Life often passes faster than we can process it. Looking back we only remember snapshots—symbolic representations of people and situations that directed our path. Reflecting on these pivotal moments helps us find our place in the present. Finding a strand which connects our heritage to our present can also sketch a path for the future.
Flora arrived in the USA from China more than ten years ago, with her parents and two sisters. It was a clash of old and new—cultures, languages, mindsets. From standing up to her father’s traditional viewpoints, to recognising how her family’s strength had shaped her, Flora found a balance.
After a decade, when her passion for photojournalism merged with her heritage, she returned to China to reconnect with her past.
By Flora Chen
Like a Flash
I remember the exact date in 2005. September 21st, three days before my ninth birthday. In my mind’s eye I see the last snippets of my Chinese life: a flurry of packing, my grandma crying, chaos. Diana and Susana, my two sisters, and I thought we were going to a park. Next thing I know we are in an English school in San Francisco.
We were thrown into deep waters. A temporary, one-year school teaching basic English skills to kids who just arrived in the USA. I remember, my twin sister and I were so good at maths, we skipped a year and went straight to grade four! But, our English was still very poor.
We’d had little previous contact with the language—several words we learned at school. One day, back in Dongguan, my mum tossed us a book of English names. When she asked us to pick names for ourselves, we thought it was just for fun. Little did I know this would mark the start of a new chapter in our lives.
This experience required a lot of perseverance from all of us.
Strength In the Family
Strength and resilience is ingrained in our family. My grandma was a prominent math teacher in Taishan. In the Chinese community in San Francisco, she often comes across her former students who treat her to dinner and invite her to parties. I was surprised to discover my grandma had more of a social life in California than I did! It’s really amazing to see how much of an impact she made and I admire how active she is—still dancing, going out, spending time with friends.
She always told me: Never just sit around. When you have time, do something!
My grandma has more of a social life in San Francisco than me!
My mother, too, has always been an inspiration. When we arrived in the USA, my father had to run the medicine company they both owned in China. He would only be home every two or three months. Mom was left alone to take care of the three of us while working full time, and going to school. It’s only recently that I fully realised how much she sacrificed for us.
My grandma and my mum have been a huge inspiration for me and my sisters.
Since we arrived mom has also been pursuing her dream, to get a BS in nursing. Working full time she could only take one or two classes each semester, so she’s been working on this degree for the last ten years. It takes so much perseverance to continue studying for so long. Her peers are much younger, and she has to take hospital shifts on weekends as a part of her course.
Almost 50 years old now, my mom is young at heart. She will be graduating this semester. it’s a proud and moving moment for the rest of the family.
Observing these two female figures as I grew up has shaped who I am now.
Strength in Flora: Mother’s Perseverance
When we were little we each got 20-shot cameras for Christmas. Since then I knew I wanted to pursue photography. My dad, however, would never think it would be appropriate to study art as a major. We’d been in the USA for over a decade then, and my parents had become a lot more open minded, but still, a lot of their traditional beliefs stay the same.
I could almost hear my father thinking: “I didn’t come here, and work so hard for you to become an artist. How can I talk about you to my friends!” It was almost like a disgrace. I fought over it a lot with my family. It was only after several years that my father realised I was taking art seriously.
Even though he doesn’t voice it, he shows he understands me. I remind him of his younger self, he says. It was him who bought me my first professional camera. My initial, more artistic plans regarding photography became broader since I got involved in social issues and activism. I realised art can be used to change lives. My goal now is to use photojournalism to give voice to people who don’t have it.Art can be used to change lives. It can give voice to people who don’t have it. — Flora Chen Click To Tweet
Getting my father’s acceptance got me one step closer to finding my path.
Strength in Flora: Grandma’s Grit
Going through a rough patch last semester, I had to leave school for a while. I spent more time with the family, and was mostly working to keep myself busy. At that time my little cousin introduced me to HelloTalk.
In my circles I was the only Chinese-speaking person, and I always wanted to have friends to speak Chinese with. My parents made sure to speak Cantonese and Mandarin at home to maintain our connection with the language. My elementary school was in San Francisco’s Chinatown, we’d also go to a nearby Asian-American cultural centre to do homework and for cultural events. But the more we integrated into American life, the more we started losing the language. What alarmed me was when while writing a letter to my grandpa, I realised how often I needed to check the dictionary.
While my sisters haven’t been that interested in maintaining the language, my goal is to be fluent. If I work in Asia, I want to be fluent in Mandarin, Cantonese, and English.
Since I downloaded HelloTalk I’ve been using it everyday. The friendships I’ve developed became very valuable. The app allowed me to speak about topics I wanted to talk about, helped expand my vocabulary, and made my language more casual. HelloTalk also connected me with my Chinese heritage. I realised that apart from being Chinese-American, I’m still also a Chinese person. This allows me to build stronger connections with Chinese people on the app — we understand each other’s way of thinking.Thanks to HelloTalk I connected with my Chinese heritage. Click To Tweet
Strength in Heritage: A Chinese-American Becomes Chinese
For years I have been fascinated with the stories of China our parents told us. They both come from poor backgrounds. When they were young, the only way to pursue further education was to become one of the top students in a precinct. They both made it.
Despite the hard circumstances they lived in, their stories were always so colourful. Initially my goal in studying photography and learning Chinese was to document my parents’ past—photograph their hometowns and understand their former life in China better.
There was another big motivation I had for improving my Chinese. Last year, my sisters and I started planning a 40-day trip to China and Taiwan that we went on this past summer. It was the first time visiting the country since we left, before I turned nine! We all got part-time jobs to be able to fund it.
It was a strong experience to see the country after more than a decade. A nine-year-old and a twenty-two-year-old have completely different perspectives. Because I could speak Chinese, I felt so much more in tune with my heritage. We went to see grandpa in Chaozhou, China.
We looked really American to him and the rest of the family. But when I talked, it felt really natural. To be able to speak fluent Chinese with grandpa was a really proud moment for me.
Things Always Get Better
One of the ways I engage with the Chinese culture is reading, listening to music, and watching films. When I come across a thought-provoking, inspiring, or poetic phrase I post it on my HelloTalk Moments. This is a good way to start a discussion.
Learning Chinese with the HelloTalk community helped me to get through a rough patch.
There is a quote I found on HelloTalk when I had to leave school, which resonated with me particularly well:
苦尽甘来 (kǔ jìn gān lái)
The English translation doesn’t really explain it so well. It’s something like “No matter how difficult things are they will get better.”
Interviewed and written by Marta Krzeminska
We’re looking forward to following Flora’s future photojournalistic career. If you want to follow her on HelloTalk click here (works only on mobile!).