Whole new world: Chinese immigrant joins Air Force

Courtesy photo

By Sharna Johnson: Freedom Newspapers

Airman 1st Class Yi Liu felt she had no hope for a future in China. Immigrating to America and enlisting in the Air Force changed her outlook.

The 24-year-old will soon be promoted to senior airman. She is hoping to trade her job at the Cannon Air Force Base dining hall for a position as a Chinese linguistic specialist.

Entering the military, Liu found herself immersed in a foreign world. She described feeling deaf, dumb and blind because she could not understand, speak, read or write English.

On life in China: I lived in a small copper-mining town in the province of Canton. When I was older, we moved to a city that was a little bigger. I worked at Kentucky Fried Chicken and worked at a CD store. The impression most people have about China stopped at 50 years ago — it has changed big time.

Women have the same opportunities as men, but everything is competitive so you have to be better than (all the rest) and education is very expensive.

On the differences between life in China and America: I’ve been told I speak louder when I speak in Chinese.

American people are more polite. If you stand and look at something too long without buying it, a merchant in China will yell at you. You can’t return things if you aren’t happy. Sometimes you can exchange things but no refunds. Returning things is a good policy in America.

On coming to America: My aunt put us on a waiting list for a visa to come to America. We waited more than 12 years, and then one month before my 21st birthday, we got our visas. If I had been 21, I would not have been allowed to travel with my parents and I would have had to start all over again. I dreamed of coming to America all those years, I even made up an American name for myself, “Pesy.” I wanted something different but now that I’m here, I like my Chinese name.

On food: American food is boring. I do miss the food in China. You can’t get the same things here. A Chinese market is like a flea market with little stands where you get everything. We always bought live fish for meals.

On government: In China if something comes on the TV the government doesn’t want you to see, a nice picture comes on the screen until the bad news is over.

In America you can feel the government because you get benefit from the government. You hear everything no matter if it’s good for the government or bad for the government.

On joining the Air Force: At first, I didn’t really have a good reason to join the Air Force. I didn’t know how to drive a car, didn’t have citizenship; and it was hard to find a job in San Francisco.

My family didn’t give me support at first because in China people don’t want their children to join the military and there are not a lot of women in the military. Now my family is proud of me.

I was so lost in basic training and technical school because I had no clue what I was doing. They would give a command and I would do what everybody else did. The hard part was the academic part. We had to take tests about Air Force history and things, but I couldn’t read the paper and they wouldn’t let me use my (Chinese/English) dictionary. I had to memorize it word for word, letter for letter.

On her goals: I’m on my way to being an airborne linguist. I’m still waiting for security clearance, then I will go to school.

After two to three months in the Air Force, I see what my value is to the Air Force so it’s like returning the favor. The Air Force gave me a good future, so I decided to help the Air Force because they’re short on linguists.

I have a good life. I can support my parents. My parents are getting older, and it’s really hard for them to learn English and hard to get work.

I want to travel and see more. I love mountains; it looks like home. So far I have been to California, Texas and New Mexico.

On being an American: If I couldn’t have come to the U.S., I don’t know what I would be doing in China. I would never have dreamed to have a car or a computer.

I know I had no hope in China, but in America I’m not sure yet, so if I’m not sure, that’s a hope. I love this country already because there’s so many opportunities everywhere. You just have to work hard to get it.

Because of China I live, but America gave me life. I will appreciate everything I have, always. I won’t forget.

Fast facts

There are 57 Chinese-born enlisted personnel and 48 officers in the Air Force, according to Air Force personnel data.

There are 1,940 linguists serving in the Air Force, 283 of whom are Chinese Mandarin.