FORT STEWART, Ga., Oct. 12, 2016 — When Li Ma arrived at Los Angeles International Airport, it was her first trip to America and her expectations were high.
“I always wanted to come to the United States. It’s a very good country and it’s powerful,” Ma said.
She was travelling from New Zealand, where she had spent three years in school, learning English and studying finance. Being used to the beautiful, small, quiet country of New Zealand, Ma found herself overwhelmed by the amount of people in America.
“It’s quite different,” she said.
Her boyfriend, Jian, was waiting to pick her up and drive her to his home in San Diego, where she stayed to live with him. She says she watched the street signs as she rode through American streets for the first time, noticing how different they were from what she was accustomed to.
After about three years in the United States, Ma decided to enlist in the Army to gain independence, continue her education and earn her citizenship. Now an Army private first class and a financial management technician with the 24th Finance Management Support Unit here, she and Jian are married, and she plans to make a career out of the military.
Life in China
Ma says she had a strict upbringing in China, learning to follow the rules and make school a top priority. Her father was a police officer, and her mother worked for the public health department.
As a child, the short-haired tomboy enjoyed playing sports and running around with the boys of the neighborhood, she said.
“My father bought me toy guns,” she said, “and I didn’t have a lot of Barbies.”
By the time she was a teenager, her life was focused around education. She attended school each day from 7 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and again from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. There was no time for play and hardly any time for sleep.
She passed an examination after high school to enter the University of International Business and Economics in Beijing. Ma studied business for four years before moving overseas for the first time in her life.
A New Direction
New Zealand became her new home at the age of 26, where she learned English and completed half of her degree in finance. She visited her home in China during the holiday season and met Jian, who later became her husband. He was also visiting China at the time, but lived in California, working as a biology researcher at the University of California, San Diego.
When Ma was 29 years old, she decided to move to the United States to be with Jian. Though she was unable to continue her education as quickly as she had hoped, and she did not like being unable to work, she did not give up.
She learned about the U.S. Army, and how it could provide her with the chance to earn American citizenship. About three years after her move, she enlisted to reclaim her independence.
Basic combat training was tough, Ma said. She experienced a large amount of culture shock along with a language barrier, but she enjoyed observing different kinds of people around her. While attending training for her chosen specialty, she received her naturalization certificate, driving her a step closer to her goals.
Though Ma has only been in the military for about eight months, she has gained back her confidence, she said. She has enjoyed the lifestyle change, conducting physical training and operating weapons systems that she normally would not be able to.
“It’s cool to be a soldier!” Ma said. “I feel like it means something when I wear this uniform. I should have more responsibility.”
In a few short months, when she reaches her first anniversary in the Army, she hopes to resume her civilian education, first earning her bachelor’s degree in finance and then moving on to her master’s. Aside from that, Ma said that being the best soldier she can be, and learning as much as she can about her work are her top priorities in the Army.“If I have a job, I’m going to try my best to do it perfectly. I want to be a professional and an expert, regardless of my job,” she said.