First Year of Teaching

My first teaching assignment was at a small public elementary school in Huntington Beach. I taught third grade. It was a “tough” school in that many of the students were reading below their grade level, were second language learners, or had socio-economic challenges. Several of my students had fathers in jail. Whereas most of my teaching program classmates had chosen positions in high-income areas such as Irvine and Newport Beach, I wanted to teach kids in need.

Although I had done my student teaching at the school, I had no idea how difficult having my own classroom would be.

First, the workload. I had students of vastly differing abilities. Some were still learning their letters and sounds and others could read fluently. Some could barely speak English, while others wrote stories with ease.  I therefore had to individualize assignments and create leveled curriculum tracks, rotating students in groups through centers. Because there were so many struggling students, I tutored during lunch and after school and called parents at home to discuss their child’s progress. I quickly realized that most of these parents were exhausted in the evenings, working two jobs, or did not speak English. Although they were glad that I cared,  parents were limited in time, energy, and education to support their kids academically.  If they could they would have been doing it.  Several students had learning or developmental issues, so I advocated for them. This meant initiating meetings with parents,  and pushing for Student Study Team and IEP meetings, all before or after school. The resource teacher did not like me.

For some kids, my efforts made a big difference. One child had serious speech issues that had never been addressed before. Another child’s mom credited me with teaching her son to read. I chose leveled books for him to take home daily at his reading level.  His mom did not know how to do this.  I saved discarded library books for one student who was bright and curious, but always in trouble. The other teachers did not like him. He was uncoordinated, dark-skinned, and loud– one of my favorites. I gave him the books after school and he began to read them in class instead of horsing around with the other boys. I’d go to the public library every two weeks and borrow the maximum number of books allowed for teachers–100.  I exposed my students to the best of books and literature. Kids who did not have books to read at home could read at school instead.

I  was the first to arrive in the morning. I arrived by 6:30 AM and prepared until 8 AM, watching the sun rise, it’s light reflecting off my whiteboard. I  worked through lunch and was the last person to leave. I took papers home to grade and materials to prepare.  It was not unusual for me to fall asleep at the wheel of the car as soon as I had parked in in front of my house. I had no parent volunteers, no teaching assistants.  Still, a parent would ask accusingly, “Miss Wu, why don’t you put something new on your bulletin board?”

Managing the classroom was a nightmare. I was completely detached from the world of children and families. Why weren’t kids listening to me? Why were they always arguing? Why did they talk back? Why couldn’t I get the class to quiet down? Why did I have to yell at them for them to listen to me? I was sweet, nice, and stepped all over.  Imagine me with small footprints–no, tractor tread marks–all over my face and front of my clothes. Inexperienced working with children, I did not know how to assert my authority. I could not relate to their home and family backgrounds.  I only knew my own Asian heritage where most kids do what the teacher says.

As the school year progressed, I grew to dislike teaching more and more. I counted down the days until summer. Managing the classroom and all the non-teaching tasks such as preparing materials, enforcing behavior plans, resolving fights and friendship issues, photocopying, and organizing papers was extremely draining.  I’d wake up in the middle of the night stressed, look in the mirror, and find permanent frown lines between my brows.  Soon my desire to do good  was not enough to compensate for my disdain for everything else.  I kept up the after-school tutoring, advocating for services, and designing fun lessons, but the classroom discipline and mundane tasks were killing me.

By the end of the school year, I decided to quit.





How I Decided to Become a Teacher

My stay in Taiwan ended with a telephone call. My dad let me know the bad news that my grandfather was sick and that he may not have much more time to live. My Chinese program was over so I quickly packed my bags, said my goodbyes and headed back to the States.

When I returned home I discovered that my grandfather’s kidneys had stopped working and that he was on dialysis.  His life would be prolonged although he would slowly weaken. I spent much time fussing over his treatments.

On a personal level, I had classic reverse culture shock. Everything at home was the same and yet I had changed.  No one could relate to me. Everyone was happy to see me and I was happy to reconnect,  but each interaction increased my anxiety.  What was I going to do with my life now that I had returned from Taiwan?  What would I tell my family and friends when they asked what my plans were? My peers had gone on to jobs, grad school and  adulthood, and I was directionless and broke. I had a car to drive but didn’t have money for gas.

