It’s twelve thirty in the morning. I’m on the flight from Chicago to Houston. The plane is leaning slightly, turning to the left. Sitting in the window seat, my mind is out in the night air, this darkest of moments, but I can see two patches of light. I guess the one on the right is Dallas. The other one must be Houston. “Here I am…” I say to myself, “Back again on Mars.”
Five months ago, that was the first time I left my hometown, Shanghai, China. It was also the first time I took a plane. We crossed the Pacific Ocean, passing the meridian, stopping in San Francisco, and then flying for another four hours before finally landing in Houston, Texas, the fourth largest city in the largest state of United States of America. The whole trip took about eighteen hours. By the time we landed the air conditioning had dried my face and lips. Everything was strange and new. I remember the different aerial views along the way and trying to imagine what it might be like on the ground. It felt as though I was on an expedition to Mars, the fourth planet from the Sun, and I was an astronaut about to land in a very strange place.
No one ever asks me why I came to the United States, but over the five months since my arrival a number of Houstonians have asked me why I chose Houston. They are surprised when I tell them, “Because of the weather.” My voyage began in China. I took off from 30° 15′ 0″ N (Hangzhou). We passed over Tokyo, landed in California, and then circled back to 29° 45′0″N (Houston) again. The same latitude only on the other side of the planet. So many things are different, but there are similarities between these two cities: short spring and falls seasons, typhoons and hurricanes, lots of rain, humidity and heat. Weather reporters in these cities have a simple job. They only have to say, “Humidity, humidity, humidity!” I’m a Southern girl. I preferred a Southern city.
Although the environment was part of the reason I chose Houston over other cities in the United States, my starting point for the decision to study abroad came from reading a book, The Da Vinci Code. Being a Chinese architecture student I was no different than many others. We considered seeing famous buildings a distant dream. But when I read The Da Vinci Code and experienced through it the magic of architecture in different parts of the world, I decided to try studying aboard. I visited the websites of Universities all over America and finally applied to the University of Houston. But I accidentally wrongly applied to the Master of Space Architecture program instead of the Master of Architecture program. This mistake was like a trigger to my destiny. It lead me here. The college soon contacted me and corrected my application. Someone on the other side of the world had contacted me. I looked more closely at Houston and found many great buildings: Texas Commerce Tower by IM Pei, Bank of America Tower and Pennzoil Oil by Philip Johnson, the Menil Museum by Renzo Piano, and NASA.
“There may be some turbulence ahead. Please keep your seatbelts on.” The captain’s voice pulls me back from the darkness. It is 12:45 am. I am returning to Houston after my first trip home. This time I stopped in Chicago instead of San Francisco. I left the skyline of Chicago and now I have a view of the nighttime skyline of Houston that before now I have only seen on magazine covers. I try to remember the photographs that I took a few months ago, the first time I took a bus to Downtown, Houston. I take out my camera to see if the images are still there.
It was a Saturday afternoon. My classmates told me that I could buy supplies at Texas Art, and I could take a bus there. So I left home with a printed bus schedule and a map. The bus seemed to pull the city along the highway and then burrow into downtown. It felt as though the different over-layered high-rises were coming toward me. It felt as though I was on a boat. The high-rises were huge statues staring at me, a tiny new comer. Waking up from my daydream I found myself under the reflective canopies of the Downtown Transit Center. The bus told us where we were. It instructed us to exit. We stood up and moved slowly towards the doors. Most people were old and either Hispanic or African American. I was the alien.
As we got off the bus and walked out from the canopy a flock of birds scattered before us, leading my eyes upward as they rushed to perches overhead. The sky was clearly blue without a slice of cloud. Under this blue outline was skyline different than the one I had seen from the bus. It was closer, dizzier, a little bit overwhelming. Birds soared along the Main Street leading me in the direction of the rail line. A woman’s profile rushed into my eyes. She was hovering there, alone against the towers as if she was waiting for something coming from the East.
The sound of a metro train led me further down Main. The crowd of people coming out of the rail stop spread out so fast that the street was empty within seconds. Only those birds standing on the overhead wires stay behind.
“The plane will be landing momentarily. Please return your seats and tray tables to the upright position.” I can see the streetlights lining the sides of freeways; the cars are like the ants moving on lonely streets, but they are growing larger and larger. I wonder if Alice will be coming to the airport to pick me up.
Alice is the wife of Hailong Yong. Five months ago it was Hailong who picked me up at the airport. That was the first time we met. All of the Chinese students who were going to study at the University of Houston know the website of the Friendship Association of Chinese Students and Scholars at University of Houston. His name is there. So I contacted him and she invited me to stay in his house until I found a place of my own. After we introduced ourselves, I learned that Hailong was the first student from the People’s Republic of China to study architecture at the University of Houston. When they met Alice was also an architecture student at UH.
