Hsinlan sits at a table in the quiet main lobby of Oyster Bay High School on a Sunday afternoon. The first-floor main entrance, previously bustling with the activity of parents conversing and children running around, is calm now that the students of Tzu Chi Long Island Academy have left for the day.
Tzu Chi Long Island Academy is a school where about 400 students come every Sunday to learn to read, write, and speak Mandarin Chinese, as well as gain exposure to Chinese culture. Hsinlan has taught at the Academy for only four years, but has been an active volunteer for fourteen years, ever since she enrolled her kids in the school.
The Chinese school is part of a larger organization called Tzu Chi—an international non-profit foundation dedicated to charity, medicine, education, and culture. Tzu Chi, like Hsinlan, originated in Taiwan. Hsinlan came to New York City in 1994, but before that she lived and worked at home in Taichung, Taiwan. “I would pretty much work and go home. I had a very simple life. I didn’t need to worry about money, since I ate at home, lived at home, and could save money to prepare tuition to come abroad to study,” she said. In Taiwan, Hsinlan had the money and time to do leisure activities whenever she wanted. “I was able to do facials every week, sing karaoke every week, or play sports after work with my coworkers.” Overall, she had a very comfortable lifestyle.
However, Hsinlan eventually began to feel that there was still something more for her out there. She had not been planning to study for a Master’s when she graduated from college, even though a lot of her classmates had prepared for that. At the time, that thought hadn’t really come to her mind. But after working in a teaching hospital for a year, she knew that there was more room for her to grow, in one way or another. “I felt like there was still some way for me to improve myself.”
Around that point, her boyfriend-turned-fiancé was preparing to come to America to study abroad, so she began to think it would be a good idea to do the same. In addition to that, her friends from college who had already gone to the United States encouraged her to come and helped her apply. Hsinlan and some of her coworkers who also wanted to come to America prepared together. In their profession—physical therapy—there was a lot of opportunity for academic growth. She knew that if she got a Master’s degree, it would help her with her career later on. All of these influences factored into her decision to come to the United States.
Hsinlan actually didn’t immediately arrive in New York City. When she came to America, she arrived in California and was there for a week. According to her, there were big events going on at that time—namely, OJ Simpson’s trial. “Every day there was a chase, or a court date, or a new development. Every day you just heard about OJ Simpson, OJ Simpson, OJ Simpson.” It was a noticeable cultural difference for her between the United States and Taiwan.
I feel like in America, the news is all about very detailed things; they focus in on one event. They are very into their own community or tiny little things that are exaggerated, but they don’t really look at the world outside. It’s not like it is in Taiwan; the news every day is about what’s happening in the world somewhere. Here it’s totally different.
For Hsinlan, this distinction between news in Taiwan and news in the United States was striking. Taiwan seemed to value international news far more than the United States did. It reflected a disparity in cultural attitudes in terms of how much each country actually cared about what was going on in the rest of the world. To her, this indicated a kind of self-absorption and self-centered perspective far more prevalent in her new home than in her old one.
Another thing Hsinlan immediately noticed when she came to America was that since she was in California, she had to drive to get everywhere. She couldn’t just walk anywhere she wanted to go; she needed a car to get around, so she felt like she didn’t really have freedom. However, when she came to New York, that changed. Because New York had a lot of public transportation, she “got her freedom back”. She could walk around, or ride the subway, or take the bus. She was no longer restricted in where she wanted to go or what she wanted to do, so she regained her sense of independence. “Even though my English wasn’t that good at the time, I was able to do things myself,” she explained. For example, if she didn’t know how to order food at a restaurant, she could just go to McDonald’s and tell them she wanted number 1 on the menu, so she was able to survive on her own.
At first, she noticed that she was not able to eat as much as people here, who “could eat a whole pizza and everything.” She recalled that
Subway has a foot-long sandwich, and at first when I bought a foot-long, I could eat half a sandwich and then save the other half for the next meal. By the second or third month, I was able to finish the whole foot-long in one meal. I’d turned into an American!
There were small cultural differences everywhere, including social norms regarding eating and portion sizes. Hsinlan considered it a turning point in her cultural identity when she was able to eat more like an American.
To help herself get accustomed to the new world she now lived in, the first thing she bought here was a television. Hsinlan watched a lot of TV shows in order to learn English, and in order to ease her transition into the United States. “I learned a lot about the language, the culture, and the sense of humor of America,” she said. That was one of the ways she taught herself English and tried to get used to “the system” here.
At the same time, not much really surprised her about life in the city because the city she came from—Taichung—was also a very convenient and crowded place just like New York City. One of the few differences she noticed was that at that time, Taiwan didn’t have a subway system like the one in New York City. New York’s subway system may have been over ninety years old at the time, but in her eyes, even though it was old and dirty, it was still so efficient. She described her feeling of wonder upon reflecting on this subway system, saying,
I was surprised that under all the tall buildings, there were so many things happening underneath the city. You can stay underground for a long time, you don’t even need to see where you’re going, but you’re going somewhere. It’s amazing.
For her, it was incredible to think about the concept of having that much activity going on both on the ground level and underneath the surface level.
The other thing that surprised her was how many Chinese people there were in New York City who, even though they didn’t speak English, were able to make a life here very well. She noticed that,
There were whole areas like Flushing that still had the convenience of Asian cities. You could go to the library and still find Chinese books. I didn’t really need to change my whole lifestyle or my whole routine because you still could live the Chinese way here—eating Chinese, living like Chinese, speaking Chinese.
