither of them believed returning to China was a good option.  Since Arthur’s English was advanced, he was the one designated to go to America and find a legal way for all of them to become Americans.

     Arthur is a voracious reader when researching anything.  There were many “how to” books for Chinese wanting to live abroad.  He applied for a Master’s in Hotel Management at a university in Hawaii.  He was accepted by the university, but turned down for a U.S. visa, which was quite common in those days.

     Cut off from entering the U.S. as a graduate student, he entered a well-known hotel management program in Switzerland for eight months and got a tourist visa to the U.S. as a Chinese student in Switzerland.  He didn’t intend to return to school in Switzerland, but how to stay legally in the U.S. was a problem he’d solve later.

     Once in the U.S., still reading voraciously on how Chinese could succeed in America, he hired an immigration lawyer to plan his approach.  With the lawyer’s help, and a lot of luck, he was granted asylum in the U.S.

     Now that he had the legal right to work, he thought his chances were very good because he was tri-lingual (English, Mandarin, Cantonese) and had good qualifications and years of experience in hotel management.  Over the next year, he found that getting permission to remain in the U.S. had been the easy part.  He was turned down for hotel jobs time and time again, and became both humiliated and angry at the U.S. for not giving him a decent chance to succeed.  His depression deepened along with his loneliness at being separated so long and so far from his wife and growing daughter.  Frequent phone calls and yearly summer visits when they came to the U.S. were the only time he felt briefly like a husband and father.

     Meanwhile, China set off on a fast track to economic success, and he was left in the dust of his classmates’ accomplishments in China.  After getting nowhere fast careerwise, he changed location to Las Vegas.  By then he had had some experience working as a night auditor in a U.S. hotel, so he got a job at a large Las Vegas hotel.  But, along with a decent job, he was introduced by another Chinese to mortgage lending.  In his first year in Las Vegas, he bought two homes for investment.

     He arrived in Las Vegas precisely during two waves that were cresting — housing and poker.  After only a two-month training program, and reading everything he could find about poker, he switched to being a poker dealer at a new poker room being established at a popular casino.

     Money like he always wanted to make poured into his pockets steadily and quickly.  Due to various quirks in U.S. tax laws regarding poker dealers in Las Vegas, he zoomed somewhere above $100,000 a year, mostly from tips, while only having to declare getting minimum wage plus paying $16 an hour to IRS, most of which he got back at the end of the year through deductions for his homes.

     He had left Macau when his daughter was six months old.  Finally, just before her ninth birthday, he brought his wife and daughter to live permanently in the U.S.  It wasn’t that he hadn’t had permission from immigration earlier, but that his wife hesitated to leave her good life, friends, and happy, well-paying jobs in Macau.  She found excuse after excuse to delay a permanent move, even convincing U.S. immigration to accept her timetable rather than theirs.

     Arthur bought a third house for the family to live in.  It’s a spacious 3,000 sq. ft. luxury home with lots of yard and a swimming pool.  Although Arthur will say now that he feels grateful for the opportunity that the U.S. gave him to be rich, he still reads mostly Chinese newspapers, still prefers Chinese food, and has just about no American friends.  At home, they speak only Chinese so the daughter will not forget Chinese.  On the weekend, her teacher-mother teaches her Chinese reading and writing. 

     The mother has no particular interest in learning English beyond what she picked up working with westerners at the international school in Macau where she headed the Chinese Department.  In Las Vegas, she took a job as a clerk at a discount chain department store to be able to get some work history in the U.S.  She found it fun to mingle with mostly other immigrant women hired by the store at minimum wage.  Then, she too took a short course in being a poker dealer.  A  very low level of English is all that’s required.  In fact, Chinese poker dealers, with or without English, are in demand in Las Vegas because, compared to Americans, they are uncomplaining employees.  She’s worked at a few tournaments, and is ready to try for a regular job as a poker dealer.  Working in her profession in America doesn’t interest her because the pay level for teachers is considerably lower than a poker dealer who makes good tips.  And being a poker dealer doesn’t have the demands and frustrations of teaching.

     Arthur has opened his mind intellectually to understanding American culture, but he remains solidly outside it while living inside it.  In fact, he most likely would never have come if his wife hadn’t pushed him into it for the sake of their daughter. 

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