Xueling Liu is a former preschool teacher from Hunan Province, China. She visited her daughter and grandchildren in the U.S. on and off, six months at a time, for a few years prior to 2019. Since the pandemic, she has stayed in the states going on four years at the time of the interview. In her 70s now, she continues seeking to improve her language fluency through an English-learning group of elders, and resides in the downtown area of Cleveland.
Below is a transcript, edited for length and clarity, of a conversation conducted in Mandarin Chinese between Xueling Liu and Ruth Chang (creative director at Midstory) with interpretation facilitated by Feiran Yang and Hope Harrington (teacher in MidTown Cleveland’s AsiaTown Adult Literacy Project) on February 7, 2023. For ease of understanding, the conversation has been translated into English with the original language below. The transcript is representative of a subjective and fluid conversation at a specific moment in time and should be read as such. This project also includes many individuals whose first language is not English; these transcripts prioritize the integrity of the interviewees’ expression over grammatical correctness. Midstory assumes no responsibility for any errors, omissions or inaccuracies.
Ruth Chang (RC): I would like you to start by saying your name, and also what you do.
Xueling Liu (XL): My name is Liu Xueling. I am from China, Hunan Province, Changde City. I am 73 years old, and I used to work as a preschool teacher before coming to the United States.
RC: I want to know which city you were in when you were in China. Can you describe some experiences and living in that city?
XL: Changde City is geographically located in the south of the Yangtze River in China, in the Jiangnan area, and in the north of Changsha. This is how it is located.
I grew up in Changde City and lived there for more than 70 years. I am 73 years old. I never left that place, from studying there, going to school, until retirement. After retirement, I participated in some daily community activities, physical exercises, cultural performances and so on. Our daily life is similar to that of ordinary Chinese elderly.
RC: What do you do after retirement — any hobbies you do?
XL: In terms of hobbies, I like doing tai chi and tai chi with swords. I like to do some crocheting and handwork at home. Because I am a preschool teacher, I also do origami and crocheting with children at school; I like to read books and listen to music. Of course, I also like doing housework. I am willing to learn cooking. These things basically fill my life. When I first retired, I was lost for a while, and these hobbies helped me a lot.
RC: Why did you end up coming to America?
XL: Because my daughter was at the University of Pennsylvania, she came to the United States to study for a Ph.D. program and she had been studying there for five years. She graduated from China with a master’s degree, and then went to the United States to study for a Ph.D. degree. She graduated from Tsinghua University. We had only one daughter. After having a little granddaughter, we wanted to help her, so here we are. At the beginning, I stayed half a year each time. My son-in-law’s parents take turns with us every half a year to come to the U.S. to take care of our grandchildren. This time it is because of the pandemic, I cannot leave the U.S., so I have been staying here for almost four years.
RC: When you came to Cleveland, how do you think life here compares to when you were in mainland China? Any differences?
XL: At the beginning, I felt very uncomfortable with the American way of residence. In China, the residence is usually apartment-style and neighbors live next door to each other. We live very close, door to door. But when I came here for the first time, I felt very scared. My daughter went to work, and I took care of my little granddaughter in the house alone. I felt very insecure, and felt that someone would knock on the door at any time, even if there was no one around. I did encounter unfriendly incidents. Can I tell the story?
RC: Yes, you can tell us.
XL: One day, I suddenly heard a loud banging sound in my house, around 3 pm, several times in a row. I don’t know what happened, but I didn’t dare to go out to figure it out. After my daughter came home at night, I told her about it. I happened to see two children across the street, fifteen or sixteen years old, mowing the lawn. There is a tree in their yard, and fruit grows on the tree. Maybe it is a kind of discrimination — they may know that we are Chinese — they took the fruit and threw it, hitting our house. My daughter had no clue how to deal with it, since she came to this place not long ago. So, she went to consult a neighbor for advice. The neighbor told us we should call the police. Such an issue is a violation to our house. What I am most amazed about is that within five minutes, the police came and took photos of all the fruits that fell on the ground, immediately went to the children’s house, and asked their parents to bring their children over to apologize. I have a deep impression on this matter.
When I first came to the U.S., I didn’t feel secure, but I still like the natural environment here, because it gives people a very relaxing feeling, very quiet — not as noisy as cities in mainland China. Roads are very clean; no matter where you walk, there will be no dust on the bottom of your shoes, and shoes can keep clean for a long time. Before I came to the U.S., I heard that you don’t need to do shoe shine for 20 days. I couldn’t believe it at that time. I really felt this way.
After coming to the U.S. for about half a year, I slowly got used to the environment. I am a relatively adaptable person, so I got used to the living environment faster. I started to realize that this is how Americans live, which is very different from that of China. And I can also sense the friendliness of other people around me.
RC: You live here — what is your favorite thing to do?
