A Tough Taiwanese in America
Celia Wu’s experiences as an immigrant in America, student and mother.
essay written by Jun-You Wu
Celia Wu, an American citizen, tells her story as an immigrant from Taiwan. She came to America first as a graduate student and later as a mother. She did so both times because she believes in the American dream – that American provides opportunities for both her and her children. She faced many challenges but succeeded with sacrifice and hard work. Nevertheless, as a pious Chinese daughter, she regrets separating her family by coming to America and feels guilty for not being able to be by her mother more often.
Wu came to America first as a student and later as a mother. Though the experiences were vastly different by the weights of responsibility upon her, America never ceased to impress her. Ever since she was a child, she thought “a lot of American culture [is] better than Chinese culture."1 She accepted but disliked the oppressiveness in Taiwanese society at the time. Coming to America brought that thought of hers to the forefront: “But once you live in America, you’ve been trained and you just change. Now you start to [question] when you face authority.”2 Indeed, it is America that realized Wu into her strong and capable self.
Her tenacity was rooted as far back as her childhood with the influence of her parents. Her mother, who had the chance to complete her high school education in mainland China when she was young, chose not to after she moved from her hometown to a city “because she [was] afraid that she may be a little older than other kids/girls in the school. She [didn’t] have a goal; she [didn’t] think that to get higher education is that important for her. But, when I was young she always told me that she wants me to have good education so I can support myself and be an independent woman – to have some career.”3 Indeed, Wu’s mother felt the mistake of her decision gravely and so ensured that all of her five daughters would not repeat it. Wu’s father was quite ahead of his time in his fairness to son and daughter. As Wu says, “He [gave] both his daughter and son opportunity to receive good education, which is very normal in today’s [society], but back then another family, if they have limited resources, they will just [give] chance to boys and girls be deprived of the chance to receive good education.”4 She thus was very blessed to be born in such a family, and it certainly empowered her to pursue her dreams.
Wu did not take her parents or her opportunities for granted a single day. She described her middle school and high school life as thus: “Just go to school, come back, continue studying for a couple hours, finish my homework, and study/prepare for the exam.”5 When Wu was young, Taiwan was just becoming an economic power and still held the post at the United Nations over China. Competition was stiff between students and only about one third of the students could go to college, whereas today practically anyone can go. However, the tough times did not break Wu, but rather toughened her, like a sharp blade being hammered by a blacksmith.
Hardly an exaggeration, the young Wu was nearly invincible. However, even she was disarrayed by a family tragedy – the death of her younger elder brother. Her brother went to the military for training after high school and got a kidney infection there, which eventually destroyed both his kidneys. He therefore had to go to the hospital to filter his blood weekly, and on just one of those days, the doctor made a fatal mistake and he died. Wu recalls, “The whole family was in sorrow for a couple years because my father, after my brother died, years later, my father every morning he still [cried].”6 Wu, who was then just about to graduate from middle school, took the news as a huge blow. Her younger elder brother meant a lot to her, and she felt especially frustrated at how sudden and terrible the parting was. Ever since then, Wu has felt that “when kids grow up and need to go to college I have a fear that they don’t know or how to take care of themselves and one mistake can ruin their lives.”7 Though Wu felt such sorrow and immense confusion, she would still continue on the path to success.
After Wu graduated from college in Taiwan, she headed to America for graduate school. There, she lived with her eldest sister and her family already settled in the bustling city of San Francisco. She explains her decision: “I was foreign language major in college, mainly that’s English. I learn[ed] a little bit German but never use[d] it so I [majored] in foreign languages. And at that time Taiwan and US had a lot of business going on, so there [was] a lot of need for people who can master English and business.”8 She attended Golden Gate University and had her first impressions of America: “America to me is a country that’s everything is big. Like the car, the building, tall building, big cars, and nice environment.”9 She enjoyed her life here as a graduate student and worked for a year here after she graduated but ended up returning to Taiwan. Her boyfriend then, who is now her husband, Shiu-Yun Wu, received a government scholarship to study in college so he was obligated to work for the government in Taiwan. He was unable to leave; therefore, Wu returned to Taiwan.
