An Oral History of My Mother: First Days

Note: This was written in April 2011. I’m posting it now with some very minor edits. Given the length of the text, I’ve chosen to post this in installments. This is part two, about my mother’s first days in the United States. Read part one, part three, and part four.

[Why did you come to America?] When your dad was in the army, at the time it was like this. Because I had a lot of relatives in the United States. Grandpa only had a brother. His family was mostly here. Then, your two uncles graduated. They studied physics and left the country. Like [one of your uncles] used to study physics. He became a teacher. But his wife was really good academically. She got a physics PhD acceptance to Queens College. She didn’t get the PhD. She got frustrated after studying, as it was very tiring. Uncle didn’t really like school, but he was very smart. Later on he studied computer science and your aunt quickly switched to that. The two of them did well. Uncle was better at computer science than Aunt. Uncle Winston came to the United States first, since he’s the oldest.

Taiwan is very small. As long as you do OK academically, you’ll think there’s a future elsewhere. You’ll want to come to the United States for more education. Taiwan is like this: you just need to leave the country, get an education. It’s not easy. Everyone is poor, unless you have a lot of money. So everyone thought, “As long as I get an education. I return to Taiwan and I’ll do well.” That’s just what people used to think. If you got a degree and went back, you did better than everyone. So when anyone got a chance, they wanted to leave.

[How did you choose what to study?] Why did we all study computer science? Because Chinese people really are good at math. Jobs for computer science were easiest. Other ones were difficult because of language issues. We couldn’t do those. At the time I studied law. I’d never studied calculus. I came to school in the U.S. and almost every time would get 100 on the exams. The first time I got 60. I was so mad. I thought, “How could I get a 60?” I was so mad. Then I sat down and memorized. Formulas for Chinese people are just too easy. I almost always got 100. I tested so well to the point where the teacher would be happy and every time he handed out exams, he would give me mine last. I thought, “Oh no! How come he didn’t give me my exam yet?”

Because the first time I tested badly, I was so upset. I thought, how could I do so badly in math? But then I got pregnant with your brother, right? In the second semester I was in calculus, a more advanced one. Everyone sat next to me, trying to cheat off my exam. I was so angry, I thought, “I’m pregnant, I’m uncomfortable. What are you doing trying to cheat off me? I should be looking at your exam!”

Then I had your brother and didn’t finish my master’s. To be honest, I didn’t have much interest. I didn’t have any idea. I think at the time I wasn’t really focused. Math I found easy because us Chinese- our math is good. So I thought that was ok. And then I had your brother and was a little- you understand. I’m the type who does what I want, but I also want to take care of my family. So your dad was already doing well in school. He still had one more year left. So I told your dad, we can’t both do this. Because every morning, there was someone who had to go work. So I went to work, early in the morning at 7 AM. I’d work until afternoon, around 2 or 3. I’d work in Westford at that place- when you were young you’d always go. The Laundromat! When you were small, dad would drive you over.

I went to Queens College. Dad came later and just applied to any school. He ended up going to NYIT. At the time he was still working. So I got the I-20 first and left the country first; or else if I didn’t leave the country I couldn’t get it. Your dad had a job. After two years in the army, he got out and went to an interview with a friend, someone else who studied law. They went to an insurance company and invited him to test for a spot while he was at it. He took the test, his friend didn’t get the position and he did. Insurance, they like law school students. They had some rules, right? At the time, he worked with something like sales. At the time in Taiwan, that was a pretty OK job. He didn’t have anything to do. And he was planning to leave the country, but hadn’t had the chance.

Queens College of The City University of New York. Photo Credit: Department of Computer Science

Queens College of The City University of New York. Photo Credit: Department of Computer Science

[What was the immigration process like?] I was working for two years before I left the country. I-20 is when you get a school application. It’s an immigrant number. It was related to education. Then you left the country. After that there were different visas. And once we got there, I counted as an F-1, which is for students. Then your dad is my spouse, so he used F-2 to come because he hadn’t gotten into a school yet. He got here and applied directly to schools. Because if he had done it from Taiwan he would have had to do a lot of different things. Here he just had to send his resume, his documents to school.

We didn’t get scholarships, but we came and worked. So as soon as I got off the plane, I started working. I went to the laundromat and worked. We always got cash. To us Taiwanese, the money was a lot. But really, per hour we got paid around $3. It was enough. Because we came and had relatives, so we lived with them. We came with money, and any money after was from just what we earned. Dad brought money, so did I. We just started working. That’s why from early morning until late- we worked five days- six days! Worked until Saturday. At night we’d have to close the Laundromat. I worked until 2 PM, then came home. Dad was watching your brother. Once I got home, he’d go to class (laughs).

At the time it was like this- the amount of money we made was enough for us to get by. You know? The money wasn’t a lot but at the time we weren’t doing much besides for raising kids. That’s why I wonder why people today have such a hard time getting by. We didn’t really have a job. Those jobs were cash. We had school and more. But I thought it was ok. So your aunt really helped us a lot. So I try to go back and help them because they really helped us a lot. We did well. You see, your dad and I got by like this for so long.