My parents wanted to have the “what are you going to do now” talk and I knew I needed an answer. I didn’t know what I wanted, so I made myself make a decision. I said I wanted to become an elementary school teacher and pretended it was what I wanted to do. I convinced myself it was a noble profession.  I reasoned to myself that if I were to go back to Taiwan or live overseas again, teaching experience would be beneficial.  Kids are cute and I could help disadvantaged children develop literacy.  I could get my credential in one year and escape my state of limbo. I’d have a focus for the next couple of years. I’d have a stable job. So that is how the decision was made.

Questions for Discussion: How did you decide on your career? Have you ever made a decision that you knew was a wrong one? If yes, why? What was the result?

Author’s Reflections: Looking back, I wish I had looked for a full-time job and spent more time considering options before rushing into making such an important decision. I could have worked as a substitute teacher first. Or asked for counsel from mentors or wise peers instead of making the decision entirely on my own. (Proverbs 15:22 in the Bible says “Plans fail for lack of counsel, but with many advisers they succeed.”) I was still young and had many opportunities to choose from,  but I rushed into the decision. Scared, I became overly practical. I didn’t ask for help. I lost hope in myself.

Unexpected Direction

By spring of 1994 my time in Taiwan was drawing to a close. I had almost finished my second year of Chinese studies and began asking myself what I was going to do when I returned to the States.  I thought I might pursue graduate studies in comparative literature but knew my Chinese was not good enough.  I was afraid to pursue journalism in Taiwan even though I had some contacts and it was something I really wanted.  Aside from keeping a journal,  I stopped writing because I doubted my ability.  I considered law school. Three years of professional school with a clear career objective and good income was attractive. But I couldn’t see myself  a lawyer. The uncertainty of the future and my inability to chose a profession ripped me  up inside.

I remember angrily screaming at the bathroom mirror one night. My roommates weren’t  home so I let myself cry.  The window was open but I wasn’t worried about alarming my neighbors. Domestic abuse was common in our apartment building. I loathed my inability to make a decision. I was so frustrated.  I hated my life.

One day not too long after this incident I had stayed home from classes because I was not feeling well.  It was particularly hot that day and my apartment did not have air conditioning. Having woken up from my nap sweaty and weak with flu symptoms,  I walked over to the pharmacy to get some medicine. The woman there gave me several packets of pills wrapped in paper and I took them when I got home.

The next thing I knew I was on the bathroom floor. I must’ve overdosed on the pills. As I was getting up, I knocked the back of my head hard on the bathroom sink and slammed back onto the ground. Lying supine, I discovered I could not breathe nor  move my limbs. I was paralyzed.  Since I could not breathe, I was probably going to die.

I looked around, praying there were no cockroaches on the floor near me.  Thankfully, there were none.  I did not want to die with cockroaches around me. (Surprisingly I feared cockroaches but  was not afraid of death. ) My life flashed before my eyes.  I remember praying that my parents would know God, feeling sorry I was upset at one of my friends for not offering to pay for her meals,  and regretting all the time I wasted worrying about my future.  In a moment of clarity I heard the words:    “Give, you must give. This is the meaning of your life.”  My mind was clear and I felt peace. Albeit a little late, finally I had direction.

Author’s Reflections:
After receiving the revelation (which I believe was from God),  I was able to breathe. I crawled back to my bedroom and passed out on my bed. One of my roommates found me and called over a doctor friend who diagnosed me with a concussion. The words “Give, you must give” have never left me.  I have not always liked those words, but I know they are to guide my life. In giving I will find meaning.  I’m still not sure exactly how.





I Have an Enemy

About three months into my stay in Taiwan I had finally settled into a routine. I was studying 20 hours of Chinese a week, had found a part-time job teaching English, had made some friends at school, and had started attending the English ministry at Bread of Life church in Taipei.  I was content studying Chinese with no goal in mind but learning the language. I had made many friends through school and church who were in the country to learn the language and were also  in between schooling or careers. Still on survival mode, I didn’t have the energy to think about my future. 

But soon I discovered another fight awaited me.

