Bringing honor to my family's name

People often ask “Was it hard?” or “How did you do it?” when they hear that I received a master's degree from Harvard University and a doctor of education from the University of Southern California. Sometimes we see success like an Almansor Park duck gliding across the waters. How swift and easy it seems. But we don’t see that below the surface, that duck is working hard to paddle its way to the next destination. I was trained to possess this quality by my parents so I doubted less and believed more.

Dr. Wenli Jen

I wish I could transfer all of my childhood memories with a flash drive onto an inquiring person’s mind so that they can fully get why I am so driven. If they saw the hardships that my parents and older brothers endured as immigrants, then they might see why I push so hard to bring honor to my family’s name. 

My family has lived in Alhambra for nearly 40 years. My parents emigrated from Taiwan to Los Angeles with two suitcases, wanting to give their children better opportunities. They believed wholeheartedly in the American Dream. They struggled with poverty, and faced discrimination as new immigrants in a city that didn’t have the multilingual options it offers today. They saved every penny, took on multiple jobs, and did what they could to support my four brothers and me. They moved to Alhambra in the 1970s because the city was known for its strong school district.

I watched my brothers when I was a little girl and thought they were superheroes. My oldest brother often went to work with my dad to help out as a handyman, even if he had come home from school with a pile of homework to do. He was the cultural broker. He was the one who had to assume the responsibilities of an adult so that his little brothers and sister had the luxury of studying without taking on any of the stress of being in a low-income family.

My second brother studied, and when given the choice, read books rather than watched television. His disciplined routine was deliberately aimed toward academic success. I didn’t know what hard work meant until I saw how he studied. Graphic organizers, Cornell notes, and highlighted passages were not uncommon. He had made one choice, and that was to succeed.

My third and fourth brothers helped to create a lively atmosphere in our family. They worked hard, but they played hard too. My brothers and I helped my parents around the house, but many times, my parents wanted us to concentrate on being good students so we could earn good grades, get into a good college, and have a good life.

My parents wanted something good for us, but they often settled for less for themselves. They never complained. If they had to save money, they would make every penny count. As a child, I didn’t see all of their struggles in the naive world that promoted opulent lifestyles the media wanted us to chase. We watched as our friends yelled at their parents about not having the latest Nike sneakers or name-brand clothing. We would be happy to have clean clothes to wear. It seemed we lived in a different reality from our peers.

To this day, my mom sheds tears when she explains how she had to ration the food if my dad called home and let my mom know that he didn’t get the job. She often prayed that someone needed something in his or her home or office to be fixed by a handyman. That meant we could eat.

My father is 70 and has still not retired. He served as an air force major in Taiwan and perhaps doesn’t want to see his engineering and leadership skills go to waste. Maybe he’s just used to working. As I see my dad put up the American flag every Memorial Day, Fourth of July, and Veterans Day, I wonder if other people recognize his unrelenting efforts to live an honest life as an American. I watch his hands, coarse from daily labor, place the flagpole so gently into its slot. The same hands that held my hands when I was a little girl, and the same hands that held me when I was a baby.

Leaving home for Harvard came with a price. Even though I had the luxury to explore my educational interests in human development and psychology on the East Coast, my brothers stayed in California. I knew in large part this was because my parents were here. In Chinese families, we all stick together and work as much in a unit as possible to survive.

I made a choice 10 years ago to come back to the San Gabriel Valley and work in the community. I am the director of prevention programs at Pacific Clinics, a behavioral and mental healthcare agency, and also volunteer with other community organizations. But more importantly, I came back to the root of my success: my family.

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