The two had a happy life in Taiwan until Taiwan’s politics evolved to a two-party rule much like America, except much messier. They had two kids – Karen in 1988 and Jun-You in 1991. When the Chinese Missile Threat came in 1995, my mother was finally pushed to make her decision. She hesitated, however, because her husband doesn’t want to immigrate. Wu states, “He want[ed] to stay in Taiwan to do the job, and my kids at the time is very young. My son in 1995 he’s only 3 or 4 years old. 3 years old. My daughter is only 6 or 7 years old. And if my husband [didn’t] come with us, for me alone to take care of two young kids there alone is not very good idea.”10 Nonetheless, Wu decided to push forward onto America. Now, to the drastic contrast of her student years in America, she was weighed down by a stern responsibility and felt insecure. Though she originally planned to travel back and forth between the two countries, staying just long enough to keep her visa in the United States, in the summer of 1997 the immigration official gave her an ultimatum – she must decide which country to live in or her immigration visa will be revoked. Then the decision was finally set in stone – she would live as an immigrant and a mother in the United States.
During the airplane flight to America, she felt intense and pressured. As she recalls, “Myself – I think because my husband could not go there, I [was] nervous to have to take care of these two kids in a foreign country. But I [had] something on my mind as to what I want[ed] them to do for that summer. I [planned] to have my kids go to some summer camp or some activity, like some community service, so I [studied] what was those activities and how to join them.”11 Her thoughts reflect her original plans to live only periodically in America. Even so, it was clear she still felt great uncertainty, though there was a small comfort in her kids behaving well on the plane ride, excited for what was to come. When she stepped off the airplane, she began a whole new life in America.
Wu had had her first impressions of America as a student. Now she had her first impressions of America as a single parent with two kids. Wu details the difference between the two impressions: “When I was a student – when I was young, America seems, well, I didn’t think – I don’t remember that I need[ed] to give up anything. If there’s a – well I [had] to adjust to speak better English and learn American way. Learn how to talk and what are the subjects that people like to talk about and just learn the culture. But, the second time when I immigrate I was in my forties, and with two young kids. This time, there’s, because the responsibility and the burden of being a parent, I [was] very cautious and everything just you know like I think just leading a life here [became] a challenge. Everyday, daily life, I [had] to familiarize myself with the children’s schoolwork and how to deal with the teacher and how to find school for them and for me, trying to find a job, trying to learn how to drive.... And I [had] to sacrifice that I basically – all my energy go to my children. I hardly [had] time to balance my own life, because I’m a single parent in the United States.”12 Essentially, Wu was free during her student years and felt like she gave up nothing to enjoy the American life; when she was older and immigrated here with kids, however, she was no longer living her life but rather her kids’ lives. The adjustments she had to make to live in America were all those necessary to make her kids feel like it was home.
Yet, though the process was long and arduous (about three years), Wu did feel some reward for her efforts. She says, “The exciting part [was] when my kids would get in pre-school and in kindergarten and elementary school. I think they did get have fun. They [had] more fun than kids in Taiwan do in that age. I’m glad that I [gave] them this opportunity to enjoy their childhood.”13 Although she felt like she had no time for her own life during the rough transition period, she does look back upon it with pride at her staunch approach to adjustment and joy at the fruits it bore for her children.