The Yong’s whole family is involved with art and architecture. Their daughter Emily just started her freshman year in architecture. Alice often asked her to bring some food for me. She understood that we were too busy to cook sometimes. Their younger daughter Jessica is in the last year of high school. She is going to be an interior designer. Hailong’s nephew was also an architecture major at UH. Now he is pursuing a graduate degree in architecture at Rice University. Hailong’s father was an artist and used to be a professor in China’s best University, Qinghua University. He was the founder of Folk Art Program at Qinghua University. His paintings have been exhibited all over the world. Hailong’s mother was also an art professor and an artist. All of these details about the Yong family emerged as I got to know them over the many months of my first semester in the United States. Alice has become like a close relative in Houston even though we are not related.
“This is the area where we live,” Hailong told me. He turned the car into a broad tree-lined boulevard and then onto Harvest Lane. The car moved slowly and I watched the houses along both sides of the lane. A red-bricked house came into view. “Is that your house?” I pointed at the red house and asked Hailong. “How do you know that?” He replied with a humorous and surprised way. “Because it is the most architectural house!” He laughed out and pulled his car into the driveway. We took our luggage out and entered the house from the back door. I had never been in such a home before. Every day I came out from the guest room I stayed in, I saw a big oil painting of a sunflower by Mrs. Yong and a drafting table by the stair. There were many indoor plants beside the stairs and in living room. Hailong would stand beside them, delicately fiddling with the leaves while we talked. Mr. and Mrs. Yongs’ paintings covered the walls of the living room. It is easy to tell which ones were painted by Mr. Yong and which ones were Mrs. Yong’s.
Somehow I didn’t see their front yard until after I had moved into my own apartment and came back for a visit. Their yard is paved by little rocks and cultivated in a Chinese garden style. There were three Chinese characters hanging over the head of the doorway with their face slightly tilted down. I wondered if these characters ware made by Mr. Yong, Senior, but never remembered to ask.
HEB & China Town
My friends from China and I arrived here without any income. We could not afford to buy a car. The Yong family and their friends in Church would take us to super-markets every weekend. They usually took us to HEB or the supermarkets in Chinatown. One of the best things about Houston for Chinese students is the huge Chinese community. The large Chinatown in West Houston has almost everything we need. When I was still in China I struggled to prepare things that I thought couldn’t be bought in America. Now I regret carrying all of that on my long flight to Houston. All these things can be found in Chinatown, even the same band of Green Tea. Most Chinese students who come to U of H love to cook for themselves. So shopping in Chinatown is one of the most important things that we do for entertainment. Students who have a car drive all the way to Bellaire every weekend to shop for food, going to restaurants to have lunch or dinner. Last Thanksgiving, my Chinese friends and I went out to Karaoke in Chinatown. When we arrived we found that a group of Chinese friends had booked the room right next to us. Houston’s Chinatown shrinks the world, bringing us home again.
Fruits and vegetables in HEB grocery stores are rich and fresh. Because there were two HEB’s close to the university campus where we live, some of us ride bicycles to get groceries. We have heard that a student was attacked and robbed there for just one dollar. The people in the store are unfamiliar and so large compared to us. The fluorescent lighting makes them still stranger. Sometimes, shopping there can be disorienting. It can be disturbing. That is what it felt like when Hurricane Ike hit Houston.
About nine hours before Ike came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico, having been born in the Atlantic Ocean somewhere between Africa and South America. I went to HEB with friends to buy food and supplies. The traffic was so heavy that cars crowded with people were standing still all along Scott Street. It was like a parking lot. When we finally got to the store it took a long time to find a parking spot. It took a long time to find a shopping cart as well. Once we were inside the store, in this strange circumstance the scene was weirdly familiar. It was like supermarkets in China, but even more crowded. People were running through aisles pushing baskets in front of them. Others huddled in front of shelves. The checkout line was so long that the end of it reached all the way to the other end of the store. Many shelves were empty. I couldn’t find a loaf of bread. But the people in the checkout line were laughing and chatting casually. The conversation between the teenagers was even a little bit flirty which made us feel much more relaxed. Ike brought us together with the people in the store and with each other. After the storm had passed, spending an entire week without power, we found that without light some communications are simpler and easier than other times. The same technology that brings us together seems to keep us apart as well.
Suddenly, the feeling of losing weight is somewhere in my stomach. We are landing at last. I turn off my camera, and put it back into my backpack. After five months, I still feel like a stranger, an astronaut. I know that I am still a new person to Houston. But I know I’m going to dig more deeply into the city. I’m excited to see more of this place and the people who live in Houston.
“Welcome to Houston, Texas. Thank you for taking American Airlines. We will be at the gate in a few moments. You may turn on your electronic devices now. Please be careful when opening the overhead bins. Their contents may have shifted during the flight.”