Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Starting Graduate School

After I finished registering, I went to see my major professor for the first time. He was a new young professor who just came to the college from Kentucky a year before. He was very friendly. He thanked me for the tea that I sent via a friend of mine who came for an international symposium at the college a month prior to my arrival. I brought more gifts for him and his wife (more than 2 months of my salary). Then he showed me my office where I met Porter and Mark. Later, he gave me a tour of the building.
     The next morning, he came to my office with a big shopping bag full of clothes. He said that his wife liked the the silk I gave to her so much that she was going to make a dress. I told him the silk was for a bed cover, but if she wanted, she could make a dress. Then he said, “here, Ying, these are my wife’s clothes that do not fit her anymore after she had a baby. I think they will fit you.” I was shocked that he was giving me his wife’s used clothes. I had never worn anyone else’s clothes all my life. He noticed my face and said, “why don’t you try them and choose the ones you like? I am sure other graduate students would love to have whatever you do not want.” I would be too embarrassed to give the used clothes to someone else.  It took me a while to get used to the idea; I did try on some of the clothes and he was right.  They fit me perfectly, especially a scarlet sweater, only it was not made of wool (so it was not warm enough). Eventually I donated all of the clothes to the Salvation Army. I was laughing at Clinton (Net worth: $55 million) who claimed a tax deduction on a pair of shorts that he donated to Good Will many years later. 10 Richest Presidents

     The next shocking thing was he said, “Ying, I am nobody, you have to make me famous. Look at Yi Li (李) who made his professor so famous. You have to help me become famous too.” “What?  You must be joking.  The first teacher in my whole life requests his student to make him famous.  I was hoping you would help me, so I can learn as much as possible here.”  My teachers consistently reminded us since day one of our school that he wanted his students “青出于蓝而胜于蓝” which means “we learned from him; we have to be better than him.” He wanted to help his students became famous. Otherwise, he would not be a good teacher. It would be a failure not only to him, but also to a whole generation. Our parents held the same view.
     My professor then said that he had submitted a proposal for a research grant to study old growth forests in the Adirondacks. This way he could offer me a research assistantship since he knew that I didn’t have much money. I told him that I had two years of support. I wanted to use the money to study something new, for example, computers, programming, and statistics to handle large amounts of data. Each year in the subalpine forest ecosystem station I worked in the western part of China, we collected so much data. I wanted to learn how to manage them. I heard from some Chinese students that they finished their master’s degree in one year in the computer field. My professor told me that one year was not possible even for American students, plus it would take time for field trips. We would try three years. I did not expect that I need three years to finish a MS degree since I had only two years money.
     Finally, I met Yi Li (李), a Chinese postdoctoral student in the biochemistry department across the Hall. He confirmed what my professor said to me. He was under his professor over 8 years and published many papers
He said that I needed to change my major while I had my own money. There was no future and no jobs in my field. I explained that I was not planning to stay in the US, and I needed to go back to my institute after I finished here. He laughed and said one day that I would regret it, and not to forget that he had warned me. He and his wife left a year later to become an assistant professor in one of the Midwest colleges.
     It was very hard in the first year, suddenly dropping into American classes. I was the only foreigner in class, not to mention the culture shock and language barrier. All the teachers treated me just like everyone else as if I was one of them. On the other hand, I was hoping to get extra help before or after the classes. I was so used to crowds in China. People were everywhere, in front of you, behind you. Now, I felt scared to walk to school everyday because it was so quiet. I was the only person walking on the street. I felt like someone could come out of nowhere and grab me and no one would be around to help me. I thought that my English was good before I had arrived. Now, I found that I couldn’t express myself clearly. My professor and classmates couldn’t understand what I was trying to say; they were just telling me they did not get it. I became very quiet and just listened, hoping to understand. It was more difficult in classes. I could only catch a word here or there even after I had read the textbook the night before. There was no way to take notes. Porter allowed me to borrow his notes after class. Still, I had to translate most technical words into Chinese before I understood everything and I couldn’t find a lot of terms in my Chinese botanical dictionary. Finally, I bought an English botanical dictionary to better understand. I also took undergraduate English courses.
     I had to pay out of state tuition as an international student.
Only had about $400/month left to cover everything else.  Textbooks were so expensive. Each one cost me close to one hundred dollars. I took four subjects, which amounted to twelve credit hours as full time student. For the first time in my whole life, I did not have enough money to cover my basic needs and my parents could not help me because Chinese money worth nothing
     The expenses were completely different. In China, my salary each month was not much but I didn’t have to buy anything except clothing or whatever I wanted. I stayed home with my parents most of the time, sometime I stayed in my dorm in institute
. I was never concerned that I didn’t have enough spending money. The workplace in China provided housing, dinning and health care. Here, paying rent and utilities was new to me. They accounted for most of my allowance.  Filing tax return was also new to me.   We were paid cash every month then I deposited most of them in the bank. 
     On the other hand, TV commercials, newspaper ads, and junk mail made things so irresistible. I basically had to tell myself, “no, no,” all the time for not absolutely essential things, except for what applied to my studies.  I was shocked how many credit card companies wanted to give me credit.  I did have money in my bank account, but it was for my two years tuition.  I did not want to get any credit cards because I did not have money to pay the money back, not to mention the high interest.
     Most students here found a room without sharing with others. The visiting scholars, though, were usually older with families back in China. They usually stayed for a shorter time, one or two years. For example, one professor was a well-known person in his field in China. He stayed here for one year. He received about five thousand dollars total as his allowance from the Chinese government. By the time he left, he saved about three thousand dollars and he bought a computer, refrigerator, and camera to take home. We couldn’t figure out how he could possibly do it. He said that he only bought chicken at its lowest price (39 cents per pound) and rice (20 lbs. for about ten dollars), and cabbage (15 to 20 cents per pound). That is all he ate all year. He also shared a room with other visiting scholars at $ 50 per month. The money saved in a year allowed him to buy things that he couldn’t afford to buy with his salary in China. He sacrificed for one year.
     The second month, our department had its annual picnic. It was to be potluck. I asked my professor what to bring or what people would like to eat. He told me to bring whatever food we usually ate in China, to just bring enough food for ten people.  People would be interested in trying it. I told him that it would be hot. He said, “that’s Okay. Just give us the original so we could try real Chinese food instead of American Chinese food.” I cooked a few dishes; spicy beef and cabbage were my favorite.
     It was the first time for me to go out in the country. The park was the highest point of view over the city, and it was autumn. It was spectacular. Almost everyone there, professors and students, came to tell me how delicious the food was that I had brought and I was really glad that everyone liked it. A few years later, though, my professor mentioned that the food that I brought was so hot that everyone had to run to the bathroom immediately, and fought for water to cool their mouths after eating. I was so shocked to hear that. Why did no one tell me the truth? I was so embarrassed to hear that. I blamed him for not telling me right away, but that was a sure way for people to get to know me.