Coming to America from China 40 Years Ago by Joanne Z. Tan

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American Dream of 40 years, described by Joanne Z. Tan, in the following excerpt from her upcoming book “50 Dollars and a Tiger Balm: 40 Years in the US“.

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Coming to America 40 Years Ago


Last summer, my 30-second video to celebrate my 39th year of landing in the US was quoted by CNN’s news anchor Jim Acosta on Twitter. 

This year, I’m writing my book “50 Dollars and a Tiger Balm: 40 Years in the US”.

In this newsletter and the next one, for my 40th anniversary of landing in the US from Beijing, I will tell some personal stories and spill some guts. As a private person, this is something that takes MORE courage than the courage to come  to the US all by myself, even having “made it” here on my own. But what’s the use of living an extraordinary life, without sharing with others what I’ve learned?  So, bear with me–you won’t regret it.

America four decades ago

40 years ago in 1982, America was at the height of its power. To many, it was a beacon of freedom, democracy, prosperity, and the rule of law. 

I was 19-20 years old at the beginning of the 1980s. Only eight years before, Nixon had come to China, a “moon-like place” as described by Barbara Walters who was on the same trip with Nixon. Slowly, China’s door to the outside world started to open.  America was a magnet to me, a land of opportunity, a place where I could be the full version of myself and become even more than what I could imagine to be.  Contrasting that with the barren socioeconomic and cultural landscape in China, America was a dreamland for freedom of expression, individuality, and liberty. 

I never imagined in 1982 that 40 years later, I’d be genuinely worried about the survival of our democracy and even the unity of my adopted country. Be that as it may, there is nowhere else on earth I want to call home other than America (California in particular).  

I once told my American-born (Eurasian) sons, half jokingly: “Even though you are born in the USA, I am MORE American than you are since I CHOSE America and overcame so many obstacles to become an American citizen.” 

A $50 bill and a full scholarship

Young, scared, and alone, on Aug. 25, 1982, I first landed at the San Francisco International Airport from Beijing, en route to Boston to attend Brandeis University with a full scholarship. All the money I had with me was just one single $50 US dollar bill in my wallet. That was more than the maximum amount of US dollars allowed to be taken out of China by a citizen at that time– $30 total.  I had a friend who worked in the Bank of China. She did me a personal favor by exceeding that government restriction by $20. China in 1982 was extremely short of foreign currency, unlike the economic powerhouse it is today.

Joanne Z.Tan's personal stories about coming to the United States to pursue the American Dream in her book "50 Dollars and a Tiger Balm: 40 years in the US."

I was 21 years old. I left EVERYTHING behind: A career where I was praised for being the “rising star”, “rookie of the year”, “very promising” youngest English-language journalist, editor, and page designer for the first national English language newspaper. (I got the job after passing their national exams at the age of 19, while at my first job as an English teacher at a high school when I was 18.)  

I left behind my mother and two older sisters, my boyfriend, and all of the friends I grew up with.  

My father died in a “re-education farm” when I was a young girl, during the Cultural Revolution. He was a college French professor in Beijing. He had a bachelor’s degree in economics from the prestigious Central University before the communists took over China.

Why I left China for America

For lack of a better analogy, my single-minded drive to come to the US was like that of a salmon swimming thousands of miles against all odds, sometimes upstream, sometimes jumping over seemingly impossible barriers, to get to where it all began, just to spawn and die.  Before I left China, I knew all along that I wanted to live in the United States for good.

With hindsight, there were many reasons, conscious and subconscious. 

Was it due to my desire to receive the best possible higher education? Was it driven by my curiosity about America?  Was it because of the stifling political and cultural framework in China? Was it caused by my intuitive foresight about the incompatibility of my values, beliefs, and individuality with the conformity-based society in communist China?… yes, all of the above, and more. 

Perhaps the training I got as an editor and page designer from journalists from the US, UK, and Australia when I was 19-20 exposed to me a refreshingly free way of thinking and living–so different from the controlled and suppressive society in China back then. 

My soul longed to break free from the political framework. My mind thirsted for a free world not based on party lines. 

I was an independent thinker with an unyielding individuality. I had an “allergic reaction” to brainwashing and falsehood permeated in the Chinese press, even before getting a liberal arts education in the US. 

I had a choice between accepting a government-sponsored 18-month training in Hawaii, which means I had to return to China afterwards, or going to the US solely on my own.  I chose the latter–the more difficult route.

A young American friend guided me to apply to half a dozen private colleges in the States.  I got accepted by most of them, and was awarded a full scholarship at Brandeis University.

There I came – a fearless, curious “salmon”, determined to reach the New World. 

What a journey it was!

A Tiger balm as my “tip”

(Disclaimer: By NO MEANS do I intend to disparage African Americans with the true story I am about to tell.)

I had two large suitcases with me when I switched planes at the San Francisco International Airport. 

A young black guy came up and said: “Can I help you with your luggage?”  I said, yes. For me, 

It was the first time to ride a plane, 

first time to be inside an airport, 

first time going through immigration, 

first time in a foreign country, 

first time talking to a black person face to face, … 

I was confused, overwhelmed, and scared. 

After this black man helped me get my suitcase to the terminal, he said: “Tip.”

I only had ONE $50 bill with me, that was ALL the cash I had. I did not want to tell him that.

Forced to think fast on my feet, I said: “Can I give you a Tiger Balm from China?” He said yes. I still remember how relieved I was to see his face bursting into a smile when he had it in his hand. 

A Tiger Balm, described in the upcoming memoir by Joanne Z. Tan, CEO of 10 Plus Brand, Inc, "50 Dollars & a Tiger Balm: 40 Years in the US", about her journey.

Whatever happened to the suitcase, – got misplaced, delayed,… it did not arrive at the Kennedy International Airport. The plane arrived late, so I did not have time to switch to another plane to Boston’s Logan Airport, as I had originally booked.  

When I was filing a missing luggage claim at the Kennedy Airport, I still remember how earnestly a middle aged white man in an airline uniform apologized to me on behalf of the entire United States. I still remember his sincere face, and his moving voice: “I will personally make sure that your suitcase will be delivered to your University.”

I ended up following a group of government-sponsored Chinese students to the Chinese Consulate in New York to stay overnight with another young female student (I was shocked to see that she kept the metal utensils from the airplane instead of letting flight attendants take them back. Wasn’t it like shoplifting? At that time airplanes did not use plastic utensils.) 

Several days later, after taking GreyHound from New York City to Boston with these Chinese students who were going to MIT, the suitcase arrived at Brandeis University.  

In my next newsletter, I will continue with “Overcoming the Impossibles”.

To stay in the loop, sign up for this newsletter, you will also be the first to preorder when this book is published.

© Joanne Z. Tan. Written in Aug. 2022. All rights reserved.

Edited by Susan Olson.

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