XL: My favorite thing to do is to walk around the city of Cleveland and experience all aspects of the city. I mostly like to go to Lake Erie in the summer. Every day around 7AM, I will go downstairs and walk 20 minutes to Lake Erie by myself. After going around Lake Erie, I will exercise by myself, do some patting exercises and do some tai chi, take a look at the vast lake. There are many people who get up early in the morning to drive a yacht on the water surface. One time, I saw a kayak on the water, so, I took a video and sent it to my social media.
The feeling was very good, because it was empty. I like watching the sunset over there a lot. I went to watch the sunset and the sunset was very beautiful. Then I like to take a walk in the city. I like the feeling when I walk and look at those old buildings. Although the buildings in this city are very old, they have attractive styles — no two buildings are the same. The streets are not wide, but you don’t have the feeling of being compressed and you don’t feel hard to breathe. When I was in Shanghai, I went to the section of People’s Square in Pudong. When I stood there, I felt tall buildings pressing down. Although Cleveland also has many tall buildings, I don’t feel compressed and still feel wonderful. I also like to go to the art museum on the east side, and go there to see the Chinese art collections.
RC: You just mentioned that there are some friends in this apartment, right? Then tell me, how did you meet these people? What do you do together?
XL: When I came, there was a “House of Dance and Martial arts” here. It was organized by two friends in the apartment. They led the Chinese people to do square dance, some tai chi, and some fitness activities in the lounge. My daughter has a female friend whose parents told me about this apartment. So I applied and joined this apartment. So we worked out together in this apartment, and then some new people came in. There is an old Chinese saying, “Things of one kind come together” [the equivalent of “birds of a feather flock together”]. It means that people with the same preferences will come together naturally. In this way, according to my preferences, I have some close friends. Everyone in the apartment gets along with each other in harmony. It is not possible to have a lot of close friends; I only have probably two or three very close friends. Because some elderly people in the apartment do not want to go out for a walk and prefer to sit at home by themselves. There are a few who are willing to go out for a walk. I often go out for a walk with three close friends and we look for different places to go.
RC: Did you study English together?
XL: We are learning English with Hope and the others. But do you know what our pains are? Let me tell you about myself. Besides learning English with Hope, I also attend an online Chicago Chinese school, which has a remote English class, and I also participated in that English class.
RC: Why learn English?
XL: Because I would like to resolve the language issue. To people like me, the biggest problem here is transportation and language. These are the two big barriers. We don’t have a car, so we cannot go anywhere. I actually got my driver’s license in China, but I didn’t take the test here. My daughter felt that I am too old to drive and there are safety and many other factors, so I didn’t take the driver’s license test in the U.S. I rely on public transportation. When I want to go to a place, I need to tell the address to the driver, I need to ask for directions. These require me to speak some English. When I go shopping, you have to know the names of those things and know what those things are. If I don’t know what those things are, even if I want to buy them, I cannot buy them. For the above reasons, in order for myself to survive here better, I have to learn English.
But there are two big obstacles for us to learn. One is that we are too old to remember things; the second is that there is no language environment to practice English. Although I have learned a lot in class in all aspects, and I have learned a lot with my own software, yet I have no way to apply it in my life. So my language capacity is limited to this level. When I want to do certain things, I will prepare my speaking ahead of time, then I speak what I prepared. For example, I like to go to a donut store to buy donuts for my grandson. I have to think about what kind of donuts I want, and how many of each kind. In this way, I can express it. When I ask for directions, I have to get clear information. But I still have obstacles in listening to English and getting correct meanings, so I have difficulties in this aspect.
RC: When did you start learning English?
XL: It started when Hope taught us to learn English in October of 2021.
(应该是 Hope 他们带我们是21年的10月份。)
RC: How did you start learning?
XL: In the apartment, we have a homeowners association. The director of the homeowner association sent an invitation through the community, and we signed up voluntarily. Later, during the pandemic, the Chicago English school recruited students online, so we eagerly signed up.
RC: How many people are there in this group except you?
XL: There are about 15 people in our apartment, probably more than 15 people.
RC: So what do you like most about this class? What did you get?
XL: When I was in the class, I should say, I feel a kind of intimacy among Chinese people, and a sense of freedom. I felt that I could speak freely. I don’t have to guess what other people are speaking all the time. I am free to say what I want to say and do what I want to do.
RC: Do you now feel that you are more Americanized?
XL: No, no. After all, I was 57 years old when I first came to the U.S., although it was intermittent for many years. Up to now, the longest time I have stayed in the U.S. is four years, so I still want to go back to China, and I have not completely settled down yet. It’s impossible for me to be Americanized, I think.
RC: Then, do you have any American friends?
XL: Yes, someone can be counted as a friend. I have a preschool teacher for my grandson — her name is Rolly. Later, she stopped being a teacher and went to work as a cashier in a shopping mall. She loves Chinese tai chi very much. She has been learning tai chi from me for two years. She visits our house twice a week, around 11:00 in the morning. For more than two years on and off, she has learned two sets of tai chi and one set of tai chi with swords. She learned very well. She and her husband are both Americans. This should be considered friends, right?
RC: So do you speak English?
