316. 他鄉已然成故鄉/ From Foreign Land to Homeland /Chienhan Li/2015/08

From Foreign Land to Homeland

By李建漢Chienhan Li


Time flies – it has already been 36 years since I immigrated to the United States. I have spent near half my life in a foreign country. This year I “went back to the homeland” several times to see friends and family, but each time I feel more like a guest. It is not only our pace of life that’s not on the same page, but also that we can’t connect with many conversation topics. After the journey is over, we always “return” to our home in the US. This foreign land has already become my homeland.

Looking back on the road of immigration I have traveled, though it has been bitter at times, it was not without joy. Thinking back on the past in half sleep states, I can’t help but ask myself with a sigh why my brain was so “rusty” that I gave up my promising career in my homeland of Taiwan and left behind relatives and friends, bringing my family to embark on the adventure of the vast road of no return that is immigration and hedging the greatest gamble of my life. So why exactly am I here?

I am of a ripe old age now, and my children have all established careers of their own. My life has been fulfilling and full of fortune. With children and grandchildren around me, I realize the joy of family fortune. Isn’t it clear who the winners and losers are on this road? I have no regrets about my past choices, and if I were to do it over again, I would still embark on the same gamble.

I do not have a prominent family background, let alone an outstanding academic career. I was just an impoverished child born in the district of Monga, Taipei (艋舺). Though I am sure I cannot write a touching immigration story, I am willing to participate in a collective writing of our memoirs called for by Chicago Taiwanese Americans, bringing forth memories and reflections on my internal journey from my personal great migration with my clumsy pen.


My Background

A Childhood in Terror

I was born in 1940 under Japanese colonial rule in Monga, Taipei, the district known by the Japanese as 3-Chome (now between Kangding Road and Kunming Street on Changsha street), next door to a new workers union and the Qingshui Temple.

My early childhood was when the Pacific War of World War II was at its peak. Ever since I can remember my family and I had to evade the violent attacks of the US air force day and night, always in a state of terror and struggle for survival. We were exhausted at day, and even in the middle of the night I was often pulled from my dreams to run for my life. I remember one night I was awoken by screams, and saw a sky full of flames (that was the night that Shin Sheng Daily News was bombed; flaming pages filled the air). In that moment, I thought I was already dead and down in hell.

On May 31, 1945 (later known as the Raid on Taipei) at noon the alarm had just sounded when shiny silver B-29 bomber were already flying over our heads, leaving us no time make it to the bomb shelter behind the temple. Then the bombs howled past our heads and fell onto the street. The whole street was razed; it was a scene of devastation everywhere. That day my father rode his bike out to work and encountered the bombers near the Governor’s House. He saved his life only by hiding in a bathroom. Over 3,000 people died on that day, and tens of thousands more were wounded or lost their homes.

The place we lived happened to be in a straight line from the Governor’s House (now the President’s House), so all the bombs aimed for government agencies that missed fell into our area. Therefore, the government forced us to evacuate to the remote and unfamiliar Changhua County, Erlin district. Yet many of the refugees who evacuated with us died from deadly infectious diseases.

A-Chung, a local neighbor boy, liked to play with me. On weekday mornings he always wanted me to help him carry a bucket of almond milk to the market to replenish his father’s goods. His father “Red Head” would give me a bowl of almond milk and a piece of fried dough to try. This was a joyous light among my memories of that time, unforgettable to this day.

Because my father lost his job, our family fell into poverty, and he had no choice but make the dangerous trip to Taipei to find work. My mother was infected with dysentery – her symptoms were very severe yet we lacked medicine. At home remained only us two helpless young children. Fortunately, the kind-hearted wife of “Mr. Red Head” came to the rescue with local herbs, and miraculously, my mother was healed. It was a relief when the war ended not long after, otherwise we might have starved in this unfamiliar place if we didn’t die of disease first. Uncle “Red Head” even came to Taipei to visit us many years later, and we heard A-Chung’s mother had already passed away. After barely escaping disaster several times, the whole family’s joy and gratitude at surviving calamity is truly beyond words.