Hsinlan quickly realized that, much to her surprise, life didn’t have to drastically change even though she’d moved halfway around the world. In New York City, she could hold onto many aspects of the culture and lifestyle she’d grown up with.
Her life in the period just after she’d arrived here was mainly devoted to a combination of working toward her Master’s at New York University and learning to speak English. She had to take English lessons, so every day she would head to midtown 42nd Street, and then throughout the day she’d transfer to other parts of the NYU campus. In between classes, she would walk down from 42nd Street all the way to the main campus at Washington Square, or take classes pertaining to medicine on 23rd Street. Sometimes, she would just take the NYU trolley to get around, but most of the time, Hsinlan just liked to walk around the city. She would try different routes all the time, and loved being able to walk on different roads every day, always seeing something new.
There were also some seniors who had been there for one or two years, so they always took Hsinlan shopping or sightseeing somewhere. On the weekends, they would take her to a pub or go to New Jersey to go shopping. “We always had potlucks, cooking together and spending time together.”
The first place she lived in New York City was a place she rented in Elmhurst with a friend who came to America at the same time. They rented a 1-bedroom apartment in a house on the 1st floor, sharing one bedroom and a living room. They bought a little TV and had a rice cooker, so they cooked dinner together every night. The two of them arranged to come home at the same time and leave at the same time so they could keep each other company. Since they were both female, they felt safer traveling together.
Their neighborhood was really convenient because they lived right across the street from Elmhurst Library, and one block away from the subway. They were within walking distance from a lot of places, including a 24-hour pharmacy and a Chinese supermarket. “We could even just stop the fire for two minutes and run to buy soy sauce and come back and continue cooking.”
However, when she got this apartment, she needed to contact an electricity company to set up an account.
When I called the place, they couldn’t quite understand my English, so that representative actually asked me to find somebody who could speak English to talk to them. I felt so defeated at that time. I called home and cried to my father, and my father said, ‘Just come home, don’t stay there anymore.’ And I said, ‘No, I’ll continue and finish my studies here.’
Hsinlan recalled this moment as one of the biggest tests she faced in her first year in New York. “In the beginning, English was my biggest challenge because we learned English but not conversation level. Our accents or anything would sometimes make it very difficult, especially on the phone because you couldn’t see facial expressions or body language, so it was difficult to communicate.” In her first semester, she had a challenging physical therapy class and on the final, she had to do a short essay test. “Not only are you taking a test, you need to write a short essay, so everything’s challenging—it wasn’t just testing my PT knowledge, it was also testing my English.”
Within her first few months here, Hsinlan had to take her physical therapy licensing exam, so not only did she have to study English, she also had to study the actual PT material. However, she passed her first time taking it. She was largely motivated to do so well due to the family difficulties that she was experiencing at the time. In her first year in New York City, there were issues in both her parents’ relationship and in her own relationship with her fiancé. Essentially, Hsinlan’s family almost fell apart at that time. Her father had a severe mid-life crisis and fell in love with one of his coworkers. He was having a very difficult time emotionally and psychologically, so he fought with Hsinlan’s mom very often and even almost committed suicide one time. While this was happening, Hsinlan and her fiancé struggled with their long distance relationship, with her in New York City and him in Los Angeles, California. “Long distance never works,” she stated matter-of-factly. They weren’t able to see each other very often, and because of the loneliness, he “kind of had another girlfriend” and Hsinlan “had someone else she always talked to too.” They just sort of drifted apart and their relationship fell apart just like her parents’. All of this made her very determined to pass her licensing test so that she could be independent and survive by herself, and maybe be able to pull her mom out from her marriage and support her as well.
Despite all of the obstacles she had to overcome, Hsinlan never actually felt like New York City wasn’t the place for her. “New York is my home away from home. I felt very comfortable right from the beginning because I came from a city very similar to it,” she explained. In fact, when asked about the first time she really felt at home in New York City, she answered, “Actually, I never really didn’t feel at home in New York City because I feel that New York City is very similar to Taiwan—very convenient and crowded.” In addition to the two cities being pretty comparable, Hsinlan also never felt like New York was not her home because of the support she had here. She had a lot of friends who would all spend time together, eat together, and go shopping together. Whenever they had breaks from school, they’d schedule trips and travel together. New York City was her second home, and her friends were her second family.
Now, Hsinlan lives on Long Island, where she moved in 2001 to raise her son and two daughters. In terms of her future here, within the next few years, her kids will be graduating from college and another will be going to college. “Then I’ll really have no duties holding me back,” she says, slightly relieved. “I can be totally free and travel whenever I want. I can spend time going back to Taiwan to visit my family whenever I want, and I can travel or do my volunteer work outside the U.S. without worrying about childcare. Pretty much, I’ll be free.” Yet even after all these years as a working mother raising a family in the suburbs, she certainly hasn’t forgotten the magic of New York City that drew her there in the first place. As Hsinlan wistfully explains her sentiment,
My New York is energetic, full of life, and always surprising me. It gives me a new vision every time I look at it. When I’m tired, every time I go to the city it boosts me up with new experiences. I like to see the different people there. New York is just an amazing place. I love it.