Walking the streets,  I had  sensed a dark cloud above me, surrounding me. It was an uncomfortable presence which I had attributed to my stomach aches, pollution, or living in a big city.  My mind was not clear. Constantly barraged with negative thoughts, my thinking was confused and fatigued.  I remember feeling particularly ugly and being preoccupied with the clothing I saw being sold on the streets. They were not my style, but I thought I needed to buy something to make me feel better about my appearance. I became self-conscious and obsessed.  I started to carry around a pocket Bible that I would read on the bus when my mind felt particularly battered. I’d read a verse and just meditate on it. I’d even do this while standing up. 

One afternoon my mind felt especially tired. I had a long, crowded  bus ride and had been meditating on verses from my pocket Bible. I had just gotten off the bus and had walked into a busy outdoor marketplace where clothes and trinkets were being sold.

A thirty-something lady approached me and told me she saw me on the bus. The first thing I noticed was that she looked at me with eyes askance. She couldn’t look me straight in the eyes. Something was off which I attributed to social awkwardness or neediness.  I felt sorry for her. The conversation went something like this:

Lady:   “What were you reading on the bus? Was it the Bible?”

Me, surprised because it was very small:   “Yes.”

Lady:   “Are you a Christian?”

Me, excited because I thought God might be leading her her to me to share with her:   “Yes. Are you interested in God? You can come to my church.”

Lady:   “OK. Where do you live?”

Me, pulling out a notebook and writing down my address, thinking she needed someone to talk to or wanted to learn more about the Bible, eager to help:   “Here’s my address. I live near the church.” 

Lady, somewhat randomly:   “Are you a college graduate?”

Me:   “Yes.”

Lady:   “That’s surprising, by the looks of you I would not have known that you are educated.”

Me:   Silent, thinking she must think I do not look very smart and didn’t know I had just graduated from Stanford. 

Lady:   “Why are you in Taiwan?

Me, feeling spiritual and at my best:   “To share God’s love with Chinese people.”

Lady:   “You should go home. You won’t do any good here.”

Me, shocked, silent, confused, thinking maybe I should go home. I was struggling.  What good was I doing there? Wanting to change the subject, I began focussing on the music being played in one of the shops.

Lady, noticing my listening to the music:   “Do you like  to dance?”

Me, thinking that I  have always loved ballet and but was shy to admit it:   “Yes.”

Lady:   “The way your body looks, I would have never thought that you could dance.”

I realized she was not asking for help. She was attacking me. She was attacking three vulnerable places few people knew about.  One, that I struggled with my self-worth having just graduated from Stanford and feeling I didn’t have much to show for it. Two, my desire to share God’s love with Chinese. Three, doubts about my physical beauty and ability to dance. How did she know those three secret thoughts?

My face must have turned pale because the lady then proceeded to ask, “Aren’t you scared that you gave me your address?” “No,”  I lied as I said goodbye and quickly started walking away.  I went straight home and called my church care group leaders, an older couple from Singapore for help.  For the first time in my life I had met someone, something evil.  Someone was out to get me.  I had an enemy.

Author’s Reflections:

I knew spiritual warfare existed but that day I learned that spiritual warfare is personal. I had an enemy that wanted to bring me down.  I told my care group leaders about the lady,  the dark cloud and the negative thoughts.  They prayed for me and counseled me.  Fortunately, they had experience dealing with such things.

Enemies attack weak areas to bring their opponents down.  The “lady” told me I was stupid, useless, and ugly in order to debilitate me.  Maybe I’d get depressed. Maybe I’d give up on my Chinese and go home. With the help of friends I was able to fight back.  Those thoughts, however, would return. Over the next couple of decades I  would hear them elsewhere. I would begin to agree with those lies.  I would speak them to myself.  In my search for career, self-worth, and identity,  I’d become my enemy.



Study Abroad in Taiwan

August, 1993

I had no idea what I was getting myself into moving to Taiwan.  I had spent a magical summer there several years prior. I had lived with close relatives in Ban Chiao (a suburb of Taipei) and enjoyed company and home-cooked dinners. 