Yet the Taiwanese seemed to face an eternal plight of being torn by war. The 228 Incident of 1947 gave us more nightmares, but this time it wasn’t from the reverberations from bombings of the Americans but from the shrieking explosions of gunshots over our heads, sending our hearts into our toes. And those shooting and arresting people were our own “national army of the motherland.” How brave and determined the “National Army” from China was to kill their “comrades”! Later, when the July 4th Incident at Tiananmen Square occurred, I was not surprised in the least. They were all the same “Chinese Army” who dared kill their own people, after all.

After the Kuomintang party government (KMT) “abetted the chaos,“ in order to sooth public resentment caused by the “National Army’s” plundering of Chintsaichang Jewelry Shop in Monga, they deliberately arranged for that murderous “National Army” soldier to be shot in public in a small park by the temple, an attempt to win back the people’s hearts. But what I glimpsed between the cracks in the crowd was just a pool of dark blood at the foot of a large tree, and nothing more. It was better this way, lest I develop nightmares from it.

The scars etched by terror and war on my youthful soul were impossible to obliterate. Every time I talk freely of life-threatening experiences when I was four and five, and of my personal experience during the 228 Incident, the listener will wonder how I remember such minute details of events long past. I deeply believe that people must remember tragedy in order to treasure the preciousness of good fortune.


A Half-Mountain Child Drifting Without Roots

I am a “half-mountain child” (半山仔, half Chinese and half Taiwanese). My father was born in 1983 in the Manchu Qing dynasty period in a coastal town in Fujian province. Both of his parents passed away when he was young, so he was raised by his aunt. Because the ancestral hall and genealogy of his hometown was destroyed by bandits, from my father onwards we had no traceable roots. My son and I are deeply regretful we have no family history to reference. This is an unexpected calamity common people suffer during troubled times.

When my father was 18, he fled to Taiwan alone from Xiamen, in search of his only blood sibling. But he was disappointed by his idle elder brother. My father was intelligent and hard-working, and met a noble person who passed on knowledge on mixing of dry paints (note 2) with which he became a highly skilled lacquer worker. His lacquer work was highly valued by those versed in the art. After the war, his art even received the Best Work Award from the “First Taiwan Crafts Exhibition” held by the Taiwan Provisional Construction Department. He was highly respected in his field. People gave him the respectful title of “Master Hongjiu” (紅九師) (his first name was Hongjiu). (Note 2: A natural paint made from the sap collected from sumac trees. It is very bright, air-tight, and moisture and heat resistant. In Europe and Asia, it is widely used to coat high end furniture, coffins, tables, artifacts, arts, and crafts).


A Strict Household, Parents Lead by Example

My parents didn’t have many offspring; my father didn’t have children until he was 47, so I only had one sister four years older than me. It stands to reason that I, as the only son, should be pampered. But on the contrary, my parents were very strict towards me, and all behaviors had to follow the rules. My mother often used the old precept of “Jade only becomes beautiful if it is cut an polished” to admonish me and my sister. Thus, from a young age I was molded into a model student conforming to expectations.

Though my mother was strict, she seldom hit or scolded us. It was only when I made a big mistake and she had to punish me that she would settle accounts of all past mistakes large and small. This kind of upbringing was very effective, because I never could tell when my mother would address my “account,” nor could I know exactly how many “crimes” had accumulated. Thus, I had to toe the line at all times. My father was equally kind and authoritative – very stern yet not easily angered. Our pocket money all came from him, and he never did lay a hand on us.

I am grateful to this day for my parent’s strict education. I remember when I was little, my father would sit opposite the table from me every night after dinner, inspecting my pages of calligraphy practice while simultaneously reading his newspaper (I always wondered how father could read and keep accounts when he hadn’t been to a day of school in his life). Later, the legibility of my characters on engineering drawings was purely owing to my father’s persistence.

My mother was recognized on our street as a remarkably tidy housewife. The red sticker for “most clean” in the annual cleaning competition went to none other than our house. My mother scrubbed the cement doorway of our house so hard you could see the red bricks underneath, and she brushed the bricks to resemble freshly baked European bread, puffy and smooth. Her culinary arts were also renown near and far; when the neighbors got married, she helped them serve twenty some tables at the feast, and the food was not inferior to that from a restaurant. When she went out, regardless of if it was for a banquet, to see a play, or to buy food, she always dressed up neat and clean. Her appearance seemed forever glamorous, and she required nothing less of her family members. She often said, “No one can see what you eat at home, but if you go out with shabby clothing and an unkempt face, people will look down on you.”


