Your Perception Changes
John Chen’s move to the United States in 1975, and his subsequent changes in lifestyle
essay written by Andrew Chen
After finishing his military training and graduating college, John Chen moved to America with his family to pursue a better life and opportunities. He shared his thoughts of the two countries, and compared the systems the two countries use. As he discusses his experiences, Chen includes various stories of both his old life in Taiwan and his new life in America. His words provide insight, while his stories highlight the experience.
During the 1950s, the relationship between Taiwan and China was hectic; at that time, many moved from China to Taiwan in order to live under the new government. John Chen‘s father, a “high rank officer”1 of the new government, understandably took his family from China’s Fukang to Taiwan. Since the Chinese dialect spoken in Fukang is similar to the Taiwanese language, the family had a little less trouble adjusting to the island. There, Chen was one of the few members of his family born in Taiwan. Eventually, the family began to trickle to the United States of America, where they chose to begin their lives anew, spreading out over the land and, evidently, expanding their minds.
Daily life in Taiwan, as Chen explained, pretty much exemplifies the strict social standards Asian culture is known for. As he spoke, Chen took time to note the differences between American and Taiwanese student life, stating that students are required to go home as soon as possible. He explained that, “after school, we [were] not allowed to hang around in the bookstore or the ballroom, and if they catch you, you [were] in big trouble and they report it to your family.”2 Hanging out after school or possibly going out to eat, something American students take for granted, was something strictly forbidden by Taiwanese society. Furthermore, according to Chen, uniforms allowed anybody to easily identify who was a student, and therefore not allowed to loiter around after school. Uniforms themselves, as well as one’s appearance, were also strictly regulated. While American students occasionally complain about the dress code, their opinions are at least heard. Military officials, however, seemed to do a good job in keeping Taiwanese students looking standard. Remembering these strict rules, Chen recalled that “In middle school, we had a counselor, a military counselor, and his job was to watch you, because Taiwan students had to wear uniforms, and they had a strict dress code for the uniform and they are strict about your hair, and everyday they look at you like in the army and they check everything from your head to your feet, so you couldn’t make any mistake.”3 This stems from the martial law enacted by the Taiwanese government.
Chen moved much during his childhood, due to his father’s job as a government official. His family always moved to nice houses, yet he was saddened at having to move away from friends, saying “[at] that time, very [few] families had telephones, so you couldn’t communicate with your old friends.”4 He mentioned that his family had people working for them in the house, making his life probably different from other Taiwanese children. On the other hand, Chen stated that contact with Americans was something usual to the Taiwanese, saying, “we never felt very strange with foreigners or American people, because we had a lot of chances to play with them, to talk with them.”5 Effectively, this would contribute to his later ease when first arriving to America. The Americans seemed to leave a generally good impression on the Taiwanese. Chen gave several examples of interaction with other countries, including playing with an American marching band as well as playing against a South American soccer team. Apparently, there weren’t any noticeable racial tensions of the time; people were accepting of others. However, Chen mentioned that there were Americans who attempted to convert the mainly Buddhist Taiwanese into Christians. Not only that, American culture seemed to invade Taiwan through television, causing many young Taiwanese to become fans of American rock and roll. This cultural exchange, however, seemed mutual, many Americans were also interested in Chinese culture, with some converting to Buddhism.
School and religion were the main things Chen spoke about Taiwan. He explained the school system , saying “Taiwan has a certain level of school and scoring things…the top level of high schools, everybody wants to go for it, but you have to pass the exam and get a certain score to get it.”6 Comparing it to the American standard of considering all of a student’s work, throughout the years and in and out of school, Chen expressed a bit of dissatisfaction with these tests. He explained that the tests only occurred once, making it harder on those who may be having an off-day during the test. While American students have a whole year of scores and tests to average, as well as extra-curricular activities to consider, Taiwanese students must pour their whole effort into that one test. He often visited a nearby temple to find peace and study, contributing to his success in getting into some of the top schools. Such temples are easily be found in Taiwan, but are a scarcity in America.
When asked about how the Taiwanese government affected the people, he felt that they “controll[ed] everything very well,” yet that he “was pretty much involved in study, and nothing really bothered [him] at all at that time.”7 Government wasn’t a concern to students who worried more about their grades. In addition, he felt that the state of the government was not an influence on people’s decision to move. Regarding his own family’s immigration, Chen first and foremost mentioned his eldest sister, who moved to America first of the family. It was she who would later arrange and help the rest of the family, as “got [his] immigrant Visa from [his] sister.”8 Mainly, it seemed that the family moved to find a “better life and opportunities,” though Chen mentions “they all had different reasons for moving.”9 Other immigrants from Taiwan were generally students who were seeking better education, hoping to find it in America. As Chen had just received a degree in Chemistry in college before moving, he likely had similar thoughts, aiming to get further education in an American university.
Chen was the last of his family to finally move, though he chose to complete his military training and education before finally packing his bags. His plane stopped, due to technical difficulties, at Hawaii on the way to America, where Chen encountered his first cultural dissonance. Since tipping wasn’t required in Taiwan, Chen left a restaurant without leaving a tip, recounting that “when we went out we forgot to tip the waitress until people told us”10 He further elaborates by saying that they had not really done the research and that they didn’t always know what to do. However, right after, he states that he was impressed by America.
