A Chinese Student’s Journey for Education in the U.S

By: Rena Gao

Rena’s first time in Washington D.C

It was almost midnight in Eastern Standard time. My watch still read 1pm – China time.

I pushed and dragged my two suitcases, one carry on, and a wrinkled pink backpack into a Holiday Inn hotel room in Charlotte, North Carolina. Collapsing into the single bed, I deserted my belongings at the door, along with the three airports I just navigated through, the six airplane meals I consumed half asleep, and all the signs written only in English, a familiar but foreign language. Exhaustion hid behind my heavy eyelids which refused to close despite thirty hours of travel. My stomach twitched and retracted because of the overturned biological clock, and a daunting emptiness. I knew not yet a single soul in this country. I was, finally, oceans away from home.

This was THE dream, my dream, our family’s dream. My parents and I had planned this almost since the day I was born– to spread my wings abroad so that I don’t have to keep trimming my feathers to fit inside the same box that the Chinese educational system assigns to its millions of students. Compared to the infernally long days of mandatory Math, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Chinese, and regrettably negligible dashes of Arts, American universities were, to our eyes, the garden of Eden where one can truly enjoy the process of learning.

That was the plan, to come here for university; but I could not wait another day after three years of 14-hour school days, let alone three more years of high school. After pleading my case, I secured my mother’s agreement, under one condition– I needed to be accepted by the high school of our first choice, Ravenscroft, in North Carolina. My stubborn determination to leave carried me through TOEFL examination, interviews, written applications and landed me an offer and an American host family. Cascades of vaccinations, consent forms, packing and goodbyes later, I boarded my first solo thirteen-hour flight at the age of fifteen.

Rena with host Mom

Neither my parents and I were accustomed to expressing affection out loud. Standing in front of the Security Check at Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport, our arms awkwardly reached behind each other’s backs to execute a hug which ended as soon as the Chinese face-saving culture reminded us of how (embarrassing? awkward?) public our display of affection was.

“Take care of yourself! Don’t eat too much Kentucky Fried Chicken.” My father, Wei, tried to lighten the mood with a dad joke.

I joined the line moving towards the glass door separating those who were leaving from those staying. Looking back one last time, I saw my mother force a smile under her frown, she simply waved.  

I remembered this quote my mom once read to me from her favorite Taiwanese writer and fellow mother, Yingtai Long’s book “目送 (Mu song),” meaning to send away with one’s eyes: ”Gradually, I realized that the so-called parent-children relationship only means that you are destined to see them walking away further and further. “ — from her book As my head emerged from the pillow of the hotel room bed in Charlotte, my phone blinged several times with notifications from my mother —  have you arrived safely? How was the flight?– and a link to a song by our favorite singer, Li Jian (李建). We had the weekly ritual to watch a music contest in which he participated. I let it play. I got out of bed, and began to brush my teeth. The familiar sounds of Mandarin words in the lyrics tasted as salty as the tears that slowly trickled into my mouth.

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