XL: No, we communicate through the translation software on WeChat. Moreover, when I teach tai chi, I use some simple words, such as “left, right, up, down.” Just using simple words, the two of us have a way of communicating that we understand each other. Because we have been together for a long time, she can basically understand when I say, “Go this way” or “Go that way.” Or through the translation on WeChat, we can click and know the meaning.
RC: Then you and your grandson, are you close to him? Do you have something you want to convey to him? Does he understand Chinese things?
XL: Our family has such a rule that the children do not speak English at home, since childhood. My granddaughter was born on the second or third day after we first came to the U.S., so she was basically brought up by our hands. Her parents both go to work, and we communicate in Chinese at home, and the family stipulates that English is not spoken at home. Because I am a preschool teacher, I brought a lot of preschool education materials from China. So since she was little, I started teaching her in pinyin, one word at a time. When she was more than two years old, she knew a lot of Chinese characters and could read aloud, such as those nursery rhymes, poems and some ancient poems in our preschool lesson plans, like Mulan Ci and so on. Therefore, they speak Chinese quite well, and these are the biggest reasons why our English cannot be fluent. Because I see a friend in our apartment, her grandson does not speak Chinese, so her English is better than ours. I don’t speak English well because my grandchildren speak Chinese very well.
I also thought of many ways when I taught them Chinese traditional culture. For example, I used a large board. I wrote Chinese characters, idioms, etc., and pasted these on the large board. I made a lot of boards. When I had spare time, I tested them on words just like in class. The Chinese level of our two grandchildren is quite good. They can speak Mandarin very well, and they also have a good understanding of Chinese culture.
RC: As a Chinese living here, what are you most proud of?
XL: What we are most proud of is that our children contribute to society, and this society does not only refer to American society. Everything they do should be helpful to the progress of the world. What they learned in China, what they learned in the United States, the universities they studied in China, and their doctor degrees in the United States, all these experiences make who they are today. The United States is a very inclusive country. There are Asians, people from other countries and people from all over the world. If you work here, the contribution is at a scale of the whole world. I am proud that my children can contribute to the progress of the world, right? To put it mildly, my children are promising — that’s what I feel like. Their contribution to the world, even if small, is relevant. There are still many children in China who cannot survive by themselves. Have you heard of this term — “Gnawing on the old”? It means that you can do nothing by yourself, you can’t even guarantee your own survival and you still have to rely on your parents. But our children can, in addition to not relying on their parents, also contribute to society. This society is a big category.
Samuel Chang (SC): I am switching gears a little bit. I am curious if you pay attention to global politics, specifically what is happening between China and America relations. I wonder if you have any perspectives on that specific point?
XL: Political issues, right? There are many concerns about this. Let me give you an example. At the beginning of the pandemic, there were rumors spread around that the United States had severe material shortages. Then I found a video. A Chinese made a video introducing that the United States is still relatively rich in materials. So I put this video on “Moments” of my Wechat. I intended to tell my friends, “Don’t worry, we have no problems in the United States, in terms of life and other material things. Everything is fine.” But it was opposed by one of my friends, you know? I was very uncomfortable. He said, “Don’t spread these videos indiscriminately, okay?” I immediately wrote him a message and said sorry to him, but I blocked this friend. Because I don’t think that’s what I meant. I mean to tell you that I’m safe and I’m not materially deprived. If you say that, it feels like I am promoting the goodness of the United States. Therefore, I will never talk about what is good about the United States, what is good about China, what is bad about the United States, and what is bad about China. I won’t compare them. I don’t want to make such a comparison, because America is where my children want to live, and China is where I lived all my life, so I have emotions attached with both places. I think that it is impossible for a country to be perfect. It has its good and bad, so we don’t judge it. Therefore, I never comment on the politics of China and the United States. I only share my daily life.
(政治问题是吧，这个有很多的顾虑，我举个例子吧。在疫情开始的时候， 不是国内传了很多美国物质抢空啊，怎么怎么的，后来我就发现一个视频，有一个中国人拍了一个视频介绍美国在物质上还是比较充裕的。所以我就把这个视频放在朋友圈了，我的意思是去告诉我的朋友，你们放心，我们在美国没有什么问题，在生活上，在其他物质上，都很好。但是这就遭到了朋友的反对，你知道吧？我很不舒服，他们说，“你不要乱传这些视频好不好？” 我当时就马上写了三个字，对不起，但是我就把这个朋友拉黑了。因为我觉得我的本意不是这样，我是说，想告诉你们我很安全，也没有物质上的匮乏。你要是这么说呢，感觉我是在宣传美国好。所以，我以后从来再不谈关于美国的好、关于中国的好、美国的不好、中国的不好，不对比。不做这样的对比，因为美国是我的孩子们要生活的地方，中国是我一辈子生存的地方，所以这两个地方对我来说，都是有感情的。所以我觉得，每一个国家都不可能完美，都有它的好和不好，所有我们不要去评价它。所以我从来不评价中美的政治，我只分享我的日常生活。)