Britney Chen: A Taste of Nostalgia


Over the years, I had grown familiar with the musty scent of airplanes, the sound of my footsteps on the boarding bridge, and the taste of microwavable airline meals. I had gotten used to the constant feeling of change, like a bottle bobbing in the Pacific Ocean seafoam, searching for a home. What does the word “home” mean? I’ve always struggled with answering the question: “Where are you from?” Even more so now. Is it where I was born? Where I grew up? Where I currently live? Or where I feel the most happy and safe? Although the three years I spent in Taiwan felt like they were among my worst in the moment, I learned a lot through the process. School after school after school, each one provided a different experience and new opportunities for growth. I had gone to two local Taiwanese schools to learn Chinese and an international American school during my stay. I often ask myself: “Why had I been so sad?” Was there ever a particular reason or was I just trapped in a mindset where all the good in life was concealed by so many gray clouds that I couldn’t see a single ray of sunlight? I often think back and realize that I much too often over-glorified my elementary school years in America. I guess that I had always looked at the past through a blurring filter, remembering only the joyful moments. Even those moments were never perfect. Had I forgotten the nasty, racist comments my peers would throw at me, making fun of me for my Asian lunches and the way I spoke English? The way they taunted me so much for my own culture that I had wished to move to Taiwan  where I could be the same as everyone else? I still remember my hurt as they compared the noodles my mom had packed for me to worms and the way the kids pulled their eyelids back whenever they saw me. The memories of me going home to my mom, telling her as tears spilled down my cheeks that I wished we lived in Taiwan, are still clearly etched into my mind. Be careful of what you wish for, I guess. A work expat assignment of my father’s would soon turn my entire life upside down. In those years, it had often felt like I was sand on the shoreline as wave after wave of cold, salty ocean water inevitably crashed upon me, carrying me further and further into the sea, only now I realize that the waves were all made up in my mind. What really tormented me was the constant uncertainty of each moment, not knowing where I would be next month, constantly having to worry about packing up and moving again. I felt like I was never given enough time to regrow roots in any environment since being plucked from my simple life in San Marcos after elementary school. I always hated the feeling of uncertainty. It made me feel out of control, like someone had snatched my life out of my own hands, like I was a Marionette doll constantly waiting for the next tug of an invisible string. From the moment I left for Taiwan on October 18th, 2016, my life was never the same again. What was once meant to be a three-month-long trip became a year long, which eventually became three years. All of my middle school years spread out in front of me like a deck of cards, blowing away one by one to a place so unfamiliar to me. Maybe it was the closure I was missing, suddenly moving to the other side of the world with just a week’s notice, moving back without ever getting the chance to say a single goodbye. I found myself in tears when I was informed we would be moving back to San Diego after eighth grade during what I thought was just a summer trip back to visit old friends. I shocked even myself because this was the very moment I had cried day and night wishing for all three years, but it must have come too suddenly. That summer, I had finally come to terms with the fact that I would most likely be staying in Taipei American School up until college and had even begun feeling excitement for starting high school there. When I was told we would be moving back to the States again, I did not feel the wave of relief I had expected but rather a stab of apprehension much like an icicle, soothingly cool, tranquilizing the hurt that it itself had caused. Every ounce of certainty was slowly drained from me with each change I faced. I wished I had time to prepare for moving to Taiwan. I wished I had known I would only be there for three years. Oh how much more I would have enjoyed my stay. How much I wish I had gotten my chance to say goodbye to Taiwan before coming back. If only I could have looked up at the cloudy, pigeon blue sky once more before departing and cried out, “Farewell, Taiwan! Until we meet again!” There are so many things that I had wished for, but unfortunately, life is never this simple. Looking back, I realized that I could have been so much happier. Despite the hardships, there were also countless remarkable moments that I regret having taken for granted as well as numerous lessons to learn throughout the journey. During this trip to Taiwan, I learned the important lessons of flexibility, independence, and acceptance. 

