Rebecca Chang moved to Roanoke to be with her husband, whom she met while on a work assignment in the United States. This was in 1990, when few from mainland China called Virginia home. Her husband had to briefly travel a few months after she arrived, leaving her alone with her young daughter. Christmas was approaching, and the pair would walk to the grocery store.
One day they saw a wreath with white flowers on a front door. Chang cautiously explained to her four-year-old that someone had died, which is what this would mean at home, in China. A few days later, she saw another wreath and, soon, more. “I thought, What kind of a block is this? Everybody had somebody die,” she says. “At the time I didn’t have much language, and I was missing home. So I really felt alone.”
It wasn’t too long before a nice neighbor brought Chang an early Christmas gift—a wreath with white flowers. “My mind just raced,” she says. “From there I realized there were so many things I didn’t know.”
Chang tells this story to illustrate the immense volume of detail a new immigrant must absorb when moving to a new place. Those details can quickly overwhelm someone from another culture.
“In my early years here I felt I was struggling to survive. I didn’t know if I would survive,” she says. “There was no organization to receive me, and not many people from mainland China.”
Chang, an electrical engineer in China, hardly lacked for effort. In Roanoke, she took dozens of community college classes in a wide range of subjects, earned a bachelor’s degree in business management and a master’s degree in education, and plans to defend her PhD this year. At the same time, she and her husband went into business together and raised two children—one is a high school teacher, one a medical resident—and she also volunteered. She now teaches at Roanoke College.
“When you become an immigrant it’s like you’re a tree being pulled up by all your roots,” she says. “You have to reroot yourself, and that’s a very complex process.”