Walking the Path of Dreams
Shi Huo's 1980 journey from Chengdu, China, to achieve the American dream
essay written by Yuling Huo
With every new face that enters America comes a story of hardship and sacrifice, to gain an education, build a family, establish a home, and, ultimately, obtain the American dream of prosperity through liberty. In the 1980’s, Shi Huo, a man full of aspirations, left China, its political turmoil, and his family, in pursuit of this dream. He came to the country penniless, struggled to sustain the uneasy life of an immigrant, and emerged with everything that he had ever hoped for.
In the 1960’s, China was a country led astray by one man, Mao Zedong, and his ambitions. Shi Huo, a Chinese immigrant like many others, came to the United States with hope, and found a nation that gave him the chance to make his life worth living. When asked what America symbolized for him, he said, “Well of course freedom, you can have your own dream…That’s very opposite in China, no freedom, no dream, just working.”7 He arrived as a servant of a nation full of limitations, and emerged as a citizen of the land of the free.
Huo was born on February 13th, 1957, in Chongqing, China. China had recently shifted from a monarchial society to a republic, and Mao Zedong was rising to power, initiating his Great Leap Forward with the intent to industrialize the nation. For Shi’s family, life remained relatively unchanged, and the country appeared to be heading in the right direction. But in 1966, when Huo was nine years old, Chairman Mao began the Cultural Revolution, which would scar China beyond repair. Mao was determined to crush ancient China and bring the country into the present. Of the many changes the revolution caused, the most noticeable was its effect on education. Because of Mao’s communist ideals, the workers, farmers, and soldiers rose in status as the intellectuals fell. School was considered a Western trait, and thus prohibited. Huo was not even allowed to play his violin, as it was a European instrument.
At such a young age, Huo was confused. He saw many good people arrested simply for opposing Mao. Once, his father’s friend was captured by a group of young kids—the Red Guard, taken aboard a truck, and paraded as a criminal. Thinking back to the painful memory, he said, “I was looking at him, he looked at me because I like him very much, very young, when I look at him, suddenly somebody threw a mud or something, *pah*, on his face, but he still looking at me, I’m at that point I’m very upset, see that’s the Cultural Revolution.”1 Huo witnessed a nation fighting itself, a time when parents could not trust their own children because the government manipulated the youth, made them spies against their own families. Children at the time were most negatively influenced, because their parents could not tell them the truth about Mao’s actions for fear of being reported. Mao gripped the people with a merciless fist and controlled their lives in every aspect. Each morning, all the children lined up to recite praises to him from a little red book, most often repeating the phrase, “Long live Chairman Mao!”2 In the streets, if someone accidentally sat on a picture of Mao, they would be accused of anarchy. Huo explained that he did not even possess any family heirlooms, because the government destroyed all artifacts tied with China’s past. People were forced to throw their personal belongings out on the street and burn them. Reflecting on the horrors of the time, he commented, “You know the damage to our culture…you can see now. You can really build up country economically, I mean people can buy car buy house, but to restore the culture, that take a long long time.”3
Haos dominated China, and Huo’s own life began to see the effects of the Cultural Revolution. His father, a renowned architect, had moved the family into a brand new apartment, built in the western style. But the plans were left unfinished when the revolution began, and as China’s population grew and Mao demanded equality for all, people of the lower class were crammed into these units. At one point, a family of six shared a single room. During the Cultural Revolution, Den Xiao Ping, a prominent politician and leader of the communist party, fell from power. All high school education stopped, and most urban teenagers were sent to the countryside to prevent the risk of social disruption.
At seventeen, Huo traveled by train and carriage to a remote village, where he spent three of the hardest years of his life. There was no electricity, no showers, and barely enough food to survive. Huo worked in the fields everyday, watching the sun, just waiting for it to set. For all his labor, he accumulated points, and at the end of the year, the points earned him rice, oil, and a mere thirty yuan, equivalent to five U.S. dollars. Once, when he had to carry a hundred pound sack of corn down the mountain, a storm blocked the canyon road. Describing his despairing state, he said, “I almost crying sitting there I don’t know how to go home. And there’s farmer actually he [had already carried] his own stuff home, he come back, carry my stuff.”4 This act of kindness and show of strength left Huo with an impression of the local people’s unmatched purity and humility, traits that he could not find in himself or in other city folk.