[What did you think the United States would be like?] I had no idea what America would be like. I was a little scared, but my two older brothers were here. I was doing well. And I had so many relatives here. I knew some from when I was young, so I didn’t really remember them that well. But they treated me well. When they knew of jobs, they would let me know. When I came, I thought I was going to go back to Taiwan. Because you come and you don’t know anything. You assume you’re going to get a degree and then go back. But once you get here, you start to think, “Here isn’t so bad. There are opportunities.” Because you know, Taiwan is- no matter what, it’s small. There are fewer jobs. I don’t need a degree. As long as you’re willing to work. At the time it was 40 臺幣(New Taiwan Dollars) to a dollar. Now it’s 30. You know? That was a lot of money! If I made $4 in an hour, I had 160臺幣(New Taiwan Dollars). 4 times! Also, I didn’t even need to work full-time.

So after calculating and having your brother- you know, Taiwan is very rigorous. Studying and the competition is huge. I came here and thought it was OK, but still found it really difficult. Dad kept saying, because he really suffered. Studying for him was harder. So to me it was ok. But after talking about it I thought he was right. My relatives were all here.

Later on your dad’s brother came a year later. He applied to Queens College but people rejected him. He studied mathematics in college! But then I went to look for the dean. You see, my English wasn’t good but at the time I dared to. I thought, I really wanted to help your uncle. I went and said, “Look at him. He studied mathematics. Despite the fact his grades aren’t very good he’s taken courses in computer science and did well!” He wanted to apply for computer science. The dean was married to a Chinese. He treated Chinese people well. I went and talked to him for five minutes and he said, “OK! Next semester.” (laughs). I always want to tell your uncle, “You should really thank me.” I think I must have told him about it at the time. At the time I thought I was very brave. Because really, I’m a very shy person. But I thought, no. If I don’t help him, he’ll never get it again. Once you’ve been rejected and if you want to get admission again, it’s very difficult. It’s strange. So I just went. I didn’t know the dean. I just made an appointment and said I had a brother-in-law who applied to school and I wanted to know the reason. I just remember I went to talk to him (laughs). I said, “Look. His computer science grades are so good. It’s not right! Could you give him another opportunity? Any time is good.” Then he said, “Ok, next semester” (laughs). I thought I was so amazing. So then your uncle came the following semester. He came a year after us.

[Did you speak English before you came to the United States?] From a young age, my English wasn’t too bad. I’m just very shy, I’m afraid to speak English. But your dad’s English isn’t good and he’s not afraid to speak it. I’m more embarrassed about not speaking it correctly. Your dad isn’t. He’s ok. I think I’m ok. I understand and I’m good at guessing. When I came I was just 24. It’s pretty young, compared [to others]. And when I got here, everything was good. You know, our attitude is that everything is ok. Some people worry and think, “Oh, what do I do? I can’t make it”. I didn’t. Your dad and I found it exciting. Really. Despite our lives being very exhausting because we had no money, and to be honest, your uncle didn’t really help us. They let us live for free, but that was your grandpa’s house.

But anyway, we really relied on ourselves. When we got here we didn’t bother anyone for help. We didn’t say, “Give me money every month.” Some people do this- it happens in Taiwan. They say, “I’m the brother, I take care of the younger one.” Like your uncle, he came to the United States and lived with us for many years. He occasionally helped us with work and didn’t give us money. When we first got here we put cash in a drawer. If he needed it he would take it.

[What other kind of jobs did you have?] At the time we had an investment in an ice cream shop. The money is all gone. But at the time we had been working for over a year. So we just thought, despite the fact there was an unsuccessful investment, we didn’t really lose because we kept working there. They always paid us. It was wasted, but it’s ok. A lot of people [opened the store]- one of your uncles, Uncle Norman’s dad, aunt. They wanted to open an ice cream store and didn’t do well. Your dad and I always worked, so we knew where there were problems. But the rest of them had been working in America and didn’t see any problems. They just looked at other businesses. But your dad and I worked there and knew where the problems were. So we would sometimes do sales because we saw other businesses do it. To me it was very interesting. A lot of Spanish people came and bought [ice cream]. But ice cream is very seasonal unless you have something really special. Thanks to this I can make ice cream cake and so can your dad. I know how to make the [icing] flowers. I even went to learn. Someone came to teach us. They especially sent someone over to teach. Ellen (a relative) grew up in the US and knew her. She found someone to come especially to teach us. That person said I was the first person to pick up on it so easily, so I became the person who piped the flowers. Your dad would make the cake and put the layers on. After, I would make the flowers (laughs). At the time it was a lot of fun. We also fried chicken. Later on business wasn’t good, so we started selling fried chicken. It was all in one store.

And at the time, your dad took care of your brother and kept working. From our 10 AM opening, he would bring your brother until I came home in the afternoon at 2 or 3 PM. Your brother would stay with him in the store- at one year! He would sit in his stroller and was quiet and obedient. We did this for a year. And every day after I finished working, I’d come and keep them company. I didn’t get paid because it was your dad who was working. We would sometimes work half a day or a full day. After we finished, we closed the store at 10 PM. Then we had to sweep the floors. After sweeping, there were Laundromats next door. We would go and clean two of them. We did this all together.

By the second year we didn’t run the ice cream shop anymore because it was too exhausting. We closed and let someone else take over. They hired someone else and we stopped working. But later on it closed. We helped for a year and it wasn’t too soon after coming to the United States. So we would open stores and take care of them. Just like that. So we’ve done a lot of different things. Ask Uncle Taiwei and he won’t know anything. When they came, they had everything they needed. Lived well, had food to eat. They lived with us. Your grand uncle has a lot of money [to support them].

Woodside, Queens, NY. Where my family spent the first few years of my life. Photo Credit: Julie Platner

Woodside, Queens, NY. Where my family spent the first few years of my life. Photo Credit: Julie Platner

Read part onepart three, and part four.

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