Untouchable Colonial Subjects

As my father came to Taiwan from Tangshan after the Japanese had already colonized Taiwan, he was still considered a national of Fujian Province, Hui’an County. It was only when I won an award in first grade of primary school that I found my nationality was marked differently from others. Later during the war, I remember the quantity and variety or rations given to my family was less substantial than others. What left the deepest impression on me was that households with children qualified to receive ametama (Japanese sugar balls), yet only my house got none. Those sugar balls were the only sweet snacks children could get our hands on during the war. How tragic to have no sugar balls when the other kids all did! Some neighbors took pity on me and my sister and gave us some – we savored them slowly like treasures.

It turns out we were ranked even lower than Taiwanese “fourth-class citizens.” When I grew older, I investigated how Taiwanese were classified at that time, and found the following: “first-class citizens” were of pure Japanese blood (just like Lien Chan 連戰of the KMT was a “high-class mainlander” or pure Chinese). “Second-class citizens” were Taiwanese who changed their names to become Japanese and spoke only Japanese at home. Completely, “imperialized,” they enjoyed almost the same treatment as the Japanese themselves – it was just that they didn’t have a drop of Japanese blood in their bones. “Third-class citizens” were those who still used their original surnames but adopted Japanese names and did not necessarily speak Japanese. Their treatment was a significant step down from the fully imperialized. At the bottom were “fourth-class citizens” who kept their full original names. As for those of us “Chinese People” (shinazin), who even still kept our original nationality, it seemed we’d been classified into a fifth “untouchable” class, or else as “Qing dynasty slaves” (chankoro) who didn’t belong anywhere at all.


Changing our Nationality

What was I to make of having a father who was “Tangshanese” who married a Taiwanese woman and produced a “half-mountain child” like me? I didn’t understand why my father changed the whole family’s nationalities after the 228 Incident, but from my memories I know that he often slandered the KMT government for its corruption, and I remember his feeling of dissatisfaction looking down on Chen Yi’s undisciplined troops who took over Taiwan, and I suppose it was related to this.

When my sister came of marriageable age and had some suitors approach her, my father first established the iron rule of “absolutely no marriage to a Mainlander.” Yet this only elicited a wry smile from my mother and the comment “isn’t he a mainlander himself?”

I can understand my father’s inclinations at the time; he must have thought after living on Taiwanese soil and drinking Taiwanese water for so many years he was as good as Taiwanese. He could not accept being grouped in with those controlling Chinese Mainlanders. He once even said the Japanese’ treatment of Taiwan was not so bad (compared to the massacre of the 228 Incident). My dad certainly was not of two minds.

My father was not an academic, but he had his own set of worldviews. I always thought he must be able to do Kungfu – I often saw him massage light twists and bruises, and witnessed the skill with which he helped people reconcile. The neighbors all knew he was a master at catching thieves. I gathered my clues from these observations. I remember at least two or three times he caught thieves on the roof of the house and handed them over to the police or detectives. I loved Judo and often went to the arena to see people practice, but my father never let me join. He thought young people were full of animal spirits and would provoke you if they knew you could do Kungfu, and in the end you would hurt someone or be injured yourself out of need to self-defend. I only ever saw him treat people kindly and never once saw him quarrel.


Fond Memories of Collective Living on the Old Street

After the war we moved back to our old street (now called Longchang St. near Ximending) and moved into a Japanese style wooden house left by a Japanese person who had fled back to Japan after defeat (later my father legally bought the property from the State-owned Property Bureau). The street was narrow but welcoming, packed with all kinds of people. There were gorgeously dressed call girls and prostitutes going to work at night and dignified court clerks. There were high officers and common and unadorned office workers, and there were mafia boys who rode their three-wheeled carts at day and sang in bars at night to provide for their family, typically very kind and courteous to their neighbors.

