Shu-Chih grew up in Taiwan, came to the United States by herself as a teenager and joined the Mormon Church. She had to overcome many obstacles, including family disapproval, living in a foreign country and raising three kids as a single mom. Shu-Chih is an accomplished artist and owns her own art school where she teaches a growing Chinese population in Irvine, CA.
Can you share a couple of funny stories about coming to America?
I came to Provo from Taiwan because I had an aunt there who had a restaurant and she needed some help. My mom felt it was better to be living with my aunt who could supervise us. At first I was only living with her for 6 months; we moved out to live on our own for three to four years. My aunt was not a Mormon, but a faithful Buddhist, who believed in doing good for others. She had a table for burning incense everyday.
When Jenny, my sister and I, and my brother, came to America, people told us that it was hard for Americans to say your Chinese name. She told me, “just get an American name, that way it is easier for us and for them.” My sister picked out Jenny, because her name has a “J” in it, and I picked out Bessie.
I was going by this name for a few years, until the 1st year of college, and one of my professors said, “Bessie, that is really an interesting name for a Chinese—do you know what Bessie means?” I said, “no, I thought there was a very famous movie called Bessie.” And she said, “no, they used to call a cow Bessie.” So I decided not to go by that anymore. My Chinese name means “lady of wisdom”; my mom picked it for me. When I found out about Bessie being a cow, I changed my name back to my original Chinese name, Shu-Chih.
When I moved here from Taiwan, my mom packed us with everything we needed: clothing, dried foods and toothpaste, enough to last us about 6 months. Then she would visit us and bring more. For some reason, the toothpaste ran out sooner than we expected. My sister and brother came to America first. So when I got here, my sister told me one morning, “This is American toothpaste, but you only need to use a little bit of it. Their flavor is very strong, so just use a little of it and that will take care of your whole brushing; you do not need a lot.”
I said, OK, American, everything is a little bit different. So I used a little bit, maybe a little more. When I put it on, oh my goodness, it was so strong, like burning my mouth: “Boy, this is really strong.” We just went on for a while, even though it was kind of hard to brush. So one day, I wanted to know what was in this toothpaste to make it so strong. I read it and saw that it was for some muscle aching, to relieve the pain. I thought, what is going on here, are they talking about the muscle of my tongue? It didn’t really make sense. How it happened was this: my sister had run out of Taiwanese toothpaste, so she and my dad went to a supermarket. They looked for the tube and the minty smell, and thinking it looked like toothpaste, bought it. After I figured it out I told my sister, “Jenny, you have been using muscle relief for brushing your teeth.” It was like Ben Gay, or Icy Hot, muscle rub.
Was it difficult to come to America by yourself?
It was hard on the high school campus. When I grew up in Taiwan, back then, you could not talk to boys, or have a casual conversation with them. You had to be separate from them at school. One campus floor was for girls, and one for the boys. When we walked on campus you had to avoid the boys. If you did talk with a boy they would call you to the office and question you about your conversation. This was high school.
When I came to America I was in high school. I found it so different on the campus in America. They were kissing. It was so embarrassing for me, I was so shocked that they could do that right in front of me. I always had to walk a different way if I saw my friends hugging or kissing; it was just very uncomfortable for me. I finished high school in a year and a half. I was in California at first and then Utah. I graduated from Provo High.
Could you speak any English in high school?
A little bit, but not that much. I remember that the outfits I wore were from Taiwan and I remember that people sensed that I was different. They would look at me and talk to their friends with their mouth covered. I knew they were talking about me, but I couldn’t say anything. There were some that would make fun of me. If I tried to say something, all the people would start laughing, but I never knew what they were talking about.
Lunch time was the hardest. People would get into a group, but you do not know which group to go to, and even to order lunch, I did not know how to order it. They did not have any numbers to choose from. I knew how to say donuts and “chicken”; that was lunch. It was kind of tough. Other than that, we were thrilled to be in America. So much freedom! The way they teach is different: they are more interesting; they don’t have as many tests—like every day. It was just more fun to learn. Even though kids would take one hour to study for a test, I would take all day, just constantly checking the dictionary and trying to find out the meaning. Biology was really tough, even when I studied hard. I had to cook and study. I took English in Taiwan. Reading is easier for me, but saying it is hard. English teachers in Taiwan have a heavy accent. We did not practice using it; we mostly learned grammar.
