I CAME TO AMERICA from my native China more than 24 years ago. I had $20 in my pocket and spoke little English. I came to stay. I came for love. I was 17.
I was 14 when I first met my future wife, Jean, at a math competition. It was love at first sight. It wasn't easy winning her heart. But she was all I could think about, all the time. I figured that if I could spend more time with her, something would happen. She was in the grade ahead of me, so I needed a plan.
Over the summer holidays, I immersed myself in the course work for the next level and dreamed of jumping to her grade. I spoke to the dean about skipping a grade. He was intrigued, so he arranged for a series of tests and assembled a panel of teachers to grill me.
I emerged with top scores in all subjects except English. So I promised the dean that I would work extra hard to improve my English with the help of the class deputy. He approved, unaware of the brilliance of the plan he was a co-conspirator to. The English class deputy was the girl of my dreams.
I had learned a lesson: I could be the master of my own life journey if my dreams were powered by love and sustained through confidence, hard work and the willingness to take risks.
Skipping grades was a rare occurrence in China then. It was 1977, Deng Xiaoping was back in power and education was in vogue, so I became an accidental celebrity. On my first day in my new grade, a blackboard at the school entrance proclaimed in huge characters "Learn from Tang Wei," which was my Chinese name.
That didn't impress Jean though. She didn't seem interested in me.
A few weeks later, our teacher was conducting a demonstration for other teachers throughout the city that included a challenging question-and-answer session with gifted students. When she turned to me, I didn't utter a word; I was silent as stone. She was dumbfounded, maybe even annoyed.
The Cultural Revolution was still not too far in the past, which may be why I was forced to write a self-critical essay denouncing my behavior. I refused. Our teacher was livid. She told me that if I didn't write the essay, I could stay in her office forever.
Jean came into the office to drop off some papers. Everyone had heard about my meltdown. She saw me sulking and asked if I was still coming for my lesson with her that afternoon. Bingo! I whipped off the essay to win back my freedom.
When we met later, she was curious about my behavior earlier. This was my opening. I expressed my true feelings about her. The rest is history. Then the unthinkable happened. Her whole family was moving, not to another city but to another world. America! I decided I would follow her. I had no doubt that we would be together and that nothing would stand in my way. I was 17.
One night I scanned the Yellow Pages and found the listing for the U.S. consul general's office. An "emergency" number was listed. This was certainly an emergency, so I dialed it. It connected me directly to the consul general's residence, and he answered himself. Luckily, he spoke fluent Mandarin and seemed delighted to talk to me. Americans back then had minimal contact with Chinese people. I told him my emergency was that my girlfriend had moved to America and that I had to move there to be with her. He spent the next three hours explaining what I needed to do to make it happen.
It took nine months of intensive work to get all the forms completed properly, coordinating information between me in China and my girlfriend in the U.S., who was sponsoring me for a student visa. There was much correspondence with an array of bureaucracies, and about 200 love letters that I penned to her during this period. When all the paperwork was compiled, I contacted the consul general, my first American friend, with the good news. He was delighted but suggested I sit tight for a week as he'd be traveling.
I didn't have a great reserve of patience back then, so I showed up at the consulate before his return. All I needed now was a visa. I was going to America!
The visa counselor asked me two questions.
"Why do you want to go to America?"
"My girlfriend is there," I said. No Jeffersonian flourishes about wanting to live in a democracy for me.
"Do you plan to return to China?"
"That depends," I responded.
She quickly jotted down a few letters on my application, stamped my Chinese passport "214B" and showed me the door. "214B," I quickly found out, meant that I had "immigration tendencies" -- a high probability that I'd stay in the U.S. beyond my allotted time. I would likely never be admitted to America with that stamp on my passport. I was devastated. I returned to my new American friend. He had a new visa counselor see me. That's all it took. My life changed, and I'll always be grateful to this man.
Jean eventually became an American citizen, and I was able to stay in the U.S. after we married. I later became a citizen too.
Love empowers people to do wonderful things. As a nation of immigrants, we are an amalgamation of love stories from around the world. Not just the love between a man and a woman. It can be love of success, of democracy or anything imaginable. Every immigrant has his or her own special love story. This is my story of coming to America for love.
Love is a powerful motivator. But you must have faith in yourself. You must work toward your goal ceaselessly. You must take risks. You must dial the consul general's number and tell him about your emergency. You must engage the dean directly. You must tell that girl you love her.