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Love, Language and Life Lessons: What My Aunt Learned Immigrating from China to America

A move across the world is a journey most people would be scared to take–especially when you don’t know anyone or speak the native language. But against all odds, my aunt Grace and cousin Olivia made the courageous 7,284-mile-long journey from China to Massachusetts six years ago.

“I wanted to make a better life for my daughter,” Grace tells me. As a talented academic and gifted pianist, her daughter, Olivia had dreams of attending college and becoming a musician. Inspired by her daughter's dreams, Grace began planning their move.

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Take us back to when your journey started. Did you ever see yourself following a more traditional path and living in China?

In 2015, I was working as an administrator at a law office and living in Shanghai with my daughter, but the city didn’t align with our life vision. All I could see was this drab metropolitan city with polluted gray skies and limited potential for a single mom and daughter who sought adventure and excitement.

Although Olivia had been accepted into the top music school in China, she firmly believed that the best education and career opportunities were in America. The clarity she had on her future goals, especially at such a young age, inspired me.

At that moment, I realized that if we didn’t move, neither myself nor Olivia would reach our full potential. Although I didn’t speak a word of English, I was determined to make America our new home.

What was the first step you took to prepare for the move?

For several years, I saved up as much money as I could to financially prepare us for the move. Then, we applied for a Tourist Visa and a Visiting Scholar Visa and bought our plane tickets to America. As a backup plan, I figured that if I ran out of money, I would sell my house in China.

Love, Language, and Life Lessons - Grace stands in front of a green house with a number of moving boxes, suitcases, and other items. She is looking off into the distance.
Grace San

What was the process of moving across the world like?

In 2016, we arrived in Cambridge with just two suitcases, and began to build our new life from the ground up.

I started by taking classes at a nearby English language school and I got a sales job at a local market. I worked tirelessly to make ends meet and saw each interaction as an opportunity to practice my English and further establish myself in America.

Inevitably, I experienced some barriers as I was learning English. For example, one critical difference between the two languages is that in Chinese, “he” and “she” are pronounced the same. When you learn a new language later in life, it’s harder to comprehend a change like that. I remember how much I appreciated it when people were patient with me during this time. I also learned that a little kindness truly does go a long way.

We stayed in over twenty different Airbnbs and hotels as we tried to get settled here. Thankfully, one of our Airbnb hosts was kind enough to extend a long-term lease as we searched for a permanent home.

After months of hard work, I got a full-time job as a Mandarin teacher and was offered an H-1B Visa. I felt so fulfilled embarking on a new career path in America.

How did Olivia feel when she first moved? Did either of you ever feel lonely in the beginning?

No change is easy, especially one as drastic as moving across the world. The move was very tough for Olivia in the beginning because she missed her friends and she had to adjust to the education system in America.

After a few months, she adapted, as she made new friends and continued to perfect her English, which she started learning while studying abroad in Australia when she was younger.

As for me, I certainly felt a bit lonely the first few months. I'm a very outgoing person and make friends easily, but I didn’t have those deeper connections yet. The loneliness subsided pretty quickly though, as I placed the majority of my focus on surviving and building my life here.

Love, Language, and Life Lessons - Grace and Greg smile for the camera while sitting at a table in Boston's North End. Grace has her arms over Greg's shoulders. There are glasses of wine in front of them.
Grace San

Did you have any personal goals that you wanted to reach in America?

Yes, after Olivia graduated high school, I started to think about my own personal fulfillment. I had never been married before and I desired a romantic partner. My friend suggested I try online dating, so I set up a profile without giving it too much thought.

As fate would have it, the first man I matched with was my now-husband Greg. After a couple months of talking online, we met in-person. We’re both passionate academics, so our first date was at a library, which was fitting for us. We clicked immediately and had a lovely conversation. Admittedly, we’re very different people from very different backgrounds, so I was uncertain of what the future would hold.

Love, Language, and Life Lessons - Olivia and Greg sit next to each other at a picnic table while eating ice cream. Olivia tries to give a bit of her ice cream to Greg while he tries to avoid the spoon.
Grace San

As we got to know each other better, it became clear that we both wanted to deepen our connection. We saw a future for us as a couple and as a family. Words can’t describe the joy I felt when I saw Greg and Olivia laughing together for the first time, as if they’d been father and daughter their entire lives.

We officially wed in November of 2019. Our marriage felt like a dream come true and I remember feeling so grateful for the series of life events that led to this moment.

That’s a beautiful story. What do you think is the most valuable thing your move taught you?

I learned the importance of stepping outside of my comfort zone. Although extremely nerve-wracking and scary at the time, the move allowed me to achieve my dream of seeing the world. It also enabled me to make positive changes in my life, my daughter’s life and in the lives of those around me.

Love, Language, and Life Lessons - Olivia, Greg, and Grace (from left to right) pose for a photograph at the beach.
Grace San

Do you ever think back and question if you made the right decision?

I think I would have felt unfulfilled if I stayed in Shanghai. I would have so many “what ifs” and “could have beens.” The journey wasn’t easy, but it was more than worth it in the end.

For me, what confirms I made the right decision is the bond Greg, Olivia and I have built and share as a family now. It’s truly magical to meet someone who loves my daughter like their own and going through this major life change with my daughter brought us closer together as well.

Do you have any advice for someone who’s considering immigrating?

Without a doubt, the first challenge of living in a new country is learning the language. Also, acclimating to a new culture–including local policies, laws and even travel routes and traffic regulations–is difficult to get used to at first.

For instance, although I had been driving for over twenty years in China, I didn’t pass my first driver’s exam in America. Stop signs have a different meaning in China, so I had to pay extra attention to each one. Thankfully, I passed the second time!

For anyone who is contemplating immigration, I would say give yourself plenty of time to understand the country’s customs and language, and try to enjoy the learning process as much as possible.

What is life like for you today?

I’m a proud Asian-American and continue to celebrate and honor my Chinese heritage through my work as a Mandarin teacher. In terms of my personal life, we’re planning a trip to China to introduce my husband to my family and more of our culture.

I hope that our story inspires others to make their wildest dreams happen, no matter where you’re from or where you want to go. Although change can be scary, it can be the impetus for the most beautiful and exciting chapter in your life.

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