Have you ever immigrated to a foreign country, landing without any prior knowledge to the language? I came to the United States from Taiwan in the 1980s, the last of my family to have immigrated to the United States since the communists targeted our family. One by one, we left quietly, avoiding communist suspicions. Being the youngest of the family and the last to immigrate to the United States, I came with only a middle school education on English.
My eyes sparked as I stepped foot onto the land of opportunity with a grin. I was optimistic and motivated to start a new life here, the American way. As I made my way south in the golden state to reunite with my family, I felt a warm breeze brushing against my side as the blazing sun beat against my skin. I made it to Southern California. A couple days pass before I finally reunited with the family. Tears streamed down my father’s aged face, my own expression reflecting his. Everyone bolted in my direction, wrapping their arms in a tight embrace around my body; they were still in disbelief. At this moment, I felt a sense of a unity as a family that I had never gotten to experience.
Opportunity is a word practically glued to America, so I needed to find a job and support myself in this foreign country. I lacked the skills that would help me find a stable job, so finding one was quite a bumpy experience for me. Suddenly, a job opening was offered at a local restaurant that was hiring potential employees to help out in the kitchen. I always cooked at home back in Taiwan, so I would eventually figure that I could transfer my limited cooking skills to this new job. I wore a well-tailored, spotless black tuxedo paired with high end leather shoes that I brought back from Taiwan for the interview. As I stepped into the interview, I felt as though the interviewer was speaking some kind of gibberish or a language from outer space.
“Erjeljfoei you from?”
“I from Taiwan.”
“Eifgajkfieojiwerjb food do you make?”
“I make noodles…”
With my confident nature, I communicated throughout this interview by using hand motions and my broken English. The interviewee also used hand gestures throughout the entirety of the interview.
After the interview had ended, although I knew that it went badly, I had a gut feeling that my telephone was going to ring. I sat next to my telephone, impatiently waiting for it to ring. A few hours had passed, and yet I still sat with my chin held up high. I wasn’t getting any calls until… Ringg!!!
15 minutes before my first day of work, I had to take public transportation to get to my job. However, back in Taiwan, I had my own personal driver to take me places. Ever since I got onto that bus, I came to the realization that although I had been born with a silver spoon in my mouth, I had to remove that silver spoon in order to start my new life in America.
When I got to the restaurant and started my day of work, I noticed that my coworkers wore greasy, wrinkled shirts while I wore my newly bought, ironed blouse. As I was trying to work, my heart would beat faster, my palms covered in a thin layer of sweat. I attempted to communicate countless times, but I failed to form words in my mouth. I had lost my sense of confidence. As people tried to talk to me, I felt as if an entirely different species was trying to speak with me. My body restricted me from communication at this point. I looked down, tears brimming along my eyes as I realized that I did not belong here, and that I failed to live the American dream. All the sudden, I thought about my family and was scared that they would look down on me and would think that I am not worth anything in my life.
After the day ended, I decided to go to my sister’s house and tell her my experience working at a restaurant with my head down, avoiding eye contact. To resolve this problem, my sister bought me an introduction to English book at her local bookstore. She also bought me some DVDs of TV shows that included English dialogue, but with traditional Chinese subtitles available. She told me to finish the book first and then watch the DVDs. I followed my sister’s instructions. When I began to watch the sitcom DVDs, I first watched it with Chinese subtitles, then with English subtitles, and eventually I would watch the sitcom without the subtitles at all. After hours of studying, this is when I first understood that hard work pays off. I had truly regained my confidence, and felt as if I was on top of the world.
After I finished my English training, my coworkers would smile and raise their eyebrows and would tell me, “Your English has improved so much.”
This was when I started to feel a connection between me and my coworkers. I was able to talk and listen to them without any problems. We started to go to drive in movies every other Friday in my 1977 white Camaro to watch interesting movies, eat popcorn, and talk for long hours about our lives together. We were glued together as friends.
A few months later, I left the original restaurant that I previously worked in to become a manager at a fancy Chinese restaurant. I was free to speak both Chinese and English. I made my workers wear well-tailored, custom fitted waitering outfits to impress the customers. My friends back in the previous restaurant that I had worked in began to go in their own directions and pursue their our own dreams, but we still called each other often.
One day, my toilet wouldn’t flush, indicating there was something wrong with the plumbing. I called one of my friends and told him about my situation. My friend told me that there isn’t anything that I could do so he suggested that I call a plumber. At that moment my brows furrowed, my head was running around in circles and questioning our friendship. It isn’t until later, that I realized that the value of friendship in American culture and Taiwanese culture are very different. In Taiwan, one would loan their friends money if they are financially struggling. They would also help their friends find a job if they don’t one have, and in this case, would come over and help with the plumbings. But, Taiwanese people usually bottle up about their feelings since they believe that feelings are supposed to be kept and locked inside of you. In contrast, I was able to talk about every single detail of my feelings to my friends in America without them giving me dirty looks and telling me to stop. Every time I opened up to them, I felt a release of happiness in my body, a feeling I’d never encountered.
I noticed that adapting to the American culture required time and energy, especially when trying to learn the language. It also required me to understand what the American culture is in order to adapt to its society. To this day, I still keep my DVDs and my introduction to English book so I can remember the feeling of staying up until two am studying English. All this studying paid off because my advanced English is how I made friends here. In addition, I now would lift my head up high, and gracefully push my chest out when I speak in English. America is truly a land of opportunity and fresh starts of a new life.
This story is based on an interview by a student at Palo Alto High School.