“Uncertainty is the only certainty there is, and knowing how to live with insecurity is the only security” (Paulos). In calculus class this year, I learned that when you zoom into a section of a function enough, it almost looks identical to its tangent line at that point. When you zoom out of a sine or cosine graph enough, all of its oscillations fade out, making it appear to resemble a straight line. I think this is a lot like life. One should always zoom in to focus on just the problem in front of them rather than constantly trying to predict the next steps in the ever-changing function of life. Once one has walked through all the ups and downs of life, the path always looks straighter and easier in hindsight. All my life, I had hated uncertainty. I hated the feeling of not knowing what lay ahead in the future. When I was suddenly put in a situation in which I had no idea, quite literally, where in the world I would be in two weeks, it felt like I was in a room so dark that I couldn’t even see the outline of my own hand in front of me. I had focused so much on trying to figure out my future which I had no control over rather than enjoying all the small moments in life. I remembered the neat, crisp pleats of my sixth-grade uniform splattered in chocolate-flavored whipped cream as we celebrated a classmate’s birthday, the surge of joy I felt at the night market as prize tickets rolled out of the game machine while Taiwanese nursery rhymes blared in the background. I had tried on my old uniform from sixth grade last year and was devastated when I found that it no longer fit me. So many memories I had made in that navy blue, knee-length dress embroidered with my school emblem and student ID number, 6123. I had always cared very much about my grades, so getting my first non-passing grade during my first Chinese exam in Taiwan really hurt my ego. Not only did I struggle in Chinese class, but all other subjects were also completely taught in Chinese, making it extremely difficult for me to absorb any of the information. Looking down at a history textbook full of tiny Chinese characters was extremely overwhelming, especially since I could barely read half of the words on the page. However, instead of letting that tear me down and consume me, I worked hard each day the next quarter to improve and catch up with my peers. Each day, I practiced reading and writing Chinese characters until my eyes and wrist throbbed with pain. But I continued to push forward. I always felt a sort of peace and tranquility from studying. It was comforting to know each of the character strokes following ahead of the last during a time of great inconstancy in my life. Looking back at the page full of smudged Chinese characters and seeing my improvement made me fill up with joy. I cannot put into words the amount of sheer happiness and relief I felt when I saw the A+ I had received on my Chinese final written in bright red ink only three months later. This is the sole reason I believe that anything is possible with hard work today. From this experience, I learned that one should never be so proud that failure is unacceptable. One should always be flexible with the environment around them and learn to grow despite hardships and feelings of unfamiliarity. Learning to stand up again is forever more important than never falling. It is our astounding ability to adapt to all kinds of environments that make us humans so incredible. Life is never a straight line and never should be, so enjoy each cusp, curve, jump, and oscillation.

As a child, I had always been so dependent on my friends for happiness, often clinging to my friends and working so hard daily to impress them. I had stuck with the same friend group all five years of elementary school and had grown extremely attached to them even though I was often ostracized and taunted in that group just for being Asian. Those constant racist jokes deeply hurt me, eroding my self-confidence bit by bit, but I was always too scared to stand up for myself and too afraid to walk away. My move to Taiwan helped me escape this and forced me to get over this fear of change. It is astounding to think that if I had not moved to the other side of the world five years ago, I may very well still be stuck with those same friends and the same lethal close-mindedness to this day. With the nature of switching five different schools within two years, I never had the chance to make any close friends in middle school. However, I made many valued acquaintances I still keep in touch with today. Always being the “new kid,” I often sat alone at lunch. Through those experiences, I was able to learn how to keep myself company, and that being alone doesn’t necessarily mean I was lonely. I learned to start initiating conversations with different people and to get along with many different personality types. Although I was never “popular,” I became pretty well known around the schools I attended and was able to hang out with different groups of people. I learned that one doesn’t have to lock themselves to a particular group to be happy and that the depth of a friendship matters infinitely more than the length of one. I became much less dependent on others for my own pursuit of joy, focusing more on spending time enjoying my favorite hobbies instead. In middle school, I way too often looked back at my elementary school years with longingness, but I now realize that this experience has deeply moved me and I am a much happier person now. I no longer think of sitting by myself at lunch as a pitiful thing to be ashamed of but rather a wonderful opportunity to meet new friends. Carrying this lesson into my high school life, I still occasionally converse with friends from my childhood but have also really broadened my social circle and grown a lot more independent as a person.

