From “Alien Kid” to New Immigrant – Part 1

by Tina Tan

“Where are you from?” It has been the most common question for me since I came to Philadelphia. My appearance, my dressing style, together with my accent obviously indicate by no means am I American.

I am Tina. I came from Shenzhen, China. When I was eight-year-old, I moved with my parents to the southern seaport city, now a booming first-tier city in China with technology giants. Being attracted by the pilot-project city of the Reform and Opening Policy, numerous people, including my family, move from their native places to Shenzhen since 1980s. As a result, there comes some phrases to describe migrant people that made up about 70% of the city`s population: “transient people”, or “alien people”, which to me, is just a milder expression than “immigrants”.

Photo taken by Tina along the seashore in her hometown in China.

As a child, I organically learned new languages there and had fun in school. My mom wasn’t quite that happy about the moving. Since I was a kid, she has been educating me never ever to be a housewife like her. Definitely, she wants me to be an independent woman no matter what. Back in our native place, my mom was an independent woman working hard to support her family. But after we moved to the new environment, she had to work as a full-time housewife in monotony.

“Being an “alien kid” in Shenzhen wasn’t that easy, especially under the control of my beloved “tiger mom”.”

Being an “alien kid” in Shenzhen wasn’t that easy, especially under the control of my beloved “tiger mom”. Instead of pursuing hobbies in drawing club or athletes club after school, I was scheduled to study hard to ensure ranking top 3 in every final exam. It was until the arrival of my offer from a good middle school that I started to understand the fierce competitions already debuted though we were still too young. With limited quotas for “alien kids” in public education system at that time, most of “alien kids” ended up going to private middle schools, which means it would be tough for them to get admitted to high school, not to mention colleges.

Unlike other kids, I never enjoyed inviting friends to visit my home after the landlord redecorated the whole building. At that time, we were living in the top-floor of a house owned by my dad’s employer. It embarrassed me each time my friend asked me why the front door was installed in the opposite direction, like locking, but not protecting my family from the downstairs where the landlord`s family lived. I just beamed begrudgingly without pointing out the reason: it’s due to the selfish landlord who treat us without respect.

“After gaining my BA, I joined a leading international apparel company to work as an Area Manager and married a nice and caring husband. But life would never be that simple as a fairy tale, and I didn’t get that happily ever-after so early, not yet.”

It was until in my early 20s when I accidentally found out I could be too sensitive and competitive sometimes, I started to rethink whether the experience being an “alien kid” has any connection to my personality which I have been trying to disguise.

Photo taken by Tina along the seashore in her hometown in China.

Many years later, we finally moved out after my dad built up his own career. Aside from all those issues, I led a relatively smooth life in the new city. I kept being one of the top students in each phases and later be admitted by one of the best universities in China. After gaining my BA, I joined a leading international apparel company to work as an Area Manager and married a nice and caring husband. But life would never be that simple as a fairy tale, and I didn’t get that happily ever-after so early, not yet.

“The house we rent is actually a pretty lovely one, simple but too tranquil for me. Everyday, I would be seriously depressed by the dark, lonely evening in the spacious house until any roommate came back from work.”

When things seemed to be operating so well, I unexpectedly moved to the U.S. with my husband. I still savored the very first morning I arrived, with the soft sunshine and breeze, the squirrels jumping through the limbs, the cafe around the corner, and the pedestrian said morning to me with a warm smile though she might not know I just came from thousands of miles away. Though I met some difficulties here later, I still relish the fantastic prelude.

It is my first time to literally write down my symptoms of culture shock. I locked myself at home for almost one month just because I felt at unease with the completely new environment. The house we rent is actually a pretty lovely one, simple but too tranquil for me. Everyday, I would be seriously depressed by the dark, lonely evening in the spacious house until any roommate came back from work. Being that up and high in darkness without relatives or friends was far beyond my expectation and tolerance. I was afraid all that long story being an “alien kid” in my hometown would be reversed. And this time, I can truly understand my mom’s devotion to the family, and the depression from her “sacrifice”.

With my rusty English, I could only ask “how much” and answered “thank you” to the cashiers at the food market, which was the only place I dared to go freely at that beginning. I felt lost and frustrated, especially when the guide at the Independence Hall proudly introduced the history to the audience, I could either caught his words, or understood why people around me were laughing.

Being confused by the contrary to the fast-paced life in China, I drowned myself in soap operas and window shopping in the second month. It took time to make me confess I was too naive to think I could easily handle my new life here like a tourist. I needed to figure out how to settle down in Philadelphia. There’s no way of changing unless I step out of the house to practice English, to meet new friends, to embrace the city, and most importantly, to be independent. All the new changes started from my determination at the moment of epiphany.

(to be continued… read part 2 of Tina’s story next week!)

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