My Immigration Story
My mother, Li Cui Fan, was born on November 29, 1963 in Shanghai, China. She was born to my grandfather, who was a general manager, and my grandmother, who at that time was a worker at a Swiss aluminum factory. My mother has always been a hard worker, and always came out top of her class. She came in first in middle school, high school, and in college. She excelled in her studies, and many people noticed her distinction, particularly a professor at Columbia University. This sparks the beginning of my mother’s immigration story.
In 1989, my mother came to New York City at 26 years old on a fellowship and teaching assistant scholarship. She came to study engineering, and would later receive both her masters and PhD at Columbia. My mother would tell me stories about her life in America as a young graduate student, with only $100 US dollars when she stepped on American soil. Every Wednesday, she would go to Burger King for their 99c burger special.
After graduating from Columbia in 1994, my mother started working for Citibank. She worked at Wall Street for a while, and was one of the only women working there, let alone of Asian descent. She managed to obtain US citizenship after living in New York City for 11 years. It was in that city where she met my father who had just finished graduate school in New York University. In 1999, they both went back to Asia and my mother had started working for Citibank in Hong Kong.
Hong Kong, SAR
I was born on October 11, 2001 in Matilda Hospital in Hong Kong. 3 years later, my brother Michael was born. Because my mother was a businesswoman and needed to travel often for work, she hired 2 Filipino maids to take care of us when she was away on business trips. These Filipino sisters have played a huge role in my brother and I’s life since then.
My brother and I have attended international schools all our lives, starting in Singapore International School in Hong Kong. The main language they taught in was in English, apart from our Chinese and occasional French classes. The majority of students were East Asian, while there were some Westerners and South Asians here and there. My brother and I had pretty happy childhoods, as our schedules were packed with after school activities, such as ballet, soccer, swimming, taekwondo, just to name a few. We made many friends from our different activities, and fell into routine.
Shenzhen, Mainland China
After I graduated primary school in 2013, my family moved to Shenzhen. My mother wanted us to improve our Mandarin and experience living in the Mainland. I was devastated; Hong Kong had been my home for my entire life up until that point, I couldn’t believe my mother wanted to take all that away from me. Although it was just an hour boat ride away, Shenzhen felt like a completely different environment.
My brother and I transferred to an American international school, and our neighborhood was majority foreigners from Northern America and Europe. Our school was around 50/50 Asians and Westerners. Even though our school had a good mix of kids all over, once we left school grounds, we were the majority again. Convenience stores, movie theaters, parks, we still were surrounded by people who looked like us.
Because Shekou International School was pretty small (around 40-50 kids each grade), everyone took advantage of the variety of sports the school offered, myself included. I participated in touch rugby, badminton, volleyball, basketball, just to name a few.
I was notified that I had been accepted into Worcester Academy as a second semester freshman on December 3rd 2015. On December 18th, I left the continent and everything I’d known. Tears were shed, and my friends and I held onto each other a little longer than normal.
As I set foot on American soil, I was filled with nervous excitement; I was eager to see what America had in store for me.
When I arrived on campus in Worcester, Massachusetts, I was hit with the reality of being Asian in America. I had been told that the school notified its students about my arrival, and presented me as “a new Chinese international student”. Well, that title wasn’t necessarily wrong, I thought, as I was of Chinese ethnicity. However, I held US citizenship despite never living here and I grew up speaking English not only at school, but at home as well. I didn’t think much about the title I was given, but my opinion soon changed after I started to move in.
As I headed into the dining hall to eat, groups of Chinese international students rushed to meet me, and started chatting away and asking me all sorts of questions in Mandarin. I wasn’t nearly as fluent in Chinese as I was in English, so as soon as I started talking, they immediately picked up on my broken Chinese and American accent. I watched their faces fall with disappointment. They started talking to me in English, and their tone went from ecstatic to let down in a matter of seconds. My heart sank as I watched some of them return to their original tables. I quickly gulped down my food even though I had lost my appetite after those interactions.
I returned to my dorm, and I returned to my dorm, and was on my way to use the communal bathroom when I heard hushed voices.They belonged to the same girls I met at the dining hall. I heard my name come up and leaned on the door. “Why can’t she speak Chinese? She’s Chinese, but she’s not one of us.”
