New York City Red Light District 40 Years Ago: Excerpt 2 from Memoir by Joanne Z. Tan

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Arrival at New York City & Brandeis University 40 years ago, an excerpt from memoir “$50 & a Tiger Balm: 40 Years in the US” by Joanne Z Tan.

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Arriving at Brandeis

I am continuing my personal stories published in the last Newsletter, an excerpt from my upcoming memoir 50 Dollars and a Tiger Balm: 40 Years in the US. After missing the flight and losing my suitcase on August 25, 1982, I ended up at the Chinese Consulate in New York City with a bunch of government sponsored students (I was self sponsored.)

The Chinese Consulate

One of the first things I did, after breaking the $50 single bill, I used some quarters to make a collect-call (which the receiving party pays) at the public phone booth to Brandeis University’s international office, saying that I couldn’t make the connecting flight due to late arrival of my plane, and would be taking Greyhound from New York City to Boston the next day. They were worried.

Since most of my clothes were in the lost suitcase, I hand-washed my blouse the evening before, and hung it at the window to let the breeze dry it. The next day someone from the Chinese Consulate said: “Do not hang-dry your clothes at the window”, without telling us why. To this day I still don’t understand his reasons. Back then, hardly any Chinese people had washing machines and we all hand washed everything. The New York City Chinese Consulate did not give us any alternatives to hand-washing and air drying clothes either. 

I felt like being parachuted from one world to another alien planet, and that was not an exaggeration:

In 1982, on the streets of Beijing, wooden carts pulled by horses and mules were a common sight. Cars were almost extreme luxuries for only the high ranking officials. Vast majority of people in Beijing either rode bikes or took public buses. Beneath the surface was the vast discrepancy between a tightly closed and controlled society and an open one like the US. The information an average Chinese citizen got was always selected and filtered by the government.  Coming from that barren informational and cultural desert, even though these Chinese students were the “best and the brightest”, nothing prepared us for New York City’s inundation of stimulations of all kinds.

New York City’s Red Light Zone 

Three or four government-sponsored students of English language wanted to venture outside the Consulate’s building to see what New York City looked like. They were all young men in their mid to late 20’s. I joined them upon their invitation.

We had NO IDEA that the Consulate was located at the end of the notorious 42nd Street, the “red light zone” in New York City.  The surrounding streets and shops near the Consulate were  lined with porn shops, electronic stores, and striptease bars.  As we wandered down the street, we could see the window displays of pornography, which was utterly forbidden in China.

All three young Chinese men went inside a porn shop. Even though I had never been exposed to pornography, like these men, it was something one knew what it was about the instant it was in your sight. Something inside was telling me: “Do not go in.”  So, I stood on the sidewalk outside the porn shop’s door, waiting for them to come out. 

I waited for a long time, until one by one, they came out. I still don’t know what they saw inside, but all of their countenance changed, they looked haggard and with only half of the confidence they had before they went in. 

We continued to stroll down 42nd Street, and stopped by an electronic store with boom boxes, stereo speakers, recorders… almost all made in Japan. A man behind the counter, looking like the owner of the shop, said to these young Chinese men, with great respect and admiration: “Thanks to your country, we have all these high quality products!” I was waiting for them to reply that they came from China, not Japan, and that these electronics were not made in China, but none of them said a thing. They took the complement that was mistakenly bestowed on them.

The next morning before leaving the Consulate for Boston, I had breakfast with all these government sponsored Chinese students, before riding Greyhound with a group going to MIT.  When we were almost done with breakfast, one student arrived at the table. I recognized that he was the last one exiting the porn shop the day before, the tall, skinny, and pale young man. Both of his eyes were red and swollen (must be a horrible eye infection).  I said to myself: ”Ha! God’s punishment for what you saw there.”


Without acquiring a religion at that time, I always knew there was an all encompassing force out there that I called “God”. In the ensuing years, I often prayed to, even cried out to God from my heart when the going got tough, and the challenges seemed insurmountable.

As a sidenote, Christian faith in early 1980’s China was almost unheard of. A colleague at the English language newspaper was a semi-underground Catholic. I remember vividly how she adoringly looked at the picture of John Paul II on an English magazine cover in 1980. Even though she went through much hardship in life, she refused to let the social environment, which was ignorant about, even hostile to Christians, dim her light. I was only 19-20 years old. She was in her early 30’s.  She went out of her way to look out for me and protect me a number of times, like a loving and experienced older sister. (If only I listened to her!) She never directly preached to me about her faith. Her selfless love, amazing grace, joy, and courage had a profound influence on me. She was the first “angel” on my long journey of becoming a Christian myself 11 years later, in 1991 (which is another long story.) 

Arriving at Brandeis University and my first letter Home

I first arrived at a Chinese American MIT professor’s home with the other students who were going to MIT. His Chinese wife cooked us all a sumptuous Chinese meal. She then drove me to Brandeis’s International Office.

I then was dropped off to a red bricked student dorm building. The international students’ orientation program was a few days earlier than regular Freshmen’s opening week, so the whole dorm building had only a young graduate student who was the dorm manager (in exchange for free lodging on campus), his girlfriend who was also a graduate student, and myself. 