I remember Mr. Chiu from across the street was suddenly taken by a group of army police not long after the 228 Incident. He never returned home after, as if he had evaporated into thin air. Mrs. Chiu grew lonely and anxious; helpless and with no way out, the two children who had lost their fathers grew sullen and couldn’t fit in with the neighboring kids. This struck my young heart and remains unforgettable today. In the end, Mrs. Chiu and her kids moved away from my district and we lost all contact with them. This was how I witnessed first-hand the tragedy that befell many families who were victims of the 228 Incident.

The kids on that old street were very assiduous. In just a couple hundred meters of street there were seven or eight boys and girls with excellent grades who went to top schools like Jianguo High School (建中), Chenggong High School (成功), and Taipei First Girls’ High School (北一女). There were also two or three studying law at National Taiwan University (NTU) and others studying chemical engineering at National Cheng Kung University, Tai Chung Agricultural Institute (the predecessor of National Taipei University), and Taipei Tech. One of the kids at NTU was the son of a porker, and another was the son of a man who sold red beans and peanut soup in front of the temple. Of course, there were good and bad members of the community – there was no shortage of young stragglers eating drinking and gambling in the street, but there was one gang leader who lived there, so at least they didn’t dare be too wanton in their behavior.

I also saw many bloody scenes of street-corner fights, and with my own eyes I witnessed district police officers, telecommunications bureau officers and other such monsters blatantly cover up illegal acts and fool around at the station, engaging in shameless and ugly behaviors for personal profit (fooling around with women and accepting bribes). My favorite entertainment in my youth was going to the temple after class to see people advertising with martial arts, dough makers, and candied haw blowers, and watch puppet shows and silent movies.

I did not part with this diverse and colorful community until before I got married. Growing up in this kind of complex environment not only made me mature my thinking early and establish my own set of values, but also helped me see the many sides of society – the sick and the ugly, the cold and warm, good and evil sides of humanity. This was formative in my future approach to people and life.


Forced into Tough Study by Changes in the Family

When I was about to graduate from junior high, my father departed from this world. This was the greatest challenge in my life. In the one or two years he was ill and bedridden, we were already destitute down to our bare walls, and after he died our financial situation slipped further still. With no elders to give aid, my father’s business was also unsympathetically taken over by his partner. It was a blessing that he left us that simple wooden house, providing us shelter from the elements, otherwise the outcome for us would have been unthinkable. Only then did I come to appreciate the cold and warm duality of human nature. In this desperate situation this orphaned and widowed family had to fight for our own lives and fiercely rely on each other.

There was no way I could continue my studies normally. I remember when my strict teacher Chiapei Tan 譚家培at Jianguo High School found out about the news of my father’s death, he said these unforgettable words to me in front of the whole class: “Oh Li Chien, (Ken-ji was the ‘false’ Japanese name I’d originally adopted because my father said it was both Chinese and Japanese and would help avoid trouble), from now on your broken schoolbag will be difficult to carry!” Truly, from then on, I embarked on a precipitous path of hard work and studies, and I vowed to myself that no matter how difficult it would be I would never let my own children fall into the same fate I had. As long as children are up for it, we must provide them with the best educational opportunities possible.


Through Karmic Opportunity, Worker Becomes Boss

I was fortunate to receive help from my classmate’s father, who introduced me to Taipower Corp. After 10 years of hard work and struggle while working and studying simultaneously, from a humble low-level temp worker I passed through layer upon layer of tests and assessments, and eventually clambered up to the position of “electrical engineer.” Perhaps for someone with a diploma this position is easy to attain, but for me it was of extraordinary significance. It was a goal I had only achieved through years of enduring hunger and cold, struggling to work and study hard.

However, I was clear as to the reality that I had no higher education or powerful family background, and I was not good at networking or sucking up to superiors. There was no future in a state-owned institution for those relying just on their own wits and hard work. Moreover, holding an “iron rice bowl” (a secure job, often in public office) all the way to retirement was not my life’s vision. Though my performance appraisal always had top results, and one year I even unexpectedly got an award for “excellence” from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, there was no real meaning to it besides getting a bonus of an extra month’s salary. Still, I never thought it would turn out to be a “curse in disguise”! Many years later when we were trying to emigrate, when we were applying for an overseas resident passport at the Overseas Community Affairs Council, my examination was blocked because of that “award” and were nearly prevented from leaving. It turns out I was listed as “Technical Personnel for National Defense” with restricted exit. God! At what point had I become so important to the “Republic of China”? I knew I should stay and rise in the ranks making a fortune. But in the end my friend at a travel agency who helped me arrange the passports found a loophole and enabled us to leave the country.

