Crossroads into the Unfamiliar
Sherry Huang’s solitary journey from Taipei, Taiwan to pursue education and a better life
essay written by Paulina Young
Sherry Huang, born on December 19, 1962 spent her childhood and early teen years in her native Taiwan. At age sixteen, Huang moved with her father to Costa Rica, and after ten months, immigrated alone to the US and obtained a student visa. Finishing high school in the San Francisco Bay area, she relocated to Southern California in order to attend CSULB. Through innumerable hardships, Huang balanced a full time working schedule with evening classes, financing her own tuition and graduating with an accounting degree within three and a half years.
Entering into adulthood in a foreign country with an alien culture proves to be the ultimate coming of age experience. Immigrating to America at age seventeen, Sherry Huang battled both the trials of her adolescence as well as her solitary migration to the North America continent from the island of Taiwan. Her first year of high school abruptly cut short, she left her beloved friends as well as her mother and brother to join her father on a long-term business venture. Separated eventually with her father, her last link to family and the familiar, Huang was left to face the foreboding expanses of America, alone and unprepared. “Outgoing and outspoken”1, and with sheer will and determination, she struggled past the utter strangeness of American culture and the rude awakenings of lingual and economic hardships. She “was very motivated”, and, thinking back, “sometimes [she] [didn’t] know how [she] did it”2. While adjusting rapidly to the American way of life, Huang always kept family and certain traditional values instilled deeply within her heart. Asserting her independence, Huang bridged the gap between two worlds, moving past numerous hardships and discouragements to establish hard-earned success and a solid foundation for her progeny.
On December 19, 1962, Sherry Huang entered the world as Chiyi Huang, the daughter of father Ting Huang and mother Juyu Chuang. Her father purposefully bestowed her with the name Chiyi, which signifies joy and peace, in hopes that his youngest child would “be a happy person”3. Born in the city of Tainan, Taiwan, Huang pursued a life style typical of upper middle class Taiwanese families at the time. Because the Taiwanese were and currently still are heavily influenced by Japanese culture, Huang’s family, as well as others of their kind, followed in its greatly male-dominated ways. The occupation of Taiwan by Japan until the close of World War II ensured that Huang’s parents’ generation was brought up as essentially Japanese citizens with the male as superior within the household and were “fluent in reading and writing Japanese”4. Her mother would always make sushi and other Japanese-style meals for the family, and she would often converse in Japanese with her sisters as well as refer to them by their Japanese names. Even though Japanese rule had ended by the time of Huang’s birth, the daily existence was still subtly yet powerfully impacted by Japan regarding food, media, music, government infrastructure, and traditions, among others. One significant difference in Huang’s generation, however, was that the Japanese language was no longer enforced within schools’ curriculum, resulting in the diminishment of the Taiwanese people’s ability to speak Japanese. Contrary to popular belief, the Taiwanese were not opposed at all to the rule of Japan. Huang’s mother had no recollection of the Japanese treating the Taiwanese and the aborigines as second-class citizens and brutally instigating Japanese customs. The Taiwanese were actually “very favorable toward [the] Japanese, and believed that the “Japanese government treated them very well and all the country was under very good organization”5. Huang’s mother and relatives, able to read and speak Japanese as fluently as their Chinese, always had positive and admirable words for Japan. Yet, although Taiwan maintained a civil relationship with Japan, it endured a shaky coexistence with its mother country, China.
The Taiwanese conflict with China stemmed from the end of World War II, when the Communists began a restructuring period in China and asserted oppressive power over the opposing political party, the Kuomintang. As the Communists grew increasingly stronger, the Kuomintang, led by General Chiang Kai Shek, fled the mainland for the small island of Taiwan. The Kuomintang, also known as the Pan-Blue coalition, was separated from China physically but not idealistically. As nationalists, the party favored the gradual reunification of Taiwan with China. Because the Kuomintang was the ruling party of a one-party martial government until political restructuring during the 1980s, the pro-Chinese view was upheld strongly, with the implication that “people speaking Taiwanese [were] more inferior”6. Similar to many households of the 1960s and 1970s, Huang’s childhood was inflected with Chinese-Taiwanese rivalries, though not overwhelmingly major. Her father, Ting, was born in China, and therefore clearly a Kuomintang; her mother, Juyu, on the other hand, had family roots in the opposing Pan-Green coalition, yet did not hold any powerful political opinions herself. Women at the time, because of Japanese influence, existed in a highly chauvinistic society, and as a result were subjected to the will of their husbands. Furthermore, the native Taiwanese prided themselves on their common Taiwanese language, distinct from the Mandarin spoken by the Chinese. Huang’s father was unable to speak Taiwanese while her mother used it frequently, so she “received a mix of both” and would “always have to be the interpreter for [her] dad when he talk[ed] to [her] grandma”7. Yet, in many schools, children were forbidden to “speak Taiwanese even if their family [had spoken] Taiwanese only[;] they [had] to learn to speak Mandarin”8. Although during the middle to late twentieth century a small percentage of native Taiwanese supported independence for Taiwan, most of Taiwan’s citizens were immigrants from Communist China, and thus the prevailing mindset proclaimed Taiwan as a province under Chinese control.