I was shown into my dorm room to be shared with another American student. I was shocked to see the walls were all bare with red bricks, no dry walls, no white plaster. In China, only the exterior of the building bared bricks. 

The dorm manager’s girlfriend offered me a bag of cookies, “want some cookies?” I said: “no, thank you”, to this day I still remember how visibly hurt she was by my decline. She didn’t know that I never had American cookies before, I didn’t know what was in it, and my nerves were on high alert, after missing the flight, losing my luggage, after the “tip” and the tiger balm, after all the strange things in New York City…

Since my bed sheet was in the lost suitcase, they offered me their spare sheet, a dirty sheet with a whitish clog of stain on it  (in hindsight, that was probably all they had?)

I decided not to sleep on that sheet, so I slept on the bare mattress.

Then I realized that I must write to my mom immediately, who must be anxious waiting for my letter, after her youngest “favorite” daughter left for such a big trip.

The moment I wrote “Dear Mom and Sisters”, I started to sob, and just couldn’t stop crying for a long time. After one of my longest cries in my entire life, I told them: Everything is fine.

After finishing my letter, I started to feel sick. It was from exhaustion.

The sound of singing and the light of a bonfire came up to my dark dorm room while I was in bed. I had no strength to get up to join them.

Chicken Sandwich; “Don’t Panic!”

The next day, my roommate’s family invited me to walk around the campus. There were so many 18-year-old Freshman young Americans from New York City, New Jersey, Connecticut, 80% of them from middle or upper class jewish families. They were partying everywhere. I felt dizzy and ill.  

There was no Chinese food anywhere on or off campus in the small town of Waltham. I was not accustomed to the cafeteria food and hardly ate anything the first three days. A Malaysian international student took me to Waltham, and treated me to a chicken sandwich. I still remember the older woman in this American eatery who put minced chicken meat permeated with white creamy sauce inside a sizable loaf of bread, and sprinkled on top some marinated cabbage and whatever. After starving for days, that chicken sandwich was one of the best tasting foods I ever had, and a turning point: after this heavenly chicken sandwich, I could eat ANYTHING, EVERYTHING in the cafeteria. No problem!

The first 10 days in the US, I lost about 10 lbs and weighed only 115 lbs. At 5’6”, that was pretty skinny.

One of the regular (not international) Freshman Orientation program activities was for a dozen of the 18-year olds to get together, and the upperclassman “mentor” was telling the whole group, again and again: “Don’t panic.  Don’t panic!”  

I didn’t even know what the word panic meant at that time (since the kind of “proper” British English I was taught in China would use the word “frightened” instead),  but intuitively I knew the sentiment and understood what he meant.  Now, so many years later, I am still wondering what would make them panic, after just moving from New York City to a well-kept private college near Boston? 

At the student center, three other foreign students from Europe and I were complaining: 

“Every price in the US is ‘99’: $3.99,  $10.99,  $4.99!”

“And they throw away everything! All the plates, cups, and plastic forks! In Yugoslavia, we use china and never throw away things like Americans!”

I said: “Their post office is not open on Sunday! In China, it is open seven days a week! And no shops are open on Sundays in America either!” (A couple of years later, shops started to open on Sundays.)

Then an American male student interrupted us: “In our country, people must be paid double to work on weekends or overtime, that’s the law!”

We then all shut up and dispersed.

My Mom’s fears, ignorance, and prejudice

Before I left Beijing, my very worried mom warned me three things:

1) “Do not ever ski.”  She saw on TV western Olympic downhill ski footage and thought it was a life-threatening sport.  I eventually did learn to ski and made sure my two sons were trained in skiing when they were little boys.

2) “Do not drive.”  My private scholarship would be discontinued if I owned a car, so I did not drive until 1990 (living in New York City after college saved me from driving.)

3) “Do not roommate with a black, and make your college know this.” 

China in 1982 was a closed and homogeneous society, fearful of African Americans. Think about it: President Obama’s own grandmother, who had a black grandson, was fearful of blacks on American streets. My mother’s ignorance and fear were only natural in her totally different world.

So, I obeyed my mom, did not want her to worry about me, and wrote to Brandeis housing, as my roommate preference: please do not assign me a black roommate.

They assigned a Chinese American roommate, but assigned a soft spoken black graduate student to be my academic advisor. I think they purposely did it to teach me not to be a racist. I never truly had a racist attitude towards blacks or any other ethnicity. I dated a black student in my law school years. But for the sake of honesty, this was one of MANY things I learned to overcome in my first 10 days in America.

Overcoming the Impossibles

Little did I know that the truly impossibles were yet to come.

Here are just a few that I will tell my stories next time:

1) Language barrier, cultural shock

2) After skipping three grades in China, surviving in fiercely competitive and academically rigorous University was no small feat

3) My scholarship’s renewal was based on academic performance, each year

4) The private scholarship forbade owning a car, or being married 

5) Each year, I have to move 2-3 times; every summer I needed to work to pay bills

6)And more challenges and triumphs…

Readers:  Would you like me to continue telling my stories, excerpt by excerpt like this? OR would you prefer to read the entire book when it is published? – Please reply and let me know, thank you!

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

© Joanne Tan, all rights reserved.

Edited by Phil Toudic

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