I ran back to my room with my heart in my throat. I shut the door behind me and slid onto the floor. I held my head in my hands and just stared at the floor.
The next day was my first day at school. My heart was pounding in my chest as I left my dorm. As I frantically looked around to see which building said “Kingsley”, I was greeted by the Headmaster. He told me to follow him into his office as there has been a mistake in my schedule.
I entered my Geometry class 30 minutes late on my first day of school. As the Headmaster opened the door, I was immediately greeted by light eyes, in a sea of blonde and brunette hair. I scanned the classroom for any other Asian students, but to no avail.
“Sorry to interrupt, but you have a new student for your class,” the Headmaster said. “Please welcome Michelle.” He waved goodbye as he shut the door behind me. I faced forward and took a deep breath.
I found an empty spot by the blackboard and sat down. My geometry teacher forced a smile and said hello. After a few words, she turned back to the blackboard and continued her lesson.
My tablemates were still staring at me after my late arrival until one of them bravely spoke up. “Hey, are you new?” a blonde girl with braids asked.
“Yeah, I just moved in yesterday,” I said.
“Oh, cool! Where are you from?” she continued. The two boys at my table leaned in, ears perked up. I smiled.
“I’m originally from Hong Kong but I just transferred from an international school in China.” Once the word ‘China’ left from my mouth, every face at the table dropped.
“Oh…okay” the blonde girl muttered. I never heard a word from her or any of my other table mates again. I waited for more questions to come but they never did. I looked at my table mates and their eyes had already returned to the board. I sank into my seat and tried to focus on mathematical proofs, but my mind was somewhere else.
I will never forget my first semester in the United States, let alone the first two days. I had learned that race plays an important role in this country, and everyone will judge and assume a persona before you even get the chance to speak. I was stuck; I didn’t lean into one side or the other. I was too American for the Chinese international students, and too Chinese for the American students. I stuck out in every classroom and didn’t have friends who accepted me for who I was.
For a long time, I despised my identity and roots. Because I grew up consuming American content and media, I decided to lean into my “American side” and prove to American students that I was one of them. That I belonged. I understood all their jokes, watched all the popular TV shows and movies, and even tried to dress like them. I yearned to be accepted and treated like one of them. I tried and tried and tried, but to no avail.
When I returned home for spring break, I confided in my mother about my struggle at school. My mother at this time was also struggling with the divorce with my father. She had many things to worry about on her plate but was determined to help me. She wanted me to attend a school that makes me happy. And for a moment there, I agreed with her. I wanted a fresh start, a do-over. I had my action plan set out if I transferred: I would talk differently, dress differently etc.
I tried to get my mind off of it by busying myself with home friends; revisiting old hangout spots, catching up over some Chinese food etc. But my maid saw right through me. She sat me down and we ended up talking until the sunlight peeked into our living room. She persuaded me to stick through it.
“Life doesn’t give you a do-over,” she said. “You don’t get a second chance. The only way out is through.”
My maid is the sole reason why I am who I am today. She taught me perseverance, determination, and many many core values that I still hold today. As a Filipino immigrant, she had her battles and struggles, but through it all, she stood her ground with a smile on her face. She has always been and forever will be my role model.
In the end, I decided not to transfer schools, and to continue my education at Worcester Academy. My family ended up moving to the United States with me after my freshman year ended. We packed up our house and moved across the world, and settled in New Jersey. We said goodbye to our maids of 12 years. As she held me in her arms, I couldn’t stop my tears streaming down my face nor my body shaking from the sadness. I sobbed into my own arms as our taxi pulled away from the border.
As my family settled down in New Jersey, I went on to my sophomore year at Worcester Academy. I went on and found an amazing group of friends who not only accepted me but celebrated my identity and my experiences.
Everything I’ve endured has been an amazing learning experience; it has forced me out of my comfort zone to learn from my mistakes and see situations in a different light. I have not only accepted myself and my identity, but I have learned to celebrate and appreciate the rich roots and culture of China. To this day, I am still discovering and exploring Chinese culture and even my own identity.
This learning journey is far from over, it has just begun.