On the farm, aside from working, Huo learned to play the guitar, competed with other villages in basketball, and even performed the violin with a cellist and a flutist. For half a year, he traveled from village to village with this band, and was well known as one of the few young Chinese who could play the violin. He particularly enjoyed certain nights, walking four hours or so to watch outdoor movies on projectors. Even getting home was an adventure. At the time, Huo and his friends could not afford a train ticket, so they snuck on without paying. When they were caught, they refused to give up. Huo recalled, “Just like in…the western movie, very dangerous, we jump into the train…in the cargo train there’s no cover, just a box…we remember clearly, the water still coming down, just like that. It’s very cold.”6 But the memory that stayed with Huo the longest was the memory of the day he came upon a couple and their newborn while walking along the country road. It was local tradition for parents to make the first passerby the child’s godfather or godmother, and so Huo became the godfather of Huo Xiao Fei, a boy he has never again seen. Such interesting events compensated for his years lost on the farms. Despite the arduous labor, he was able to enjoy the serene countryside and the clear blue lakes that were yet untouched by man. He lived wildly, free from modern restraints, and in a bliss that he, at the time, could not appreciate, and about which he now reminisces.
Although he was confined in this labor camp, Huo stayed optimistic because he knew he would one day leave this place and pursue his goals. Of the twenty or so children in the village, he alone was chosen to attend college, not by merit, but by his good impression on the officials. The joy he felt in receiving this opportunity was immense. Even today, he sometimes has nightmares of being told to remain in the farms. He continued his education and gained a mechanical engineering degree. In 1976, Chairman Mao passed away, and when the loudspeakers broadcasted the news, everyone mourned. The world seemed doomed, but Huo’s friend remarked, “‘No, he die is very good. We’re free.’”2 At that point, Huo realized that Mao had in fact committed true evils against the country. With the oppressor gone, China opened its doors to the rest of the world, and Huo seized the opportunity to go to America for two reasons. First, he had a link to the United State—his great grandfather, Liao De Shan, was a close friend and advisor of Sun Yat Sen, the “Father of the Nation” who ended China’s imperial rule. Liao sent all ten of his children to the U.S., so that they could study and bring back Western educational systems to China and transform the society. Second, Huo wanted to see what opportunities lay beyond China.
At twenty-three, sponsored by his grand-uncle and a university in the U.S., Huo traveled to Beijing for the first time to obtain his passport. After a restless night of anxious waiting, he gathered up the nerve to go to the U.S. embassy. While standing in line, he watched as the man in front of him was harshly rejected. With this foreboding omen before him, he handed in his papers. An official checked his documents with a few quick glances, and just like that he was approved as a foreign student. Huo returned to Chengdu, and on the rainy day of his departure, his friends solemnly watched him go. His mother refused to see him off, because the grief of letting her son disappear was unbearable. He and his father boarded the train to Ghuang Zhou, and arrived at Shen Zhen, which was, at the time, nothing but a village and a train station. Leaving his home was a difficult choice, and he remembered, “A lot of people say are you kind of crazy, going that far. Basically you going somewhere that you don’t know nothing about.”7 The journey was indeed painful, because he knew it would be impossible to see his family for many years. Yet to pursue his dream, he was willing to make this sacrifice. After four hours of questioning in a dark room, the border police confirmed that Huo truly intended to study abroad, and allowed him to board the train to Hong Kong. He was surprised at the city’s modernity, saying, “When you go to Hong Kong, so fancy, my brain is headache because you see all the shiny lights, all that kind of things.”8 From there, he flew to America, finally leaving behind everything that once held him down.