Taiwan’s economy started to take off in the 1960’s. With the “Ten Major Construction Projects,” a continuous inflow of foreign capital, and large scale civil-engineering endeavors everywhere, there was an urgent need for personnel experienced with physical design and construction. Private enterprises hired large numbers of experienced employees. It happened that someone offered a high salary to recruit me at a private engineering firm where I would preside over the electrical and power engineering of foreign-funded factories and both public and private major projects.

My old mother was getting sickly at the time and my new wife was pregnant. Medical and living expenses at home were increasing day by day. Though my wife and I were both working, and I worked an additional part-time job in the evenings doing electrical design for an architecture office, but with our meager salaries and income from part time work we still often struggled to make ends meet. The family’s finances were slipping into calamity day by day. In light of the real financial needs of the household and consideration of my own future, this was perhaps the first time I seriously considered changing the runway. Weighing gains and losses, I eventually resolutely laid down the “iron rice bowl” and stepped into the risky world of private enterprise.

After several years of hard work completing several landmark design projects, we won the appreciation and trust of several European, American, and Japanese foreign investment firms as well as local construction offices; we were overwhelmed with commissions for engineering projects. I was also invited to Japan to learn new techniques of high-rise construction equipment design and manufacturing. There I had the honor of visiting many electrical machinery manufacturers and the Expo in Osaka; my horizon was widened, and my engineering and technical knowledge was greatly enhanced.

Not long after returning to Taiwan, I co-founded a company with some friends; I was responsible for managing the professional design and construction for the engineering company. We established the operating principles of not participating in bidding or doing public construction projects (because my friend had witnessed too many drawbacks), and to never fight for business by sending rebates or bribing with wine and girls. We only accepted design and construction commissions from private enterprises and architects and foreign investors who trusted in our skill, striving to manage our business with conscience and dedication. After several years of committed drive the business improved and our family conditions improved as well.


The Beginning of Trouble

Our three kids (two girls and one boy) came of schooling age one after the other. Because we did not agree with the exceptionalist education of several famous private schools we looked at, we sent the two girls to a kindergarten run by a church. Later they attended a public elementary school; they were both very studious and both became class leaders, beloved by teachers. In their spare time they participated in extracurricular music class, chorus, piano, drawing and ice-skating. They were very happy. The only problem was that I did not allow them to go to cram schools outside of class – the teacher was puzzled but I could not explain. I could not tell the teacher how much I had hated cram school since I was a child. I wanted my kids to have free time for independents study, for playing and activities. I wanted them to read what interested them outside of school and have their own happy childhood. We sent our youngest son to an experimental kindergarten class; there they didn’t need to learn the rigid Bopomofo Zhuyin transcription system or how to read and write characters. In class they could move around freely and choose whatever books and toys they wanted to play with. When not singing they were growing flowers, weeding, watering, and looking after plants. And he had ten girlfriends in his class, how joyous!

But as the children grew older, my wife’s anxiety grew along with them. Until finally she couldn’t help but ask – not sending our kids to cram schools like this and not giving them a “good education” at private schools, continuing this “wild education practice,” if they couldn’t get into a “famous” middle and high school and couldn’t test into a “good university,” what would we do? I was baffled momentarily at how to answer these sweeping questions, and I didn’t dare rebut her confidently with the rhetoric of “where there is a will, there is a way,” because in the eventuality the kids were disappointing, I would have a huge responsibility to bear. Should that time come I would surely be stung till by whole body was covered in blisters, and my crime would be unforgiveable.

It is not a child’s choice to be born into this world. Since we brought them to life, we have a responsibility to care for them and educate them to maturity. We need to provide for them so that they can fulfill their capabilities and arrange only the best. Is there even an ideal living space for parent and child on this earth? I gradually began to ponder what my kids would do with their futures. This was the beginning of trouble.

