A Journey to America

Separate Cultures: Cynthia Cheng’s 1980 journey to California

essay written by Jason Huang

Many immigrants from across the world immigrated to United States for economic opportunities and to start a better life. Cynthia Cheng was one of the millions immigrants that came here to America. She was born on June 33, 1955 in Taipei. Cheng came to America to live better life. It was hard for her to adjust to the American culture, but gradually adapted by learning how to speak English and accepted American lifestyle. Today she is very happy living Irvine California.

   The United States a multicultural melting pot that consists of many different ethnicities from throughout the world. Chinese immigrants first came to United States in the early 1800’s and continue to come today. There are about 3.8 million Chinese immigrants living in the United States, most living in California. Chinese immigration consisted of three of three waves from 1800 to 1849, 1849 to 1980, and 1980 to present day. The first massive movement of Chinese occurred during the California Gold Rush in 1849. People who immigrated during the Gold Rush settled in San Francisco, California. During the 1850’s, the Chinese immigrants came to American by steamships through the Pacific Mail Steamship Company founded in 1848 and the Occidental and Oriental Steamship Company founded in 1874. Before 1943, U.S. established immigration laws that heavily discriminated against the Chinese and other Asian ethnicities such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Immigration Act of 1917. In the 1980’s, a new wave of Chinese immigrants from both Mainland China and Taiwan immigrated to America. After the Cold War, United States only recognized Taiwan and its Kuomintang government, not Communist China. United States set a different policy on immigration from Taiwan. The Immigration Act of 1965 created a system in which a person with professional skills and family ties in the United States were given preferential status. Most of the Taiwanese population was skilled workers who fled to Taiwan after the Communist Party took control of China in 1950. With economic and political improvements in Taiwan, Taiwanese immigration began to subside in the early 1980’s. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s there was an increase in Taiwanese immigration due to the tension between Communist China and Taiwan. Cheng came to America for “economic opportunities, to improve their life, and get away from the tension between Taiwan and China.”1

   Cheng was born in Taiwan on June 33, 1955. She lived with her parent and two older brothers in a very poor family. Cheng said, “Life in the rural area is very hard and people have to work long hours just to have food for their family every night.”2 Her father fought in the Chinese Civil War for the Kuomintang Party to obtain democracy in Taiwan. The civil war took place from 1926 to 1950 between Communist Mao Zedong and the Chinese Nationalist Party Chiang Kai. When the Communist Party won the war in 1950, Cheng’s father and mother quickly fled to the island called Taiwan. Life in Taiwan was hard and poor at first was because Taiwan was still a new country and hadn’t developed yet.

   When she was little, Cheng’s daily life consisted of going to school everyday. In Taiwan, school was very important to the Chinese family. Parents and teachers would expect a lot of out of student. Everyday her bothers and she would walk to school in a city called Ban Chao. When she arrived back home, she usually started on her homework. In Taiwan, “schools [gave students] a lot of homework to do,”4 and her parents were very strict on her brothers and her. When she was done with her homework, she would occasionally go out and play with her friends in the vast dirt field. She liked to look at flowers and bugs. When she was eighteen, she was accepted into Shi Gin College in Taipei. After school, Cheng and her friends would take the metro to go to malls, movies and Chinese street markets to buy food.

   Cheng had “never thought of living in America, but had always wanted to visit California.”4 She had friends and family living in United States such as her two older brothers who had immigrated to America in 1950 by boat. Her two older brothers went on to live in San Jose and both received a master degree in engineer in San Jose State University. Not until 1980 when Cheng decided to move to Irvine, California from Taipei, Taiwan. She arrived on June, 1980 to visit her friend in Irvine. In December, 1980, she finalized her decision to move to United States. Cheng and her husband Robert moved to America because her husband was accepted to the University of Purdue to get his master degree in engineering. According to her, the United States was a place where she could start new life and family. She wanted her kids to live in America because of the safe environment. Wanting her kids to have a bright future, Cheng decided to reside in California where the schools were known for their excellence. In the early 1980’s, China and Taiwan gave slack to the emigration laws to America and gave Cheng an opportunity to come to the United States. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, tension began between Taiwan and China. China viewed Taiwan as part of China because they were originally from China who later fled to Taiwan after the Communist took over China. As Taiwan gradually moved towards for independence, China began to exert military force against Taiwan. This was another reason that Cheng decided to move to; she feared that the two countries might go to war.

   Cheng had a lot of expectation about America. She had heard a lot about the United States, especially California. She heard about the United States through newspapers, friends, and family that were living in America. Her friends from California told her that “California had the best weather where it is sunny everyday.” The sceneries in California were very beautiful, including the beaches, parks, and clear blue skies. Her biggest expectation was that “American was the land of the free and the United States [was] a very safe place to live and where she [could] raise her family.”5 She wanted her family to feel safe and experience better living conditions than those in Taiwan.

   Cheng had never dreamed of moving to California, but she had dreamed about what California would be like. She viewed California as “a paradise for opportunities and for her family to have a better life.”6 She dreamed about having a house in California. In the United State, people generally lived in individual houses with their own lawn, drive way, and garage. She said, “People in Taiwan usually lived in apartment because Taiwan could not build individual housing for so many people in such a small area.”7 Taiwan had a very large population for such a small country. About 23 million people lived in Taiwan. She viewed California as a place with little pollution and clear blue skies. Pollution in Taiwan was due to heavy industrialization while “trying to build a strong economy.”

