The Road Less Traveled On
John Chang’s 1981 journey from Taiwan to pursue graduate study
essay written by Kory Chang
John Chang was born in Taiwan and came to America in 1981 to pursue a graduate degree and nothing more. Little did he expect to open a new chapter in his life and stay for over thirty years in this foreign country. He had struggles and changes in his life as he adapted to the American society and culture from the extreme conservative Chinese culture. His story of immigration from Taiwan to the Boston College in America and then finally to California where he married and lives is an interesting one.
“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.” 1 Coming to America from Taiwan at the age of twenty-eight for graduate study is a road taken only by a few. The road even less traveled on was the one in which Chang single-handily drove from the east coast to the west coast with a single goal in mind and a heart full of expectation and determination. That trip has made all the difference since he met his wife of over twenty years, Mary Chang, in California. The events that led up to this divergence in the road is significant, thus begins the story of a single man who had “a very simple mind and focus.” 2
Taiwan is considered a sanctum for a new and different government. Although its history extends far beyond the arrival of republican refugees of China escaping the communist army, the 1949 Chinese Civil War is the basic historical platform from which this story begins. Chiang Kai-shek’s ROC government found refuge in the mountainous terrain of Taiwan as they fled from mainland China and the Communist Party of China led by Mao Zedong after a humiliating defeat in the Chinese Civil War. The Nationalist rule in Taiwan was extremely repressive and grossly corrupt as the entire country was under martial law. Although John Chang was not born until 1953, the events and history of Taiwan greatly affected his childhood, especially since his father was on the “defeated side, so he escaped to Taiwan and was very poor.” 3 Chang thus grew up in a poor and scarred country as “World War II just ended not long ago.” 4 The hardships of the rural and countryside life could be considered a blessing as it made life seem very simple and as John Chang states “Even though we were poor our minds were very straight: How can we make the future better?” 5
Therefore, they worked hard everyday in an attempt to find a better future. Although they didn’t lose their childhood innocence in the process for they still played games, had fun, and enjoyed life. Chang would go to the village’s schoolhouse everyday and work hard, but when school was out he would come home and jump rope or play ball with his siblings. As a child Chang didn’t need many friends with two older sisters and two younger brothers. And when it came to schoolwork, Chang was always the top of his class due to his academic perseverance. During the mid 1900s the Taiwanese government was still quite poor and couldn’t afford to offer free public education past 6th grade. Therefore there was a nation-wide test administered to elementary school, junior high, and high school students to recognize and distribute the scholars among schools with equivalent academic capability. “I was very studious as a child and was number one in my entire housing district and graduated number two in my elementary school and was accepted into the number one junior high school,” says John Chang. 6 He also states that his lack of athletic abilities gave way to his love of books and interest in reading; which undoubtedly led to his success as a student.
Of course, John Chang was and is no exception to the faults of human beings. His excellence in the field of studies prompted a certain arrogant trait within for he was studying at the best junior high school in the entire country. This prestigious accomplishment gave way to a humiliating failure as he tested for high school because he began to slack off and failed to dedicate his time into his studies. Luckily, he didn’t entirely get knocked out and denied acceptance into any high schools; however, he got accepted into the lower tiers and was humiliated as all his friends went on to the top tiers. This humiliation and failure sparked a dedication within and led to his principle that he proclaims, “humans always have one misstep and falls, but you have to get back up.” 7 Getting back up was exactly what he did as he continued on to junior college and completed the mandatory 2 years of service in the Taiwanese military, in which he tested and received the rank of 2nd lieutenant. After which he applied for graduate school in America.
Graduate school was the main reason John Chang decided to come to America. He knew that America was the “most [technologically] advance and [provided] lots of [opportunity]” which prompted his desire and application to the State University of New York at Buffalo.8 He did not plan on staying long but simply to “graduate with a masters and go back to Taiwan to work” and mimic the life of an admirable professor he had. 9 Chang desired a life in which he would work for a company during the day and teach class during the night; he found this simple life style both fulfilling and peaceful. However certain events led him away from his youthful dream to a bigger and more accomplishing one.
