Taiwanese students stay after qualifying in Christchurch

Two teenagers from Taiwan, two fresh starts, and now one shared Kiwi life – this is Isaac and Angela Lee’s story.
Taiwanese students stay after qualifying in Christchurch

Angela Huang was looking forward to the change; Isaac Lee was surprised at how much he enjoyed it. Moving to New Zealand as teenagers gave both of them relief from Taiwan’s high-pressure education system, and widened their horizons.

When Isaac’s parents sent him to Christchurch 16 years ago, at age 16, to learn English over the school holidays, he didn’t want to go – “I was planning on playing computer games all summer long,” laughs Isaac. So they really didn’t expect him phone two months later and say he wanted to stay in New Zealand.

It was different for Angela: she moved here with her family when she was 13. The education system in Taiwan was very competitive, and Angela frequently didn’t finish her after-school classes until 9pm each night; her parents wanted Angela and her younger sister to start a new life.

Now the couple can’t imagine living back in Taiwan – and their young son, Lucas, is growing up as a Kiwi.

Initially, teenage Isaac didn’t think Christchurch would be much fun. “Before I came, I thought New Zealand was going to be an extremely boring place. From what I knew, there was just sheep and cows and trees and probably not much else,” he says.

However, he loved Christchurch, made friends from different countries, and the language school also organised trips to explore the South Island. “I realised just how beautiful this country really is and you do see a lot of stuff you can’t really see anywhere else in the world,” says Isaac. “After two months, then I just think, I want to stay here forever.”

He also didn’t want to go home because of the pressure of Taiwan’s school system. “Students my age spent most of their time, like eight or 10 hours a day, studying, and it’s very stressful.”

At first, his parents thought Isaac was joking when he said he wanted to stay – so he convinced them he was serious by getting a place at Burnside High School, and moving to a home-stay family.

The style of schooling here suited Isaac much more, and he achieved better marks: in Taiwan, “we’ve been trained to get good marks on paper without actually understanding much of the material. But I found the education environment here was very encouraging for me, because I’m the type of person wanting to ask questions and find answers to problems.”

After two years at high school, Isaac studied engineering at the University of Canterbury and got a double degree in mathematics and engineering, then a master in computer science. Thanks to that qualification, and the tutoring he did while studying, he easily found a job at Allied Telesis Labs (ATL).

He started in 2009 as a graduate engineer, and is now a senior software engineer, writing new software and fixing issues for customers. Isaac loves working at ATL because he feels well looked after: for example, a back injury from doing martial arts means he has trouble sitting down for long periods of time.

“I remember talking to my manager about my situation and the next thing I know, the company bought me a new electric desk that adjusts in height so I can work standing up or sitting down whenever I want,” he says. “I feel you’re being looked after and the company appreciates you as an employee.”

Isaac and Angela met at church in 2009, and soon found out they were born in different cities in Taiwan, but only 12 hours apart. They got married three years later, and their son Lucas is now two years old.

When Angela first arrived here in 1995, she was also relieved at the change in schooling style. Instead of after-school classes, she had more time to practise music.

Her mother was a piano teacher, and having music in the family was a big influence for Angela – she’s been playing piano since she was five years-old, and the harp since she was 10. After teaching music at high schools and gaining a master in harp performance and pedagogy, Angela now plays second harp for the Christchurch Symphony Orchestra and teaches harp and piano from home.

“That’s a good job, especially when I have Lucas around – my dad normally comes to take care of him, and I teach at home, so if he needs me, he can always find me,” she explains.

Outside work, Isaac and Angela enjoy spending time as a family, catching up with friends and visiting Christchurch’s many parks. They enjoy going back to Taiwan to see family – “Great shopping, everything is cheap,” says Angela – but New Zealand’s uncrowded, friendly environment always draws them back.

When they first arrived in New Zealand, their biggest challenge was getting used to speaking English. Isaac found it took 2-3 years, and a lot of practice, before he felt comfortable with the language.

“I didn’t actually have too many Kiwi friends when I was in high school, mainly because of my English barrier, and because I also joined them in sixth form, so they already know each other very well. But I did meet some good friends there.”

Though Angela went to English classes in Taiwan before moving here, “when I came here, I still felt so insufficient.” It was okay if I read very basic stuff, but if I had to converse with people, I felt really uncomfortable because I didn’t know how to respond. So most of the time I just sat there and smiled,” she laughs.

It’s much easier now, and she advises other potential migrants who are struggling with speaking English to just keep trying. “Hang in there! The language thing will improve and you will enjoy the life in New Zealand because it’s just so family-oriented and it’s really lovely,” Angela says.

“You have to put yourself out there to be brave, to talk to people and it’s a good thing that everybody’s so friendly in New Zealand. If you are a little bit brave, then things will get better because you tried.”

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