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Shanghai Lily


Follow our writer, Lele Chen, as she seizes an opportunity to work in Shanghai, China for six months. Lily’s a student at Duke University who has taken the semester off for an experience of a lifetime.

lily2 For the first time in my life, I understand why America is the land of opportunity.

For the first time in my life, I understand why my parents uprooted themselves and their 6-year-old daughter, bade farewell to everything they loved, turned their back on everything they knew and crossed vast oceans.

This was to come to America, a land with a language they barely understood and a culture more than just foreign in name. They moved to Miami and decided they could settle amongst those whose daily struggles included such concerns as obesity, consumerism, sunglass shape and over-tanning.

“How,” I had often resented, “could they tear me away from our comfortable upper-class lifestyle in China, surrounded by doting family and fun cousins, where I was adored as a little princess?”

Especially to come to this place. A place where we could barely scrape by, where kids in school pulled at their foreheads to make fun of my eye shape, where I didn’t fit in, didn’t belong.

As I grew older and familiar with American culture, and experienced important life events such as beach tanning and buying my first pair of designer sunglasses, the resentment faded into the past. America had become a part of me, so there was no point questioning why I was here – it was enough that I was happy and well-adjusted.

It was not until 15 years later, working and playing with regular Chinese people this summer in Shanghai, that I became dimly aware of why my parents were so willing to give up everything to start from scratch in the United States.

It’s because America is the land of opportunity. And I have been taking it for granted my entire life. I can almost guarantee that you have been, too. Because no matter how much you tell yourself how lucky you are, you never fully realize it until you have a conversation with a colleague who does not have the financial resources to vacation outside of China. To hear someone talk about how they wished they could go sightseeing in Europe, and then cringe inside because you don’t want to mention you spent a semester abroad in Paris or that your first tour of Europe was in 10th grade.

To hear your cousins marvel at your excellent English, as if it were something wondrously special to be fluent in it. To see them tirelessly study to attain the level of English that you easily possessed in middle school, just so they can be competitive in the new global economy. To be able to decide within three days notice that you are going to screw college and studying, and instead work in Shanghai for the next few months—without having to consult a government agency for permission.

But don’t become complacent with your superpower-backed opportunities. Because China’s new youth are bright, competitive, and if nothing else, huge in number. The number of cell phone subscribers alone (393 million in 2005) is already larger than the entire U.S. population. By 2015, there will be 500 million young Chinese who want an opportunity to succeed. Even if only a small percentage is successful, it’s still enough to give a serious knocking to America’s top-tier status.

lily3      And I assure you that there are many who are very, very bright and very, very competitive. The government and economy are opening up, and they are seizing the opportunities. As one of my co-workers said to me on the first day of work, “We’re so lucky in China to have the potential to do something great for ourselves. America is already too content, too self-satisfied for anything truly grand. But the possibilities are endless in China.”

They don’t see themselves as lacking the land of opportunity; they see themselves as building the new one.

For the first time in my life, I realize that the symbolic meaning of the Statue of Liberty, our “lady of opportunity,” is being seriously challenged.

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0 0 589 15 September, 2007 Columns September 15, 2007

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