Away from the external political turmoil, Huang focused on her family and her education during her childhood and early teen years in Taiwan. Every weekday morning, she would arise at the early hours of the morning to walk to school. After elementary school, her family constantly moved homes due to her father’s job, so she attended in three cities: Tainan, Taichung, and Taipei. Although the schools varied, the schedule and structure were essentially the same. Every morning began with the morning assembly, during which all the students lined up in rows outside while the principal gave a speech. Upon returning to class, each student had six periods of uniform, mandatory courses; “[the students did] not have electives; everybody [had] the same thing”9. Sorted by academic grade point averages into ranked classes at the end of elementary school, Huang and her peers formed a strong bond with the same fifty to sixty students for all three years of middle school. Physical education and music classes were held about three times a week, although many times the teachers of academic courses would ask to use this designated time to accommodate the rigorous demands of the curriculum. Leaving school at around four o’clock in the afternoon, Huang would immediately return home and attend to her duties. She always helped with chores such as gathering in the laundry that was hanging out to dry, “wash[ing] the vegetables for that day”, and “cook[ing] the rice”10. Then, Huang devoted the rest of her evening to her studies, for there was “always a lot of homework to do, no time to play, not at all”11. Although switching schools frequently, she experienced the overwhelming emphasis on academics at every educational institution she attended, especially the First Girls’ High School, the top-ranked girls’ high school in Taiwan. The competition and strive for high marks was intensive among the students, and further encouraged by the staff. When tests were handed back names were called “from the highest score to the lowest score”12, to the common knowledge of all the members of the student body. Huang often stayed up all night studying for a certain test, and even more so for the high school entrance exam, which determined the quality of the institution and the course level the students would be placed in. She often remained after school for group tutoring sessions to further instill what she had learned as well as advance her knowledge. In rare moments of spare time on the weekends, Huang would occasionally go to the movies with friends and shop at stationery stores, since she “[didn’t] really shop for clothing”13. She also participated in extracurricular activities such as the school ping-pong team, dance team, and choir. Even with her strenuous academic schedule, she maintained a close-knit relationship with her family. They had dinner together every night and would, from time to time, enjoy daytime expeditions and various restaurants on the weekends. Although in the midst of perpetual activity, Huang relished the challenges of her demanding education and found comfort in her intimate family relationships.
At age sixteen, Huang encountered an unexpected circumstance that radically changed her course of existence. Retiring early at the age of sixty, her father was invited by a friend to pursue a business opportunity in Costa Rica. To lessen the risks of moving an entire family to another country, Ting decided to take only Huang with him, leaving his wife and his son in Taiwan. Moreover, at that time, Huang’s brother was seventeen going on eighteen, and “young male[s] [at] that age [were] not permitted to get outside of [the] country because they [had] to serve in [the] military service for two years”14In Costa Rica, she attended American school, where she officially started learning English as a second language and Spanish as a third. The Costa Rican lifestyle was very relaxed, a stark contrast to Taiwan; the slow productivity and nonchalant manner were a world apart from the nonstop activity Huang was accustomed to. All throughout her stay, she had high hopes that because it was “easier to go through other countries that [have] [a] formal relationship with America” and “harder to get a Visa from Taiwan”15, living in US-friendly Costa Rica would eventually provide the opportunity to immigrate to the United States. Huang and her father never lost sight of their ultimate goal of gaining entry to America.
In Huang’s mind, America was a faraway, fantastical place that seemed so far from her grasp. She had “always admired Western culture because somehow it [seemed] more advanced and modern”16. Even as a young child in Taiwan, Huang had always dreamed of going to Disneyland. All things American were considered highly attractive, and the Taiwanese would constantly hear news about glamorous America with its technology and movies. Many in Taiwan still pursued the “American Dream”, striving to reach America in order to gain a better life. Huang held the view that everything was “all in America”17, and thought it to be a privilege just to be educated there. Never did she imagine that she would soon have to make the decision to either venture into the unknown to follow her dream or to return to her homeland.
