It is ironic when I hear Americans singing the praises of socialist and even communist countries of Europe or Asia, and criticizing the capitalist opulence and patriotism of America. Lately, I’ve been hearing some Americans say that America needs to be like the rest of the world. A little more socialist, a little more multicultural, a little more European. Whatever they want more of, it’s just a little less American.
As an outsider who has lived in a communist country, a socialist-leaning country, and now make my home in America, let me share a few things with you.
Born in Communist China in the 1980s, my family and I lived in what most westerners would consider abject poverty. There was no running water in the house that our family built, no indoor plumbing, and electricity only came on for a few hours a day. Food was not in abundance. My parents grew a lot of their own produce and we cooked our rice and meals over a fire stove. It was typical village living, yet we fared better than most families. For example, we owned a TV that we’d watch when the electricity came on. Most fortunate for us though, was the fact that my extended family had moved out of the country—my dad’s side of the family to America, and my mom’s side to New Zealand. They would send us money so even though my parents barely made enough to survive, they had supplemental income to provide food and clothing for us.
Living in communist China was anything but pleasant, especially in those days. The oppressive government truly was King, with the power to persecute and imprison any political protestors. My parents, though, were not political activists by any means but they lived in fear of the government. They had five daughters and one son, and all five of us girls were born in China. A rarity, I know. Under the one-child policy, my mom gave birth to me and two of my sisters illegally after the policy was enacted. Many times during the year, we had to go into hiding when the government officials came through the villages looking for families who broke the law. Thankfully, we were never caught.
Lisa (on her mom’s lap) with her parents and three of her sisters in China
However, our family knew there was no future and little opportunity in a communist country, especially for five girls. Sons were preferred and because of the one-child policy, girls were routinely aborted, killed, or abandoned at birth. Sometimes at will by the parents and other times by force by the cruel and detestable regime. My older sister remembers when the younger ones were born how other families would ridicule us and say what bad luck it was to have so many daughters. My parents worried about our prospects for a good education and career, dreaming of one day getting out of China.
Fortunately that day did come. When I was four years old, my family immigrated to New Zealand to join my mom’s extended family. When we received our passports to leave, my sister described it as the happiest day of our lives.
New Zealand is a very small country with a population of four million people in the British Commonwealth. I would describe it as a social democracy with extensive welfare programs and nationalized healthcare. Of course, growing up, I knew nothing about the different government systems.
When we arrived, my mom and dad worked really hard to provide basic needs for us. Feeding and clothing a family of eight was no small feat for my parents who didn’t speak English. Yet despite our poverty, our humble two-bedroom apartment above a store seemed luxurious compared to how we lived in China. And the newfound freedom from an oppressive government was never taken for granted.
As I grew up, my parents saved and scrimped to lift our immigrant family out of poverty. Being Chinese, my parents valued education tremendously. So we were always encouraged to study and do well in school as our ticket to a better life. I have great memories of growing up in New Zealand and I never thought I’d leave.
Lisa and three of her siblings, growing up in New Zealand
Yet as I was nearing the end of my high school years, my parents had the opportunity to move to America, where my dad’s side of the family had immigrated to. My parents wrestled with that decision. They had built a good life in New Zealand but my grandmother longed to have her grandchildren with her.
My aunts and uncles in America bragged about how wonderful America was to us. America is the best! The land of opportunity! You can do anything you want to do here! Become whoever you want to become! Pursue your passion! Live the American dream!
Everything I knew about America came from watching American TV shows and movies and listening to American pop music. Most of the world is infiltrated with American pop culture (for better or for worse) and people around the world know at least a little bit about American politics, however skewed their version of it is.
So I was all down. I thought, perhaps, now I’d have the opportunity to become a Britney Spears backup dancer! There was just no market for that type of skill in New Zealand. Yes, a typical teenage dream for a girl growing up in the 2000s.
I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was excited and hesitant at the same time to move to a country that considered herself the greatest country in the world. Internally, I was determined to maintain my kiwi pride and not get caught up in all the American idolization that my relatives exhibited.
After living in a small town for most of my life, arriving in the metropolis of LA was a culture shock, to say the least.
Walking into Walmart was an experience. Never have I had so many choices in consumer goods at such low prices. I was in shopping heaven. I will never forget the first time I went to an “average” American mall. Or the first time I went to a Costco. Things like electronics, household goods, furniture, groceries, and clothes were so much cheaper here. The choices were endless, and I could get exactly what I wanted for a fraction of the price. I would spend many weekends in those first few months basking in heavenly shopping bliss.