The catalyst of this chain reaction of events opened a new chapter in his life. His wishful eagerness to witness the Rushmore Mountains—the heads of America’s four Presidents— was the catalyst that sparked a series of events that altered the life and dreams of Chang. Ever since he read about them in Taiwan he found it “amazing how they cut the stone at that massive scale without going out of proportions.” 10 This was his only expectation prior to his arrival in the United States, but after his arrival to the United States he learned about the Yellowstone National Park and yearned to observe this majestic forest. He originally planned to visit these places with his companions upon their graduation from graduate school; however, as time passed, events occurred and forced them to leave or be unable to attend the cross-country road trip. Chang was eventually left entirely alone in America as his friends either returned to Taiwan or traveled elsewhere to continue their lives. But Chang’s expectations and yearning to witness such wonders of the world eventually led to his departure from the east coast—after he graduated from graduate school in only a year and a half—to the west coast, which changed his life forever.
The start of a new life began as John Chang immigrated to America from Taiwan. He was the oldest and most mature individual among a group of ten graduate students who were all attending the same graduate school, but on different majors. Chang came to America with no familial relations and he claims to have relied solely on the “school’s student union” that helped them “find a place to live since the school wasn’t open yet” 11 Being completely alone in a foreign country was one of the many difficulties of coming to the United States. Chang says, “[he] didn’t know where to go” since his English was only mediocre for he learned it as a second language in school. 12 Thus he was forced to rely heavily on previous transfer students in the student union to help him during his first few months in America. He recalls arriving at orientation and completely confused and dumbfounded by the absence of people once orientation was over. Only after did he realize that there are no activities after orientation and since the school is still closed, students return home and leave campus after orientation. Luckily a few students were still on campus and a fellow Chinese student offered him a ride back home. Being the oldest and most mature among his group of graduate students, Chang wasn’t necessarily as excited as most others, rather he was more focused on his plan to graduate and return to Taiwan as soon as possible to continue his life.
Yet before he could continue his ideal life, he came to America and saw a country of great freedom and courtesy. Chang also states that “America has great living place and comfortable.” 13 He noticed how large, rich, and advanced America was compared to Taiwan. However, in all honestly, he states, “I didn’t associate much with the other people,” and thus has a pretty limited first impression. 14 During his time at the State University of New York at Buffalo he simply went to class to learn, library to study, and home to sleep and eat. Chang did not associate much with other people or join any clubs, but recalls vividly his first encounter with Americans as one filled with smiles and polite gestures and speech. Thus, Chang had a good first impression of America and adjusted to the changes.
Chang was forced to adjust to this new place, as America is quite different from Taiwan—both culturally and physically. “America was very rich like all you can eat, which was something I’ve never heard of before I came to America,” says Chang. 15 Yet, the food was a major adjustment thus preventing him from taking advantage of such an avant-garde idea. To him the food served in America was “quite disgusting since I didn’t like any of the foods [here] and I only could eat the fried chicken,” as it was the only food that appealed to his tastes until he finally was able to get a kitchen and cook. 16 The cooking in America marked a key alteration; however, it wasn’t one of adjusting to, rather one of adjusting to avoid those foods by cooking and eating only at Chinese restaurants. Chang wasn’t use to the spaghetti, hamburgers, corndogs, and other American food and missed Taiwan’s flagrant traditional foods. He desired the convenience of food in Taiwan anytime of the day and practically anywhere on the island of Taiwan. The limited variety of food and restaurants in America was something he was not use to and took some time to adjust to. Physically Taiwan is much smaller than America, which was another difference between the two countries. Due to the inconvenient size of Taiwan, buildings were constructed in close proximity with one another and created a sense of being trapped. America on the other hand had vast landscapes with open plains and beautiful, simple nature. Taiwan and America differed greatly in the eyes of Chang.