As Chen’s family arrived, they chose to spread out and live separately. While Taiwanese families, including parts of the extended family, usually stayed together in a single house, Chen’s family moved to America and settled in different areas and homes. Despite his first sister moving to Omaha, Nebraska, Chen’s brothers moved to Los Angeles, California, establishing themselves there. Chen joined them and worked in a restaurant while adjusting to America. After his arrival, Chen was impressed at the house and car his brothers owned. The spacious comfort of American housing amazed him, and he observed that their new house “had a yard, backyard and front yard…and [his] brother had a pretty nice car,”11 all of which weren’t possible in Taiwan’s high-rise building housings. Even with the extra room in America, though, Chen could not help but notice the surprising amount of homeless people. This came as a cultural shock, as there were not “any homeless living on the streets in Taiwan.”12 Additionally, musicians performing on the streets were a new sight to Chen, as musicians were not allowed to play on the streets in Taiwan. Overall, Chen attributed these to the freedom that one had in choosing how they wanted to live in America.
Adjustment, Chen recalled, was not terribly difficult. He could take care of himself, and had gone through military training, which helped him “to become a very independent man.”13 Since the family no longer lived all together, he could not always rely on other family members, and thus had to work things out himself. However, what probably helped him adjust the most was his first job as a bartender in a Chinese restaurant. Despite having brothers who owned their own restaurant, Chen worked at another restaurant that needed a new bartender to replace the leaving one, and he quickly memorized how to mix specific drinks in two days before taking on the job. Though the restaurant was Chinese, the customers were not. It was “located in a very famous area,” with “prices were much higher than Chinatown, so…Chinese people [did not] come.”14 What he experienced as a bartender, both serving American customers and listening to their stories. was beneficial to his adjustment to America. The costumers that the restaurant received showed that many Americans seemed to hold no racial grudge.
Chen took his time to save up money, eventually buying his own home and car. His main trouble adjusting to America was the language, yet he had already learned English while in Taiwan, as Taiwanese schools taught English starting in middle school. Otherwise, Los Angeles had a “pretty big Chinese community”15. Additionally, his previous interactions with Americans in Taiwan helped him get used to America. It seems, also, that immigrants helped each other adjust to America. Chen recalls the manager of his first apartment, who was an old lady of German descent. Though they had trouble communicating, Chen remembers her as a kind person. He expressed his gratitude, and said “We had to use hand signal or something to communicate, but you know, still no problem. She was such a nice lady and she treated my brother very kindly, you know, and I’m still thankful for her understanding in the first year.”16 It seemed they all got along together. Specifically, they did not cause trouble because they did not want to ruin their opportunities in America; as Chen plainly put it: “Everybody know[s] we are coming here to create a new life, to make a better life. So we don’t make trouble, we just do our job.”16
Despite the need to adjust to American society, immigrants still carried over their Chinese and Taiwanese cultures to the United States, cultures which still remain visible today through various celebrations and Chinatowns. Indeed, the Chinese are proud of their culture and ready to preserve it. However, not all of it could be fully realized in such a diverse land as America. Chen saw the immigrants take the best parts of their culture and mix it with American culture--a necessity in order to keep one’s culture alive while still coping with the differences brought about by American lifestyle. Specifically, there were a few things that could not be done in the large America, yet could be done in the small Taiwan. Buddhist temples, which were prevalent in Taiwan’s large population of practicing Buddhists, were a scarcity in America. While visiting a temple in Taiwan did not take much effort, temples in America were further apart, changing what would have been weekly trips into monthly visits. To this point, Chen visits temples fewer times a year in America than he did in Taiwan, where he would visit the nearby temple once a week. Moreover, holidays became more difficult to celebrate in a land that did not fully recognize Chinese holidays, and some Chinese or Taiwanese traditions are lost on the younger generation. However, Chen appeared adamant in preserving Chinese traditions and values; as such, he has kept his short hair due to years of having done so under the Taiwanese system. He also kept his personal values, probably influenced by Taiwanese culture, of responsibility, hoping that his emphasis on taking care of a family will pass on to his children. He admits that the freedom in America is amazing, yet is upset at how some shirk their responsibilities for the chance to have fun. He firmly states, “after you marry, you should have your own guidelines…That’s the part of my culture that I don’t want to give up, and I hope that will be an influence to my kids as well.”17
Chen has not returned to Taiwan since moving to America. However, he keeps up to date with the news, hoping to visit back soon. The rest of the family feels comfortable living in America, and feel that they do not want to give up their accomplishments to move back to Taiwan. Chen owns no property in Taiwan, having moved to America with very few belongings and little money, justifying it by saying that “as a student, I didn’t have too many things to carry on.”18 Overall, he states that living in America has changed him, implying that it was for the better. He cites the more accepting and open attitude of Americans as an influence to him, who previously grew up in a society that set rigid social standards. Throughout the interview, he continuously compared Taiwan to the United States, mentioning what he thought of each country’s system. It seems that contact with American culture has changed how he thinks. Particularly, he takes more time to think over what is right and what is wrong, realizing that one cannot completely say something is wrong just because mass society does not accept it. He left Taiwan confident in his abilities as a man due to his military training, and opened up as a man once he arrived in the United States of America.
1. Chen, John. Personal Interview. 25 May 2009. 1.
2. Chen, John. Personal Interview. 26 May 2009. 7.
3. Chen, John. Personal Interview. 26 May 2009. 7.
4. Chen, John. 26 May 2009. 11.
5. Chen, John. Personal Interview. 26 May 2009. 7.
6. Chen, John. Personal Interview. 26 May 2009. 7.
7. Chen, John. Personal Interview. 25 May 2009. 1.
8. Chen, John. Personal Interview. 25 May 2009. 1.
9. Chen, John. Personal Interview. 25 May 2009. 1.
10. Chen, John. 25 May 2009. 3.
11. Chen, John. 25 May 2009. 3.
12. Chen, John. 26 May 2009. 9.
14. Chen, John. 26 May 2009. 8.
16. Chen, John. 25 May 2009. 4.
15. Chen, John. 25 May 2009. 3.
17. Chen, John. 26 May 2009. 10.
18. Chen, John. 26 May 2009. 5.