The turtle does not have a good reputation in Chinese culture. However, I did have a friendly encounter with one.
It was during the summer in the year of 1998. I had just finished a semester studying at a state university in Georgia. Since I paid out-of-state tuition, I had already used more than two thousand of the three thousand dollars that I brought from my country. What was left was spent to pay several months’ rent. If I could not find additional income to continue my study, then I would not be able to register for the next semester. My landlord had already sent his last notification: If I failed to pay the rent again, he would call the police to have me evicted. For a foreign student with an expired student visa, the outcome would be devastating. My landlord had long been suspicious of me: He said I didn’t even have a suitcase. To him, I did not have the demeanor of a foreign student, but more likely, a prisoner-at-large.
I had tried to apply for different kinds of work at the university. As I did not have a social security card, there was nothing they could do to help. They did promise that once I got my social security card, they would immediately arrange work for me. Little did they know that in 1997, after I had received the registration acceptance letter from the university, I immediately went to the INS Department to change my visa from a B-1 to a F-1 and was denied. The reason: After I arrived in the U.S., I immediately applied for admission at a university. That proved that it was a premeditated action. It was obvious that I had the inclination to immigrate to this country. Although I had appealed, I had no idea when my case would be heard.
I had also tried to find work in a restaurant. However, the two small Chinese restaurants nearby the university were “Ma and Pa” shops. The husband was the cook, and the wife managed the cash register and she was also the waitress. Both restaurants hired a strong Mexican young man to run errands. Both said that they did not have any job available at the time. But even if there were any, they both didn’t think I was the type that could do the job well.
Running out of options, I reluctantly made a call to my wife back in my country and asked her to send me some cash. She agreed over the phone but the money never arrived. When I thought about it, it made sense. My unit had already released me from my public service. On this end, I was being denied a transfer of status. I could not go back, and my wife and kids could not come here. If she had transmitted the money to me, it would be like “hitting a dog with meat dumplings” (an investment with no returns). In my mind, I prepared for the worst. It seemed that my wife was much smarter than I. She was fully prepared for her everyday living. Later she sent me a letter. She said many foreign students only had 20 or 30 dollars when they first came to the U.S.. By comparison, I was in a much better position than they were. I should learn from them. I must learn to master and endure suffering and hardship.
However, I was under a business visa when I came to the U.S.,not a student visa. Since I was unsuccessful in my attempt to change my status, I could not even take a driving exam to get a driver’s license. And since I could not get a social security card, I could not work in the university. Moreover, I was already in my forties; how could I learn from those energetic younger students?
It was all because of my dissatisfaction that I was in this mess. I had lost my secure job in my country. My family was about to fall apart. Here I did not have any legal status. It was as if doomsday had descended. In my most difficult times, I would sing aloud in my room. When I got tired, I would go outside for a walk. I did that every day. As for my next move, in my mind I had a vague thought: To go to the Golden Gate Bridge, to a place where the view of the city was breathtaking and then put an end to all my afflictions.
One day at dusk, I was walking alone feeling agony and despair. All of a sudden, I saw a big turtle crossing an asphalt road. High protein! That was the first thought that flashed through my mind. I had not had meat for many days. I was desperate for nourishment. Out of natural instinct, without any hesitation, I scooped up the turtle, turned and headed back.
After I returned to my room, I put the turtle on my desk. I was thinking of whether to cook and simmer him or braise him in clear soup. Sitting next to the desk, my eyes gazed at this big healthy turtle. Did he know that he would be butchered soon? What was he thinking? Was he thinking that he shouldn’t have tried to cross the road? Was his blood pressure rising and his heart beating faster out of nervousness? Or was he unconcerned, seeing death as returning to his origin? He had not moved a bit. He had not made any sound. He looked like he was asleep. He was about to die. Could he still fall asleep in peace? Why did I worry when I encountered adversity, like an ant in a hot pot? It seems like the turtle’s longevity is not fortuitous. Humankind is in no position to tease and laugh at him.
