Articles by Jian Di Liang (Charlotte)

Jian Di Liang

About Jian Di Liang
Jian Di Liang (Charlotte) is from China. She is enthusiastic, friendly and outgoing. Meeting new people and traveling are her biggest interests.

The English Center


The bicycle event in 2011

By Jian Di Liang

Being in the United States for two and a half years, my happiest time was the period studying at the English Center – a non-profit organization that helps new immigrants, refugees, and international students improve English skills and find jobs.

To me, the Center was like a small society. I met people from all over the world and made friends with them. We not only studied about the American culture, but learned from each other as well. We were not afraid to make any grammar mistakes or use any body language because we understood what we were trying to say to each other.

The classes are very intensive and students have 4.5-hour classes per day. Class schedules are flexible in the morning, afternoon and evening. Having classes with the same people every day builds up much more conversant friendships. The teachers are really helpful and patient. We feel comfortable making friends with them, and we go out with them as well.  We have class field trips once in a while. If students need help, there is one-on-one tutoring after class.

217030_10150174519306509_705676_nSince I was new to the country, I did not have any working experiences. The Center introduced me to the Port of Oakland and got me a volunteer opportunity there. The volunteering experience helped me so much later in my career.

I was also an intern for the development department. We organized social activities such as picnics for students, alumni, staff,  friends and families. We had so much fun playing games together.

The Center helps students finding  jobs successfully. We all moved along after graduating from the English Center, either to work, go to college or do both.

I really appreciate the help from the English Center. I could not be any happier with my opportunity to study there.

Happy New Year! Oakland’s Chinatown Welcomes The Year of the Snake

By Jian Di Liang

The Lunar New Year is coming, and so is The Year of the Snake. The New Year is one of the most important festivals in Chinese culture. The Street Festival held on the 2nd and 3rd of February in Oakland’s Chinatown attracted many people to consume and prepare for their celebration.

Even though the space occupied by the booths in the street festival (only two blocks this year) was much smaller than the ones we had before, it was still really crowded.

The board members of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce gave speeches about the great effort people have been making for Chinatown at the Asian Cultural Center. And each of them began their speech with their New Year wishes in Chinese, “Xin Nian Kuai Lei (Happy New Year),” and “Kung hei fat choi (wish people prosperity).” The audiences cheered and applauded. After the members finished speaking, they gave out lucky money to elders and children. It was really cheerful.

During The New Year celebration, couplets are very popular, as are pinwheels which symbolize luck in Chinese culture. When the pinwheels are blown, it actually rotates for good luck.

For the Chinese New Year, people decorate their homes with tangerine trees that have red envelopes – sometimes with money tucked inside – on the branches. People also buy fresh flowers, change the old New Year couplets from last year, and clean their houses for the preparation. In China, people will light firecrackers as well.

2013 is going to be a cheerful year, and I wish everyone good health and every success.



By Jian Di Liang

My friend Alice came to the US in May last year. And we met each other at the English Center –  a non-profit organization that helps immigrants, refugees and international students improve English skills and find jobs.

We graduated and went our separate ways, only to be reunited earlier this year – this time, as two non-citizens working on an election 2012 effort. We were part of a non-profit organization called Asian Pacific Environment Network, and our jobs were to educate and mobilize Asian-American voters around California propositions. This was our first time being part of the American democratic process.

Through this experience, Alice observed a lot of differences between the US and China. One of the biggest, she said, was that Americans have more freedom.

From my perspective, the freedom in the US isn’t as free as many people may want to believe.

First of all, the Constitution promises us freedom of speech. However, speaking freely does not mean talking without respect. People are very straightforward when they talk here. It is good to be honest, but not to forget to care about others’ feeling as well. We must talk with respect. It is like applying the “clear and present danger” doctrine to human relationships.