I was amazed that average Americans lived this well and thought nothing of it. Even your “western” countries, like Australia, New Zealand, and many parts of Europe were not this fortunate. I did not grow up with a dishwasher, a clothes dryer, or central heating in our home, and many of my friends didn’t either. The standard of living that Americans enjoyed was far higher than what I had ever experienced.
While these initial comparisons may be superficial, I discerned many deeper differences too.
We stayed with my youngest aunt’s family for the first few months and their whole outlook on life was different and new to me. They talked to us about what we wanted to do for a career, where we wanted to go to college, and how we could pursue our own American dream. Anything was possible if we were willing to work hard, she told us. As a Chinese immigrant herself who had moved to America as a teen with nothing, my aunt had worked her way through college and now had a thriving career, a wonderful family, and a beautiful home. They were living proof that America was the land of opportunity.
They didn’t talk about living on the government or applying to get on the dole. In New Zealand, I was used to hearing people talk about not getting a job so they could live on unemployment benefits. It wasn’t frowned upon. It was even encouraged in a country that offered extensive government programs.
As I immersed myself in the culture, I became enamored with these American ideals. In America, the individual was considered the maker of her own destiny. The optimism, the spirit of capitalism, the pursuit of a better life, and the American dream caught on. This whole mindset permeated the culture in many TV shows and movies I watched, in books I read, and in conversations I had with my family and other Americans.
When I was in New Zealand and even when I first got here, I used to make fun of American patriotism. It seemed so odd to me that Americans were so proud of their country. They had flags on all their neighborhood lawns and made such a big deal about American history and forced school kids to recite the Oath of Allegiance. What haughtiness! Why did they think they were so great?
So when I started college here, I made sure to take all the American history classes to understand my new country better. I became fascinated by what I learned. Even with liberal professors who were determined to downplay America’s greatness, I began to see how unique and special America really was. So much emphasis was put on freedom— freedom of speech, religion, assembly, and the press. It was freedom from government, not reliance on it to get hand outs. And the preeminence of “We, the People,” not government serving as King ruling over the people. Most significantly, God and religion played a major role in America’s founding and throughout her history. It was undeniable.
Lisa with her youngest son, today in America
Even today, God and religion still hold a place in American culture and politics, which is what I’ve come to love most about America. New Zealand is a fairly secular country where God is hardly ever talked about in the news, in the public, or in the schools outside of church. God was, essentially, irrelevant to the New Zealand culture. As a born-again Christian who became a believer as a teenager, I was an anomaly there. But in America, things were different. Americans praised God for America’s founding. Americans acknowledged God’s place in the government and the church was still alive. While I know that Christianity is declining in this country and that is disheartening, Americans don’t realize that most of the world is still so much more unchristian than America is even today.
I remember coming here and meeting more Christians than I had ever met in my life, even on the West Coast. As an outsider coming in, I still sensed a strong Christian-ness about America. It was evident in the people I met. I was overjoyed to be here amongst so many fellow believers. I have grown so much in my faith by being part of the American church.
I have now lived in America for thirteen years and my love for this country has only grown stronger. The blessings, the freedoms, the comforts, the capitalism, the opportunities, the heritage, the godliness, and the people are all aspects of America that I have grown to love and cherish more and more.
Sometimes, I think of what my life would have been like if I had stayed in China. Maybe I would have become a poor farmer or a factory worker in some Chinese textile company. If I had stayed in New Zealand, I would never have met my husband and my life would never have been so enriched by American ideals. I think of my kids and how fortunate they are to grow up here and have all these amazing opportunities and freedoms afforded to them in this country.
Sometimes, you don’t know what you have until you’ve lost it. Sometimes, you don’t know how fortunate you are to have something if you’ve always lived with it. Please America, you’d do better if you’d cherish your American heritage and be more American, not less. Don’t follow the ways of Europe or Asia. Don’t be fooled into thinking multiculturalism, socialism, communism, or fascism is the way to move this country forward. Don’t cease to be America and give up all the things that have made this country great and special.
Am I saying Americans have it all together or America is perfect? No, not at all. There are many aspects I still love about New Zealand and I will always appreciate my Chinese heritage. Nonetheless, I have caught the American bug. I love America and I’m not ashamed to say it.
LIKE WHAT YOU READ?
SIGN UP FOR EXCLUSIVE EMAIL UPDATES FROM LISA