Reminiscence from My 55th High School Class Reunion

On September 10, 2016 I attended my high school’s 55th Class Reunion in Placerville, California.  Many of these friends I haven’t seen since the 50th Class Reunion in 2011, and some I haven’t seen since our graduation 55 years ago in 1961.  In this article I like to share some of my reminiscences from attending this 55th Class Reunion.

Some Background History: I was born in China during WWII and lived in a rural village Taishan, Guangdong Province in Southern China for the first years of my life.  After WWII ended, in 1945 my family moved back to Guangzhou (also known as Canton), the major city in Guangdong Province.  Then in May 1949 my family moved to nearby Hong Kong just before the Chinese Communists took control of Southern China. To increase the education opportunities of their five children, my parents decided in 1955 to immigrate to the U.S.  We settled in Placerville, a small town of less than 4,000 people between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe.  Placerville is less than 10 miles from Coloma where gold was discovered in 1849 and started the gold rush to the West, and is known as Hangtown for its hanging tree during the wild west.  The reason we settled in Placerville was because just a few weeks before we left Hong Kong, my father received a job offer from his 1926 Brown University freshman dormitory roommate Mr. Harold S. Prescott, Senior, who had a small civil engineering firm in Placerville.  Although they were in the same college for only one year [1] and were separated for about 28 years from 1927 to 1955, they kept in touch with each other via annual exchange of Christmas cards.  This was one of several “coincident” events that had major impacts in my life.

First Experiences and Impressions As a Teenager in the U.S.:  My first impression of my fellow students from 7th grade onward and our family’s friends was that the American people, especially the ones we met in small rural towns like Placerville, were extremely friendly and willing to help others, an impression that remains true during the next 60+years.  On the other hand, it was not so easy to establish deep, close friendship.

Our American friends were also very handy, and could do all kinds of repairs on their homes or cars.  This was probably a reflection and a tradition from the frontier days when Americans had to rely on themselves as they moved westward and settled in new towns.

Another early impression was that my school classmates would spend quickly whatever money they received, e.g., if they received from their parents on Friday evening a weekly allowance of 50 cents, a dollar, or two dollars, most likely all of it would have been spent by Saturday evening, e.g., after spending 25 cents on the Saturday movie matinee ticket, they would spend the rest buying refreshments.  They didn’t have a habit of saving it for the rest of the week or for hard times in the future.  Apparently they did not experience as many difficult times as we had experienced growing up in war-torn China.  For example, they did not experience their country being occupied and their homes and lives being completely uprooted by wars.  This impression also remains true during my college years and adult life.

Personally I did not experience discrimination during my high school years, although I experienced it later in college and in the work place.  But I did observe discrimination starting during my junior year in high school when the first black students enrolled in our high school.  When they were walking in the corridors, some white students would just walk by and knock their books from their hands.  There wasn’t much they could do except to absorb and ignore the offensive acts, because complaining to the school office would result in at most just a minor warning to the offenders.  It was unlikely that the school would take any serious reprimand action unless the discriminating acts resulted in serious bodily harms.  Recall that this was the period around 1959-61, just at the beginning of the American civil rights movement,  when the American society still thought that Black Americans were second class citizens and could be treated as such.  It was quite surprising and shocking to me to observe such wanton acts of discrimination.

American youths also grew up much faster than Chinese youths.  On the average, their interest in alcohol, dating and sex starts at least four years earlier than Chinese youths.  This starts in high schools, and often in middle schools, instead of starting in college.

More Experiences and ObservationsWhen I was a senior, a friend and I were helpers staffing the entrance table at one of our high school dances.  My friend would sneak inside his winter coat several cans of beer.  When no one was watching, he would take an illegal sip from one of his beer cans.  I didn’t think he did it because he really liked the beer.  It was probably the satisfaction and the macho image from doing something that was prohibited.  Having come from a traditional Chinese family and society, I was surprised that many American youths would just ignore family, school, and society’s rules.  This brings to a more serious issue that I think this is not just a youth problem, but also a problem of the adults.  If the adults do not drink excessively, indulge in casual sex, and take drugs, then similar types of problems for the youths will be diminished significantly.  Take for example, the drug issue, which became a serious issue starting in the 1960s.  If the demand from the adults is reduced significantly, then the number of youths who copy the adults will be reduced significantly.  If the demand is reduced, then drug trafficking issue will be reduced significantly.