This time around things were different. I was on my own. Upon my arrival I lived with relatives in a small, dark apartment in Taipei. The building itself was  part museum, part temple, part haunted house. It was several stories high and austere, located within some type of wind tunnel created by its proximity to the local airport. I had to trudge against a pummel of wind to get inside. The entrance was a dark and cavernous hall decorated with gargoyle-like statues of mythical creatures. There was a huge, red ancestral altar smoking with incense, and an old man working as a guard (also smoking) sat on a wicker chair and nodded as residents walked by.  He never smiled, just sat expressionless, following with his eyes.

My grandfather had informed my aunt and uncle whose home I was staying in that I was going to study in Taipei and needed to stay with them. The couple were grandparents whose grandchildren lived with them as a result of their son’s recent divorce. They couldn’t say no and we didn’t know one another, so I was an awkward presence. Since the family went to bed at 6pm, by the time I returned in the evening all lights were off. Going home each night was a strange routine of violent wind to gargoyle entrance to creepy stare, to tiptoeing straight to my room in darkness. A dim, red lamp from the ancestral altar lit my way. My relatives were courteous and kind to host me, but I knew I needed to move out.

Even though I lived and studied in Taipei, the commute to school (National Taiwan Normal University’s Mandarin Training Center) was brutal. The city had no subway. It was in the process of being built. The construction caused the already crowded bus system to be further jammed in gridlock. I had to fight my way onto the  bus, push myself in, pry myself out, and repeat it again if necessary depending on the bus route I’d take. Sometimes I just walked. I got lost often because there were sometimes multiple busses  per route and my reading skills was limited. There was no GPS and I was inept at reading maps.  The worst part of the commute was waiting in line a final 15 minutes to cram into the one malodorous elevator that took students  from the bottom floor of the department building to the language classrooms. Sometimes I’d just walk up the four or five flights of stairs. Either way, I started each day of classes sweaty, thirsty, and exhausted.

Not to mention the stomach aches. My first four months in Taiwan I had constant stomach discomfort.  It was a combination of feverishness, chills, and diarrhea; probably from the street food or unboiled water.  I was always looking for a bathroom and splashing water on myself after washing my hands to cool myself down. The public bathrooms were often unclean and smelled of urine. I couldn’t be picky. Walking to and from home to school I would sometimes rest my forehead on telephone  and traffic light poles to wait for the waves of cramps and sweat pass.  I had once even slammed my head hard against a low- hanging tree branch after  resting on my forehead against the trunk of the tree. ( I had walked away from the tree with my eyes closed after a particularly painful episode. ) It was a lot of work to study Chinese. 

I enjoyed my classes,  but living overseas was off to a rough start.


Anticlimactic Repeat

Senior year came and I had to face again the  question of my future.

I considered pursuing a graduate degree in English.  When one of my professors bluntly expressed that writing a recommendation letter for me would reflect poorly on his reputation and then continued to wax poetic about another student  who he had written a letter for who was brilliant,  I quickly dropped that idea.  He even pulled out the letter and began reading it aloud to me since he knew I was acquainted with that particular student. I was more relieved than annoyed. I knew the rigor of academic literary discourse was not for me.

Some of my English major friends were applying to law school and others had landed consulting jobs.  I couldn’t see myself doing either those things. I  went back to the career center and conducted several informational interviews  but could find no clear direction.

The only idea I had was to return to Taiwan to teach English and study Chinese. As I was thinking over this possibility,  my Chinese professor encouraged me to apply for a Taiwan Ministry of Education scholarship to study Chinese in Taiwan.  Ten students would be selected to receive a full year’s tuition plus a generous stipend.  I applied, and to my surprise, within a month of applying, I received word that I had been chosen.   I could not believe my good fortune and was relieved that I had a plan for at least the next year.

About the same time (graduation was approaching)  I received a message on my answering machine congratulating me for winning the English Department Poetry Prize for Best Poem by an Undergraduate. Oddly, my response was disappointment. I was convinced that few people must have entered the competition, they had no other choice than to choose me.

The year ended in a blur of activities where I found myself to be disconnected from my peers. My writing life which I had found solace in was not particularly conducive to bonding with friends.  I had good friends and apartment mates,  but had not found part of any particular tribe.   When it came time to celebrate, the night before graduation, my friends had their family events and group activities, and I found myself alone. It was an uneasy surprise, a rude awakening.   As I left campus after graduation and shut the door of the minivan which would take me home, sadness washed over me.  I felt the same emptiness and angst that I had weeks after graduating from high school. I had no career plans.  I was not proud of myself.  I had nothing to celebrate.

