By Assunta Ng
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Going to college in the United States is an incredible gift, and the lessons I learned during that time still resonate with me today. Had I stayed in Hong Kong where I was raised, I would likely be a short-sighted and gutless conformist. Throughout my college adventures, six of them stand out, which shaped who I am today.
6. Did I inhale?
I am more honest than President Clinton when dealing with the drug question. He never said if he did drugs in his younger days. “I didn’t inhale,” was his answer.
When I first arrived in the United States as an international student, I didn’t know anything about drugs. In my senior year, I discovered drugs by accident. A group of University of Washington (UW) Daily reporters and editors organized a party of 15 or 17. Suddenly, everyone broke away from conversations, eating and drinking, and sat down in a circle. Then, someone in the middle lit a half-sized cigarette, and inhaled slowly and deeply.
He looked satisfied or high, and instantly passed it to the person next to him. I had no idea what was happening or what they were smoking. What made everyone look so mesmerized after one puff?
My curiosity quickly turned to alarm. What should I do when the cigarette comes to me? Should I inhale?
Would my peers think that I’m weird if I don’t? Did I want to be part of an unhygienic ritual, everyone passing germs on that joint? I was lost and confused.
Finally, the joint came to me. In a split second, I passed it onto the next person. What repelled me was the awful smell. Only one other person, besides me, skipped the weed. When the party was over, I found out what it was. I’m glad that I have never inhaled in my life. And the group still accepted me afterwards.
I realized that I didn’t have to conform. Peer pressure was powerless. I am my own person. Like Nelson Mandela, “I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.” I was proud that I resisted.
5. Asked a professor to change my grade
Have you ever asked your professor to change your grade? I did once.
When I found out my GPA from my first quarter at the UW, I was devastated. I got 3.25, three Bs, and one A, out of 18 credits.
It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t impressive on a scholarship application. The one B I received was an English class, and I had counted on getting an A. That B would lessen my chance for a scholarship. I decided to talk to my professor.
Perhaps too overwhelmed with emotion, I didn’t have a plan and I went to his office at Padelford Hall without an appointment. You could say I was bold. Frankly, I was desperate. Never mind that my English was not perfect. I had been in America for just over a year.
The campus was quiet as most students had left the campus for winter break.
“How come I got a B?” I got straight to the point.
He could have said, “Get out.” Or, “How dare you?”
Instead, he explained that I had improved a lot. “It was very close to an A. It’s a B+,” he replied. (At the time, the UW didn’t have a decimal system for + or -.)
“But a B+ is not an A,” I responded. “No one knows I am getting a B+.”
“Why do you want an A?” he asked.
“If I don’t get an A, I will not qualify for a scholarship,” I said. My mind turned to all the financial woes I would soon face, having to pay out-of-state tuition prices.
We sparred for a few moments. To my astonishment, he said, “I will change your grade to an A.” I was stunned and speechless.
I had to admit, my persuasive power was weak, but I was persistent. Up to this day, I still don’t understand why he agreed to change my grade.
I won a full tuition scholarship for my junior and senior years. That financial support from the UW transformed my educational experience. Without financial worry, I was able to concentrate on my studies — full of hope, bliss, and determination to succeed.
I wouldn’t recommend confronting your professors if you have a low grade. I didn’t have any choice. Not all professors care to listen. You should probably develop a better strategy than I did.
What he taught me was powerful. Support our young people in different ways. Maybe, he was the one who inspired me later to start many youth programs, which involved scholarships and leadership training, through the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation. Perhaps, he realized that grades are not the only important thing, that the learning is.
4. Bruce Lee and me
I had a close encounter with the legendary Bruce Lee. I was working for the UW Daily when Lee died in Hong Kong in the summer of 1973. The editor called, “Bruce Lee just died. Get the story.” He didn’t ask if I could, it sounded like a command. The only lead he gave me, “He’s a UW student.”
All I knew about Bruce Lee then was that he was a movie star. I had no idea who his family and friends were. Worse still, I had no idea that he had ties to Seattle.
Before I could say no, the editor said he expected the story for the next issue, just a few days before the deadline. The assumption was, I was Asian, I should know the Asian community. Wrong. I was just an outsider, confined to living in a dormitory, and I ventured outside of campus only when necessary.
There was no internet. So I called my family and friends in Hong Kong to find out how Lee died. My aunt, a big Lee fan, was boiling mad towards Lee’s girlfriend. He died in her home, and my aunt blamed her.
In the meantime, my digging centered around Chinatown. Someone said Lee used to work for and live with the late Ruby Chow’s family. It was easy to find Ruby Chow, listed in the white pages.
I called and got Chow on the line. When I told her my purpose for calling, she hung up. (Years later, I met Chow, but I never told her about this incident. She was supportive of my career at Asa Mercer Junior High, as well as the Asian Weekly.)
Another source told me that Lee’s kung fu classmate and roommate, Big Brother Ju, owned a Chinese restaurant in Everett.
