Home. The word itself stimulates feelings of comfort--perhaps a warm fireplace with family sitting around or a plush bed with blankets that engulf the day’s worries. Maybe it invokes the silence of a screened-in porch with birds that chirp all day or the loudness of a family always on the go. Regardless, to have a home is a luxury that is sometimes taken for granted.
Jessica Wu’s family lived in Taiwan until she was six. Her family decided to move to the United States for better education and job opportunities. After a few years, she began taking piano lessons from a family friend she called her “grandy.” She started playing soccer with her school friends. To an outsider, Wu lived a normal life.
But in 2011, Wu turned 13. A lot changed from elementary to middle school. Deeper relationships started to form, and instead of only one teacher, Wu had several, which required her to change classes. Physically and emotionally, the teenage years were filled with change and frustration. Wu knew change was coming, but she was not expecting her life to come crashing down completely out of her control.
“The plan was to never come back [to Taiwan], but my family became undocumented,” Wu said.
When the government forced Wu’s family to move back to Taiwan, they were afflicted in multiple ways. One of Wu’s relatives, who lived in the U.S., was supposed to help them secure a green card. Her parents threw thousands of dollars at her uncle and somehow the green card never came through. Betrayal by a family member is unthinkable in a society with such close family ties.
“Family in Asian culture is important, and you trust family even if there was no one else you can trust,” Wu said.
One day in June, her father ran a red light. The next they were in court. Wu remembers her family needing a lawyer as she tried to translate for them before a judge.
“Everything happened so fast, ” Wu said.
The summer faded into August. The Wu family was once again living in Taiwan. Wu snapped her fingers twice to emphasize the quickness of the trip.
“There was no time to process and I didn’t want to make it a reality,” Wu said. “In my mind at 13, I thought it was the end of the world.”
They arrived at night, compounding Wu’s feelings of darkness caving in. She said her relationship with her Taiwanese grandma was not good, and they arrived without a hello or even a glance from her. That first night, she said she would stare at the the ceiling as if the world was spinning, wondering how she could be expected to be Taiwanese now. Her granny in Virginia that would comfort her in any situation was now across the world. Her mind rolled back to when her grandy offered to adopt her and how she wished she could have stayed.
Wu began attending a Taiwanese school the next week. Suddenly, she was in a city where the language was unnatural and the culture was unfamiliar.
When talking about her Taiwanese teachers she said, “They expect me to be a certain way or they say there’s something wrong with me.”
Her first day of school began at 7 a.m. She was dressed in a black skirt that fell at her knees and a crisp white button down. She anxiously walked up the stairs to her classroom, where they just finished doing their daily chores. A room filled with 40 students stared back at her. Wu looked like her classmates, but her Chinese was broken and her accent strange. Wu said her classmates expected a blonde-haired girl to walk in when they heard she was American. After being forced to introduce herself, she fled to an empty desk where she found a textbook with only Chinese characters. After five minutes of staring at symbols she didn’t recognize, her teacher gave them a pop quiz in physics. She got a total of six questions correct when graded by the student behind her. What she would soon learn, was that failing grades resulted in punishment.
“She told me to get up and then twisted my skin super, duper hard and I had a bruise,” Wu said.
Wu remembers holding back the urge to scream. Her thoughts flooded with confusion as her classmates stared back at her with blank faces. Abuse was not forbidden, but accepted in the Taiwanese school system.
For years, Wu struggled to fit into the mold the Taiwanese education forced her into. She would wake up at 5 a.m. to study Chinese every morning. After school, students often go to ‘cram school’ until they get home at 9 p.m. Eventually, she would go from 40th in her class to 16th. Her failing grades turned to A’s, and she was able to get into one of the top universities in Taiwan, as she graduated first in her high school class.
Taiwanese students often spend their free time studying and seeking community in different clubs. Wu chose instead to take her extra time to rest.
“I found that it’s more important to have time alone to think or take the extra time to go out and take a walk by the riverside,” Wu said. “Busy does not equal success.”
One of Wu’s six roommates in her dorm, Finny Tien, studies nonstop. Tien grew up in rural Taiwan where her parents work manual labor jobs. Some students will study for months before an exam, refusing to go out except to eat and study.
Wu said, “I try to tell her to find a balance; that there is so much more to life than studying.”
Wu said that although moving to Taiwan felt like the end of the world, it gave her a perspective that allowed her not only the ability to appreciate two cultures, but to empathize with her own culture. In a seemingly impossible situation, she found her way through.
Now Wu speaks two languages fluently, understands two perspectives on life and shares her story of overcoming circumstances. Being deported gave Wu a passion for learning more about immigration and wants to create a space for talking about what it feels like to be uprooted from the only culture you know.
“I would say I’m not 100% of either cultures. I’m a blend of both and a taste of everything I’ve met,” Wu said. “I pick up things I like of others and make it mine.”
While Wu said she entered Taiwan hopelessly, but she discovered parts of herself she never would have known if she stayed in the U.S.