It was such a wide road, with green pasture on both sides. On the edge of both pastures were shrubs. Why didn’t the turtle settle on either side of the shrubs, but instead risk the danger of being run over by cars in order to cross the road? Perhaps he was drawing on his efficacious nature. He had waited long enough in the pasture, and knew without fail that it was safe to cross over. However, he had probably never thought that in his world, other than cars, there was still a hungry man that could pose a threat to his life.
Why did he cross the road? Looking for food outside to feed his family? Having a date? Seeking for a partner? Going out for a good time and having fun? Or was it for his future, for the sake of his offspring that he was exploring new lands? No matter what it was, he was drawn by his instinct to seek prosperity, to do what he set out to do. Oh, what a courageous action he had undertaken! What a lonely hero! I should show solemn respect to him.
Did he know what’s meant by “one pitfall leads to endless misery and regret”? Poor turtle. Ultimately, he could end up with no aid and no help, suffering and all alone. Wasn’t he in the same situation as I was? Why did I quit my job and travel across the great Pacific Ocean to America, a land that I knew little about?
Suddenly, I took pity on the turtle’s situation. My heart sympathized with him. I should help and take him across the road so he could fulfill his destiny. I was in the same situation of being helpless and in despair; I could fully comprehend the warmth of compassion of giving a lending hand.
The turtle remained still. Did he know what I was thinking? Did he know I was considering him to be like a friend in difficult times? I really mean it when I said, or perhaps I was just talking to myself, like I was addressing air when I said: “Turtle, turtle, I’m sorry that I frightened you. I admire your courage when you tried to cross the road. I admire your calmness while you’re in captivity as if nothing had happened. Based on my own present situation, I have to sympathize with you. I understand you. In life, if there is no courage there are no blessings. However, even a courageous person may fall. But when you fell, you did not seem to lose your courage. You are worthy of my learning. I plan to free you, to fulfill your wish so you can continue to do what you want to do. At present, I am striving myself in difficult times. I’m struggling amidst despair. From you, I learn the courage to strive forward, to have an undaunted spirit in the midst of danger. Let’s help one another from now on!” On second thought, this American turtle may not understand Chinese, so I repeated my words in English to express my heartfelt sentiment.
Having said that, I took the turtle back to where I had picked him up, with the hope that he would cross the road as he wished. However, he remained unmoving. Perhaps he had not yet woke up. Perhaps he was still shielding himself from me, or speculating on my good intention. Looks like trust does indeed take time. So I finally carried him across the road and put him in the pasture. Then I retreated to a distance and silently watched him until he finally moved on. Slowly he disappeared into the darkness of the shrubs.
On the first day of the new semester, the counselor told me that there was a scholarship in the Professional Rehabilitation Counseling program. If I would transfer my current Mental Health Counseling major to that major, then I could obtain the scholarship and also have all miscellaneous fees waived. I immediately agreed. The counselor looked at me with surprise. Perhaps he admired my on-the-spot decisive choice of career. Maybe he had never experienced a situation where “one does not choose what to eat when one is starving.” Nevertheless, anyone would be able to figure out what action to take, if one were about to drown in the big open sea and suddenly saw a life preserver.
Later I graduated and was reunited with my family. I found a job and we all moved to Atlanta. Sometimes when I stroll alone on the country asphalt road nearby my house, reflecting on the problems in life, very naturally, I will think of the turtle from afar. That quiet and courageous being, undaunted in the face of danger. His pace is so slow yet he dares to explore the unknown shore on the other end. What excuse do I have to retreat and fall back in the face of difficulties? It also makes me understand that as long as one lives, there will always be opportunities. Even if it seems that one reaches the end of the mountain and the edge of the water, it is still possible that one can turn danger into safety. If I had gone to Golden Bridge and fallen off, although it would have ended all my afflictions, it would have also thrown away all hope. Going against all odds to roam and explore, isn’t that just because there’s hope?