Living the American Dream

By Jane LeeFebruary 14, 2024

Living the American Dream
U.S. Army Reserve Officer 1st Lt. Charles Liu is attending The Judge Advocate General's Legal Center and School's 222nd Officer Basic Course. (U.S. Army photo courtesy of 1st Lt Charles Liu) (Photo Credit: Jane Lee) VIEW ORIGINAL

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. – “I firmly believe that serving in the U.S. Army is the ultimate way to honor my American dream,” said 1st Lt. Charles Liu.

The Judge Advocate General’s Legal Center and School 222nd Officer Basic Course student journeyed a long way in search of that opportunity. An only child due to China’s One-Child Policy, he left behind his parents, the grandparents who practically raised him and everything else he knew when he immigrated from his home of Xinxiang, at the age of 20.

“I arrived in Chicago O’Hare Airport in August 2010,” recalled Liu. “I took another flight to transfer to Cedar Rapids, and then took a cab to Iowa City.”

The Army Reserve Officer didn’t know anyone in America’s heartland and only had a rudimentary grasp of the language. “I had very basic knowledge of English before moving to the U.S.,” said Liu. “My father … who was a judge … encouraged me to go study in America and pursue a law degree and explore the legal system in a democracy.

“From a very young age, he instilled in me a clear sense of right and wrong, demonstrating the consequences of violating laws.”

The cornfields of Iowa proved quite a culture shock having grown up in the densely populated urban province of Henan. “In my grandparents’ neighborhood … the apartment buildings were huddled so close together … often times the first kid would go downstairs and start to shout our names to get everybody together,” said Liu. “My very first impression of the U.S. after arriving in Iowa City was not everywhere looks like New York City!”

Liu threw himself wholeheartedly into his University of Iowa experience. “I purposefully lived and hung out exclusively with locals for the first two years during college because it was important for me to learn not just the English language, but the American culture,” said Liu.

With the boldness of youth, the finance major even embraced the American entrepreneurial spirit. “Starting the third year … I bought a [struggling] East Asian-style karaoke shop because I thought it would enable me to gain hands-on business experience,” said Liu. “I knew that new Chinese students would come to Iowa City every fall, and I thought I could figure out how to attract non-Chinese customers too.

“I introduced the boba drink concept to the local Americans, added a Korean version of a karaoke system, and worked my tail off for two years. I brought Korean, American, Sudanese, and many other customers to the shop. I am really proud of what I accomplished. There are not many with the courage to risk buying and reviving a failing business.”

In addition to almost single-handedly introducing Midwesterners to the delights of bubble tea, Liu also met his wife Fiona during college. They took the same Calculus class as freshman and the rest is history. The couple are expecting their first child, a son, next month.

Despite sacrificing some grades because he was simultaneously juggling mastering English while running a business, Liu managed to get into Pepperdine Law School. Not surprisingly, the son of a criminal law judge found evidence fascinating. “I must have asked Professor Dereck Muller over a hundred questions about the intricate evidentiary rules and how they translate into real-life practice,” said Liu. “He was like a human evidence Google machine. I aspire to gain his wealth of knowledge.”

A gift from Liu’s mother land would eventually pave the way to acceptance in his new adopted home. The Department of Defense recruited him for his fluency in Mandarin Chinese, a critical language. “I enlisted in the U.S. Army in 2015 under the MAVNI [Military Accessions Vital to the National Interest] program,” said Liu. “I became a U.S. citizen in 2020.

“I only applied for the reserve component because I didn’t become a U.S. citizen until I was 30. There are certain things I will definitely pursue in the Army: having a combat tour, obtaining contested court-martial experience, and learning soldiering skills such as airborne, air assault and ranger.”

Currently clerking for Justice John Segal, Associate Justice of the 2nd District California Court of Appeal, Liu finds the reality of America far better than the fantasy he envisioned as a child. “I have vivid memories of my mother taking me to a newly opened McDonald’s in China, and of being enthralled by 'The Lion King' in a movie theater … watching the first 'Spider-Man' movie was unforgettable,” said Liu. “However, what convinced me to stay, after spending many years in the U.S., is the American value. No matter who you are, and what your background is, the sun shines for everyone.

“Throughout my decades-plus stay here, I’ve come to appreciate that American culture is embracing, regardless of one’s origins. This has deepened my desire for belonging.”