Across the Seas


While attending Carmel Creek Elementary School, Erin Lu (11) became best friends with a girl in her kindergarten class. The two would run across the playground as they acted out scenes as their favorite characters. But when Lu was in first grade, her family moved to Taiwan to take care of her grandparents and so Lu could improve her fluency in Chinese, her family’s native language. She left a carefree school system and California burritos and found herself thrust into an unwelcoming environment halfway across the world from her best friend.
“My classmates [in Taiwan] stared at me weirdly during class,” Lu said. “I think a couple went home and said to their parents that there was a transfer student from America. The parents were coming to the classroom expecting to see a blonde-haired, blue-eyed girl.”
Intending for Lu to attend an American college, her family finally moved back to San Diego seven years later, and though she did not feel as unwelcome as she initially felt in Taiwan, her hometown felt more unfamiliar than inviting.
Lu’s discomfort upon her arrival in Taiwan and return to San Diego echoed the experiences of many other students who have made the move from other countries to attend secondary school in the United States, although many, unlike Lu, had no previous experience living in the U.S.
“We have students here from quite a variety of [countries, including] Brazil, China, Korea, Iran, Iraq, Israel and Norway,” head counselor Mary Sanchez-Allwein said. “Since Dec. 1 [ of 2013], we’ve had about 75 new students. A large percentage, maybe 70 percent, are from outside the United States.”
Joonho Han (12) has also lived and attended school in a foreign country — Korea. Although he lived in Korea, moving to America in his sophomore year, Han applied to only American colleges last fall, though he said he would not be against attending a Korean university in the future.
“A lot of our students are eager to attend an American university, so they feel that attending an American high school will get them more information about how to enter and the requirements needed to go into a university,” Sanchez said. “A lot of times, the UC schools are very popular.”
According to Han, education in the U.S. is more enjoyable and valuable because it encourages “thinking” and “being creative,” whereas in Korea, “knowing information” is emphasized. Korean students are required to take 16 subjects that are thought to be necessary, but, contrary to the American system, the students are not allowed to choose any of their own courses.
“I like the American schedule better because I like focusing on one thing,” Han said.“Because I’m Korean, the way I think is the same as Koreans do, but I tend to be more liberal, whereas Korea is a bit more conservative [in terms of education].”
According to Sanchez-Allwein, in order to encourage integration into the American school system, California provides English Learner programs for students who are not entirely proficient in English; approximately 80 to 90 percent of TPHS foreign transfer students are classified as English learners by a California English Language Development Test with reading, writing, listening and speaking portions.
The EL program offers sheltered courses — college prep English, history, math and science — that deviate from the traditional classroom setting to more visual and tactile methods of teaching that aim to foster English development.
“[Sheltered courses] allow students to meet requirements if they want to attend university,” Sanchez-Allwein said. “Within our EL classes, it’s so diverse, so it’s really nice that they get comfortable very quickly. They do a lot of interacting and a lot of group work that kind of forces them to really use their English skills; they’re speaking to somebody from a completely different part of the world.”
Sanchez-Allwein said that the while students usually need 5-7 years of English learning to become fluent, she has noticed that within three years of learning, “students are pretty comfortable, depending on where they come in.”
“It just depends upon how eager they are and how much work they’ll do on their own,” Sanchez said. “For a majority of students, they were the ones that wanted to come [study in the United States] and brought up the idea to their parents. We always tell parents it’s okay if their children want to watch American TV or read American books or magazines. That’s really how they’re going to learn — to really start to hear the language more.”
Even then, students like Lu still feel some element of disconnectedness with their peers.
“In between when I went to Taiwan and came back to San Diego, I felt like people around me were learning a lot more English, and my English was not as good,” Lu said. “I felt like it was harder for me to make friends and communicate in general. Sometimes it was hard for me to try to say something [in English] that would be easier if I said it in Chinese.”
But curriculum is not the only aspect of American high school education that foreign transfer and EL students must adapt to. After her move back to San Diego, Lu became aware of the extent of her cultural differences from her American peers — including her former childhood best friend. She had become fond of the Taiwanese lifestyle: the fashion, nightlife, the accessibility of most destinations by motorcycle or by foot, the snacks sold on the crowded streets.
“The longer time I stayed in Taiwan, the more we drifted apart, because the things we understand and like are different now,” Lu said. “I actually feel like I like Taiwan better now because I lived there when I was growing and learning … It was harder to adapt [back in San Diego]; I was actually scared to talk to people because I didn’t know what people like here.”
To further help students come to terms with American culture while maintaining relationships with their parents, TPHS holds English Language and Culture Committees.
“We can inform parents about what’s going on at school to kind of help them understand what the American high school experience is like,” Sanchez-Allwein said. “It can be very different from where they’re from.”
Although Lu no longer feels alienated from her American peers, she continues to stay in touch with her Taiwanese upbringing as well as her San Diego roots; while she often speaks Mandarin with her Chinese and Taiwanese friends, she also pushes herself to excel in classes like AP English Language and Composition, overcoming her initial inhibitions.