A Journey of a Thousand Light Years Begins With a Single Step

by Shan Yang
Shan (back row, 2nd from left)

May 28, 2016: Waking up at 2:00 a.m. in Philadelphia, I cannot help thinking about where I am in the boundless darkness and endless silence. Just a few hours ago, I was thankful for the thick curtains that perfectly blocked the blazing sunlight so I could easily fall to sleep, but at this moment I feel a little scared. After a brief struggle, I get up and pull the curtains back a little bit. There is no moon or stars but a glimmer of light outside the window, which is enough to calm me down.

“Usually my parents don’t like me staying at home. However, they probably have not felt great since their only child went so far away, across the Pacific, to another continent.”

According to the weather forecast, now it should be a sunny afternoon in my hometown Suizhou, a small city with four distinct seasons in the middle of China, just like the day I left. At this time, my father is going back to work after lunch, and my mother, who has already retired, is staying at home watching her favorite TV shows and knitting some handicrafts or going out to play mahjong with her friends. Usually my parents don’t like me staying at home. However, they probably have not felt great since their only child went so far away, across the Pacific, to another continent.

I couldn’t even believe I would move to America myself until I met my husband, Jay, whose ambition is to become a scientist aiming to cure cancer. Persuaded by him, I decided to quit my job as a Chinese teacher and accompany him to the University of Pennsylvania for post-doctoral training. He is still asleep, but I cannot sleep anymore worrying about my future life here. With a Master’s degree in Chinese language and literature as well as having studied English for more than ten years, I felt very frustrated yesterday, aware of the difficulty understanding native English, not to mention making others understand my Chinglish. Anyhow, thanks to my husband, 6 hours after getting off the plane, we finally found David’s house, which Jay had booked through Airbnb in advance.

David greeted us at the front door and told us there was good news as well as bad news. Interestingly, I understood his English. The good news was that he was still at home when we arrived; the bad news was that he was going to attend a meeting elsewhere for a couple of days immediately. He quickly showed us around the living room, the kitchen, the basement with a laundry room and one bedroom for my husband and me upstairs. After teaching us how to use the keys and emphasizing that we should put all the trash bags out on Monday evening and water the flowers in the backyard every two days, he quickly packed up and left. My husband and I both felt a little weird, but without overthinking it we directly went to bed after a simple shower since we were almost exhausted after our long journey.

Now, I am awake and decide to tidy our packages noiselessly in order to prevent my mind from wandering. Finding a bowl full of quarters on the shelf in our room, I am totally flattered by David’s trust. There is a Chinese saying: a close neighbor means more than a distant relative. I don’t know if it also applies in the United States where everyone is said to be very independent.

As the sun rises, my first day in America is over.

David’s house

Starting a new life

In the next few days, I still needed my husband’s help to find grocery stores and bus stations and even to communicate with others, just like a newborn baby. While exploring the house, I discovered something interesting about David. He had numerous handicrafts from all over the world displayed in his living room, such as an African wooden cow head, some figural sculptures of different sizes, a classical Chinese cabinet decorated with carved flowers and birds, various styles of woven carpets, and so on, making that place look like a small museum. What’s more, I even found several books written by him. It seemed that David was actually an architecture professor.

But why would a professor share his house full of precious collections with foreign strangers? When David came back, I asked him the question and he replied that the house needed company while he traveled a lot. I’m pretty sure he used the word “company” because that surprised me at that moment. Not because he could earn some money by renting part of the house out, or because plants needed care, but because they needed company. This word “company” means a lot. That’s why I am here in Philadelphia, and why my husband insists on keeping me around despite any potential issues. David was so sensitive that he believed houses need company just like we human beings.

“Every time I went out alone, it felt like an adventure to me.”

Presumably because David thought my husband and I had accompanied the house well, he wanted us to continue to rent that room. But the price was over our budget, so we eventually turned him down and rented a small studio near my husband’s school. However, when we couldn’t move into the studio on time because the furniture we ordered online hadn’t arrived as scheduled, he offered to let us stay for a few more days without charge. That was so kind! Some students came to visit him on those days, and their conversations were so fast that I couldn’t understand them at all. But when he talked to me, he spoke every word very slowly and clearly as if there was some magic that made time suddenly slow down. I knew the magic was his thoughtfulness.

