During a recent gathering, a nice lady shared the cultural shock she experienced when she moved from New Jersey to Great Neck. I was chuckling and could not help but think about the cultural clash that I had when I moved to the United States 13 years ago.
I first came to the U.S. to work for a company as an intern through a cultural-exchange program. The program was established after World War II to promote mutual understanding, and hopefully fewer conflicts.
That experience was both exotic and eye-opening. Brought up by a single mother in a rural town in China more than 20 years ago, I knew perfectly well what “being different” was like when I went to college in Shanghai. (The cultural shock is still there, but in a different way. With dramatic changes in China almost every day, I feel left out every time I bring my kids back to Shanghai now.) But nothing compares with the first few months in the U.S., when I was thrown into a completely different country, with signs, labels, speaking languages and everything that was foreign to me.
It might have gone pathetically. But, on the contrary, I survived, adapted and eventually thrived. The change was so dramatic and thorough that my whole view was totally turned around and I had no choice but to make a completely fresh start.
I was forced to learn to cook, use English and English only for all communication and get my driver’s license within one month, although there were few private cars in my hometown in China.
After many years, I realized that it was actually a blessing. It was kind of like my mother’s half joking about what her cooking did to me. The truth is that my mom is not the greatest chef in the world—she mistook sugar for salt and had half-burnt pots in the kitchen all the time, if she ever cooked at all. Because of that, I appreciated and enjoyed the food in our college cafeteria, while most of my classmates complained about it constantly. More importantly, I learned to put away all previous preferences or prejudices and to embrace all kind of food—and be grateful. There is something unique and attractive in every kind of cuisine, and it might not be the same as what we are used to.
I guess I am lucky. I am lucky because education changed my life path. With my mom having only me to talk to (because of the one-child policy of my generation), I actually grew up in a very democratic family with few stereotypes. Almost everything was negotiable in our home except education. She would not allow me to slip in exam rankings, and demanded that I aim for the best colleges in China—no excuses and no questions asked. I was told that education was the only way to break the class glass and to aspire higher. We could argue some of those views all we want, but the truth is, education did help me move from a rural village to a big city for my college degree; and later in life, education enabled me to come to New York to pursue my advanced degree in economics. A world full of possibilities opened to me because of education, and more opportunities came with it.
My second son was technically born on the second day we moved into our house in Great Neck in the winter of 2008. I loved Great Neck so much and I was so determined to have my son born here that we moved during my last month of carrying him. We heard that Great Neck had the most top-notch educational system in the country. Moreover, with its diversity and friendly environment, our children would grow up to have a big heart, an open mind and the ability to respect differences, each with their own uniqueness and beauty.
It turned out to be a great choice.
Our boys went to Temple Beth-El for four years for their outstanding early-childhood programs led by Director Vicki Perler, and they loved every day of it. They can still pick up a few Hebrew words here and there, and some of their best friends came from that period of time. Rabbi Meir Feldman made such a great effort to help me understand Jewish culture and assimilate into Great Neck culture that he took time out of his extremely busy schedule and personally taught me some Torah classes.
Our love for this small town we call home grows and flourishes every day, whether we’re having Sabbath dinner together with our Jewish friends, going to All Saints Korean Church when I host den meetings for Scouts, joining friends at Community Church to spend a peaceful and meaningful Sunday morning, helping parents translate for parent-teacher conferences when their comfortable language is not English and more. We take from this community and we give back to the community. It is a two-way street, and we grow and nourish each other along the way.
Education got me where I am now and opened a new window to this big world for me; respecting diversity helps me enjoy life and all it has to offer—adventure, friendships, spiritual growth and peace of mind.
Great Neck has a long history of excellence in these areas. Let’s take the torch and preserve this precious legacy for our children and many more generations to come.