I had always been terrified of roller coasters as a child. I remember the terror I felt when my dad convinced me to go on a tiny roller coaster at Knott’s Berry Farm the summer before fourth grade. I did not like the suspense as the cart crept up, the gears clicking one by one. I did not like the feeling of my heart dropping as the roller coaster rushed downwards at full speed with wind gushing through my hair. I liked the feeling of my feet firm on the ground, knowing that there was flat soil under me. The three years in Taiwan felt exactly like a roller coaster. Everything I was familiar with disappeared and I was left to figure so much out myself. Although I was fluent in Chinese prior to arriving in Taiwan, I was not confident speaking it to others outside of my family, so I had stayed pretty quiet throughout all of sixth grade. Sixth grade was the year I had cried the most. I did not know how to handle this new uncertainty in my life or my next steps forward. Thankfully, the classmates there were very welcoming of me and tried their best to make me feel comfortable despite the language barrier. My teachers even went as far as to include bopomofo on all my tests to aid me towards success in this new environment. I think back to the times our class went to hotpot and barbeque restaurants together during field trips with a bittersweet smile. My classmates were all quick to offer assistance when they realized I had never cooked my own hotpot or tried certain Taiwanese foods before. The second local school I attended at the beginning of seventh grade offered a special program for students like me who had come from all over the world. I met two peers that had also come from America and a few from various other countries such as Belgium and Japan. This was very comforting, as I knew we were all struggling and working hard together in an environment that was new to all of us. Sadly, I was only able to stay in that school for three months, so I was unable to form strong bonds with the classmates in the program. Occasionally, I still think of them and wonder if they are doing well today. I hope I will get a chance to meet them again someday. The third school I went to in Taiwan was Taipei American School, full of many students just like me. The school offered an education very similar to what a school in America would. I had less trouble communicating with classmates from this school and had even made a few friends. However, even surrounded by people that looked and talked just like me, I felt more alone than ever. My urge to fit in was constantly at war with my undying need to stand out and the fear of losing my identity as an American. As a child, I was always extremely proud to announce my Taiwanese heritage to classmates and defended Taiwan with all of my 11-year-old being. What had changed inside of me that made me fear this? Perhaps it was the way I was always so proud to be a Taiwanese American. This made me feel as though I was losing grasp on a significant part of my self-identity. I missed my old friends in America more than ever and longed to be home. By this time, my family had also stopped going back to San Diego as often and I had lost touch with my old friends for the most part. I saw them about once a year, but it was just not the same anymore. I feared not being able to fit in if I ever went back again. There were numerous times throughout seventh and eighth grade where my family almost moved back to America again. The constant anticipation made it really difficult for me to settle down emotionally. Eventually, my family decided on staying in Taiwan most likely for the rest of my high school as well. Although this made me sad, I also felt a strong sense of relief settle over me, knowing that I wouldn’t have to worry about moving again anytime soon. I finally came to terms with the fact that I would be primarily living in Taiwan from now on and even began feeling excitement for the new life I was starting here. Two months later, during a summer vacation trip to San Diego, I found out during a call with my father that we would actually be moving back again. Mixed and confused is the only way I am able to describe my emotions when I found out. It felt like my roller coaster ride had come to a sudden halt as my body jerked forward and I felt sick in the stomach. Only now did I realize just how much I had taken those three years in Taiwan for granted. I thought of all those evenings spent at the night markets, those late nights watching New Years’ Eve fireworks explode in luminous colors at the Taipei 101 building, dancing around with my uniform drenched from the warm summer rain. I remember watching in awe as chefs submerged a basket-full of salt-and-pepper chicken into the boiling hot oil. The warm sizzle of fried pig blood cakes garnished with basil and the blinding arcade lights. I always realized I enjoyed the roller coaster ride only after it was over. Why did I spend so much time dissolving in my own sadness rather than enjoying all that Taiwan had to offer? I had simply shut my eyes to all the wonderful moments in Taiwan, leading me to believe that it was such a dark place when it wasn’t in the least bit. The memories of the Taiwanese bakery I visited after school every day for its strawberry sponge-cake mochi, laying on the football field in the sun with my friends with fingers digging deep into the burning turf, and walking through a store full of colorful stationery all flooded back to me. If there was one thing I could go back and tell my old self, it would be to enjoy every experience while it lasted. I would embrace the younger, more fragile me, wiping the tears off of her face as a jiě jiě would, and remind her to never focus on the past and future so much that she forgets to appreciate the present unfolding right in front of her eyes. I guess people only realize the good in things when they’re over. Memories are forever sweeter than the actual event, like Taiwanese pickled radishes after sitting months in sugary syrup. I sat in sorrow and remorse for the next week, trying to sort out my feelings as I watched the recollections of the past three years reeling through my mind in black and white. That was when I finally realized that I would not repeat the same mistakes of living in the past again. Life is only now and there is no point in dwelling on past regrets. From that moment on, I accepted every challenge and adventure that came my way and tried not to dwell on past memories ever again. I began to embrace every part of my life and learned to smile through both the good and bad, enjoying all that life had to offer.