Excessive beer drinking was another phenomenon I observed when I worked as a surveyor at the U.S. Forest Service during summer jobs after my high school graduation and after my college freshman year.  Our job was to do surveying to prepare for constructing new logging roads in the El Dorado National Forest east of Placerville.  Our surveying crews (totaling 10-15 young men) would go out on Monday morning, live in trailers at campsites near our work locations, and return home on Friday afternoon.  Often after dinner, many of these surveyors would drink many cans of beer until they fell asleep drunk.  The next morning, we would see many of their sleeping bags hanging outside on the drying ropes, because they urinated in their sleeping bags during sleep.  Again, it was a cultural shock to see many young men would engage in such seemingly frivolous, time-wasting, and unhealthy acts.

One summer while I was working in the Forest Service, one of the summer workers was an Iranian foreign student, and he was often discriminated against.  His colleagues would make fun of him by calling him names like “camel jockey” and doing nasty things such as putting a snake in his sleeping bag.  Again, at that time it seemed normal and acceptable for these young men to be doing such nasty things to other human beings, and there wasn’t anything that this Iranian student could do except to roll with the punches.

One of my observations in high school was that respect is the key to excellence.  It seems that we placed much more emphasis on being a good athlete than a good student.  If you were a good athlete, your school newspapers and local newspapers would write articles about you, and your fellow students would know about you, respect you, and perhaps even envy you.  But if you were a good student, it is unlikely that you will be written up in your school newspapers and local newspapers, except perhaps at graduation when you win some prestigious swards or scholarships.  Such environment would entice many more youths to work on their athletic skills than on their academic skills.  For example, in our grade there was a brilliant student who was extremely good and creative with technology, especially with high tech gadgets.  But there was no reporting of his fantastic knowledge and skills; there was no outpouring of respect or admiration for him; the other students did not envy him or want to be like him.  In his adult life, he became a very good and successful high technology consultant  The title of my high school valedictorian address was “Respect:  Key to Excellence,’ which is just as applicable today 55 years later considering the huge salaries of professional athletes.

American DreamThe U.S. is a country of immigrants.  For a hundred or more years, people from all over the world immigrated to the U.S. to seek a better future for themselves and their children.  If you are willing to study and work hard, you will be successful.  That is known as the American Dream.  Many immigrants succeeded, including my brothers, my sisters, and myself.  What were the reasons for this successful achievement of the American dream?  People usually point to the American democratic political system in which the people elect the leaders, there are checks and balances between the three branches of government so that no single person or organization can gain the power of a dictator, freedom of speech and freedom of the press so that opposing voices are not silenced.  All of these are valid and contributed to the success of the American Dream.  However, I believe that there were several features unique to the U.S. situation which may no longer be available which makes it questionable whether the American Dream can still be achieved on a large scale.

First, the U.S. was a vast country with very few people and large natural resources.  In 1776, the U.S. population was 2.5 million; today it is 323 million.  The U.S. still has vast natural resources, but now imports 94% of Gallium, 81% of Cobalt, 81% of titanium, 56% of Chromium, 44% of Silicon, 43% of nickel, etc.  The U.S. was bordered on the north and the south by two relatively new countries also with a vast land of their own and a small native population.   Now, due to the relative difference in economic strength, millions of Mexico’s citizens have crossed the border illegally into the U.S.  For almost 200 years until WWII, the U.S. was able to live relatively peacefully without worrying too much about the threat of foreign invasion.  Thus, it could focus its resources and energy internally to develop the country.  But today with long-distance fighter jets and intercontinental ballistic missiles, including those from submarines, military threats can come from far away; the protection provided by the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean are no longer so meaningful.   Furthermore, terrorists can easily cause massive damage from inside.