Secondly, people have the legal right to own guns. In many states, people can carry them out in the open. And what we see regularly on the news are  gunshot-caused deaths, robberies at gunpoint, even students bringing guns to school. The tragedies that happened at Oikos University here in Oakland, and at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut should warn us of how evil it is for residents to have their own guns. Emphasizing how gun violence has been affecting our communities is less effective than abandoning guns lawfully in California. Our freedom of going out for a walk at night time is taken. When rights threaten people’s safety, those rights should be seriously reconsidered and limited.

Wing Wak Restaurant, located at MacArthur Blvd and Maple street in Oakland,  has been robbed at least 8 times during its 14 years of business.  And many times, robberies happened in the middle of the day. The cashier said, “robberies happen so frequently in Oakland just like people eat lettuce every day.”

Because of the all the robberies, the restaurant only opens business for familiar customers after 7pm now. The owner said, “business has been so slow and it is hard to make a living. When laws allow residents to own guns, it means no safety in America.”

This brings me back to the question of freedom. In this country, people are free to buy, sell, and own guns. Those guns are being used to hurt other people – to impose on their rights and their lives. That is not the kind of freedom many people want for our society.


Dimond’s Food Mill

Kirk Watkins is in love with all the old machines and there is a specific area keeping all of them at the store. Photo: Jian Di Liang/Oakland Voices.

By Jian Di Liang

“Our store is family-oriented, and we are dedicated to help customers and serve  the best food,” says Kirk Watkins, owner of The Food Mill in Upper Dimond.

“We have been here for 80 years and I would like the store to stay old fashioned while everyone else is moving on. ”

The Food Mill was first opened in 1933 by John Denis. And Kirk Watkins started working part-time at the retail store in 1969 and became the owner of Food Mill in 1993 after Denis died.

Even though the store is small, it is really neat and well organized. The historical room is one of the store features.

Mr. Watkins has loved machines since he was young. He keeps all the machines in the historical room and on each of them, there is a tag describing its name and function. I did not know what a manual book press, meat choppers and other machines were. The machines have historical value and they are the real evidences of industrial progress.

“Having this historical room with all the machines and magazines from the old days help our new customers know the history and the long existence of the store,” Mr. Watkins says proudly.

Another feature of the store is the bulk food. The store pays attention to customers’ health. Foods are organic and fresh.

Mr. Watkins is really considerate. There are free handouts about health on the shelf.



“Take It or Leave It”

People work hard to change their lives by legal ways and they deserve respect. Photo: Jian Di Liang, Oakland Voice 2012.

By Jian Di Liang

Seeing people begging for money on the street, it reminds me of many middle-aged new Chinese immigrants’ stories.

Maybe many of you have not found out the commonalities among them: they smile to conceal the embarrassment when they do not understand English. They work hard jobs for very low pay. These are the men and women who come through your neighborhood wearing dingy gloves, pushing carts full of recyclables, picking through your blue and brown bins for cans and bottles – just for cash to support their families.

When Chinese parents come to the US, they often sacrifice themselves for their children. Often, they can’t take the time to sit and study English because they are working several jobs to provide better lives for their kids. You would think that, as a society, everyone would respect that kind of hard work. It’s part of American values, isn’t it?

However, what I often see is painful. When those parents miss social cues, or struggle to make their points in English, some people make fun of them. They treat those  immigrants like they are stupid because they do not have the language skills.

Rarely do I see efforts to understand. Few try to know those  immigrants’ stories – what they did in their countries before they came and how hard life is here when you’re starting from scratch.

Sometimes, Chinese immigrants are treated very poorly by their bosses. Can you imagine someone yelling at you constantly, accusing you of working slowly? Especially when the truth is they’re rushing you, so no matter how fast you go, it will never be enough. And forget protesting. You risk losing your job – the main source of income, your lifeline.

It is stressful doing low-wage work  for bosses who make you feel disposable with their “take it or lever it, who cares?”  attitudes.  Little money, few if any benefits, zero appreciation and the constant threat you’ll be fired. The ones who do that work – growing your food, cooking your meals, cleaning your malls and offices – deserve a lot more respect from the rest of us.

No one wants to be pushed so hard and abused. To Chinese immigrants, to all immigrants – especially those trying hard to make things better for themselves and their families – people should offer more understanding. And, once in a while, maybe a smile.