How did you find out about Mormonism?
I was about 19 or 20 when I joined the Mormon church. In Taiwan, I had been raised to believe that God does not exist. My parents taught me that after this life, there is nothing. I remember, I began to question, “what is the purpose of life?” and I started getting depressed thinking that when this life is over, it is over. I was struggling with that idea for almost six months and I remember one day I just felt that I needed to pray about it and see if there really was a God, if I could find out who he was. I kind of forgot about that prayer and went on with life. But a few months later my friend gave me a Book of Mormon and he insisted that I read it with him, in Alma 32. When I was reading that chapter, I felt something very strong and different. I started to take the missionary lessons. This was when I was in Provo, in college. I had heard about the Mormon church when I lived in Taiwan, but never paid much attention because my parents did not want us to join any church or religion.
At first I thought that I felt good while reading the Book of Mormon because the missionaries were so cute and kind. I was very frustrated when they told me that if I will pray about it I will know if the book is true. I knew there was a God, but the concept of Christianity, that someone would actually die for your sins, I just couldn’t understand that concept at all. I began fasting to know the truth and nothing happened. I fasted about three times and finally I felt that if I couldn’t find or receive an answer, I should just set it aside for a while. This was partly because my parents were very much against me taking the missionary discussions. However, the last time I fasted, I woke up in the morning and there was a very soft light that kind of shined through the wall and somehow I knew that was my answer, that what I was praying for was good, and not just good but was true. Ever since that time, I try to remember that feeling. Because it was very light and soft, it would be easy to forget about that spiritual feeling when in the midst of all the stress in the world.
How soon did you get baptized after that experience?
Almost a year later. I was waiting for my parents’ approval, so by the time I knew the church was true, I was waiting and waiting. I had to move to California. It was about a year when I finally decided that I was just going to go ahead with it. I was 21 years old then. But in my culture you are considered still a child if you live under your parents. I graduated from junior college and I was thinking, “I’m working now, I can survive on my own.” I just went ahead with the baptism, knowing it was considered a very bad thing to do in my family; I knew my parents would be very upset. However, I felt that if I didn’t get baptized, I would miss my chance. That was my decision, and even though I didn’t feel comfortable because of my parents, I knew it was right.
Did you tell them before you got baptized or after?
I asked them many times to be baptized, but they warned me almost everyday. They were still in Taiwan and every time I talked with them they asked, “you’re not baptized are you?” I always told them, “No, I’m not.” So, even after my baptism, I told them I was not baptized. I did not have the courage to tell them the truth.
My mom found out because she saw the difference in me. She does not believe in God, but is sensitive to spiritual things. One day she just said to me, “You’re baptized, aren’t you?” And then I told her, “Yeah, I did it.”
After that there was a big family conflict, and it was tough on me for almost a year after my baptism. My mom constantly wanted to change me; she was afraid I was going to be a Mormon with lots of kids and no money. She didn’t like that picture at all. I was still in California for about 6 months, but then my mom wanted me to come back to Taiwan to help her. She was going to retire from being a high school teacher and move to America. I went back, but It was really hard. If I wanted to go to church, I would have to escape; she would lock me in the room on Sunday, because she knew at a certain time I had to go to church. She would lock me in the house on Sunday and not let me go out. I remember one day I just escaped out the window.
My mom had a strong will to protect her kids the best way she knew. We talk about that now; she knows that she won’t change me now, so she is more receptive. She has come to church with me when the Yale Branch, the Chinese branch opened. And she even participated in the Easter program. I had her read part of the Easter story. I just saw a great change in her heart. I can’t imagine she would join the church, because she has always believed that she has to depend on herself and no one else. I think the fear of relying on some higher source is very frightening to her.
Did you take the missionary lessons in English or Chinese?