My then-boyfriend (now husband) drove me all the way to Everett. Afraid that Ju would hang up on me, I didn’t want to risk calling. We waited until the restaurant opened on a Sunday afternoon. When he and his wife came out, I introduced myself. He gave me much insight about Lee.
The Asian and U.S. media had no stories about Lee’s Seattle life. My Daily story was the only one at the time, to give details about Lee’s life in Seattle. Most importantly, my story was the first one to confirm that Lee never graduated from the UW, whereas other media reported that he did. It was then that my passion grew for journalism. I was scared when the editor assigned me the story. Now, I am grateful that he did. Our confidence doesn’t just sprout up out of nowhere. It takes hard work and trials to build up our ability and competence. I was thrilled that I had not let him or myself down. Thanks editor Mike for the opportunity.
3. Faking my first job in America
Waitress was my first job in this country. To make more money from tips, you have to work in nice restaurants, serving not just food, but cocktails as well. Anyone serving drinks has to be 21. No one told me about the age rule.
My first waitressing job was in Oregon, and I lied about having prior waitressing experience in Hong Kong. My parents would have never let me work as a waitress, for fear of losing face. Waiting tables was not considered a good job in those days.
While I got past the “experience” issue, I learned that I was still not qualified — the age factor. One riverboat restaurant hired me, but told me not to serve cocktails because of my age. It was difficult, especially when the restaurant was full, and no other wait staff could help me. It became a burden to my colleagues and myself.
After three weeks, I was let go. By then, I possessed all the skills of being a waitress, including carrying a big tray with eight dinner-sized plates. Pushing carts had not been invented then.
Within a week, I found another waitressing job. The bosses were Chinese and Caucasian. They let me serve cocktails, even though it was illegal. It was fun to learn all the cocktail names. But the sweetest
moment was, after I served food, I gestured to my diners about their drinks.
“Another round (of drinks)?” I would ask. If they said yes, it meant a bigger tip. It also earned my boss’ praise.
One time, a customer said, “You don’t look like you are 21.” I laughed it off.
“You are so nice, thank you,” I responded.
The fact was, I was nervous about being exposed for being underaged. It’s ironic that I was the one who checked IDs if I suspected that they were minors.
The restaurant owners took a chance on me. If they had gotten caught, they would have been in serious trouble. I guess they liked me so much that they were willing to take the risk. It takes a village to raise a college graduate. Everyone on my journey supported me, so I could move to the next step and get ready for bigger challenges in life.
2. Taking Chinese classes at UW
Many Chinese immigrants took Chinese language classes in the 200 level, even though they were native speakers. The instructors, as well as fellow students, including American-born Chinese, resented and scorned those immigrant students.
To boost GPAs, many students take easy classes, which can guarantee them an A. This is true now and then.
I took two Chinese classes (classical Chinese literature of 400 level) for other reasons. The reading was hard. In fact, the Chinese professors graded us Chinese harder than non-Chinese students.
I enrolled in that class to meet other Chinese students from Taiwan and Hong Kong, who were graduate students and intellectuals. It was exhilarating since I was the lone undergraduate, being challenged and respected when I surprised them with good answers.
I was also terribly homesick, I yearned to be connected with my cultural identity through Chinese poems and stories. I didn’t always appreciate my native language when I first arrived in this country. This is especially true among American-born Chinese. If they speak Chinese in school, non-Chinese peers would make fun of them.
The class made me feel that speaking and writing Chinese was and is an asset on foreign soil. It’s strange that I didn’t really think much about my roots when I lived in Hong Kong. But once you are a stranger in a strange land, you look back on your own heritage and culture through a different lens. You see yourself and your native land with a new depth of understanding and richness. It’s an intimate way of connecting you with the past, present, and future.
I also realized that I was living in the best of two worlds—the East and West. It ignited my spirit to embrace American values and build bridges between Asia and America in my future careers.
1. Killing rejections
I’ve had my share of rejection in my college days — so many that I lost track. I became oblivious to rejection — I wish I still had that attribute every day.
It happened when I wanted to transfer to the UW during my freshman year. The admission policy said that the UW accepted only juniors. I read that. But it didn’t mean much to me and I applied any way. The rejection letter arrived in May, telling me to wait for one more year. I was distraught. I read it again and again. Maybe, three more times. In small print at the end of the letter, it said, “You can petition” and submit your latest grades. Ha! It didn’t actually say no, I said to myself.
I responded with a letter, stating the many valid reasons why I should be admitted. I also got three As and one B in my last semester from a small liberal arts college in Oregon.
At the end of June, the UW admissions office sent a letter of acceptance.
What does that say about rejection? A no is not always final. I had to prove to the naysayers that it would be their loss not to change their mind. You have to show initiative. Also, it was all paperwork. I didn’t make a single phone call. If I had to, I would have.
What I did in college for survival is pretty much what you can all do in your life. Never give up and never give in…
Assunta can be reached at email@example.com.