Health of the Hood: The Dimond & Laurel Districts

By Jian Di Liang

Greens relaxes us  in busy life. It is nice to live in a neighborhood that can see greens everywhere , such as on the sidewalk and at people’s yards.

Flowers on the sidewalk. Photo: Jian Di Liang, Oakland Voice, 2012.

Diverse restaurants, liquid stores, and food markets bring us lots of convenience. Photo: Jian Di Liang, Oakland Voice 2012.



Along the neighborhood, diverse restaurants satisfies us of having different kinds of food.

It is really convenient to get daily supplies as liquid stores, gas stations, food markets, beauty salons and supply stores  are nearby.

Instrument stores and book stores provide us resources and also  improve the cultural level of the neighborhood.



Sometimes we see people  running in the morning or walking with their dogs after dinner time, but  there are not many people walk on the street usually.

When there are special events, many people will gather together and enjoy the sun. Photo: Jian Di Liang. Oakland Voice, 2012.


When there are specific events held in the neighborhood, people are very excited to participate.

It is joyful to have events to bring the community together.







Of course, there are unpleasant phenomena in the neighborhood as well.

People throw their trash on the street. It is hard to stand the stinky smell. Photo: Jian Di Liang, Oakland Voice 2012.




Sometimes we see trash on the street and the smell is really bad. But no one cleans the trash up.






The concrete curb is broken and trash is all over the ground. The cart also shows that there are homeless people walking on the street often. Photo: Jian Di Liang. Oakland Voice, 2012.



The road is not flat and it becomes a concave surface where dirt and leaves stay. Photo: Jian Di Liang. Oakland Voice, 2012.

Some streets are rough. When it rains, all the dirt and leaves flow to the concave areas and  those areas become puddles.







Photo: Jian Di Liang. Oakland Voice, 2012.



Public properties are not well protected. A public telephone is missing its receiver and sitting there as “decoration.” There is pizza box on the top and newspaper underneath.










Many stores are either closed or for leasing.  Less and less people will walk on the street nowadays as the crime rates increase.

Many stores are closed, empty or up for lease. Photo: Jian Di Liang. Oakland Voice, 2012.

There is always construction on the narrow streets. However, there are always spots that need serious improvement.

Rugged construction on the sidewalk. Photo: Jian Di Liang. Oakland Voice 2012.


Moon Cakes, Mid-Autumn, and Losing My Chinese-ness

Soft and sweet, the moon cake is a staple for The Mid-Autumn Festival back home in China. Photo: Jian Di Liang, Oakland Voices 2012.

By Jian Di Liang

There is an old saying in Chinese, “People doubly miss their families in festivals.” My sisters and I recently joked that we feel doubly sad during festivals.

September 30th marked the lunar Mid-Autumn (or, Moon) Festival in China. When we lived there, it was so regular for us to have an abundant meal with our parents.

This year, my sisters and I missed all the traditional celebrations, and stayed at home reluctantly. My parents went to their usual jobs at Chinese restaurants – where it was busier than usual because of the holiday.

Before my mom went to work, she asked us to make some soup and cook some seafood.  And that’s how we spent our festival day. 

That’s very different from how we celebrated the festival back in China. We looked forward to it every year – spending time with family, great meals, and  of course the moon cake. The most common kind of moon cake is thick, round, sweet and with lotus seed paste and salted egg yolk inside.  It is round like the Moon, and it symbolizes family reunion. We also celebrate it with grapefruits, grapes, durian, mangosteen, and other fruits.We have many of those same treats here, but they mean nothing special when we do not even have a chance to appreciate the full Moon or eat them with our family members together.

Since we came to the US, my family hasn’t been able to celebrate the traditional Chinese festivals anymore. My parents work a lot, and they only get one day off a week. It is rare for all of us to even have a meal together. Finding time to truly celebrate seems impossible.

It seems that my parents do not get any days off for either Chinese or American festivals. I joked with my sisters that the Chinese bosses will not let any chances of earning money go, especially restaurant owners.

