"I am an international migrant, a migrant scholar, and a scholar studying international migration. These three have been my different identities in the past three decades since I arrived in the U.S.
I was born and raised in Beijing. My formative were spent during China’s 10-year long “Cultural Revolution” when my parents were sent to two labor camps several hundred kilometers away from me and from each other. I was one of the millions of Chinese ‘set-down youth’ for three years, working as a peasant in a remote mountain rural area, where the room temperature inside our place was -10 Celsius! Afterward, I started college then entered one of China’s top universities, Peking University (PKU) for my Masters degree, and was retained as a faculty member there for three years. Trained by a University of Maryland PhD degree holder, I got familiar with the American way of research and teaching. Despite having no formal spoken English training, I was assigned by my department to accompany foreign visiting professors and their families to interpret and/or take them sightseeing.
On March 1, 1988, I crossed the Pacific for the first time (and it was the second ever time I was inside an airplane!) when I became a junior visiting scholar in Lincoln, Nebraska (NE), leaving behind my ailing father and newly-wed husband. I had not planned at all to become an immigrant, let alone a naturalized citizen of another country. The plan then was to finish my visiting period, go back to PKU to teach, reunite with my folks and start a family in order to live ‘happily ever after’ in Beijing.
From day 1, I knew I was a relatively privileged migrant, despite landing in the U.S. with only US$40 in my pocket and not knowing anyone in NE (at least I thought so). As a visiting scholar, I was guaranteed a $6,500 stipend for a year so I never had to worry about where my next meal or rent came from. However, it did not mean life as an international migrant was easy, above and beyond leaving family behind. Instead I faced many challenges, some I took on on my own to go out of my comfort zone and to explore the U.S. as a geographer, others involved heartbreaking betrayals by colleague or those close to me. Within a month of my arrival, against everyone’s advice I gave a guest lecture to a big undergraduate class, then rode with a few graduate students to the Grand Canyon and Phoenix for my first ever Association of American Geographers annual meeting – since then I have been to 27 of them and the national organization has renamed as American Association of Geographers – a sign of internationalization.
I decided to stay and get my PhD degree, then work as a professor in the U.S. instead of in China. Through trials and tribulations, including a few regrets at some critical life junctures, I became who I am today, and I have no regret at all for the path I have plowed and the journey I have taken: I have been a professor of Asian Pacific American Studies and Geography at two US universities in the past 20 years, achieving my life goal of serving as a bridge across the Pacific – by teaching Americans about what outside the U.S. and teaching international students about the U.S., mentoring the next generation of “human bridges”; researching and publishing about international migration, the triumph and human sacrifice; and serving my colleagues, university, profession, my home and adopted home countries and beyond. As a woman, racial minority, and a non-native English speaking immigrant, I have so far served as a cultural ambassador for my adopted country as a senior Fulbright scholar to two other countries in recent 10 years: Canada and India respectively. That speaks to the truth that diversity is the strength of a country, not a weakness. For me, home is where people I love and who love me live, and where I feel am just another human being, not someone to be stared at or discriminated against.
I am only one out of the 257.7 million international migrants who live and work outside our country of origin. Our collective experiences demonstrate, when facing determined human beings, physical barriers cannot stop them, evident in the historical Chinese 5,500mi/8,850km-long Great Wall could not have prevented northern invaders to rule China for a few dynasties, or in recent history that the fortified Berlin Wall did not prevent people seeking freedom. More barriers to human success exist within our minds – the fear of difference or losing dominance in one’s own neighborhood or country. Only open-mindedness can overcome such barriers to realize human beings are so much more alike in our emotions and experiences than our differences in appearance, skin color, eye shape, language, culture, ideological or religious beliefs, and truth and knowledge will be the best tool in such a process. The right mindset and actions would realize how international migrants are assets not liabilities whereas diversity is to be celebrated not just tolerated. After all, like everything else, people are born then die, countries rise or fall, and we only have this common earth that we all share among ourselves and with future generations."