   Cheng moved to American in 1980 from Taipei, Taiwan. The hardest part of her journey to the United States was telling her parents. Her parent did not want her to leave because they would be losing three of their children. Her two older brothers came to the United States in 1954 and 1961 by boat. “At that time, her family was very poor because Taiwan’s economy wasn’t very stable and jobs only paid very little,” so her brothers decided to move to American to get higher paying jobs to support their family.”9 Her family finally decided to let her go when she promised her family she would visit them every summer. “Many Chinese and Taiwanese immigrants benefited from the Chinese Student Protection Act,”9 which granted permanent residency status to immigrants from China and Taiwan. In 1919, the United States passed the Taiwan Relation Act which gave Taiwan a separate immigration quota from China. Most people in Taiwan saw a window of opportunity to immigrate to America to study and earn better wages. Cheng said, “Coming to America [wasn’t] that hard in the 1980’s because transportation was better than before and traveling was made easier.”10 She traveled to America in a plane. She remembered that the China Airline plane ticket had cost about one thousand dollars. Immigrating to United States to live permanently was a very complex process. To apply for an immigrant visa, a relative with U.S. citizenship had to sponsor the immigrant. The US citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) had to approve an immigration visa petition. This process took a long time because background information and country of origin were checked thoroughly. Later, she applied for a green card which made her a permanent United States resident. To return to the United States from another country, she had to fill a form called the I-130. Cheng first arrived in LAX and later flew to Indiana where Cheng’s husband lived. Cheng brought her friend along because she wasn’t able to communicate in English. Flying from John Wayne Airport to Indiana, Cheng and her husband finally met.

   Cheng’s first impression of America was that everything was very beautiful and big. She had never seen the weather so nice and calm. The first thing she noticed is the weather. The weather was a big change between Taiwan and United States. In Taiwan, the weather was very humid and uncomfortable, but in California the weather was less humid. Cheng “loved the sunny weather, the clear blue skies, and the cool breeze.”11 In contrast to California, the air was polluted and the skies weren’t as blue and the sun was covered by a cloud of pollution. In American things seemed settled and clam; people seemed to be very relaxed. Cheng enjoyed California sceneries, beaches, and different styles of housing that she never saw in Taiwan. The most interesting thing to her was that people in California was very welcoming of others. She never saw people so happy and respectful of others. Cheng was surprised by the number of Chinese people living in California, especially in Irvine. She saw a lot of Chinese restaurants and Chinese supermarkets. When she ate Chinese food, she said “the Chinese food back at home tasted a lot better.”12 Here in Irvine, she could speak her own language to other people. She really liked the housing in California because the housing was really big and unique. In America, everything was developed. The big difference she immediately noticed was the roads. There were a lot more cars in the United States than in Taiwan. She did not see a lot of motorcycles, taxies, buses, or other public transportation in California. In Taiwan, everything was so small and crowed people used public transportation rather then their own cars.

   Adjusting to a new country culture and life was very hard for most immigrants. The hardest thing for Cheng in the United States was to speak the language English since it was completely new to her. She first learned the English language through a church group that helped new immigrants with speaking English. Here she learned the basic words to communicate with other. Her first words were “hello, thank you, and goodbye.”13 Later, her husband introduced her to his friends to help her improve her English skills and teacher her more advance words. She also learned a lot of English words through the news. She said that, “writing was the easiest part of English, but pronouncing it was the hardest part.”14 When she was tried to say something to people, people didn’t understand her because she had an accent. Gradually, she improved her mastery of the English language to perfection, making her feel more comfortable with the American culture and life. “The food wasn’t very hard to adjust,” 15 according to Cheng. When her husband took her to eat a hamburger, she did not really like it. The foods in America had an entirely different taste and flavor than those in Taiwan. She wasn’t used to eating salad because Chinese people usually cooked their vegetables before they ate it. Cheng thought that the food tasted very plain and simple. In Taiwan, people used a lot of flavor and sauces in their food. One thing she noticed was that the food was not very spicy. Her favorite American foods were mashed potatoes, French fries, and Italian spaghetti. In American, “there [were] a lot of different types of food from different cultures.”16 She usually went to the Chinese supermarket to buy food and cook Chinese food for her family instead of eating American food. Another difficulty was the time zone difference. The United States and Taiwan had a 15 hours time difference. Cheng took a week to adjust to the time difference in America. The first two years of her life was very hard for her to adjust because she first lived in Indiana with her husband and later later moved to California. Living in Indiana was very hard for her because there few Chinese Americans living there. She said, “People in Indiana weren’t very welcoming of people of other ethnicities.”17 The weather wasn’t as nice as it was in California. After her husband got his master degree in engineering, they moved to Irvine, California.

   Cheng had three daughters and wanted them to maintain the traditional Chinese culture. Two of the three were born in the United States. The oldest of the three was born in Taiwan. Cheng told me that, “She wanted her children to be more like a Chinese person rather than an American person because she doesn’t want her kids to become Americanized.”18 Cheng made her three kids go to Chinese school every Sunday. She was very strict on her kids speaking only Chinese at home, but as they were able to speak and write Chinese fluently she allowed her kids to speak English at home to each other. To maintain the Chinese culture, Cheng would tell her kids about the Chinese culture and moral stories. They would celebrate Chinese New Year and Chinese Moon cake festival. Everyday, she would cook Chinese meals for her children to eat and every summer she would take her kids to Taiwan to visit their family.

   Today Cheng does not regret living in United States, but still misses Taiwan very much. She is very happy with her life and has adjusted to the American lifestyle very well. Her husband works for an engineering company in Las Vegas. Two of her three daughters graduated from college. The older one graduated from the University of Southern California and the other from the University of California Irvine. The youngest of her three daughters is currently in middle school. She says, “Living here in California was probably the best thing that had happened in her life.”19 She and her family are very happy and very successful in America.


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