I see all of this as part of a new life we’ve all got to get used to in America. We are starting from scratch, which means we can have nothing before we can really settle down in a place which we do not originally belong.

I have begun to understand why a lot of American-born Chinese people do not feel connected to their Chinese ethnicity. If their families are like mine – working a lot, with no time to practice their Chinese traditions at home – then the culture might not get passed on to the next generations. Besides, traditional festivals mean nothing to us if our parents are not able to celebrate them with us.

We worry that, after staying here for a long time, we will lose family values. My family believes strongly in helping one another, and in staying together, not moving away from one another as many Americans do as soon as they get the chance. We see many other Chinese families changing like this, and my sisters and I worry that we might become detached when, for example, we see others in need.

But the changes are coming. They are already here, actually. When we look at our smiles in old pictures, we notice that we already cannot laugh as happily as we used to.

While my friends in China sent me happy Mid-Autumn Festival wishes, many of my Chinese friends here seemed as bored as me on such a special day.

Even with pieces of our culture here in Oakland, it’s different because the environment is different. And now, already, so are we.

Carl Chan, The ‘Mayor’ of Oakland’s Chinatown

Carl Chan is known as the “Mayor of Chinatown” because he speaks and works for Asian people. Jian Di Liang, Oakland Voices 2012.

By Jian Di Liang

Carl Chan, the president of Asian Health Services, is known as the mayor of  Chinatown in Oakland.

But since Oakland only has one mayor, who voted him head of that neighborhood?” The reputation was originally from the Oakland Tribune,” Carl said.

Carl likes to step forward and speak for the business people and residents of Chinatown.  So when a reporter came by his office about a decade ago for an interview, Carl’s office mates decided to play a joke.

“When the reporter asked about who I was, my colleagues told them that I was the Mayor of Chinatown, because I participate in diverse volunteering events,” laughed Carl.

Carl immigrated from Hong Kong to the US in the 1970s, when he was 15 years old. Before moving, Carl recalled, “I thought only white people lived in the US, and I imagined modern technology and high rises everywhere.” Carl dreamed that America was “a new world, and that was really attractive to me. But it was different when I saw what it was.

When I arrived in Oakland, I thought I’d landed in the Chinese countryside, not the modern American city I had envisioned,” sighed Carl. ”The public transportation system was outdated and the far bus stops made things more inconvenient. Seeing the variety of different races surprised me. The segregation and discrimination shocked me even more.”

“It was hard to contact families in China since the only way was to mail letters in the 70s. It usually took at least one month to receive a letter from my hometown,” Carl smiled and said.

Today, Carl Chan is a modern business man who holds on to a strong sense of the past. He wants Chinese people in America to always remember the hard work that Chinese immigrants have done in the US since migrant workers began arriving in the mid 1800s.

Their labor indirectly helped create many of the opportunities that Chinese people have in this country today.  ”Families broke apart and we should all remember their hard work. Without the ancestors, we would not have the happiness we enjoy right now,” Carl said.

Carl often quotes a popular Chinese expression – unifying is strength. He has been effected by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech since he was a child. “We are equal. Everyone should have equal opportunities,” he said. “We are human and we are all the same. We all deserve respect.”

Carl is a really nice gentleman. It is my pleasure to meet with him and know his stories. I have learned a lot from him. By Jian Di Liang, Oakland Voices 2012.

Carl’s day job is director of Claremont Development, an East Bay real estate company. Carl also believes in using his time to give back to his community. Since the 70s, Carl has been volunteering for diverse non-profit organizations, including Asian Health Services, Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, and the Neighborhood Crime Prevention Council. He said it’s important to balance working for a living, and volunteerism.

In much of his work, Carl is focused on making Chinatown better. In order to do that, “we need to improve the city of Oakland as a whole. Oakland has all the elements: the international airport, the fifth biggest port, an updated public transportation system, and the perfect weather. The image of Oakland scares business away from the city. We need to improve the city as well as the image of Oakland, especially public safety. We need to tell the world that we welcome business.”