This was a time of rapid economic, political, and social changes in Taiwan; accordingly, people’s values and the social atmosphere shifted quickly as well. I already felt like a stranger to this land where I was born and raised, confused by my surroundings. I had a sudden whim to go on a sightseeing trip abroad with family and close friends, to relieve pressure and have a glimpse of the world outside, especially the long-idealized North America.


Journey to the West

Chance Encounters and an Impulsive Immigration Application

In 1978, my wife and I set down our work and our business and traveled first to Hawaii and then around the US West Coast. We trekked all over San Diego, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, the Grand Canyon, San Francisco, and finally arrived in Seattle on the northwest frontier, where we planned to apply for a Canadian visa and go to Vancouver.

While applying for a visa at the Canadian embassy in Seattle we by chance encountered a couple with surname Chang and a certain Mr. Yuan; this unexpected encounter caused the troubling thought of immigration to the States to root in our brains.

Immigrate to the States? At the time, this notion was like a fairy tale – I had never considered it at all. Yet after meeting with an immigration lawyer based on a casual suggestion of those strangers in the embassy, and following an in-depth consultation, it led to a series of unexpected developments in the immigration process. This certainly was not what we expected when we started our vacation.


Facing the Weightiest Decision of My Life

When our travels in the US concluded we returned to Taiwan bringing plenty of beautiful memories, but also packing an extra bag of troubles. Our journey through the American West took us sightseeing South to North, also passing through the cities where Chinese immigrants were most concentrated and most known at the time, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Though these cities were colorful and lively, life was convenient, and the language barrier would be easy to overcome, we did not like the complex terrain and the poor public safety of these big cities.  On the other hand, in our final destination of Seattle the people were simple and friendly, there were plentiful resources, the climate was pleasant and environment elegant – it seemed like a great place to raise children. We had a deep positive impression of Seattle.

After careful overall evaluation and consideration, we decided that while Taiwan was where we had been born and raised, where we had an inseverable connection and strong social and familial ties, it was becoming more complicated day by day to face the social, economic, housing, environmental, political, safety and educational problems. We were not optimistic about prospects for our children’s education and future in the long run. In the end we decided to take advantage of our time still young and strong; if we wanted to try our luck abroad we had to go soon. Besides, my mother had passed away several years ago and I had no other family to take care of so there were not many factors to worry about or ties difficult to cut. The only difficult part to take care of was how to terminate the business, and how to explain to relatives and friends, especially my wife’s parents.


Applying for a Visa and a Severance of Diplomatic Ties between Taiwan and the US

Seeing as we were not going to the US for studies and we had no relatives there, it was difficult to prove a reason for immigrating. Yet our application process still proceeded at the expected pace. The problem was that when we initiated the application, Taiwan and the US had normal diplomatic relations, yet when we received the approval documents from the US Immigration Bureau, Taiwan and the US had only just severed diplomatic ties, and foreign affairs between the two parties slipped into chaos. The US embassy in Taiwan had already closed – there was no consulate in Taiwan. The US “Taiwan Relations Act,” which regulated unofficial diplomatic relations, was the freak diplomatic product later spawned by Congress. Even with my approval documents I could not get a visa from Taiwan. I did not know what to do. This was the first time I experienced Taiwan as an “international orphan”- it was truly a sad state to be in.

In the end, a lawyer recommended we go to the nearest consulate in Vancouver. With minds full of doubt, we went to the consulate in Vancouver to collect our visas, yet the process was actually quite simple.

The immigration processes in the US all went miraculously smoothly, as if Uncle Sam was welcoming us with open arms. Later, getting a green card and becoming naturalized was all hitch free, as if our immigration had been arranged for us in the dark all along.


Ploughing the Foreign Land like a Homeland

Bitter Life as New Immigrants

There are all kinds of reasons to immigrate to the US – some go abroad to study while young and find work after graduation, then after marrying and having kids it becomes logical to take root here. Some immigrate to meet family or for professional reasons. Then there are those like me, who for the sake of their kids’ education follow an impulse to give up everything at home and take the family to an unfamiliar land with no relatives in sight. It has been 30 years since we arrived.

