Exploring the Unique Experiences of Immigrant Students

By Lizzy Xie, Online News Editor

// Among the vast majority of American-born high schoolers at Acalanes, a small portion of students possess backgrounds far unlike those of their peers. These individuals have encountered the challenges which accompany adapting to life in a new country.

Such a massive transition involves unfamiliar faces, different languages, and unknown customs. Here at Acalanes, student immigrants faced these original obstacles as well as many other unique challenges upon entering the United States.

Surpassing the struggles of initial culture shock, immigrants continue to face a wide range of adversity from financial stress to communication barriers. Nevertheless, Acalanes students confront these problems head-on while learning how to positively embrace their cultures in an unfamiliar country. These are some of their stories.

Unubold Munkhbold

“Eternal steel” is the meaning of senior Unubold Munkhbold’s name in Mongolian. The story of his life as an immigrant to the United States brings new depth to this meaning.

Born in Mongolia, Munkhbold moved to Poland at an early age. He then moved back to Mongolia before arriving to the United States in 2006.

Due to his traveled past, Munkhbold considers himself more globally experienced compared to his Lafayette peers.

“Most kids here, they probably were born here and were raised in this little bubble, I moved to Poland at a young age and lived there for quite a while,” Munkhbold said.

Munkhbold’s unique upbringing allows him to recognize the cultural variation between Mongolia and the United States.

Placing emphasis on the discrepancies between American and Mongolian parenting, Munkhbold highlights the more authoritative nature and higher standards of Mongolian parents.

“In the US, there’s a lot of fragility in parenting,” Munkhbold said. “There’s a lot more emotion than action, not to say there isn’t intimacy or family bonding in Mongolia or Asia in general, but in the US it’s just more delicate.”


By Anne Thiselton-Dyer

Before moving to the US, Munkhbold did not foresee many of the cultural differences he would experience, including the intolerance of Americans. There have been multiple instances where he felt uncomfortable and unwelcome because of his nationality.

“One time at school, one guy was making jokes at me saying, ‘Go back to your own country,’ and stuff along those lines,” Munkhbold said. “There are just small moments when people think they’re superior. Overall though, California as a whole is a very diverse community.”

Upon his arrival to the US, Munkhbold spoke no English. He was put into an English as a Second Language (ESL) class until second grade. Along with the class, other kids helped him master the language and adapt to American life.

Munkhbold’s struggle adjusting to life in a foreign country provided a difficult, yet formative experience. His perspective on immigration in today’s world has been shaped by his experiences with separation, racism, and isolation.

“My family moved here for my future success and for me to have more opportunities,” Munkhbold said. “I believe that people who are trying to make a better future for themselves, seeking asylum, or just wanting a better life in general, deserve to be able to immigrate wherever they deem necessary.”

While he acknowledges the risks of opening up immigration, Munkhbold claims that this a better solution than closing off borders and putting up walls.

“If I could give my past self one piece of advice… Expect a lot of challenges,” Munkhbold said.

Zoe Levit 

Senior Zoe Levit, born in Fuling, China, was immediately sent to an orphanage by her birth parents due to the one-child policy China had at the time. Levit remained at the orphanage for eight months until she was adopted by her parents in the Bay Area.

“My parents went through this agency, so a bunch of people from the Bay Area went to China together,” Levit said.

Levit maintains close relationships with the other girls who were adopted from the same agency as her and affectionately calls them her sisters. Levit and her “sisters” reunite around five times a year. While their parents used to keep in touch via email, they now stay connected through social media.

“We don’t talk constantly, but it’s really easy to just pick up where we left off,” Levit said.

Although she is not ashamed of having been adopted, the regular task of explaining her adoption process is more of a burden. She is accustomed to hearing questions like, ‘Do you want to see your real parents?’ or ‘Do you remember anything?’

Experiencing what she calls “normal racism,” many of her classmates assume she is good at math and that she is characterized by other Asian stereotypes. One classmate claimed that Levit was perpetuating her stereotype by carrying a calculator around.

The racism that Levit endures is not limited to math jokes, as occasionally her peers’ comments exceed her definition of “normal racism.”

“The worst was when in eighth grade when this kid was texting me pictures of people eating dogs and saying it was my uncle,” Levit said.

These difficult experiences led Levit to whitewash herself in order to obtain the acceptance of her peers. Levit refused to attend weekend Chinese school, a testament to her attempt at assimilation.

“I didn’t want to go to Chinese school at all,” Levit said, “It’s like I didn’t want to be different and I really regret it now.”


By Anne Thiselton-Dyer

Levit’s insecurites regarding her diviersity also dictated her perception of her physical appearance. She deemed her eyes too small and was self-conscious of her nose.

Even something as small as her food choice of lunch provided a significant stressor. Levit eventually refused to bring traditional Chinese food to school.

“I used to bring traditional food,” Levit said. “Even with chow mein, people would tell me that it looked like worms, and I just didn’t know what to do.”

However, today she embraces her Asian heritage proudly. She started feeling more comfortable with herself and embracing her Chinese culture when she surrounded herself with Chinese friends she had met through her orchestra class.

“Through them, I learned that being Chinese is a good thing and something that I should embrace.” Levit said, “I started bringing more ethnic food, and I used chopsticks at school. I started cultivating the person I tried to bury for years. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.”

