Jan 26, 2013
Traveling from Hong Kong to New York for college was quite a culture shock for Cleo Leigh. Listen to her story as she shares how she came to Oregon and other challenges as an immigrant. Cleo met with Sunset high students in May of 2012 to tell her story.
My name is Cleo Leigh and I am at Sunset High School with a senior student.
0:22 Naomi: I’m Naomi and I am the senior student. My first question is – where did you originally come from?
Oh, I was originally from Hong Kong which was a British colony many years ago, but now is considered part of China.
0:40 Naomi: And you grew up there?
I grew up there, but I was born in China – Shanghai.
0:46 Naomi: Why did you guys decide to move to the United States?
Oh, I came to New York for my college. So, I studied (for an) engineering degree in New York and then I went back to Hong Kong to work. But, I was hired by a company based in Oregon and I met my future husband through work, so I moved here and we got married here.
1:11 Naomi: So, for the process for being able to go to school in New York – was there any difficulties, being able to come to another country?
Of course, you have to go through all of the process, like apply to the school. I think, you know, there are certain requirements and paperwork and then also you have to get a student visa through the American Consulate in the city. And, of course, this is considered pretty expensive for the family because you have to send overseas, not just tuition, but also the room and board and all that. And, at that time, I decided to come to New York just because my parents had friends in New York City. But, I didn’t realize the school was quite far away from New York City - an hour train (ride) – it was on Long Island.
2:06 Naomi: What school was it exactly?
It was a state university of New York. So, it was considered reasonable tuition for out-of-country students. You can’t really say it was remote, it is pretty close to New York City, but it is not like inside the city. It’s a suburb-type of environment.
2:27 Naomi: So, what were some of the big cultural shocks?
First of all, the language, no matter how much you prepare in your native country. I guess I was able to read and write pretty well, but when it comes to oral conversation, that was always a challenge. In addition to that, the English is a little different between the British English and American English – the way they use the phrases and words. So, language was the first thing and second was the interactions between people. I came from the city and Hong Kong was one of the big cit(ies). So usually people are very polite, very cool, not very friendly. But, when I came to this country, I would say they were very friendly – at least on the casual interface. There’s no problem to say hi to people. But, on the other hand, it is hard to build up friendship with the local students. Maybe one of the reasons is because of the language, I think.
3:40 Naomi: So then was your college experience a little difficult because of that?
No, no, no. I wouldn’t say that it was difficult, it was quite enjoyable because you get to know a lot of students from other countries anyway. So, for me, I formed closer friendships with other foreign students. And, I wouldn’t say it was difficult because for the academic level, most of the foreign students can handle it because you can just study in the test book. It is more of an interesting thing to interact with local people and how you live life there. I didn’t have a car, but we would manage to use the bus. And I got to know friends; we still keep in touch. Even though people are all over the world. But, yes, we still keep in touch.
4:34 Naomi: So, you said your college was a little more like a suburbia-esque area – was that a new thing for you, too?
Yes, yes, because the campus was very big. At least in my mind, it was very big. Consider(ing) the city I came from, it is super crowded. We have about six million people in a small place. We have lots of high rises. But, the place I went is all flat. Building is like... most of the houses are two levels at most. The school dormitory were three levels, that’s all. You seldom see any buildings using escalator, elevators, like that. But, yes, if you are from a city, you use that all the time – in and out – and the other thing is the public transportation is very sparse. You don’t get bus service like every two minutes. It is like in the city, we get subway every 5 minutes. But, here the public transportation is difficult, I think, for most people. Students usually – if someone’s friend has one car, everybody cram(s) in to go shopping and come back. But, we can manage that. It is very quiet compared to where I came from because it is suburban. At night, pretty early, it is getting quiet. Of course, the weather is very different. We came from subtropical climate. We went to a place that has a very severe winter. For some reason, I feel like most of the students coped very well, no matter where you are from… Africa or wherever. People are very adaptive, especially when you are young. You get used to the climate. I remember the first time. One thing that is very interesting, we stayed at a dormitory. Of course, it is snowing, everyone was so excited. Everyone says, “Come on and see the snow!” I remember that interesting experience because I look around and everyone is in shorts and t-shirts because it is indoors. But, outside it is snowing and accumulating, so that’s a thing that only happens in this country…I don’t know. So, I remember that very well. The first snow, we went out and made snow angels, never happened in my life- that was the first time.
7:22 Naomi: Were there any big things that you missed? From all of a sudden, not being at home anymore.