When we first stepped foot onto the new continent, we had to start everything from scratch. I relied on the bit of rough English I had picked up working with foreign investors in Taiwan. Forced by our situation that allowed no turning back, we could only bravely march forward. The bitter experience of being an immigrant is truly hard to describe.

When we arrived at our target destination of Seattle it was in the midst of the time of strict execution of the student busing policy for desegregating schools for black and white students. But as a fresh arrival I was not clear as to the implications of this policy, nor did I know how to fit into the chaotic “drama of inconvenient public education” (later it was proved it was a farce of political tricks which was discontinued after the 80s – the false face mask was torn off and it was revealed the group of famous congress members who had been advocating for busing the loudest, as well as judges and journalists, all sent their kids to study at private schools). Especially our kids who didn’t understand a word of English really didn’t need to experience this kind of torment.

In order to avoid the kind of urban school district that treats children like white mice to toss about (such as the Seattle school district), we daringly moved into a suburban district with mostly white and Jewish families. It was a blessing to have the help of a new American friend who helped us find a good inexpensive house so we could have a shelter and a school the kids could safely attend.

The three kids who didn’t even know their ABCs were placed directly into first, third and fifth grade. But I won’t lose any more words on the difficulties faced by children and adults alike. After one year, the ESL teacher announced they would not teach them anymore as they no longer had language difficulties. They were even placed into advanced classes. Many years later we attended two high school graduations as parents of valedictorians, and as we were asked stand to accept the greeting of the guests, because it stirred memories of all the heartache we had experienced on this long road, under this upsurge of emotion we almost lost control and burst into tears then and there.

Bad Bamboo Makes Good Shoots

The kids did not disappoint us; no matter if it was homework or extracurricular activities, their performance was extraordinary. Once I got up in the middle of the night and saw a light still shining in the kid’s room. It turned out they were still engaged in concentrated study; I could only remind them to sleep earlier and pay attention to their health. When applying for college we did not offer any opinions, nor did we have time or money to accompany them to visit campuses. Their wild education had made them understand what it was they wanted, and what they had to do to get there.

Our eldest daughter was accepted into an out of state university, but because we were still struggling to make ends meet, she declined the offer on her own accord and went with her second choice, entering the best public university in Washington State. After graduating, she worked for a few years gaining experience and earning money for tuition for an IMBA at Carnegie Mellon University. Now she is working as an IT product manager in Chicago.

When our second daughter was accepted into several Ivy League schools, I was on the other end of the earth on a business trip and couldn’t help her make any decisions. She bought her own plane ticket and went to Boston to find her older classmate and sleep on a floor mat in a girl’s dormitory at Harvard to see if she liked the school. From that moment she kindled her relationship with Harvard that would last 10 years. When she got her PhD, she was the only woman stepping onto that stage, carrying one child and holding another by the hand. She always knew what she wanted for herself and how she should get there – from Seattle to Boston, and then to Oxford, England for one year where she found her partner. After graduating she worked in Europe for one year, then got married in an Oxford church with her German boyfriend who just finished his PhD, then she returned to Harvard to get her PhD as well. They have been living and working in New York for 10 years, and have two sons and a daughter.

Ivy Leagues are for the most part snobbish and hereditary. The students there have a specific style to their step. Even the homeless in Harvard Square are different from the rest – you can play a very good game of chess with them. The students there are the cream of the crop, but many of them were born with a golden spoon. Some of my daughter’s classmates once asked, “Is your dad a professor or a doctor?” She answered that her dad was barely literate, and it shocked them to nearly breaking their glasses. Harvard is lucky to have recruited her.

Our son has loved sports since he was small. He started playing soccer at age 7 and that turned into his career. From the U13 select team to the U19 team, he even battled in the North and South, crossing borders for matches in Canada and Mexico. Many of his coaches encouraged him to go to college, and in the end, he chose Stanford and immediately went there to partake in tryouts. Room and board for his whole summer was paid for by the school. It was a pity that he only played for a year before stopping to focus on studies. While everyone else was busy looking for a job, he already had a letter of appointment from a law firm where he had been a summer intern in his hand.


