Only three months ago did sophomore Vivian Chen still live in Taiwan. Only three months ago did Chen crave hongdou tangyuan bing 紅豆湯圓冰 at midnight, the plump white dumplings filled with thick red bean paste. Only three months ago could her father bring them home against the cold midnight air. And only three months ago did her mother, slung across the sofa after a long day at work, ask, “Are those dumplings for me?” But with a childlike grin, her father replied, no — those dumplings were for Chen, a fifteen-year-old child nestled under her parents’ wings.
“If I say that I want to eat something at midnight, [my father] will go to find them for me,” Chen said.
Her father was her best friend, the “fun” half of her two parents — creative, humorous and closer to Chen than her mother was. Though her mother, stricter in nature, would sometimes insist that Chen read a page in a book instead of her phone, Chen understood the tough love early on. She was a source of admiration, the power woman in Chen’s eyes.
“[My mother] is very good at everything,” Chen said. “Good at cleaning [the] house and managing the money. And she loves me and my sister.”
But since June 28, 2016, Chen has woken up on the other side of the Pacific Ocean, devoid of parental love. At her uncle’s house in Cupertino, her mom doesn’t stand in the kitchen for Chen’s breakfast at 6 a.m., nor does her dad bring home Chen’s favorite dumplings from the night markets of Taiwan. They were within arm’s reach just three months ago, but a 16-hour flight changed everything for Chen. Apart from her 19-year-old sister, who also moved to America, everyone — her uncle, aunt, their two kids, the sheltered class teachers, her first Indian friend in math class and the rest of Cupertino — is new to her.
And to them, she’s a complete stranger.
Taiwan was not the land of opportunity for Chen. All three years of middle school were spent in the same four walls of the same classroom, with the same thirty or forty people for the entire school day. Eight periods passed from morning till 5 p.m. — with the English teacher shuffling in after the math, followed by the history teacher who prepared yet another tedious powerpoint presentation. All while the masses stayed frozen in their seats, staring at the podium and the changing adult in its place.
All Chen had to do was to sit in long lectures, take detailed notes and get good grades. She learned at times, but really she just practiced rote memorization. To Chen, self-expression was not invited in the Taiwanese classroom — in Chinese, or any other class, she had no open class discussions, no free responses and no literary analysis. Knowledge passed from the teacher to the herd of children, but it was a strictly one-way conversation with no new cultivation of knowledge. Lessons were time for passive absorption for Chen, at best.
Chen’s fellow classmates often worsened the school atmosphere in Taiwan. Various personalities sprinkled across her classroom of three years, but some classmates let jealousy transform them into enemies, not friends. As a result, drama often pervaded Chen’s school.
“It’s very dark in Taiwanese schools. You won’t want to know,” Chen said. “Like maybe a girl likes a boy in the same class, but the boy likes another girl. Then that [previous] girl that likes the boy will tell everyone [that] she’s not a good girl, or she already has a boyfriend or something bad [about] her.”
A similar harassment took a toll on Chen herself, erupting the day before middle school graduation. A group of classmates bore malice toward Chen for a number of reasons; in their eyes, she had too much pride, too close to the homeroom teacher that they did not like. So when Chen announced her move to America, they delivered the final blow of hatred through a spiteful message face to face.
“They said, ‘Too much pride [in moving to America] is nothing. You will have a hard time.’” Chen said. “[It’s a] dark society.”
But her greatest yearning for America rooted not from her personal woes, but the pervasive national problems in Taiwan.
“I think Taiwan’s situation is going down,” Chen said. “In economy, government, quality of people, security and food security.”
Taiwan is deeply tainted in Chen’s eyes — in 2014,a major food company sold recycled waste oil as cooking oil to over 1,200 restaurants. In the same year, a college student stabbed four people to death, injuring over 30 on a subway. Though she abstains from expressing political beliefs under the new roof of her Chinese aunt and her half-Chinese cousins, Chen attributes the declining Taiwanese economy to China’s limit on the Taiwanese market. The struggle between the two countries — or a domestic disunity from Beijing’s perspective — has led Chen away from Taiwan, and into America.
Chen set foot on America three times before she settled, residing in her uncle’s house in Cupertino each time. And every visit pulled her closer to the hopeful move, one step closer to her American dream.
In the summer of 2015, during her third Cupertino visit, she sat in the living room with her mom and uncle discussing the plan to move. Chen and her sister already had their green cards thanks to her uncle’s help, so the move itself was inevitable. But the parents had to stay in Taiwan, apart from their beloved children. No longer could they go on the weekend trips as a family of four, scouring through the folds of Taiwan. No longer could the house brighten up with the two daughters’ faces.
Though both Chen’s parents supported the daughters to gain better education in America, her mother’s heart softened for her little daughter, who was, in her eyes, too young to part from the nest.
“[My mother] really want me to stay in Taiwan to finish my high school,” Chen said.
