Even before I left China in 1992, I had had a fascination with working in a Chinese restaurant in the US. That seemed such an essential American experience for any Chinese immigrant, at least according to such popular novels as Beijinger in New York and Manhattan’s China Lady.
Soon after I arrived in Miami for graduate school, I began searching for a restaurant where I could fulfill my dream of illegal unemployment (those of us on student visas were not allowed to work off-campus). Job listings were plenty in Chinese-language newspapers, but transportation was a drag—the medical school where I studied was in Civic Center, an area of concrete hospitals and research institutions far away from everything else.
An hour zigzagging through the city on a bus later, I landed in a stately hotel right on the beach with a posh Chinese restaurant on the first floor overlooking the ocean. The manager needed help. I needed my experience. So it was a deal.
Coming out of the restaurant after the interview, it was getting dark. I saw the high-rise medical school building not too far away, so I decided to walk straight ahead to take a shortcut home.
The buildings became sparser and street light dimmer as I walked. Bums in rags asked for change. I did not dare not to comply. Soon I found myself standing in front of a block of low-rise apartments, all dark except for a lone street lamp coloring the buildings yellow. Shadows of human figures leaned against the buildings, raced on bicycles, and hustled around.
The scene reminded me of my childhood when kids hanged out in street corners after dinner. Then it dawned on me that I was in an inner city neighborhood, and those figures were not my buddies but idling black people. Oh all the horrible stories I had heard about American inner cities! My feet went weak. The medical school building appeared as far as when I started the shortcut home.
Suddenly several kids appeared from nowhere and pushed me to the ground. Before my adrenaline had time to rush, they snatched my leather portfolio and raced away on bicycles. “Go find your help!” They left their laughter behind.
I stood up and trudged on, my head spinning. Where to? The street lamp was far behind. There were only echoes of footsteps in the dark street.
“What are you doing here?” A window opened above me and a black woman in her twenties stuck her head out. “Don’t you know it’s dangerous here?”
I said that I was lost and robbed. She asked me to go upstairs. I could not move my feet—A black woman in an inner city neighborhood, would she robbed me blind like the others?
Before I could decide whether to run or not, the woman came down holding a little girl. “Why are you walking in this neighborhood?” asked she. I explained my shortcut. She shook her head. “Let me drive you home,” she insisted calmly.
She did not say much during the ride. The little girl studied me in the car seat. I studied her mother behind the steering wheel: her skin was of the color that could easily dissolve into the night, a color that until then had been strange, almost intimidating, to me; yet she was there helping a complete stranger get home safely. I wanted to apologize for having hesitated to accept her help.
“I hate those guys too,” she said.
Since then, I have learned to use the term “African Americans” instead of “blacks.” I made African American friends in business school and celebrate holidays with inner city families. I have learned to appreciate the kindness in all of us despite our drastically different skin colors and upbringings.
This American experience of mine, it began on that night.