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America is not like the movies

Photo courtesy of Allison Ko.


Alhambra , CA United States

My mother grew up in Beijing, China, watching Hollywood hits like True Lies and Philadelphia.

One of the films that stayed with her was Forrest Gump. Watching Forrest stubbornly do outrageous things, like run across the country multiple times, left her completely confused at Americans. Why would someone do such crazy things – over and over and over again? Yet it was exactly this strangeness about America that captivated my mother.

After college, she eventually landed a job as a secretary at a branch of a respected Swedish-Swiss corporation. It wasn’t a job my mom necessarily loved, but it gave her a shot at coming to the United States. Laughter and tears were exchanged that last week in Beijing, but honestly, my mom was just excited. She was so ready to leave.

And then she lands in Alhambra. Where are the crowds? The noise? The glamour?

What my mother expected: move to the United States. Get a glamorous job and make a ton of money. Marry a white guy and start an amazing American family in an amazing American city. What actually happened: move out of China to the other side of the world only to land in Alhambra – basically a mini-Chinatown. Become an accountant. Marry a Chinese guy and start a family in mini-Chinatown. It was a little bit of a letdown.

Culture shock #1: Looking around in Alhambra, everything was so… normal. There were no Southern, ping-pong playing, shrimp-catching Forrests to be found. It seemed like all those movies were too good to be true.

Or, maybe they weren’t. Rather than melodramatically throwing her meager belongings in a ratty suitcase and buying a one-way ticket back to China, my mom stuck around.

Then, culture shock #2: When my mother signed up for English classes in a small language school in downtown LA, she did not expect a shirtless guy in Hawaiian shorts taking the students on field trips to Six Flags. It was nothing like she’d experienced in China before. Her teacher was an ABC (American Born Chinese) who didn’t speak a word of Chinese. He was so… un-teacherly. With his funny, bubbly personality, he somehow got a roomful of hesitant adults who didn’t share a common language to talk with one another in English. Before coming to the English class, my mom only saw and briefly talked with others around the city when she went out with her parents. This was the first time she really met an American.

As my mother explored her new home, she found more and more pockets of this American spirit. Students enthusiastically asking questions, libraries that were actually quiet, valley girl accents.

Looking at the big picture, life is nothing like on the big screens. But being patient and letting Los Angeles grow on her – instead of the other way around – allowed my mom to see the smaller things. Americans, she says, have this optimism about them where they can be perfectly happy being “normal.” No, there may be no Southern, ping-pong playing, shrimp-catching Forrest Gumps running around Alhambra, but there are determined, caring, loving, sincere Forrest Gumps everywhere – in every one of us in fact. My mom’s lifelong fascination with American movies wasn’t necessarily because of all the guns and action and yelling. She loves these movies because they always show normal people doing extraordinary things – it gave her the impression that if you set your mind to something, even if you’re not the smartest, you can make it.

Maybe, in a way, America really is like the movies.

Allison Ko is an Alhambra Source summer intern and a rising junior at Alhambra High School.

This essay is part of the Alhambra Source’s Immigrant Narratives series. Do you have an immigrant story that you’d like to share with us? Email the editor Phoenix Tso at phoenix@alhambrasource.org.

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