Huo arrived in Illinois in 1980, $800 in debt, with $200 in his pocket. Because he picked up his luggage late and missed the bus to the hotel, he received aid from a friendly Chinese woman, who offered him a ride. This was his first experience of America’s hospitality. He then stayed with his grand-uncle, who had established an eye clinic and owned the most famous Chinese restaurant in Chicago called The Mandarin. It had a ground level for banquets, and an upper level for regular dining, and was often visited by celebrities. There, in a small, one-room basement, Huo and many of his cousins worked tirelessly to save for their college tuition, and were thankful for such simplicities as drinking unlimited Coca Cola. Huo soon met his future wife, Kathy Tan, who was a family friend. Everyday, as she worked in her $2.75 an hour job, he waited at the door with a boxed dinner for her, and eventually won her over. For six years, the couple balanced work and studies, striving to overcome the language barrier through a daily, six-hour, intensive English training class. In order to enter the University of Illinois, they had to pass the TOEFL (Test of English as a Foreign Language) exam, which Huo had to take twice. The pressure of picking up a second language overwhelmed many. Referring to his cousin, Huo said, “One day he is crying because it’s so hard. You have to study, you have to really catch up…and he really miss home…so it’s very difficult.” During lectures, Huo and his friends could not even understand the professors, and only had the option of taking notes to study at home. It was not easy to adapt to their new surroundings, because they “[had] to…learn how to drive, know speak English, really have to learn a lot of culture things from the U.S. So it’s really…take probably ten years to really really get [themselves] into this society.”9
In the University of Illinois, Huo and Tan pursued computer engineering, fell deeper in love, and married in 1984. Yet at the time, they were poor, barely able to sustain daily living, not to mention a full tuition. Fortunately, Tan received a teaching assistance-ship at the university, which paid a monthly salary and allowed her and her spouse to attend free of charge. Although the two struggled, they enjoyed themselves in many ways, from movie hopping in dollar theaters, to road trips with a dozen people in a single van. They had no luxuries, and yet they lived in happiness. In 1986, Huo graduated with a master’s degree, found a job at the company, Siemens, and moved out of Chinatown into a small apartment. Proudly, he said, “During the time, I remember we’re the first couple from all our friends and relatives to achieve our dream”: to buy their own home and their first brand new car, a $10,000 Honda Civic.9 In 1987, they purchased their first house, and had their first child in 1990. At this time, Huo’s parents came to visit him after a ten year separation. When he picked them up at the airport, his own mother hardly recognized him and wept upon seeing how much he had changed.
Huo’s life took another major step when Siemens agreed to sponsors his green card. When he finally received it after two years, he decided to move. He got a job offer in California, and found the weather to be unbelievably pleasant. The family left Chicago in 1992 and stayed temporarily in an apartment in Irvine. When their second daughter, Yuling, was born, they moved to their first house in California, in the city of Aliso Viejo, where they stayed for the next ten years. By then, Huo had spent twenty-three years in China and eighteen years in America. Whereas before, he still felt out of place, he grew to realize that America was his home, that this was the place to build a family. When he returned to China for a business trip, he compared the two countries, and saw the differences, the problems with the Chinese society. Huo and Tan became citizens in 1994 and felt that “from that time, we are officially American. We have our right to vote, first time we vote very exciting. So I think from that time we really fully think about we are really settle in U.S.”10
For Huo, America gave him the chance to make his life worthwhile, to achieve a higher education, to build a family. China at the time had too many restrictions as a one-party country. People were not allowed to do as they pleased. Speaking of China’s educational system, he said, “Even right now, I think a lot of time, you cannot simply choose your own major, it’s assign you. You go to study that you go study, you cannot just say ok you want to learn whatever you want to learn.”11 In America, however, he had freedom; the freedom of speech, the freedom to be who he wanted to be. It was a gift that China could not offer.
Immigration benefits both the immigrant and the nation he enters. In Huo’s words, “My dream come true…And one of the important things for me is…that every time I walk on the street of America I don’t feel anything…abnormal, [like] I’m a stranger, I’m a foreigner. I don’t have that feeling because this country is immigration country…The foundation is people from all the world come to this place, so you don’t feel stranger here, you don’t feel who is native, who is not. Everybody is equal.”12 It is because of America that immigrants have hope, and it is because of the diversity and culture of immigrants that America is unlike any other country in the world.
1. Huo, Shi. Personal Interview. 13 May 2009, 2
2. Huo, Shi. 13 May 2009, 3
3. Huo, Shi. 13 May 2009, 4
4. Huo, Shi. 13 May 2009, 6
5. Huo, Shi. 13 May 2009, 8
6. Huo, Shi. 13 May 2009, 9
7. Huo, Shi. 13 May 2009, 10
8. Huo, Shi. Personal Interview. 14 May 2009, 12
9. Huo, Shi. 14 May 2009, 18
10. Huo, Shi. Personal Interview. 27 May 2009, 20
11. Huo, Shi. 27 May 2009, 22
12. Huo, Shi. 27 May 2009, 23