One way to make Oakland better, Carl said, is to boost the quality of health care in Chinatown. He has been working at the Asian Health Services (AHS) since he was a teenager. He said the low-cost care AHS offers is valuable to the community. Otherwise, many sick people  who cannot afford treatment would end up with more serious illnesses and cannot work. It actually costs the government more to provide treatment in hospitals.

Although the Mayor of Chinatown has his hands in lots of projects, it’s all for one main reason. “After seeing all the discrimination and segregation,” Carl explained, “I became determined to serve the Asian community. I do not want to be famous, but help people with the least talk.”


Just How Chinese is Oakland’s Chinatown?

Story and photos by Jian Di Liang

In Oakland, Chinatown is considered an Asian center. The markets, restaurants, and social services draw people who are originally from China, Vietnam, Cambodia and other Asian countries. The buildings at Chinatown are no longer just Chinese style, but mixed Western style as well.

For many new Chinese immigrants living in Oakland, Chinatown becomes one of their favorite places to shop for groceries. People can communicate easily with others in Cantonese and Mandarin if their English is not good.

Unlike in China, people cannot bargain when they buy groceries in Chinatown, but at least they can find what they need easily. The grocery stores in Chinatown are much cheaper than American supermarkets. There are many specific fruits and cooking sauces that you can only buy in Chinatown.

Many people who shop in Chinatown are from the eastern city of Shanghai, which, like Oakland, is full of immigrants. However, there are a lot of differences as well. Shanghai markets are more modern and there is more fresh seafood, street snacks, and vegetarian food.  The buildings in Chinatown are older, lower and smaller than those in Shanghai.

In Chinatown, I met a person from Shanghai who told me that ”the stores [in Oakland] are not as well-organized. and some of them are dirty here in Oakland.”

Also, in Oakland’s Chinatown, people mainly speak Cantonese, while Mandarin is Shanghai’s predominant language. People in Shanghai  are more fashion-conscious. They tend to chase famous brands and they like to show off. People at Chinatown dress more casually.

Even though some food is not fresh at Chinatown, there is a bigger variety of fruits. Crab, lobsters and salmon are cheaper in Chinatown as well.

Bikes and motorcycles are the main transportation in Shanghai and the traffic is less regulated than in the US.

Guangzhou – my hometown – is a city in southeastern China. By car, it’s as far from Shanghai as a trip from Oakland to Denver. Guangzhou is very different from this city. The weather is hot and humid, not cool and breezy like Oakland. The public transportation there is much more complicated, and people get lost easily when they take metro.

Compare to the Chinese restaurants in Chinatown, Guangzhou is a much better place to have morning tea and eat dim-sum. We mainly steam what we eat, and the food is more delicious. I miss the food there a lot.

For security reasons, stores in Chinatown close at 6pm mostly. But in Guangzhou, people like to go out at night to shop or have drinks with friends. We also have something there called “night streets,” when the streets are closed off in the evening, and markets are set up for people to shop, sit and eat right there in the middle of the road. You can smell food all over the place. I wish Oakland’s Chinatown had night streets.

In Beijing, the weather is dry and cold, especially during winter. As Beijing is the capital of China, the political atmosphere is stronger. Unlike Oakland’s Chinatown, you can find lots of historical places in Beijing, such as Tiananmen, and part of the Great Wall of China.

In China, we are allowed to have religion, but it is discouraged. So for many people such as myself, we do not have religion at all. The United States is a free religious country, so it is no surprise that we can see several places of worship – for Buddhists, Taoists, and Christians – in  in Chinatown.

Different places have their own personalities and cultures, since different people like different things. It has never been boring to visit a new place and I guess that is why most people like to travel.

Learning Hard Lessons in a New Land: My Immigration from China to America

I have met some nice people since I came to the US 2 years ago, but I still miss these friends in China. By Jian Di Liang, Oakland Voices 2012.

By Jian Di Liang

Moving to a new place in order to have a better life – that was what my family expected before we left China and came to the US.