Finally, we left David’s house with gratitude and started a new life. For a long period of time, I just stayed at home as a housewife, filling up my time with endless housework. Every time I went out alone, it felt like an adventure to me. For instance, my husband gave me a task to help him mail a letter at the post office just three blocks away. It took me nearly three hours since I had to translate every sentence I might use before I went out, and I had to study the different kinds of mailing like first-class mail, priority mail, priority mail express, etc. After I mailed the letter and got back home, I listened to some music and took a long time to relax, because I felt like I had finished an important event in my life. I wanted to share the adventure with my friend in China, but they had to have all fallen asleep at that moment due to the time difference. During those days, I loved evening the best. Because all my friends in China woke up and Jay was home or on his way home. The most exciting time of day for me was running to open the door when I heard the sound of Jay parking his bike.

A chance to embark on an adventure

Life started to change in the second year, when I happened to make a friend named Pat. She was here to accompany her husband, who is in the same lab with my husband, just like me. She was very outgoing and reached out to me a lot. With her help, I tried to attend some ESL classes to learn English and make more friends. We hang out a lot, such as going to museums, shopping malls and having lunch or potluck together. My husband was very happy that I made new friends here and could go out more frequently.

“I would like to work, but it turned out to be very difficult to find a job here. Not only because of my poor English, but also because of the fact that I can’t find a proper work to do related to my previous knowledge and work experience.”

However, I didn’t want to just play around. I would like to work, but it turned out to be very difficult to find a job here. Not only because of my poor English, but also because of the fact that I can’t find a proper work to do related to my previous knowledge and work experience. Recently, I have been a volunteer education coordinator at Brook Academy, where Chinese child migrants take tutorial lessons to adapt to their new schools. I do plenty of things there, like picking up some students at their school, printing lesson plans and worksheets, communicating with teachers and parents about the children’s learning problems and solutions, and teaching Chinese, calligraphy and occasionally math. I also do some cleaning and repair work at times. Generally speaking, I’m doing almost everything except teaching English, because my English, especially oral English, is not good enough.

Shan’s students at Brook Academy

I noticed that every time somebody was applying for a job in Brook Academy, they were asked to send their resume in advance and give a lesson to students before the dean gave out any offer. However, that didn’t happen to me before. Then I realized that the things I did were actually so easy that anyone from China can handle them as a volunteer instead of a worker. Anyhow, they indeed need some volunteers to do these things. But to be frank, I didn’t like the feeling that anyone can replace my position. From then on, I started to think about learning some other skills.

My dream was to become a writer before coming here. Nowadays, I still keep writing poems, essays and novels in Chinese, even though only a few of them were published in magazines. I’m proud of my proficiency in my mother tongue, and I know how important it is to be professional in English while living in Philadelphia. I don’t have a clear goal for what to learn at the moment, but English, the language, comes first. Besides David and Pat, many people here are willing to help, but that is not an excuse for me to rest on my laurels. Only when I am stronger, can I help more people and pass it on. The more we do, the more we can do.

October 19, 2019: The alarm is ringing. It should be 7:30 a.m. although it’s still dark outside. I turn off the clock and sit up reluctantly. It’s extremely cold in the morning now; however, I have to push myself a little bit.

There is a saying: “A journey of a thousand light years begins with a single step”. The first step for me is to get out of the bed and put on my slippers.

“As long as I keep studying hard, there is no way I will fail. Even though the night is getting longer, the sun is rising as usual.”

When Jay gets up one hour later, I start to read out the vocabulary on my textbook loudly. Chinese is said to be the most difficult language in the world, while English is said to be the easiest. As long as I keep studying hard, there is no way I will fail. Even though the night is getting longer, the sun is rising as usual.

A spot of light fell on to my desk through the shutters. Reaching out to it with my index finger, I can feel the warmth, from outside and inside my body.


Shan is currently a participant at the Welcoming Center’s Immigrant Leadership Institute (ILI). As part of our community engagement strategy, participants at the ILI learn to tell their own stories so that they can find their individual voice and also learn the power of community storytelling. Read more about the program.

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