Author’s Reflections:  Sometimes I read about high school students who seem to have everything going for them but commit suicide.  (See note below.) They were honor students, accomplished in sports or music, had the world ahead of them, yet they had lost hope. Maybe they felt disconnected or alone. Or thought they weren’t good enough.  I would never take my life, but I could relate to those feelings.  I went into college determined to find a career but ended still without direction. I thought I was a failure.

If I could speak to my young twenty-year-old self I’d say, you’re doing great. You haven’t figured it all out but you’ve graduated from Stanford!  You’re a scholarship winner and a poetry prize winner. You don’t have to figure everything out. You have your whole life to discover your life’s purpose.  There are many ways to define success and career is just one of them. You are sensitive and creative. You are spiritual and caring. You are hard-working and intelligent.  I am proud of you.

Questions for Discussion: How do you define success? How broad is your definition?
Has your definition changed?

Click here for an Atlantic Monthly (December 2015) article on teen suicides:  Silicon Valley Suicides: Why are so many kids with bright prospects killing themselves in Palo Alto?


Junior Year of Freedom

Boosted and encouraged by a summer a self-discovery,   I jumped both feet into my junior year.

I liked being an English major. I finally had a major. My year was off to a great start. I quickly chose my classes and I  began composing poems and vignettes about my grandparents. College was new again, like I had pressed restart. I volunteered to help with Freshman Orientation and participated in all the activities. I went to the welcome parties and events and felt like a kid again. Color came into my vision. I felt free and alive.

I was assigned by random lottery (completely not my choice) to Okada House, the Asian-American theme dorm, and my Resident Advisor was Ed Iwata, a newspaper journalist. He invited authors Amy Tan and  Gus Lee, playwright David Henry Hwang and other prominent Asian Americans to give talks at our dorm (lucky me!) He gave feedback on my writing and encouraged me to keep it up. He left books about writing in front of my door. I considered him a mentor and couldn’t believe my good fortune.

I pursued creative writing with a fearless abandon. I asked the well-known Poetry professor, Dianne Middlebrook, whose class I had taken, for feedback on my poetry. She agreed and even sponsored me for a mini grant I had applied for to spend a morning with American poet Ruth Whitman. I enrolled in Advanced Composition with a Lecturer names Jane Emery.  She already had a distinguished career in Australia and had recently taken the part-time position in her seventies. She took me under her wing and pointed out the potential in my writing. We kept in touch for decades after graduation and she became not only a mentor but a dear, cherished friend.

I did not do particularly well in my English classes. I earned Bs in all my classes, but I was not discouraged. I knew that my writing and my thinking skills were improving. I felt like a motor was being started, like car in park while being revved, about to take off.

I spent hours in quiet corners of the university–in the library, at cafe tables, underneath a tree, or on a lonely bench– reading, praying, jotting down notes on napkins, journaling, experimenting with ideas on scraps of paper, enjoying my thoughts. I didn’t t think about careers or what I was doing after graduation. I was lost in my art.

Author’s Reflections:  Looking back, that  year was a gift. After the last two years of confusion and shame I finally began connecting with myself. I started to find my voice.  I had been looking desperately looking for career direction and had not found it, but God had given me through writing what I needed most–self-awareness, self-acceptance, a means to unpack my own thoughts. Writing brought hidden sadness  into existence and I began to heal.

Discussion Questions: Have you ever been flooded by gifts you didn’t ask for or deserve? In my case the gifts were mentors.  What are some gifts in your life right now?

I had put career planning on the back burner and delved into my art. Was this a wise use of time?  Should I have been making plans for my future after college? 

Unlikely English Major

I never thought I’d be an English major. Although I liked to write as a child, I had never enjoyed reading and as a child often had difficulty finding a book to borrow from the library.  The Short Story class I was taking was enjoyable but I didn’t see how it related to life. Who reads short stories other than academics and students? I needed to find a practical major. Two years of searching had left me disappointed and directionless. I was no longer looking for a dream job or a career. I had given up on that. I just needed a major.  And if I couldn’t find a major that provided a path to a job title, at least I needed to study something that would impact my life in the long run. And so I chose English, not because I loved literature and writing, but because I thought I would improve my writing ability, a skill I could transfer to a future career, whatever that would be. I was not particularly content with my situation.  The lack of certainty surrounding what I’d do with an English major made me uncomfortable. I was at Plan C and had to live with it.