After almost a year in Costa Rica, Huang’s father relinquished his unstable business opportunity to return to Taiwan, and she was given one of the most vital choices of her life. Her best friend from elementary school wanted Huang to visit her in her new home in the San Francisco Bay area. Consenting, she obtained a visitor’s visa in hopes of granting her childhood dream of visiting Disneyland. Even though the visitor’s visa was fairly simple to attain, her friend’s family soon invited Huang to stay in America for schooling, a highly considerable option at the time, for if she went “back to Taiwan [she] [would] have to be delayed one year, because [she] missed a year of academics”18, a route unacceptable for Taiwanese families. Since Huang dreaded staying back while her peers moved on to a higher grade, she ended up staying with her friend’s family in America, and thus had to hire an attorney to change her visa from visitor to student status. Seventeen years old and a sophomore in high school at the time, she encountered difficulties petitioning the change, and her visa was denied. Asked to leave the country, Huang’s only choice was to go back to Costa Rica. She “had to travel alone when [she] was seventeen to Costa Rica to obtain the visa there”19, with the help a friend of her father’s at the Chinese embassy. American immigration policies were still strict at the time, and it was highly difficult to achieve long-term or permanent residency. Most commonly, entire families immigrated after they received sponsorship and a green card signifying foreign residency from relatives in America. Although her visa was secured within a couple weeks, the hardships through which it was attained left her feeling frightened and even more alone in an alien and seemingly unfriendly country.
Within the first years in America, Huang experienced stark cultural contrasts so different from life back in Taiwan. While the advancement and technology of American culture were admirable and evident, she found it difficult to adjust to certain customs in her new home. At Albany High School, she “was shocked to see students put their feet on the table and chew [gum] and just walk out to go to the restroom”20. The deteriorating respect for elders horrified Huang, for in her native Taiwan, adolescents deemed their elders as the highest authority to be treated with the utmost deference. Furthermore, many of her new American friends would often “want to go out [to] have pizza” and she “just didn’t like that type of lifestyle”21. In Taiwan, Huang had little time for leisure, and was therefore unaccustomed to the sudden acquisition of a comparatively lax high school life. Upon arrival, she received an American name, Sherry, from Albany High School’s principal. As a junior, she even had the opportunity to obtain a driver’s license through the drivers’ education classes offered in schools at the time. During one incident, she was putting the car in reverse, and to her surprise, the instructor said, “that’s good that’s good”22. Encouraged, she continued to drive in reverse until the instructor finally yelled for her to stop. Shaken and confused, Huang, now known as Sherry, learned that “that’s good” actually meant “stop” and discovered that some American phrases could not be taken literally. Encountering little trouble in her American high school besides resurging bouts of homesickness, Huang faced overwhelming tribulations and an eventually beneficial learning experience as she left for college to pursue her ambitions.
During her college years, Huang wanted to forge an independent and self-sufficient life for herself, resulting in economic hardship and an austere budget. While most of her peers attended UC Berkeley after graduating from high school, she was driven by the news of another one of her father’s business initiatives in Los Angeles to apply to school at Cal State Long Beach, which was well known for its business-related majors. Accepted to CSULB as an accounting major, she had to retain strict finances since she did not want to burden her parents, and because her father’s “business didn’t work out and he retired”23. Avoiding at all costs to use her father’s retirement savings to pay for her studies, she tried hard to remain autonomous, switching all her classes to the evening in order to work full time. Everyday she worked from eight o’clock in the morning to five o’clock in the evening, “barely hav[ing] driving time,” having her “dinner in the car,” and having to “do homework and go to class from seven to ten”24. Huang would get home from her classes at around eleven o’clock at night, and would then have to get ready for the next day’s work. She had to find time to finish her assignments during the weekends and her two hours of break before and after classes. Yet, even throughout her ordeal, Huang continued to persevere in hopes of someday attaining a full education and establishing a stable lifestyle for herself.