Oh, of course, food. There is a huge difference in the way that (it is prepared) and the amount, the portions are a huge difference. Because my first two years, I think I was on the meal plan, so on campus you can subscribe to a meal plan and you can go eat at any cafeteria. I remember all-you-can eat; there was a large amount of food. So, it is very different from what I came from. I mentioned earlier the language, how frequent you start a conversation, whether you are comfortable enough to start a conversation with a person. Also, I realized that in this country because maybe it is in college, also, you can always challenge a professor, even though he is your professor. You can challenge him or you can challenge a teaching assistant. And I feel that is very different in the culture because in the Asian culture, you always show respect, you don’t really openly challenge (those) who are older than you, or those who are supposed to be senior than you. So, that was a different aspect.
8:53 Naomi: In the transition from New York to Oregon, was there any new difficulties that arise?
Oh, it was probably much better, because after New York, I went back to Hong Kong to work. And then, it was more like in your experiences, you already know the place, you know that country, plus, my work required me to travel a lot. So, I was able to travel back and forth to the US and Asia all the time. So, coming back, it’s not that difficult. But, again, Oregon is much quieter place. People always question me, “how can you tolerate the suburban Oregon, it is so quiet, there is no night life or anything?” And they will question, “why don’t you just live downtown, like Portland downtown, city center, (in) an apartment.” I guess the difference is coming back is that I am no longer… I was single coming back, but within a year or two, I got married. And my life was different. You know I have a family, so it is different from when you are single; the things that you are looking for are different. So, living in suburban in Oregon, it’s not that bad. It’s more comfortable. If you ask me to go downtown, I would probably be a little more careful, but like in Beaverton and Hillsboro, it just feels like it is fine, that is the way it is.
10:40 Naomi: So, when you went back to Hong Kong for the first time, what was that like?
Oh, that’s a good question. I remember that experience very well because Hong Kong is very small, so everybody (is) living in high rises. I remember the first day, the first time I ran into the elevator, so naturally because the years that I was here, naturally, I would say hello to people. But, there’s not many responses. I didn’t realize that. Oh, yeah that’s right, people are not usually that friendly in the city. I guess in New York, I feel the same thing, people are not usually that friendly in the city. So, okay, I just realized that. And also in Hong Kong, the apartments are very close. They always have a gate in front of the door, so we have multiple locks. In many cities, it is like that. I forgot about that, after five years over here, even though I went back several times. Oh yes, that is the way it is. But, I remember those two things very well because they were talking about reentry shock – when you move to a place, it is cultural shock. When you move back, there could be certain adjustments also. It doesn’t mean that we don’t make friendships over there, but the friendships are closer and probably deeper, but you don’t extend your friendship to everybody that you don’t know… if they are just strangers.
12:13 Naomi: How did your family deal with you going back and forth like that, initially. When you initially left and then when you came back?
I guess it’s going back to the culture of Chinese culture or Asian culture – most people think that if you study hard, you will always be rewarded with a good life. So, most people, if you get a chance to go higher level academically, most of them will support, they will endure separation – they think it is part of achieving that goal. I think it is such a rare opportunity that you can go to a university in one of the most advanced countries – in terms of technology and knowledge, so it is considered a privilege to go. So, your family will endure separation for a while, because they know that after that you can probably get a good job and be able to enjoy life better than staying local. So, yes, if you ask many families, they will probably say the same thing. Although the separation is pretty hard at the time, my time, a long time ago. The internet is not that advanced, everything (was) phone calls. It is quite expensive. From my perspective, I think I was naïve before I left my place. I feel like I was just going to study. But, the separation is huge – distance-wise, as well as cultural wise. And I am not sure if I can explain to my parents enough about what’s the difference, even in the things that I experienced here in college life, I can’t really explain. They came to visit me, but it was a short period of time. It is very different and I was naïve enough, I think. But, the good thing about being young is that you are kind of fearless. You are just, “okay, I just go.” I didn’t even bring enough. I had very little things, my clothes and I stayed in a dormitory. I remember after I graduated from college, everything can be fit into my car. I think that’s the age that you want to see a little bit, but things that you actually see (are) beyond your expectations. I didn’t expect that it was such a difference between culture and life.
15:12 Naomi: So, you say that you have a son and he’s wonderful. Can I ask how old he is?
Oh, he’s 9.
15:20 Naomi: So, for raising him - he is the first generation. So, how has that been for you raising him?
