This I Believe

Jada - Kamuela, Hawaii
Entered on May 25, 2007

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of…

The title of this program is This I Believe. But I would like to share with you something I don’t believe.

Thomas Jefferson coined the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” This is an American value that has been drilled into my head as a child growing up in the American education system. However, after living abroad for ten years and then returning to the states, happiness, for me, has been difficult to attain. I don’t believe in the American dream of attaining happiness. Thus the title of this essay is “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of…”

I use to live in China. I lived there for ten years, nine of which I spent teaching English. Before that, I use to live in Japan. I loved both overseas experiences so much that I didn’t want to return to the USA. I have always dreamed of living overseas for long periods of time and I have always believed that I was born to live in a foreign country.

I China, I got an apartment that was fully furnished and rent free. Every school I’ve taught at provided this and therefore I was able to save enough money to buy a new car for the unbelievable price of $2000.

But why would I need to buy a car when the things I need are within walking distance or when there is a very efficient transportation system? I don’t need to buy gas and I definitely get a workout by walking or biking to work to the farmer’s market.

I was also a somebody in China. I had a title to go along with my job; that title being “Foreign Expert”. In addition, I made a name for myself as one of the few foreign teachers on campus. To make things easier for my Chinese students and colleagues, I asked them to address me either by my Chinese name, Tan Yujie, or simply call me “Miss Tan”. They loved it because my given name “Yujie” means “pure jade”. I think they also loved it because it meant that I was becoming more Chinese. I even learned to love my name over time because the English translation of my name sounds so poetic that I now prefer my Chinese name more so than my original name.

Little did I know that when I returned to the USA that happiness would elude me. Just this past year and a half I’ve spent studying at my local university – as an undergraduate! I found word so degrading at times because I do have a B.A. from this university. I’ve also taught PhD. students in China and now I’m sharing a house with immature twentysomething year old undergraduates who don’t even clean up after themselves!

I’ve also found getting around town to be a challenge. I’ve become so accustom to walking to a farmer’s market or to a grocery store that I’ve forgotten that in America, there’s a lot less people and a lot more space between buildings. There is a bus system, but compared to the Chinese system, it is very inefficient. Taxi’s are also inconvenient since they have to be reserved in advance and some of them don’t work on Saturdays. They are also very rude to passengers.

The hardest part about not having a car is that its difficult to find a job that is within walking distance of my house and that would also take into consideration my school schedule as well. Therefore, the only job that I could find that fit my criteria was an on-campus job that paid minimum wage; not enough to pay for tuition and rent. For that I had to depend on my family. Imagine a thirtysomething year old woman depending on her parents!

The hardest part about being in this country, however, is that I went from being a somebody to a nobody. For the past year and a half, I have struggled to enroll in the university’s China-US Relations Master’s program. I wanted so much to officially be a part of the program as a graduate student as thus shed the humiliating title of “undergraduate”. I also thought that I had something to contribute because I have lived in both countries. I wanted so much to be a part of a program that I could actually sink my teeth into and where I’d finally fit in with like minded people and be happy. I read that the best way for those people returning from living overseas to readjust to life in the USA, is to find a group of people who are from the country you just left. I thought that this program could be a therapeutic resource for me.

I was wrong. I made valiant attempts to meet the school’s criteria. But despite my heroic efforts, I always seemed to fall short of my goals. I’ve taken the GRE twice – and failed. My GPA was above 3.0 one semester, then below 3.0 the next. I’m on the Dean’s list. I’m off the Dean’s list. I am not a lazy student. I do spend a lot of time studying since I do not have a T.V. or a computer. Despite that I still come up short.

I still have a passion for the program. I was allowed to take graduate courses as an “unclassified graduate student” and therefore prove that I am a force to be reckoned with. I was shocked to find out that some of my professors have never been to China and therefore I campaigned to have more qualified teachers in the program. I also thought that since this is America, where “customer is king”, that I could “buy an education”. In China, if a school fails to meet students’ expectations, then their parents could take action against the school. I thought the same principle could be applied here as well. Therefore I wrote to the local paper and to the chancellor regarding my grievances about having more qualified professors in the program.

It is because of this passion that I eventually butted heads with the head of the program who called one of my rough drafts of a research paper “undergraduate work”. My family is paying for my education. It’s unprofessional to label an unfinished work as “undergraduate work”. Why should anyone pay a professor for unprofessional behavior? That really stung me. When I arrived home that day, I was reminded of a scene from the Audrey Hepburn movie My Fair Lady in which she throws a pair of slippers at Professor Higgins. I have three stuffed animals. I took all of them and threw them at the wall with all the anger that I could muster while bearing an image of my professor in my mind.

There have been other incidents where Thomas Jefferson’s concept of the “pursuit of happiness” has not met my expectations. I’ve worked so hard only to come up short so many times that the two things I have learned from this whole experience is not to get my hopes up too high and that customer is no longer king. I feel that I have left out of the American dream and that is why I call this essay “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of…”