Coinciding with her studies, Huang held several occupations during her time in college. Her persistence to the administration soon produced a work permit, since foreign students were unable to hold a job without one. Starting with any position she was able to find, she worked menial jobs as a cafeteria food server and as an ice cream scooper. Later, she worked part time in a nursing hospital for an elderly Chinese woman who needed a translator. During her second year of college, she obtained an occupation as a baby sitter as well as tutor, and later that same year took on another opportunity at a vocational department as an administrative assistant. By her junior year of college, Huang started working at a silk flower importer, working full time, because she “need[ed] the money to support [herself] the full tuition,” which “was thousands of dollars”25. It was through one of her employers that she finally attained a green card to ensure her legal and permanent residency within the United States. Besides her myriad of economic trials, Huang faced an imposing language barrier. Living an America for less than five years, she found her English courses to be the most difficult, dreading composition and reading comprehension, for “most of the time [she] didn’t understand the book itself”26. Other difficult classes were philosophy, psychology, and “anything that require[d] more reading, and [was] theoretical”27. However, she persevered, and in the end, her proactive approach to planning all her classes out and taking summer courses, as well as her determined “no play, all studying”28 work ethic paid off. Even while being employed full time, Huang managed to obtain her bachelor’s degree in three and a half years and to continue on and achieve her master’s degree.
Even though she was separated physically from her homeland, Huang retained many aspects of its culture and values, as well as those of her family. Her father had always stressed discipline, self-control, and hard work, and while Huang was living alone in the United States, she still adhered to “sleep[ing] on time, go[ing] to bed early, get[ting] up early, [and having] a very regular schedule”29. With the value of money instilled deeply within her, she remained budget-oriented and thus succeeded in funding her entire college tuition. Also, Huang’s father further emphasized “the inner strength and internal values”30 of the individual rather than the materialistic factors, a common Taiwanese viewpoint. Yet, although she continued to practice the traditional customs of discipline and respect for authority, she appreciated and incorporated facets of American culture within her system of values. She embraced the freedom and independence she discovered in America, along with the virtue of self-reliance. By incorporating an optimal blend of both cultures, Huang strived to teach her children to pursue their goals with discipline, civility, and the liberty to forge the paths they wished to take.
Coming around the bend of her trail of perseverance, Huang supported herself through her young adult life as a professional accountant, earning a steady and adequate income. At age twenty-seven, she married Chihsin Steven Young and at age twenty-eight, gave birth to her first child, Paulina Michiko Young. Huang’s second daughter, Kelly Megan Young, was born in April 1994, when Huang was thirty years of age, finally filling the gap of the family she left behind in Taiwan. Although the hardships were many, Huang finds the outcome to be infinitely worthwhile and holds no regrets. Referring to her life story, Huang would like to remind her progeny, as well as the discouraged and the hesitant, that “if you don’t try, the chance is zero”32; it takes persistence and motivation, as well as dedication and hope, to turn a dream into a reality. She feels proud and blessed to have sustained herself through obtaining her education in a foreign country and providing the coveted opportunity of life in America for her children. All the broken and disjointed ends of her past have been connected and brought around full circle to strengthen her into the woman she is today, and she believes that it was “the determination and initiation that [made] the difference”31.
1. Huang, Sherry. Personal interview. 19 May 2009, 11.
2. Huang, Sherry. Personal interview. 20 May 2009, 25.
3. Huang, 19 May 2009, 9.
4. Huang, 19 May 2009, 3.
5. Huang, 19 May 2009, 4.
6. Huang, 19 May 2009, 2.
7. Huang, 19 May 2009, 1.
8. Huang, 19 May 2009, 2.
9. Huang, 19 May 2009, 7.
10. Huang, 19 May 2009, 7.
11. Huang, 19 May 2009, 7.
12. Huang, 20 May 2009, 17.
13. Huang, 19 May 2009, 9.
14. Huang, 20 May 2009, 19.
15. Huang, 20 May 2009, 19.
16. Huang, 20 May 2009, 21.
17. Huang, 20 May 2009, 19.
18. Huang, 20 May 2009, 20.
19. Huang, 20 May 2009, 20.
20. Huang, 19 May 2009, 5.
21. Huang, 20 May 2009, 26.
22. Huang, 20 May 2009, 24.
23. Huang, 20 May 2009, 26.
24. Huang, 20 May 2009, 26.
25. Huang, 20 May 2009, 25.
26. Huang, 20 May 2009, 24.
27. Huang, 20 May 2009, 25.
28. Huang, 20 May 2009, 25.
29. Huang, 19 May 2009, 10.
30. Huang, 20 May 2009, 16.
31. Huang, 20 May 2009, 22.
32. Huang, 20 May 2009, 22.