Another transition was the discovery and enjoyment of the silence and beauty of a large landscape and country. Indeed, Taiwan is considerably smaller than America and holds more people per square unit of land than the area of residence by Chang. As he states, “The glass is crystal clear [at the library] and you can see as the trees change with the seasons, it was an amazing experience witnessing this nature.” 17 While in Taiwan people “yell and honk the horn at 3 in the morning,” without any regards to whom they are disturbing. 18 Although such disturbances are understandable considering the small space in which everyone is forced to inhabit, thus creating a major obstacle to mutual contentment. Nevertheless, residing and studying in America’s peaceful and quiet atmosphere was a nice adjustment from Taiwan’s noisy and boisterous community.
The difference in the cultures was a big alteration for John Chang. Education in Taiwan is more conservative and parents would “ask the teacher to hit their child and discipline them.” 19 This radical idea was in no way evident in America even to this day, in fact the disciplining has come full circle—students and parents now sue, and, in rare cases, attack teachers. The once respectable occupation of a teacher has now become a liability. In addition, the lack of respect was a shocking correction to the traditional principles Chang was molded from. Chang was taught to respect his elders by not “address[ing] elders with their first names,” and “listen[ing] to their elders even if it doesn’t make sense to them.” 20 Although the American people were extremely polite and friendly, they seemed to lack this Chinese traditional manner. Therefore creating a major and prominent change in the life of Chang as he was forced to adapt and mold himself around America’s different social regulation.
American culture and Taiwanese culture varied dramatically in the eyes of John Chang. According to Chang “Americans are very individual and [have] more freedom. People are not as close as oriental culture. American culture is more of the individual, evident in the workplace meetings. You have to speak out in meetings to show your perspective, unlike Asian workplace where you speak less and work more.” 21 Taiwanese culture contains a certain respect that Chang retains for his children’s values. He does not support the assimilation of American culture within his children because of his traditional teachings and beliefs. As a child he was educated based on Chinese culture that has “a saying that tells people to revere five things: God, King, Mother, Father, and Teacher.” 22 However, children in American culture pay little attention to their president and even less attention to their teachers. Chang’s children were born and raised in American society, thus he is unable to completely fend off all American influences as he desires his children to fit in, yet he also desires them to have the traditional values and manners of the Chinese culture. In the end, John Chang’s children have assimilated greatly into the American culture for it exists all around them as they were born in America. Yet through intensive education and constant hammering of traditional values at home Chang’s children have also developed deep roots in Chinese traditional values and morals.
A trip to see the Rushmore Mountains and Yellowstone National Park by himself on a road un-treaded by most marked the beginning of a prosperous and happy life in America. If Chang had not taken this trip and gone back to Taiwan with all his friends he probably would not have married and given birth to three beautiful children. To this day, he works at the Chen-Tech Industries, the company that first hired him to stay in America around the time he met Mary Chang, his wife. Chang has no regrets of not returning to Taiwan along with his friends who abandoned him and his trek across America. Although Chang wishes to “return back to [his] homeland in [his] retirement,” 23 simply because it is his homeland and things are more convenient there for him, especially the food. He desires to return to Taiwan not because he dislikes America or regrets not leaving after he completed graduate school, but as falling leaves will return to its roots, so will Chang return to his birth country—Taiwan. Even with that said John Chang has now resided in America for over thirty years because he took the road less traveled by, and that has made all the difference in his life.
1. Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”. 1920.
2. Chang. Personal interview. 22 May 2009, 9.
3. Chang, 22 May 2009, 1.
4. Chang, 22 May 2009, 1.
5. Chang, 22 May 2009, 1.
6. Chang, 22 May 2009, 2.
7. Chang, 22 May 2009, 4.
8. Chang, 22 May 2009, 6.
9. Chang, 22 May 2009, 8.
10. Chang, 22 May 2009, 8.
11. Chang, 22 May 2009, 7.
12. Chang, 22 May 2009, 7.
13. Chang, 22 May 2009, 10.
14. Chang, 22 May 2009, 9.
15. Chang, 22 May 2009, 9.
16. Chang, 22 May 2009, 9.
17. Chang, 22 May 2009, 12.
18. Chang, 22 May 2009, 10.
19. Chang, 22 May 2009, 15.
20. Chang, 22 May 2009, 15.
21. Chang, 22 May 2009, 10.
22. Chang, 22 May 2009, 15.
23. Chang, 22 May 2009, 14.