The missionary lessons were in English. They couldn’t find a Chinese speaking missionary. But that helped me with English too. My English improved a lot after I joined the church. Before my baptism I always had a Chinese Book of Mormon and an English version. I would go back and forth to check out the meaning. I had a great desire to read the English one. Even though the translation in Chinese was good, some of the meaning you could not capture in Chinese. Even though vocabulary was hard for me I felt the English wording to be closer to me. I wanted to read it in English and not go back and check it in Chinese. After I was baptized, after I received the gift of the Holy Ghost, I could literally hear a voice helping me pronounce it. I thought, if this is the gift of the Holy Ghost, I am really liking this. It was a male voice and clear and slow. I couldn’t say it, but I could hear it. I definitely can tell I did not hear that before my baptism.
Now I have gone back to read it in Chinese. I have been here 30 years, and I am teaching Sunday School in Chinese, so I have gone back to read some of that. Now I have to go back to the English Book of Mormon to understand the Chinese better.
How did you help get the Chinese Branch going?
We had a Chinese Sunday School going for a couple of years, and there were four families that really wanted to do something in Orange County, in the Irvine area. At that time the only two Chinese Branches were far away, and many Chinese Mormons didn’t want to travel that far. But when they stay locally to go to church, there is often a language barrier, or cultural barrier. They always felt the Spirit at church, but they didn’t feel they could serve as much.
We wanted to see if there was a possibility to get together on Sunday and meet, because every time we got together we felt such a strong spirit and bonding. We wanted to have more than just Sunday School: more activities. We had been holding Chinese Sunday School for two years and we just wanted a branch. Before we got the Chinese Branch, we would go to the regular, English-speaking church meeting, and then later in the afternoon, we would have a one-hour Chinese Sunday School.
We also had Asian family nights at Janet Wong’s house. That was going on for a couple of years before the branch was organized. I remember everyone was afraid that we didn’t have enough people or knowledge to set up a branch. But it all came together. The stake called a lot of returned missionaries to help us. The closest Chinese Branch was Hacienda Heights, about 45 minutes from my home, and the next one was in San Diego. I think the Church saw the needs of an Orange County Chinese Branch.
We have about 35 families in the branch, and about 20 families come every week. Because the branch is small, for primary, young men’s and young women’s our kids go to another ward. We just have Sacrament meeting, Relief Society, Priesthood and Sunday School in our branch.
Activities are important for our branch. Many of the Chinese families interested in Mormons feel better coming to our activities than church on Sunday. There are many Christian Chinese churches here. But many have the wrong idea about the Mormons. It is still a lot of work, just reaching the Chinese people in America. Many of the other churches teach them incorrect principles about Mormons and we want to let them know what we really believe.
How did you start your business of an art school?
I really had a passion for fine arts and I was doing a painting to enter a competition at South Coast Plaza. One of my mom’s friends saw my paintings, was very excited, and she asked me if I could teach her daughters. That was the beginning. I started with two, and after I was married I was teaching 10 to 15 students. We needed more finances so we prayed, and every year that number would double. I was teaching about 70 students. I had started at a dining table, living room, and then garage, and then a small studio. The large studio was 5000 square feet and I had 200 students, which happened in less than 8 years. Now I have 100; I cut back and moved to my home to teach. I have one assistant now, but this is better for me. I can watch my kids. I lose privacy, but it is better to have family close, especially since I have ended up a single mom. Raising three kids on my own in Orange County would almost be impossible. I appreciate what my ex-husband did setting up my studio and supporting my dream.
I think you know that scripture, God will not give you more trials than you can handle? I find it so true. When I first got baptized, and thought I might get kicked out of the house, that was scary. Then when I got divorced, to raise three kids, it was kind of scary. But I learned that the Lord always prepares a way for you, ahead of time, already. Just do what is right, and the Lord takes care of the rest.
Knowing who God is and His love for me, has helped me to know that I am not just being alive on earth, but there is a divine purpose and mission for me in eternity. The gospel has helped me to know the dream in my heart and teach me how to get there, and now it is my duty and calling to share with my people what I know and have learned.
At A Glance
Location: Irvine, CA
Marital status: Divorced 8 years
Children: 18, 14, and 11
Occupation: Artist and Art Instructor
Schools Attended: Provo High, California State University Long Beach and Fullerton
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “If You Could Hie To Kolob”
On The Web: www.irvineart.net
Interview by Deila Taylor. Photos used with permission.