Crossing the Pacific for School, 1947

From Last Boat Out of Shanghai, by Helen Zia (Ballantine, 2019), Kindle pp. 189-190, 192-193:

In the first weeks of May 1947, American universities mailed their admissions notices to prospective students for the fall. On May 22, Ho received letters of acceptance from both MIT and the University of Michigan for their doctoral mechanical engineering programs. He was ecstatic to be accepted by his top choices, especially knowing that every engineering graduate in China would have applied to both schools. Ho couldn’t decide which school to choose. The University of Michigan would be the less expensive alternative for his family, but MIT had the big name and reputation. As he prepared the documents to apply for his visa, he suddenly noticed that the letter from MIT had no signature. Ho went to the visa authorities to see if the unsigned letter would be accepted. Their answer was an unequivocal no. The hard decision was made for him—he would go to Michigan, home of the American automobile….

After weeks of waiting, Ho received his passport and exit visa on July 19. With his doctoral program beginning in less than two months, he bought a one-way ticket for third-class passage on the American President Lines, the only company carrying passengers across the Pacific to the United States. The cost was 171 U.S. dollars, a large expense already but only a fraction of what his family would have to spend. Those first postwar passenger crossings from Shanghai to San Francisco were made by two converted World War II troop transport ships, among the thousands built by Rosie the Riveters after Pearl Harbor: the USS General M. C. Meigs and USS General Gordon. Ho would sail on the General Gordon, departing August 24. After the sixteen-day voyage, he planned to take a train to Ann Arbor. He’d make it just in time for the start of school on September 13….

THE AMERICAN SHIP OFFERED Ho a first glimpse into his upcoming life in America. To cool off from the heat of the sticky August day, he took a shower—his first experience with such a contraption. Nearby was the water fountain—another first. After a few cautious sips, he quenched his thirst from this amazing device that dispensed a continuous stream of clean water—no boiling necessary. In the third-class dining room, he waited in a long but orderly line for servings of sausages, potatoes, carrots, rice, bread, fruits, tea—and sugar, a precious commodity in Shanghai. The unlimited quantities stunned him, especially the sugar. That night he jotted down a new American phrase: “All you can eat.”

With Ho, more than three hundred of China’s brightest young minds were heading to the United States to continue their educations. Like him, fifty-two were Jiao Tong University graduates, and thirty-three were headed to the University of Michigan. The students held meetings onboard to prepare for life in America, with topics ranging from transportation to their schools to dealing with American culture and cold Michigan winters. Ho attended all the meetings and volunteered to compile a list of everyone’s names to help them stay in touch once they scattered to their respective destinations.

The ocean voyage exposed Ho to another new concept: leisure. He’d brought along some books to study but barely opened them. Instead, he played bridge, watched movies, and spent time with new acquaintances. Most of the students were male, but several were female—including a lady professor. Ho had never gone to school with girls or women—and he was surprised to learn that they had big dreams for their educations too. At some point, Ho realized that he wasn’t practicing much English, in spite of the many American passengers and crew. “I could pass the entire voyage to America speaking only Chinese!” he wrote, resolving to start using more English. It was for this reason that the father of another Shanghai student, Ming Cho Lee, insisted that his son enroll at Occidental College in California—he feared that if his son went to school in the northeastern United States, he would spend his time mostly with other Chinese.

Ho, ever the engineer, eagerly explored the bowels of the ship to understand its mechanics. He admired the genius of a vessel that could cut through the powerful waves as though gliding on ice. The vast beauty of the ocean, with its different hues of blue, gray, and black, mesmerized him.

When they reached the open sea, sick passengers began skipping meals. Ho, too, grew queasy, but he had paid for the meals and was determined to eat them all. He took careful notes on the Americans’ habits. He wondered why people would want to eat bread at every meal but then realized that the rice was just for the many Chinese passengers—it was the only item familiar to most of them. By week’s end, the students grew bored with the bland American food. One of Ho’s cabinmates groaned, “I miss Chinese food more than I miss my wife.”

One thing disturbed Ho: the vast quantities of wasted food. He thought of the starving beggars in Shanghai. “One would exclaim in astonishment at the amount of leftover food at every meal,” Ho wrote in his journal. “The leftovers are all dumped into the ocean, along with countless boxes and bottles.”

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Filed under China, education, food, migration, travel, U.S.

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