All along, the U.S. has always had many internal problems and weaknesses.  For example, from the very beginning of the U.S. Constitution, all humans were not considered to be equal; a black slave was counted as 3/5 of a white person in determining the number of seats that a state would have in the U.S. House of Representatives.  The U.S. government essentially engaged in ethnic cleansing of the Native Americans, robbing their land. displacing them to other territories, and often killing them.  Even though President Lincoln declared the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 that legally freed the slaves, it took about another 100 years with the civil rights movement that began in the 1950s before the Black people gained substantial equality.  There was always disparity in the distribution of wealth in the U.S., although more so in certain periods.  But when the economy was expanding and you are getting more, it didn’t seem as important that other people are getting much more than you.  Corruption also always existed.  You could buy your influence with government officials in the old days as you can today.  Again, if your economic situation was improving, you sort of look with a blind eye.  The prime motive for a company is to maximize profit, so sometimes you employ or tolerate tactics that could maximize the profit for your company but that may be unethical, unfair, and could even be not beneficial for the larger community.  Again if your economic situation was improving as a whole, you again sort of look with a blind eye.

As discussed earlier, we believe that an important contributing reason for the U.S. being able to offer the American Dream is because of its unique geographical or natural environment that isolated and protected the country while offering the country with plenty of land, natural resources, and a very small native population.  This allowed the U.S. to continue to absorb more people and continue to expand.  In other words, for the first 200 years of its existence, the U.S. was in a continuing expanding economy.  With all the above advantages, it was able to develop into a rich and powerful country.  Furthermore, compared with most other countries, it suffered relatively minor damages from WWII.  This enabled it to develop into the richest and most powerful country in the world after WWII.  Then for another 25-50 years before many other countries developed into credible economic competitors (e.g., first Germany and Japan, and then Korea, India and China), the U.S. was able to reap great economic advantages all over the world.  When the best and the brightest from other countries come, settle, and work in this country, the U.S. benefits even more.  That is like the top basketball players in other countries all come to play in the NBA, thus making the NBA far superior to any other country’s professional basketball league.  However, in the last 20-30 years, the U.S. has essentially fully expanded, so its economy has transformed from a continuing expanding economy into a zero-sum economy.  In a zero-sum economy, the benefit of the larger entity must be taken into account.  Adopting a greed and self-centric approach may benefit one part in the short term, but not the whole and in the long term not even that part.  Thus, in the future in order for the U.S. to compete successfully and for the American Dream to continue, it cannot do business as usual.  It must operate very efficiently and creatively.  All its parts must work together and synergistically, but not against each other.  It must reinvent itself. [2]

SummarySeeing many old friends recently at my 55th High School Class Reunion in Placerville, California brought back many old memories.  It allowed me to reminiscence on the 61 years since I immigrated to this country as a 13 year old.  I found that:

  • The American people are friendly, easily offering a helping hand, but at the same time not so easy to establish deep and close friendship
  • The American people are very good with their hands to repair and build
  • They have a tendency to spend their money quickly, and don’t like to save for a rainy day
  • At an earlier age, the American young people put much emphasize on alcohol, dating, sex, and drugs.  But this is really not just a youth problem, its source or origin is really an adult problem.  If the adults reduce these problems, then the young people will follow and their problems will be reduced.
  • Discriminations against blacks, other minorities, and people from other cultures are prevalent, although not necessarily more prevalent than in other countries
  • There is a misalignment of priorities, with sports on the highest pedestal, and academic excellence far below.
  • The American Dream has been real for many decades, but there are unique geographical and natural features of the U.S. environment that helped to fulfill the American Dream.  However, starting about 20-30 years ago, that environment may no longer exist due to various changes in the past 200 years.  This makes it difficult for the American Dream to continue on a large scale unless the U.S. government and the American people are willing to honestly and carefully examine themselves and reinvent themselves.

