When I first came to the U.S. in 1971, it was a vastly different world. Taiwan had yet to enter the export-driven economy and the island was pretty isolated with no flights coming or going. My peers traveling to the U.S. had to either take the boat or get a chartered flight. We were given one-way tickets since there was no knowing when we would return home. And, since long-distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, the only way to communicate with family was to write letters. The few times I did manage to call home, I broke into tears upon hearing my mom’s voice.
Back then, we had no computers or cell-phones, no access to cars and very little money. Most, if not all of us, couldn’t afford to study in the States without full-tuition scholarships—requiring us to work as teaching or research assistants. However, the need for living expenses still was a huge burden, so we held several part-time jobs to make ends meet. There were few international students at U.S. universities at this time, very little organization for us, and nearly no support. Other than limited interactions with classmates and laboratory colleagues, it was a lonely existence on campus.
So, can you imagine the impact of my first Thanksgiving dinner? I was invited to my advisor’s residence, my first experience in an American family setting. I was stunned by the spread of wonderful food, my first taste of turkey, cranberry sauce and stuffing! The warm hospitality made me feel at home, and Thanksgiving has since become my favorite of all holidays. Years later with my own family, I, too, started inviting “strays” to our table at Thanksgiving. It gave me tremendous pleasure to share our bounty of food and to provide comfort to someone far from home.
Fast forward to the 80s, our family moved to Richmond. After being in Chicago for graduate school and then Philadelphia, Richmond was my first taste of a southern city. With so few residents from outside the region, Richmond felt quaint. Though we traveled all around the world for business and pleasure, we fell in love with Richmond, even as it lacked a cosmopolitan vibe in those days.
One day in the early 90s, I discovered the International Film Series at University of Richmond. For a film buff like myself, it was like finding a goldmine. At that time, you either had to rent a VHS or Betamax tape from the video store or build your own collection. The selection of foreign films and documentaries was very limited. I would travel from Brandermill to UR faithfully to watch the films offered at the Series. For a young mother, later a single mom then empty-nester, watching film was that sacred moment when I could be transported to another time and place.
In 2002, when I was pondering how to better promote understanding between the people of the U.S. and China, using film seemed to be the right vehicle. Being a life-long film lover (especially of international film), one insight that impressed me the most was our shared humanity. When I approached the late Paul Porterfield for his guidance, he immediately said, “ I have the perfect person for you to meet.” That was how I got to know Dr. Irby Brown, professor emeritus at UR. Irby has since opened many doors for me, chief among them the Office of International Education and Dr. Uliana Gabara, now Dean Emerita.
So my journey in the U.S. has taken many twists and turns and has finally come in full circle: I was the beneficiary of a generous system, and now it is my time to give back. Looking back at all the hardships and challenges I faced in my earlier years, I envy the multitude of opportunities currently offered to the young generations, though it pains me to see students take for granted the privileges given them.
I recently heard the current dean of International Education, Dr. Martha Merritt say, “focus on people,” and I have to agree with her. Interactions with locals have brought me so many memorable experiences during my travels. I would challenge UR students to take another step forward: in addition to making friends with your fellow students who come from other countries, try reaching out to students from different regions. The world has come to Richmond, make the most of it. You may be surprised how much your life can be enriched and enlightened!