Wu, as a mother, had to decide which parts of American culture she wished her kids to have and which parts of Chinese culture to retain. Immediately she says, “I think first I want my kids to be able to speak Chinese, so I [sent] them to Chinese school. I think if they can understand both culture and languages, it’s to their benefit.”14 Wu probably recalled here the original reason why she came to America – to master English so as to increase her opportunities for careers. However, besides just for the sake of her kids’ future success, she definitely also wanted her kids to learn Chinese so they can understand the culture and talk with their grandparents. To Wu, it was important that her kids would remain Chinese despite growing up in America. She also feels that “In America, there’s not too much about respecting tradition or old people. In Chinese culture, we emphasize a lot on in respecting tradition and senior citizen, or your parents. I think the harmony of the society can be built on everybody in the family respect each other.”15 Following upon this idea of societal harmony, Wu says, “I think American society use – you know there’s a lot of laws govern people’s behavior and thinking. In Chinese society, ethics govern your behavior. There’s too many lawsuits in America, that’s what I feel.”16 Wu thus expresses the Chinese tradition of subtlety and unspoken duties to one’s neighbor. Talking about what she wanted her kids to enjoy of American culture, Wu says, “Free – you know the inspiration here. The encouragement for people… to invent.”17 She also thinks that in Taiwan, “the teachers may have too much authority, but in [America], I think the teachers have too little authority, so there should be a way to balance.”18 Wu desires a delicate balance of freedom and obedience for her children, a hybrid of Chinese and American culture.
Finally, talking about her regrets in coming to America, everything Wu says has one central theme – the separation of family. She speaks with some resentment, “My husband didn’t join us as he promised that two years after 1995 that he will join us, but he didn’t quit his job at that time. And I don’t [want] the family – I don’t want kids to grow up without his father around, but you know at the time that I find out that my husband has no intention to come over, I intend[ed] to [take] the kids back home, but after being here for a couple years, my kids, none of my kids want[ed] to go back home, so it’s been a tough choice for me. So if I [knew] beforehand that immigrant will means I have to take care of kids by myself for such a long long time and also it means separation of family, if I [knew] that probably I may not make that choice.”19 Wu thus continues living as a single parent in America to this day, for though her husband did come to America for a year, he went back afterwards, unable to adjust to American life. Wu adds one more thing to her list of regrets, her separation from her mother: “You know that’s something bad about me [going] to a different country; that I cannot be with my mom more often.”20 Wu believes very firmly in the Chinese tradition of taking care of one’s parents in old age and feels she has been unable to fulfill that duty. Trying her best to balance her duties as a mother and as a daughter, she travels back to Taiwan three times every year to look after her mother (her father has passed away). Despite her regrets, she plans to continue living in America at least until her son graduates from high school and goes to college. She continues to be torn even now between Taiwan and America, for while most of her family is in Taiwan, most of her friends have immigrated to America.
Aside from personal situations, coming to America also made Wu ponder what life is really about. America no doubt consumes a lot of the world’s resources – more so than perhaps the whole rest of the world. She is concerned that Americans are wasting too much too fast for the Earth to handle. In addition to pollution, the world is also now going through a global economic downturn, leading Wu to see a darker perspective of the future. Comparing her attitude in her youth and now, she says, “What I [experienced] in my childhood to my youth is that we all [believed] tomorrow will be better, so it’s very nice to have that kind of thought that you know tomorrow will be better. But what’s happening right now make us feel not so confident that tomorrow will definitely be better. Sometimes, I feel that tomorrow may be worse.”21
1. Wu, Celia. Personal interview. 24 May 2009, 6.
2. Wu, 24 May 2009, 6.
3. Wu, Celia. Personal interview. 27 May 2009, 8.
4. Wu, 27 May 2009, 9.
5. Wu, 27 May 2009, 12.
6. Wu. 24 May 2009, 2.
7. Wu. 24 May 2009, 3.
8. Wu. 24 May 2009, 3.
9. Wu. 24 May 2009, 4.
10. Wu. 24 May 2009, 8.
11. Wu. 27 May 2009, 10.
12. Wu. 27 May 2009, 10.
13. Wu. 27 May 2009, 10.
14. Wu. 27 May 2009, 11.
15. Wu. 27 May 2009, 11.
16. Wu. 27 May 2009, 11.
17. Wu. 27 May 2009, 11.
18. Wu. 27 May 2009, 11.
19. Wu. 27 May 2009, 12.
20. Wu. 27 May 2009, 12.
21. Wu. 27 May 2009, 14.