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[1] My father transferred to MIT after his freshman year.

[2] For a more detailed discussion of “Can the American Dream Be Continued?”, see http://www.dontow.com/2010/01/can-the-american-dream-be-continued/.

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5 Responses to “Reminiscence from My 55th High School Class Reunion”

  1. Ann Santee says:

    Excellent observation from an immigrant point of view. Be glad you were in California and not in the south growing up in the fifties.

  2. Paul Pang Gerondal says:

    One of the attributes for survival into the future is to be prepared for changes and learn to deal with the unexpected….the golden days in the sunshine of our happy youth … Is no more.

  3. Tim Zebo says:

    Your story reminded me of one of my first freshman high school experiences with “discrimination” in Pittsburgh. The school had three unusual kids who were often bullied. One was 2-3 years older than me, and he was a very tall and thin Albino – his skin, eyes and hair had virtually no color whatsoever. Very similar to your experience, one day as he was simply walking down the hall between classes, I saw bullies knock books out of his hands and scatter them all over the floor. As I recall, however, I think several kids helped him pick them up. Two other kids were in my class. One had a very British accent, and that made him the object of many mean practical “jokes”. Another always dressed very poorly in raggedy clothes and usually carried a book by Karl Marx. If you talked to him, you’d hear a lot about the benefits of Communism. He was also subject to lots of bullying. Now I think of these incidents not so much as “discrimination”, but rather as a form of in-group, out-group bias. Lots has been written about this. A brief overview is here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/fulfillment-any-age/201012/in-groups-out-groups-and-the-psychology-crowds

  4. Hi Don,

    I enjoyed seeing you again at the reunion and meeting your wife. I think your observations are fair. Sports were then, and are now, a way to recognition. The sports heroes received more recognition than those who excelled in academics. But I don’t think we were ever looked down on. I remember you as being respected and popular. And, ultimately, our abilities opened many doors that those less academically oriented had available. Would I trade being a high school sports hero for all of the opportunities we’ve had? No.

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

    Curt

  5. David Rogers says:

    Don:

    Sorry to have missed the 55th reunion, but as I had conveyed earlier, JoAnne and I were in France, Luxembourg and Belgium at the time. There were three objective of our travels, 1.) to visit the battlefields and memorials of where my uncle fought with the American Expeditionary Forces in WWI, 2.) connect with my ancestors on my mother’s side of the family in a small village in Luxembourg, and 3.) have JoAnne, an experienced art and European history expert, guide this ignorant engineer through the treasures of northern France, Belgium and Luxembourg. All three objectives were accomplished and I now have “boots on the ground” confirmation for completing my second novel of my uncle’s military experience, have e-mail and personal contact with my Luxembourg relatives and have grown in appreciation of European history and art.

    I appreciated your insights and reflection of “growing up” in America as a new immigrant. What you have conveyed is very well stated and incisively accurate. One of the more humorous memories of being on a survey crew with Harry Harper, USFS, was lunch time entertainment of busting up old, decayed stumps with an axe to see what creatures would emerge, only to have two or three field mice claw/crawl up my leg towards the nut sack! After dropping trousers and jumping around like a crazy man to the enjoyment of fellow surveyors, did the excitement end.

    With respect to discrimination and bullying–I believe they are the same. I am not making any defense of this deplorable human behavior, but here is different trenchant perspective, disregarding political correctness. Human kind, ever since we were all “knuckle draggers” have been wary of any others outside of our tribe–going to the extreme of killing them. This barbaric trait is well documented throughout pre-historic and historic time. How does one go about changing a “genetic” trait that is as fundamental as our ability to speak, think, and relate to “strangers”? Legislation cannot solve this corundum, but Jesus did 2,000 plus years ago. Follow what Jesus said and taught and discrimination and hatred will die.

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