It’s a very good question. It is different because he is born here in Oregon. He grows up here, of course, he doesn’t know what we came from, our background and all that. Grandparents are Chinese. He will have a little bit of trouble to communicate with them in terms of language. It’s hard to explain to him (that) we did this when I was young because they don’t have this over here. I did bring him back to Hong Kong several times. And he definitely enjoyed the things and he was able to pick up some language. But, as soon as a child… they are very quick to pick up language, but they are also very quick to forget. When my parents were here, when he was about 2 or 3 years old, they were trying to communicate with him in their language. It was quite successful for a little while. After they left, then everybody speaks English, so he kind of forgot. So, sometimes I have to explain to him that there is a certain way of saying in Chinese, when I try to translate into English, (it’s) just lost in translation. And he will keep asking, “what does that mean? Why?” I think I understand that he just doesn’t have that experience. My husband came from an Asian country also. He has a lot of experience; they never wear shoes playing soccer. And he’s like, “what?! You never wear shoes to play soccer?!” It is very different. I guess he will be an Oregonian, growing up here. But, on the other hand, he has a little bit of something that a traditional family doesn’t have because there is an additional language. And, also, he got to travel a little more extensively to Asia. So, that will be the difference. There could be some conflicts because in regular school, I think American culture is more open; they can question teachers; they can ask any question. But, in Asian cultures, a lot of it requires more obedience. “Oh, you got to listen to me, because I say so.” So, that is the difference between that. Because I was in the states for college, I understand where he comes from. I have that experience, but still something ingrained in me, there is some Asian culture that could have conflicts.
18:31 Naomi: Have you run into people that made bad assumptions about you just because you are from China?
I don’t remember of anything. When I was in New York, all I could remember is people warn me many times, “if you go to New York City, make sure you don’t have jewelry showing everywhere. It’s very dangerous, not just because they want jewelry, but sometimes it could be getting into violence.” They pull the pendants and all of that. So, that’s one thing. Personally, I never really had any bad experiences in this country. I don’t remember a time that people insult me because I am a foreigner. In Oregon, in particular, I feel like people are more friendly and open to different diversity. There are sometimes when there can be jokes because I pronounce something wrong. And then, some people pick it up and make a joke. And, I couldn’t get the joke because I wasn’t sure if it was a joke. But, it’s all in friendly terms. I haven’t really gotten into a situation that I felt hurt or uncomfortable or anything like that. Now, after living here for so many years, I learned to be assertive also. If I couldn’t explain it well in one sentence, then I will try to explain it in three sentences. Try to get the information across so that everybody is clear. So, in that sense, I think I myself am growing. I won’t shy away from things. Instead, I will try to stay (make) my point.
20:27 Naomi: Is there anything in particular that you have learned from traveling back and forth so often?
I don’t know. For people in a different country. America is such an ideal place. Before they come, it’s a place that like Bible says, it is a place flowing with milk and honey. That’s the place. Which is true, when I was in college, all my friends were always joking. The fruit is bigger. Like a mango, I have never seen that big of a mango in other places in Asia. Tomatoes are shiny and big and all that. This country is so rich. I don’t know if people (that) live here realize how rich this country is in terms of resources, in terms of technology, in terms of just the space. For doing what you want to do and all of that. For a foreign student, this place is where you can realize your dream and all that. When I go back, I feel like, it’s – we kind of limited our children in a certain way because of culture or we just don’t let them show their full potential. But, here I feel if anyone wants to try, it’s always an opportunity and you can show that you can do it. You can achieve it. On the other hand, I am thinking, people in this country could be spoiled – totally spoiled in terms of what they have because they don’t realize how rich as compared to other countries; they are much poorer in terms of material and atmosphere. And the encouragement that people give you and all of that. The lesson is if you are in this country, you should probably treasure the things you have and I am seeing this country in high deficit. I feel like, “why?” it is supposed to be one of the most advanced, one of the most talented in the engineering field. Now, it is going backwards. Maybe because people are too easy with their life because they easily get it. There is plenty of food, plenty of enjoyment. While people from other countries, they don’t have enough, so they expect to work hard when they come over here. So, when they expect to work hard, of course, they will achieve higher. So, that’s my lesson. In general, I think people from other countries. That is also my concern with my child. He has grown up here. He feels that everything is that easy. Everything comes handy – you don’t have to struggle. But he forgot that there is a lot of places struggling. I feel like that the experience in this country is very positive and I think I’m sure, there are people experiencing racial discrimination and all of that. But, I guess everyone is growing. Just if one time, you receive this kind of discrimination, then the second time, you should learn how to stand up for yourself and everybody can learn to achieve, not just one side, but multiple sides to achieve.
24:17 Naomi: You mentioned your husband, did you say that your husband was also from China?
No, he’s from Burma. Or it’s called Myanmar, nowadays. On the official map, you will find Myanmar because the government keeps changing the name to try to change (its) image. But, recently, there is not lots of news about that country because Clinton actually visited that place a couple of months ago because there is a new government coming up and they seem to be more open and more willing to talk to the western countries.