Sophomore year summer I took an English class at UCI. Since I was late in declaring my major, I needed to make up some units in order to graduate.  The only course offered through Open University at UCI was Contemporary American Poetry, so that’s what I signed up for.


The class wasn’t what I expected. Instead of analyzing and writing papers about abstruse poetry, we attended in-class poetry readings by local poets whose poetry we had been assigned to read. Again, I was sat riveted in my seat the first week of class. I had the same feeling I had in the Short Story class but the feelings of empathy and belonging were even more intense. Flesh and blood poets poured out their souls, talking about their work and answering questions. I connected with them and felt strangely awake. The course also required that we keep a poetry journal where we were to reflect upon the poetry we were assigned to read and perhaps compose some of our own. The poets wrote about their experiences so I wrote about mine. Years of unprocessed pain–sadness, shame, disappointment, confusion, anger, frustration, loneliness, angst all began to emerge. The constraints of poetry provided aesthetic boundaries for my random, disjointed thoughts and I experienced the pleasure of creating something beautiful. I had strangely stumbled upon something meaningful and very “me”.  I had found in writing poems a voice and piece of my identity.


I showed some poems to my best friend, May. She hated them and asked why I was so bitter. Me, bitter? I was shocked at her statement. It was the first time I had realized the amount of negative emotion I harbored. I had been hurting and needed to forgive. I was broken and needed healing. I began to process my pain. That revelation would prove to be a major turning point in my young adult life.


At the end of the summer I remember receiving my grade for the course. It was an A. Although it was a relatively easy class, I noticed something odd and unfamiliar as I looked at the A. I was smiling, even laughed. I felt happy.


Questions for Discussion: What do you think about my rationale for choosing a major? Have you ever made a life-changing discovery when you weren’t even looking for it?

Shooting Arrows in the Dark

My dad didn’t want me to transfer out of Stanford and accepted my decision not to be pre-med. But my parents’ disapproval weighed heavy on my shoulders. It was the beginning of sophomore year and I needed to declare a major. Even more, I needed to prove I knew what I was doing when in fact I did not.

Summer in Taiwan

My mom flew with me to Taiwan. It was sweltering hot. She settled me in with some relatives and made sure I was in good hands. Her brother worked not far from my teaching assignment in Taipei. I stayed with my my grandfather’s brother and his wife in a nearby suburb. Before returning home my mom took me to Taiwan University Hospital to meet up with a nursing school classmate who worked there and ask if she could arrange for me to volunteer (candy stripe). The hospital was old, walls were cement, and stainless steel carts of instruments and food containers squeaked through the halls. I was repulsed by the smell of the hospital chemicals and had an overwhelming desire to bolt. I can’t remember the conversation, just that I never followed up on that suggestion.  This hospital encounter was followed by a magical summer. I found it deeply meaningful to connect with relatives I had grown up hearing stories about and to carve out a place for myself in my family history where strangely, I belonged. I developed rapport with the university students I taught. We were the same age, so different culturally, yet so alike. I enrolled myself in a Chinese class for foreigners. I loved studying Chinese and once completely missed my bus stop having found myself at the end of the route at a remote part of town entirely engrossed in a book about the meaning of individual Chinese radicals and characters. I was fascinated.


That summer, like the last, ended bittersweet. I had a wonderful time in Taiwan. My heart felt full and happy. I felt alive, true to myself, able to thrive. At the same time I was saddened to realize that as much as I wished I could please my parents and continue down the pre-med track, it wasn’t going to work out. I was trying my best to be mature and obedient about my future. Figure out a practical career and major to pursue in place of medicine. At the same time I was passionate and full of dreams. This split mind was tearing me apart.


Upon my return to the States I told my dad I couldn’t study medicine and was ready to withdraw from Stanford and transfer to a less expensive school.

Questions for Discussion: Was I being rebellious? Was changing schools the right thing to do? What do you think?