Sacrificing Enjoyment, Enjoying Sacrifice

The hard journey of coming to the United States, though it was primarily for my children, also challenged my own survival abilities. As of today, the kids are already middle aged, and the results of all of our past work are shown in each strand of pale hair. Though in past years we sacrifice much “enjoyment,” yet anow we also enjoy our “sacrifice.” It is hard to distinguish between gains and losses in life. In the end, isn’t that just time, luck, and fate?

The small family of five that stepped foot on new land in days past has grown into a “mini United Nations” of 12. Our grandchildren speak Chinese, English, German, Hindi, and Spanish (their nanny’s language) between them. Yet it is a pity that that the Taiwanese language is about to become extinct, for only us two old folks are struggling to maintain our mother tongue.


Experiencing a National Crisis Together

In early September 2001, our daughter was pregnant with her first child and about to give birth, so we hurried to Manhattan to accompany her in welcoming the first member of our next generation.

At 6am on September 11, our first grandson was born at SUNY hospital. Mother and son, grandpa, and grandma were all full of joy. At 8am we heaved our tired bodies to our daughter’s home to get some rest.  At 9am my nephew living in Flushing called and said it seemed the World Trade Center had been hit by a plane, and the traffic made it impossible for him to go to work. We turned on the TV to see the news; it was playing footage of the North Tower in flames after it was hit by a plane, and I watched on the screen as the second plane hit the South Tower. It was only then that we realized it was not an accident; it was a deliberate terrorist act in progress. The whole country was turned upside down as the bad news spread. The Pentagon was hit next and more civilian aircrafts were held back. Our phone service cut out – we had no way to communicate with our daughter and son in law. How fortunate that our son in law did not go to Wall Street to work that day, or else we would have lost him.

The Twin Towers of the World Trade Center burned for two whole hours before collapsing. We tearfully watched police and fire fighters running for their lives, the street full of smoke and dust like at the end of the world.

In the next few weeks Manhattan was like an isolated island – except for military vehicles and a few supply trucks permitted to enter the city, other vehicles were only allowed to exit. Two days later, my son in law and I went to pick up my daughter and her son from the hospital. NYU Hospital was full of injured people; the entrance was heavily guarded and there were roadblocks and police patrols everywhere. There were also long lines of blood donors. Only military, police, and fire fighter had priority in the traffic – it took us 4 hours to get home on a route that would usually take us 30 minutes. But none of us complained.

New York City, a seemingly indifferent, chaotic, and unsafe metropolis, performed remarkably in this time of national disaster. The people went about their lives as usual – when shopping, people only took what they needed, rather than hoarding products. Though supplies were limited in stores, shop keepers did not speculate or raise prices. Everyone faced the disaster peacefully and with a level head, demonstrating the self-cultivation and composure of citizens of a great nation – New Yorkers really elicited newfound respect and awe.

The crime rate was reported to be especially low during that period. Seeing law-enforcement personnel, of which so many died or were injured, also scrambling to maintain a secure border, even criminals were ashamed to commit rape or robbery. The front of the fire brigade that had suffered so many casualties was full of candles of blessing lit by the people, and flowers and consolation cards piled high like a mountain. Such a caring and conscientious society suffering such a ruthless terrorist attack aroused indignation of both man and god. We were experiencing first-hand this page of tragic American history as it was written.


It’s Beautiful to have Dreams, Better Still to Realize Them

My wife and I experienced all kinds of adversities and hardships in the course of establishing our careers in the US. Yet we survived the challenges and attained success. Our family was able to live happily and securely. This country and society provided us with a second round of high-quality education and equal employment opportunities. Our children were taught by many public and private schools and received generous awards and scholarships that helped them complete their degrees. And after graduating they all found satisfying jobs. I am very pleased that they have been able to give back, so that their good foundation can continue and help other people in need.

In this free and democratic, beautiful foreign country we have immersed ourself and broken ground just like immigrants before and after us, all in pursuit of the American Dream together. It is beautiful to have a dream -as long as the dream is practical, and you uphold the ideals and wisdom of the founding fathers, it will eventually be realized.  (Chicago, 6-9-2015)


Source: Taiwanese American Journey to the West / Chicago / Volume I / 2015


Translated from: 316. 他鄉已然成故鄉/李建漢/2015/08 by Sky Ford

Posted 12/22/2020