Now, two years after I returned to America, I continue to reflect on the three years I spent in Taiwan. I like to tell stories of my experiences to my friends here often, telling them how grateful I am to have gotten the opportunity to experience such a miracle. I tell my friends all about the bright memories I made in Taiwan rather than focusing on the sadness and confusion. I feel as though I have finally taken off the sunglasses that had blocked out all the joy for so long, now letting all the blinding rays of happiness infiltrate my life. Sometimes, I still think back to those years and wonder why I was ever unhappy. I feel so blessed and lucky to have lived through an experience like this, much like a cliché teenage coming-of-age movie but so much better. This experience really trained me to be more resilient, independent, and most importantly more accepting, teaching me lessons that I could not have learned better anywhere else. I carry all of these lessons forward into my new high school life in San Diego, where I am thriving today. A few months ago, I met a friend in my high school that said she would be moving to Japan next year, so I was happy to share my experiences in Taiwan with her and tell her all the things I wished someone had told me five years ago. I truly think that this experience has shaped me into the much better person I am today and I would not be the same without it. I would never trade this experience for anything else in the world and hope to continue growing in every way possible from it. Those three years also connected me to Taiwan more than ever and I am so glad it helped me understand more about my heritage and culture. What I once saw as merely a vacation spot and my parents’ hometowns in bedtime stories has now become my home as well. I am so lucky to have gotten a chance to form such an intimate relationship and bond with my own cultural heritage. I feel immense pride for the Taiwanese blood pulsing through my veins more than ever. Today, I constantly look forward to vacations to Taiwan every year not only for the unparalleled cuisine and reuniting with family, but also for visiting my new friends and reliving these unforgettable memories. 

Britney Chen is 16 years old and will be a junior this year. At school, she is involved in Speech and Debate Club, Art Club, and Asian Student Union. Her favorite hobbies include drawing and baking. Britney was born in Los Angeles and has grown up in San Diego almost all of her life, but spent three years in Taiwan for middle school due to her father’s work expatriate assignment. There, she attended three different schools, each offering a very unique learning experience. In the summer of 2019, she finally returned home to San Diego just in time to start ninth grade at San Marcos High School. Her favorite things about Taiwan are the crowded night markets and the Taipei 101 Annual New Years fireworks.

From Britney: “In this essay, Britney expresses her mixed emotions throughout the rollercoaster of events during the three years she spent in Taiwan for middle school, popularly known as “expat child syndrome”. It walks through her confusion, anger, sadness, and joy throughout the experience of discovering her identity as a Taiwanese American as well as forming an intimate connection with her cultural heritage. In this heartfelt essay, Britney hopes to inspire and comfort fellow expatriate children going through similar challenges and remind them that although their negative emotions during these times are very valid, it is also crucial to remember to look on the bright side and savor these bittersweet memories of a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

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