Coming to America

Have you seen the movie “Coming to America” starring Eddie Murphy, Arsenio Hall, and James Earl Jones?  I love that movie.  The three stars are fabulous and hilarious.  My favorite quote is: “Good morning, my neighbors!” by Prince Akeem (Eddie Murphy).

This summer marks my 22nd year in America.  In 1996 at the age of 30, I left Beijing, and flew to the Cleveland airport alone, with two big suitcases with all my belongings.  I was young, energized, and full of dreams.  My US journey started at Ashland, Ohio.

What have I achieved in the last 22 years?  Oh, yeah, look at all the junk I have accumulated over the years.  They are all over the places in my house.  That’s not something the two suitcases could hold up anymore.  This is called “Embracing the new culture”.

Today I’ll share some light stories as an immigrant.

Laundry powder:

I rented one room in a two-story house in Ashland.  All my roommates were from China, and were graduate students of Ashland University.

One roommate was from Shanghai.  Before coming over, he contacted some friends who were already in US.  He figured out that, pretty much everything in US was more expensive than in China at that time.

As a result, he packed up as much necessities as possible.  He even brought over one bag of white laundry powder.

The laundry powder must have baffled the US Customs guys.  They might be thinking it was drugs.

Really, who in the world would pack the laundry stuff for an international trip?  The powder was white, and caused more suspicions.  Anyway, the Customs guys tore the bag to check, and the powder scattered all over his clothes inside the suitcase.

When seeing him cleaning up his clothes, we all laughed.

Size of clothes:

The size of clothes in US adopts a different number system, which was confusing to me.

After arrival in Ashland, I needed a white work shirt.  But most of the lady shirts were too big for me.  At the end, I had to go to the Boys section, and bought one shirt.  The size fitted me okay, but the sleeves were still too long.

Later I found out the petite size.  That fits me much better.

Rest areas along highways:

I was amazed by the nice rest areas along the highways.  The restrooms were well maintained and cleaned.  The toilet paper was always there, and was free.

Even today, in China, most of the public restrooms (excluding the ones at airports, hotels or decent restaurants) smell horribly.  No toilet paper.

Some restrooms have one janitor sitting outside selling toilet paper.  Nice business.  I’m sure the demand is there.  If you don’t have money at hand, you could get stuck there.

3 years ago, during my 30-year college reunion in Beijing, I was laughing with my classmates about having to put some toilet paper in my purse.  It does seem weird.

When living in China two decades ago, I didn’t feel a thing about the public restrooms.  Now, every time going back to China, I hate using the public restrooms.  The smell and mess are just not bearable.

There are some bizarre things in US as well.  Not everything is great here.

In Ohio, in the lobby of the rest areas, the pictures of the Governor (now is Mr. Kasich) and Lieutenant Governor are hung on the wall.  It’s a small lobby, and the pictures are next to the restrooms.  It just doesn’t look right.

One time I stopped at a rest area close to Zanesville, Ohio along the freeway 70.  In the lady’s restroom, there was a framed picture of Clark Gable on the wall.  I knew Mr. Gable grew up in Ohio.  But, come on, do we have a better place for his handsome pictures?

Car honking:

In Ashland, usually drivers don’t honk.  People are nice to each other.

In the fall of 1996, one of my roommates bought a used and rusty car.  We were poor.  The color of the car was white, and the patches of rust were so visible.

One day, I was walking on campus, and waiting at the traffic light for walk signal.  Suddenly someone was blasting the car horn so loud.  I thought the dude must be from outside of Ashland.  Then I recognized that rusty car, and my roommate.  He saw me, and was honking for fun.

The gas guy reading the meter:

The house I lived in Ashland was a very old one.  The gas meter was inside the house, in the basement.  Once a while, the gas guy had to get into the house to read the meter.  But we didn’t know it at the beginning.

One day, one of my roommates was in her room on the 2nd floor.  The gas guy was pounding the back door of the house.  My roommate thought the guy was a burglar.

She was so scared being alone in the house, and sneaked to downstairs.  She double checked, made sure both the back and front doors were locked tightly.

Later, she told us about her smart and cautious move.  Then we found out the note the guy left at the door knob, and had to call the gas company back.


Living in a different country is exciting, and fun.  It’s hard, too.  The movie “Coming to America” tells the story.

Now I proudly call America my home.  America is such an imperfect place, but I still love it.

Check the amazing stories of the two immigrants:

  • What Was Your Lowest Point Financially?” by Joe of Retire By 40: Joe immigrated to US from Thailand at the age of 12 with his family.  Joe’s family went through a lot.  But his parents never gave up, and sent Joe and his siblings to college.
  •  “How I Went From Live-in Nanny To Corporate VP” by Caroline of Money Scrap: Caroline moved to Canada from France at the age of 20 alone.  What a courageous move.  She was the live-in nanny for the 3 young kids aged 7, 5 and 3.  That’s tons of responsibilities.

Did you live in a different country for a while?  How do you like it?  What’s the biggest challenge?  What do you like the most?

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10 Responses

  1. Joe says:

    Thanks for sharing your story about immigrating to America. I remember landing in LA and was amazed at all the lights. It was a huge difference from Thailand in those days.
    The US is a great country. Imperfect, but still a lot better than many places in this imperfect world. Thanks for the mention!

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Joe, I’m sure the LA lights were dazzling then. My first impression was the greenness, so many trees, and the open green fields in Ohio. And much less people here. Very cool. The longer I’ve lived here, the more flaws I noticed about this country. But, it is still a great country.

  2. Hi Helen, It is interesting all the little things we can take for granted until we are uprooted into a foreign environment. I loved the movie Coming to America also. It was so funny, I’m sure I’ve seen it several times by now. Tom

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Tom, yeah, the movie Coming to America is a cool and funny one. I might want to watch it again. There are a lot of great things in this country. I like the rest areas along the highways, and some are like a mini-park. I also like the public libraries and local parks.

  3. GYM says:

    Thanks for sharing your experiences moving to America. We take so many things for granted here, such as clean bathrooms! When I visited Asia as a kid, I was shocked about the toilets that were in the ground that you had to squat at because there was no such thing in North America.

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi GYM, yeah, in many places in China, like my parents’ village, the toilet is still like that.

      In late 1980s in Beijing, the place I worked at, the toilet paper couldn’t sit in the restrooms for a single day. Someone from outside always stole the paper. As a result, each employee was given some rolls of toilet paper to keep at our desks. Usually we just put some toilet paper into the pocket before making the trip to the restrooms. One of my coworkers was a guy from Finland. He was 6+ feet tall, and didn’t bother to follow the norms. He just swaggered in the hallway, with one roll of toilet paper in his hand. It was so hilarious.

  4. Caroline says:

    Thanks for sharing your story Helen (and thanks for the shout out)
    When I read “That’s not something the two suitcases could hold up anymore” I had to smile. I think about it too once in a while. What 30 years has done?
    Happy 22nd anniversary. Mine is in September, 31 years:)

    • Retire Early Helen says:

      Hi Caroline, thank you. Happy 31st anniversary. Yeah, time goes fast. That big move changed my life forever, in a good way (with some pains). I’m glad I made that move.

      22 years could make life better, or worse. I had a friend. He spent 22 years in the labor camp in China, from the age around 30 to early 50 (similar to my age in America). In his words, “those 22 years were like the heart of a watermelon was being stolen”. What a tragedy. Luckily he survived the ordeal, and eventually left China to pursue his dreams.

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