Photo caption: (left) Cai and David in Toisan a few years before coming to the states.  (right) David and Cai Zeng, now 17 and 20, respectively reflect on their experience immigrating to the U.S. a decade ago. Photo courtesy of David and Cai Zeng.

It’s hard enough to be a teenager these days. But it can be even harder if you’re coming from a different country, learning a new language and adapting to American culture. Imagine having to leave behind your favorite foods, good friends and create a new home for yourself.

Take David Zeng, for example. He came from Toisan District in Southern China with his older sister Cai and his mother in 2003. They came to rejoin their father who had settled in Seattle in 1993. David was just seven years old. He didn’t know a word of English when he came.

“On the plane flight to America, I went inside the bathroom,” he remembered, laughing. “But as I was trying to get out, I couldn’t read English and didn’t recognize the words ‘push’ and ‘pull’ on the door. So I couldn’t figure out how to get out. I cried for my mom while banging on the door.”

David’s older sister, Cai, also struggled with learning English right after she arrived. She was 10 years old and was in the English as a Second Language (ESL) program for three years.

“Other kids made fun of me, which made me more embarrassed to speak English,” she said. “Kids in school didn’t want to hang out with me at first. It was weird for me to see how people were greeted with kisses and hugs. When I met more friends and they started to greet me with hugs, I would push them away because I thought it was inappropriate.”

Christine Loredo came with her family from Manila in the Philippines when she was 11. She said she was scared since she didn’t know anyone and was very shy.

“Some kids made fun of my accent, too, but I went to school with a lot of other immigrant kids and kids whose parents were immigrants so it wasn’t too bad.”

Another immigrant, Pei Chou, didn’t have as much difficulty learning English. That’s because in Taiwan, she had private English lessons. She came here with her family and settled in the small town of Silverdale when she was 11. Her father felt that moving to America was an opportunity for her family to start fresh. She said she enjoyed school even though everyone mixed up Taiwan with Thailand.

“I felt the most accepted when a girl from school called me her best friend, even though I only knew her for a month,” she said.

For many immigrants who have to transition from one culture to another, it’s a shock to experience the differences in how people treat one another.

“Over here, one of the hardest things for me to adjust to was how distant and cold people can be,” Chou said. “I think Taiwan’s culture is just different when it comes to closeness between people, both physically and mentally.”

Social norms in school were very different in the states than in Taiwan.

“I remember one time when I was working on a group project and had a really good idea. So I blurted out excitedly while jumping up and down, grabbing my group mate’s arm. Instead of an equally excited response, my group simply told me to ‘not scream in my ear’ and ‘get off her,’” Chou recalled.

Immigrants are sometimes surprised by the high standard of living in America. Loredo said she had experienced firsthand what it was like to live in a developing country.

“I have a different appreciation for material wealth and everyday comforts that Americans take for granted,” she said.

In adapting to a new culture, food can sometimes be a challenging adventure. Xie Chen – his friends call him “Tiger” – said he had to make a big adjustment because as a child he was used to eating very spicy food. When his grandpa first took him to eat dim sum in Chinatown, he would take two spoonfuls of hot sauce “and no problem.”

“Everyone is saying, ‘Oh my God! This kid is eating all this spicy food!’ Now one-fourth of that is super-spicy,” Chen remembered.

Minh Duc Nguyen, director of Helping Link, recalls a funny incident that occurred soon after her family arrived in Redmond from Vietnam in 1975. Nguyen was starting school in the 6th grade at Redmond Junior High School.

“At the time, there weren’t very many Asian markets like there are today,” she said. “I went to my teacher’s home and I got excited because I saw long yellow things on the table and I thought they were chopsticks. We had been using forks and spoons up till then. But I found out that it was spaghetti.”

David and Cai Zeng both recall discovering new foods when coming to the U.S.
“I thought a burrito was weird,” David said. “It looked different and I didn’t know what was inside.”

Pei Chou said that in Taiwan, people are more used to eating hot foods.

“Cold sandwiches. I never understood how one can feel satisfied eating a meal with cold, hard bread and meat. I don’t think I ever will,” she said.

Depending on the individual, some immigrants may adjust more quickly than others to their new life in the U.S. Generally, the older the person is when they immigrate to the U.S., the more struggles they may face, especially in school and adapting to American culture and language. Sometimes, they may be bullied or made fun of because of the way they talk or dress. But over time, many immigrants begin to feel that America is their home.

After being in the U.S. for 10 years, David and his sister, who live with their family on Beacon Hill, feel pretty comfortable.

“I didn’t like it here when I first came because all my friends were still in China. I missed them,” said David. “Once I started school the next year, I made friends in second grade.”

Cai said: “I don’t want to go back anymore. Learning English had changed my mind. I communicate less with friends in China and with more people in the U.S. I realize that staying in the U.S. will benefit me more in the future.”

“Tiger” Chen, whose family comes from Guizhou Province in China, said he made a lot of friends in first grade. He said his mother wanted him and his sister to have better opportunities in America. His mother would tell him, “You came here for a reason. Because here you can win a Nobel Prize or do whatever you want.”

Even though Tiger enjoys his life here, living with his family in Chinatown-International District, he spent seven years in China and seven years in America. That makes it a little difficult.

“You don’t know which one is home. You get kind of confused,” he said.
Pei feels pretty comfortable with the freedom she experiences in the U.S. She doesn’t have any desire to move back to Taiwan.

“I think I would have to readjust to a culture all over again. Cultural expectations have changed for me now that I’m no longer a child, and I don’t quite know what all these expectations are,” she explained.

Christine Loredo said it took her a long time to feel like an American.

“There are still are times when I see that the general public still doesn’t see me as a real American,” she said.

But if she were to return to the Philippines, she doesn’t feel like she would be at home, either: “At this point, I’ve spent the majority of my life in the U.S. so I would definitely be seen as and feel like a foreigner in my home country.”

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