A Tribute to Bridge Building
By Juliana Pearson (December 12, 2001)
Nearly two weeks ago, a brimming envelope filled with letters from China arrived in Mr. Hooverís school mailbox. The letters were addressed to "pen pal" and "friend." Among them was one letter addressed to Mr. Hoover from Jennifer Weise, a 1995 graduate of George Mason. Weise is serving as a Peace Corp volunteer, teaching at a rural Chinese college. She hoped that George Mason students would respond to her studentsí letters. Not only would correspondence help improve the Chinese studentsí English, but it would also build a fresh bridge of understanding between our two nations. Weiseís request was granted. Although there are only 116 students in the class of 2002, every Chinese pen pal found a match, with some seniors taking up to five or six letters.
As I read the first of my letters, I smiled. "My dear friend" wrote my new Chinese pen pal, Marissa, "I wish yours everyday is happy day, every time filled with happiness." I could sense her polite and endearing mannerisms even through her limited English. Her words reminded me of my first encounter, in seventh grade, with a shy, smiling boy from Beijing who would become one of my best friends.
Like most of the Chinese pen pals, Steve Wang adopted a new American name before boarding an airplane to Minneapolis, Minnesota. At the time, he was in sixth grade, and did not know a word of English. He was facing one of the hardest transitions a twelve-year-old can make. The plane ride was his first, and the turbulence rattled his bravery. At one point, the flight attendant offered him a piece of pizza. "I took it," he told me three years later, "but I didnít understand how to eat it at all."
Iím sure Steve suffered from culture shock while assimilating into my nearly all white junior high school in suburban Minneapolis. However, he did a good job of hiding it. He continued down a path to success. He acquired new English words nearly everyday, and was quickly accepted into my seventh grade peer group. I got to know him through extracurricular activities. He was the math whiz on our Quiz Bowl team.
As a junior high school student, I was continually amazed by Steveís progress. By the time we reached ninth grade, he was as articulate as any of my American friends. He took A.P Calculus BC his freshman year, and AP American History as a sophomore. Although Steve certainly had reason to be proud, he was never pretentious, as some students might be. He always had a big smile and a kind "hello" for me.
Steve is naturally very driven to succeed, but I also observed a lot of pressure from his parents to reach the top. This mentality emigrated with them from China, where, according to Steve, only a very small percentage of students get to go to college at all. If college admission is competitive in the United States, in China it is a nearly hopeless rat race. Steve began preparing for the S.A.T before the rest of us knew what it was. Heís taken it more times than I can count. It paid off. He has a score in the high 1500ís and the applications to Harvard, U Penn, M.I.T, Stanford, Cal Tech and UC Berkeley are in the mail.
This academic pressure extended beyond Steveís family to the surrounding Chinese immigrant community. At fourteen, he described gatherings of family friends where all the mothers would sit together bragging about their sonís accomplishments, each one trying to best the others. Steve admitted that this type of boasting often aggravated him.
One would think that all the internal pressure would have left Steve angst-ridden. However, overall, Steve respects his parents for the pressure. When an American teen might slam doors, Steve dutifully sits down and hits the grindstone. It comes with the culture. In fact, if you ask Steve what bothers him most about American culture, heíll reply that he wishes American students worked harder and took advantage of their plentiful opportunities.
Steve and his parents value family more than many of us can fathom. Since he was born under Communist Chinaís one child law, his parents invest a remarkable amount in the pursuit of his success. One might imagine that Steve is eager to leave his pressure-filled home and head off to college, but again this is not the case. " College . . . it is something I donít really look forward to all that much" he told me recently. When I visited him last April he told me that when he got older he wanted he and his wife, his parents and his wifeís parents all to live under the same roof. They could have separate living quarters but a communal eating space. I smiled at him, trying to imagine an all-American seventeen-year-old proposing such an idea.
Whatever his future holds, Steve
will depart next fall for one of the countryís most elite universities.
If someday he decides to raise a family of his own, my guess is he will
raise his children with the same intense parenting. They too will take
7 college level classes, and be involved in 7 extracurricular activities.
They two will send bulging application packets to Ivy League schools. Hopefully,
they will be even half as nice.