Ultimately, it was Chen’s final say. She gave a firm yes, believing the early move to America would ease her adaptation, opening her future to more opportunities not available in Taiwan.
With the final decision, Chen decided to completely turn her life around and move to an alien country. After the long conversation on the wooden dinner table of her uncle’s house, she headed back to Taiwan to pack all her belongings. One by one, the things went in brown boxes, clearing patches of space in her room that she never saw before.
“My bedroom [was] clean,” Chen said. “I didn’t know it could be that clean. I [felt] empty and sadness and rounded.”
Before the assigned date and time to take off into another country, she did anything that could allow her to bring memories of Taiwan with her.
“I eat everything I think I will miss in the last week [in Taiwan,]” Chen said.
She tried to capture the essence of Taiwan through as much food as possible. The sweetness of the red bean dumplings with shaved ice and the smell of fried chicken are still embedded in her brain.
June 28, 2016. Both parents flew across the Pacific with Chen and her sister to help them settle in. One day, they scribbled through tedious legal forms. Another day, they built a new bed for the two sisters to share. Two weeks later, after unpacking all her things into her new room, it was time for her parents to leave.
They said their goodbyes in the house, not the airport, as luggages left no space in the car for Chen and her sister. But Chen was relieved by the sight. She didn’t want to see her parents slowly diminish into the long security line. A curt departure seemed more practical, less emotional for Chen to bear.
But it didn’t stop Chen from crying for the next few days.
Her first day in MVHS did not go as planned. Stress overwhelmed her, as the foreign area, hollow with unfamiliarity, scared her.
“After my first day of school, I cried because it was too difficult,” Chen said.
Listening, speaking and thinking in a foreign language wore her down far more than she expected. Chen’s ambitions for America were high, so high that she left her parents for the opportunities. But the language barrier loomed over Chen, challenging her beyond her limits even on the first day of school. When she read English, the words simply lingered before her, never digested in her brain. She wanted to solve her problem, but she just didn’t know what she didn’t know.
Questions of whether her decisions to come over to America was right flooded her head, as the warmth of familiarity left her body completely.
But Chen persevered, as her loving parents’ faces appeared in her mind.
Chen received her first schedule dotted with sheltered classes and a ELD (English Language Development) class. She moved to America to learn English, to perfect the second language that she studied on the daily back in Taiwan. Yet she had only one period — her Algebra 2/Trigonometry class — of exposure to native English-speaking classmates. About one hour a day, or none on a block day.
So in almost all of her classes, Chinese words constantly float about her — an almost equivalent amount as one back in Taiwan — as fellow foreign students prefer their native language over English.
“At the beginning I was very happy [to be in sheltered classes], but now I do not think it is that good,” Chen said. “Because in the beginning I thought we can practice English together, but now we just speak Chinese.”
But she doesn’t let such obstacle hinder her from her goal — in her Algebra 2/Trigonometry class, she sits next to an Indian girl, a rare native classmate whom Chen can practice her English with. Several hours later, she sharpens her English again in an after-school program. She even joined the Speech and Debate Club, drafting her first English expository speech.
“I think [Speech club] is very helpful,” Chen said. “I think I want to expand my thoughts, to stand up for myself.”
The quality of her classes have yet to disappoint Chen — they capture the essence of an American education in Chen’s eyes, filled with interactive learning absent in Taiwan. In Algebra 2/Trigonometry, Chen learned input and output through a soda machine — the button is the input, while the soda is the output. In ELD 2, Chen shifted through articles and videos, rather than drilling down on the grammar taught by her Taiwanese English teacher. In sheltered world history, she discussed rational thinking theories from philosophers like Aristotle and John Locke, something her Taiwanese world history teacher never went over. She even role-played as Jean-Jacques Rousseau in a simulated press conference of famous philosophers. Learning with her second language is hard, but it’s a challenge she’s willing to take.
“Although it’s hard work, we can learn more,” Chen said.
Chen is still treading water on making new friends. She found three friends that she regularly meets during brunch. But they all speak in Chinese, not in English as Chen had hoped. Her aunt introduced Chen to a neighbor the same age as Chen — they walk together to school everyday. Sometimes they talk over small things, but oftentimes the 15-minute walk opens with “Good morning” and closes with “Good bye,” with complete silence in between.
“We can’t actually make friends with native language like English because we’re always in sheltered classes,” Chen said. “So most of our all of our classmates are the same in the ELD class. We have some problem making friends that can speak English.”
America was a hopeful word for Chen back in Taiwan. It meant a better education, a better government and a better job for Chen in the future. But with her feet dipped in the new country now, Chen slowly sees the mystic film strip away, revealing the good and ugly of America’s reality.
But she doesn’t plan on returning to Taiwan. Not until she reaches her American dream.
“I had to start here from zero,” Chen said. “Because I have to stay here for at least 7 years because of college, I don’t want to go back to Taiwan. That will be another start from zero.”
Transcription by Karen Ma and Sepand Rouz