On September 25, 2010 – the day which we separated from my grandmas, sisters, aunts, other relatives, friends and neighbors – my mom cried continuously until her eyes were swollen.

I will never forget the first flight in my life. I was a teenager and it was the first time I was ever on an airplane. They served me cheesecake and I still smile when I think about how incredible it tasted. Just like ice cream.

Waking up in the middle of the night and feeling sleepy, tens of thousands of feet up over the Pacific Ocean, I opened the window and was surprised by how beautiful the sky was.

Welcome to the USA

I was both excited and tired when we arrived in the United States. Because of the time difference, I slept day and night for the first week after we settled at my aunt’s house here in Oakland.

Our cousins took some time to show us around. We went to the usual tourist attractions in San Francisco – The Golden Gate Bridge and Fisherman’s Wharf.

 Eventually, we had to venture out and fend for ourselves. Everything was so new. Even learning new routines like getting around on the buses were tricky but exciting.

Speaking American

One of the toughest things for all of us was using the English we’d learned but never really spoke in China. It was time to put all of that studying to the test. We felt like babies, really, as we learned the way people speak and how Americans use vocabulary. I used to feel frustrated because I could not express what was on mind.

Sometimes body language could help make people understand, but that made me feel helpless. For my whole first month in the US, I just stayed at home because I was afraid to talk in English.

Like most parents in the world, my mother and father devote themselves to providing better chances to their children. I cannot bear when I see people making fun of them because they cannot speak English. But since we have been in the US, I have heard and seen this a lot. It breaks my heart.

Costs Of Living

When we first came, the exchange rate between the US Dollar and China’s Yuan was about 1:6.67, so our money from home was worth less in America, and things were really expensive for us here. Our activities were limited by the cost always.

I tried to do many different new things, such as working part-time jobs and doing internships. Everything was fresh and interesting. However, I also felt  insecure because the economy did not become any better. What made me even more nervous was that crimes happen often in America. It is legal for people to use guns and that makes a big difference.

It has been getting hard for me to trust people even though my personality was the opposite. Maybe this is because I am becoming more like an American – more suspicious of others.

When I first realized that strangers’ greetings only stay on the surface, I knew that it would be harder for me to make friends in the United States.

I have also had some bad experiences that have made me less trusting and more cautious. When I once insisted stubbornly there should be no racial discrimination, I was mocked by people of different races for no reason.

Then, I was robbed by a black person at Fruitvale Bart station one night after school. Since then, I find that I have a hard time trusting black people whom I don’t know. Maybe this isn’t right, but this is the way I feel now – a bit crushed.

I used to believe that if I did not do something harmful to other people, they would not do any harmful things to me, either. So I treat every stranger in my life with basic respect. I believe that all human beings were born good people.

But no matter what the reason was for that person to rob me, it was not forgivable. His behavior broke the law, and shattered the peace in my head. The wound will always be there. The experience also hurt me because I know that most people work hard for the things they have. So if others want those things, they should also do what it takes to earn them, instead of stealing from people.

Something else that broke my sense of peace in the US what when my sister went through a big car accident. She did not take any pictures as evidence, so the other party lied and said it was her fault.

And when I felt like knowing people from the same country as me would be a wonderful thing, I was cheated by an old Chinese man who asked me for help on the street.

Of course, I cannot make my judgements only based on a few personal experiences. But overall, I am changed.

When I was in China, I never felt lonely because my friends were always with me and gave me the support I needed. But in the US, people are always busy with school, work or their own families. I have met a few friends, but many of us meet each other only rarely. Sometimes just once every several months.

All the difficult things I’ve learned about race in America and the trying times we’ve had here in the last couple of years – it has all closed me down a little bit inside. As life has gotten more harsh, my thoughts have been increasingly occupied by fear. And that makes it harder to live.

Here is my hope: I have seen a quote, “Life always brings us wounds all over the body. But the wounds will certainly become the greatest strength finally.” The more challenges I take, the stronger I feel.

Besides adapting myself to this new environment, to American culture and the people here, what could make life better?