Essay

‘I can do it without making a face’

Betty B. Tong
By Betty B. Tong
July 10, 2024

Thirty-five years ago, I’d just graduated from college in China and was admitted to a few graduate programs at universities in the United States. This was a dream come true, and I was excited.

It was a turbulent time in Beijing that summer, with the student protests and a brutal government crackdown in Tiananmen Square. The process of obtaining a passport and visa was both tedious and nerve-racking.  In the long lines at the U.S. embassy waiting for visa interviews, everyone feared the Chinese security bureau would strip away their passport and visa for being involved in the student movement.

Betty Tong
Betty Tong

On August 16, 1989, I bid farewell to my proud yet worried parents and boarded Air China’s Boeing 737 aircraft to fly across the Pacific Ocean. It was my first flight, and I was tense. I was eager to experience a fresh new life but also ambivalent about leaving my family and friends and everything familiar and comfortable behind.

I had passed my English as foreign language exam with near-perfect scores, but I was anxious about practicing English in the real world in a new land. On top of that, I would have to get used to being on my own for every decision, big or small. Throughout college, I counted on counsel and support from my parents. I took it for granted and even at times, being an independent young soul, despised it.

I knew letters across the ocean would take weeks to deliver. International phone calls, like international flights in those days were expensive, and I would only be able to afford them rarely.

After more than 20 restless hours flying across half the globe, through an entry stop in San Francisco, I landed at JFK airport in New York City, carrying two large suitcases packed full of everything my parents deemed necessity and could cram inside. It was a couple of weeks before my classes were to commence. 

I was enrolled in the biochemistry graduate program at the City University of New York as a Ph.D. student. I was to be a teaching assistant at Hunter College, part of the CUNY graduate program. My financial aid included a tuition waiver and a stipend of almost $9,000 covering 9 months; it doesn’t sound like much money, especially to live in New York City, but it was enough for a grad student to live a frugal life. I never had to wait tables or deliver food to pay for my next meal, like some other students I met; instead, I could focus on my academic work without distraction.

Betty Tong visits the Rutgers University campus in Newark, New Jersey in 1990, when she was a grad student at the City University of New York.
Courtesy of Betty Tong
Betty Tong visits the Rutgers University campus in Newark, New Jersey in 1990, when she was a grad student at the City University of New York.

I lived in a furnished dormitory that Hunter offered to its resident graduate students for $450 a month on the nursing school campus. It was between the New York University Medical Center and an affluent East Village neighborhood where I heard movie stars like Katharine Hepburn lived back then.

In China, I’d shared a single room and bunk beds with seven other girls in a college dorm, so I felt on top of the world with a spacious and sunny room all to myself in a safe, secure and well-maintained building. Campus shuttles running back and forth to the Park Avenue main campus also provided enormous convenience.

I wrote to my parents every couple of weeks, reporting my adventures and telling them not to worry about me. I longed to hear from them. My first letter from home arrived a few weeks after the fall semester began. I returned to the dorm from school late on a weekday afternoon, got off the shuttle and walked past the front desk to check the mailbox in the hallway. There was a letter lying there, waiting for me. I recognized my mother’s handwriting. As soon as I locked the mailbox, I tore open the envelope on my way to my room.

My memory of that first letter from my parents is hazy, but I recall clearly that it started with “My dearest daughter.” I burst into tears reading those words, weeping while I walked down the corridor. I didn’t realize until that moment how much I missed them. It was barely a month since I hugged them goodbye, but it felt like a century.

Betty Tong visits the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., as a graduate student in 1991.
Courtesy of Betty Tong
Betty Tong visits the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., as a graduate student in 1991.

As a first-year graduate student, I had lab rotations in the biology department at Hunter. As a teaching assistant, I set up labs for college students and ran the lab sessions weekly, with another senior TA. To take classes, I traveled by subway to the CUNY Graduate Center near Time Square. There I met with fewer than a dozen other first-year grad students in biochemistry, some from other CUNY campuses. A few were from China. We all shared lectures and became friends. We visited CUNY’s library together searching for textbooks after a Friday lecture; we went to see the United Nations on the East Side after a mid-term exam. Most days, however, we rushed back to our respective home colleges for labs, TA duties and even part-time jobs.

The adjunct instructor I worked for at Hunter was a serious middle-aged woman who often wore oversized, bright earrings in lab sessions. She was strict with both TAs and college students, but rumor had it she brought candy corn for Halloween.

In one session, she pulled out a barrel of earthworms that the students needed to dissect the next day, picked one out quickly and smoothly demonstrated the procedure. When it was time for us TAs to pick up the earthworms, I felt uneasy in my stomach and made a face while I picked up a worm.

“Don’t let people see that face,” I heard her shouting across the room.

I knew that shout was directed toward me.

I transferred to the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia the following year. I continued my graduate studies and earned a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Penn several years later.

I’ve grown personally and professionally over the years, overcoming much bigger obstacles in life. I still don’t like picking up worms or insects, but I know I can do it without making a face now — as I was trained to 35 years ago.

Enjoy reading ASBMB Today?

Become a member to receive the print edition monthly and the digital edition weekly.

Learn more
Betty B. Tong
Betty B. Tong

Betty B. Tong is a senior licensing and patenting manager in the Technology Advancement Office of the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases, National Institutes of Health.

Get the latest from ASBMB Today

Enter your email address, and we’ll send you a weekly email with recent articles, interviews and more.

Latest in Opinions

Opinions highlights or most popular articles

The language barrier: Daily struggles of an immigrant in science
Essay

The language barrier: Daily struggles of an immigrant in science

July 17, 2024

“Because I’m afraid of being misunderstood or judged for my accent or grammar mistakes, I sometimes hesitate to speak up in meetings or share my ideas with colleagues,” Thiago Pasin writes.

Water is the 2024 molecule of the year
Contest

Water is the 2024 molecule of the year

July 17, 2024

The 54 nominees included proteins and protein complexes, RNAs, lipids, drugs and therapeutics, signaling mediators and more. ASBMB members cast their votes and determined the winner.

Why AlphaFold 3 needs to be open source
Essay

Why AlphaFold 3 needs to be open source

July 7, 2024

The powerful AI-driven software from DeepMind was released without making its code openly available to scientists.

Summertime can be germy
Advice

Summertime can be germy

July 6, 2024

A microbiologist explains how to avoid getting sick at the barbecue, in the pool or on the trail.

Shades of cultural difference
Essay

Shades of cultural difference

July 4, 2024

“I was perplexed,” Humphrey Omeoga writes. “(M)y greetings frequently went unacknowledged. In Nigeria, people are always willing to accept and return greetings, especially from a foreigner.”

A primer to starting grad school
Advice

A primer to starting grad school

June 28, 2024

No matter what program you've chosen, the first few weeks can be challenging. Here are a few tips for smoother sailing in your first month.