While Levit now proudly embraces her culture, the years she spent trying to camouflage herself to fit into a primarily white community greatly shaped her character.

“In my position, my parents are white, we speak Spanish in our house, and I’m Jewish. It’s really confusing and hard to keep in touch with that lost part of in my life,” Levit said, “But I’m trying, and I think throughout my life, I’m going to try more and more to integrate that Chinese part into my life.”

Regina Roufegarinejad

Born in Iran, sophomore Regina Roufegarinejad has had a very different life experience than many sophomores at Acalanes. While her parents lived in Australia during her mother’s pregnancy, Roufegarine was born a month early in Iran when her mother was visiting her grandmother.

Roufegarinejad moved to Canada when she was three years and relocated to the US in third grade.

“There really aren’t too many differences between the two countries,” Roufegarinejad said discussing Canada and the US. “But I feel like kids here can do almost anything and get away with it.”

Roufegarinejad’s experiences in Canada and the US proved to be similar, especially regarding her status as an immigrant. She found that she was, and is still, treated differently as an immigrant. Fellow classmates repeatedly requested to hear her say her last name and Roufegarinejad became accustomed to having people assume her ethnicity.

“People have asked me if I was Indian,” Roufegarinejad said, “When I told them no, they kept on persisting and saying I was Indian. I mean, I’m pretty sure I know my ethnicity.”


By Anne Thiselton-Dyer

Roufegarinejad’s diverse life experiences contrast to those of the average Don. She understands how hard her parents have worked to get her where she is right now.

“I’m really grateful all my parents have done,” Roufegarinejad said. “I feel like kids in Lafayette, they haven’t experienced any other type of life yet, so they don’t understand how privileged they are.”

As an immigrant, she has not felt unwelcome in a school environment, however in airports, she is always the person who gets picked for random TSA checks.

Before moving to the US, Roufegarinejad had expectations of perfection. However, today she realizes the country is far from perfect.

“I would want myself to know that things aren’t going to be what you think,” Roufegarinejad said when asked what she would tell her past self before moving.

Zhangyang Zhou

Junior Zhangyang Zhou was born in Chongqing, China. When she was two and a half, she moved to Pennsylvania and lived there until she was eight years old, when she then moved back to China. Her parents originally decided to move to the US for her father’s college and work.

In Chongqing, Zhou attended an international school until she was thirteen when she moved to California. The variations between Zhou’s life in China and in the US are best reflected in her academic experience.

“The biggest change for me was school,” Zhou said, “For example, my school in China, we never had any quizzes, so when I came here, my math teacher told us we had a quiz coming up, and I was just completely thrown off.”

Along with this, she had the idea that school in the US was easy due to the things that were told to her by her parents.

“My relatives from China always tell me I could get into UC Berkeley or Stanford because of the idea that school in the US is easy.”

The largest shock for Zhou is that many kids in the US don’t fall into the stereotype of the ‘party all the time’ role. Of course, there are exceptions. However, she noticed that most of her peers are just as pressured to do well in school and go on to attend a prestigious college.


By Anne Thiselton-Dyer

As an immigrant, she has generally felt welcome in California due to the diverse communities here. Currently, Zhou holds a green card. As a green card holder, she has the same rights as everyone, but can’t vote and can’t take office in the government or the army.

Her different experiences in life have transformed her outlook on life and what the future hold for her.

“As a junior, I feel less stress than everyone around me because I have many options after high school.” Zhou said, “If America doesn’t work for me, I can go back to China.”

Her experience as an immigrant has led her to have a different viewpoint on the topic of immigration. She believes that immigration is vital for the development and improvement for a country.

“In an era of globalization, I think immigration should be allowed,” Zhou said, “It allows for an influx of ideas and technology, and that’s how a country improves. It’s much better than isolating yourself.”

Yicheng Yao

Junior Yicheng Yao, born in Beijing, China, moved to the US during the first quarter of his freshman year. The biggest struggle for him wasn’t school itself but learning English.

While he did learn English at his school in China, his education did not prepare him to communicate with native speakers, as English wasn’t taught extensively. Overcoming the language barrier was the greatest challenge according to Yao.

Yao believes he understands grammar very well, but the issue for him was regarding vocabulary. To improve his English, he started off by memorizing the words in an elementary school level dictionary. When he decided that his vocabulary was strong enough, he moved onto reading more.

“I had an amazing history teacher my freshman year, Mr. Barter. I would carefully read all his textbook assignments,” Yao said. “At first, it would take me the entire night to read a few pages because I had to translate everything, but it gradually became easier.”

Along with this, AP European History also helped with his English more than anything.

“Writing DBQs, analyzing historical documents, and textbook reading basically forced me to learn English,” Yao said. “It’s like you just learn the controls and all of a sudden, you’re supposed to beat the game in hard mode.”

In Beijing, he attended a public school which he believes was much more stressful than Acalanes.

“In China, I found that the courses there were much more rigorous than the courses here,” Yao said.

Yao believes that the middle school he attended in Beijing made him accustomed to a high-stress environment. Because of this, the Acalanes academic environment is not as overwhelming.

“It was a very selective and competitive public school, ranked number seven in Beijing,” Yao said regarding his middle school in Beijing.

The school would post the rankings of the top 50 students to motivate those who didn’t place as well.

“At best I ranked at number 3 and at my worst, I ranked at 47. I had to work very hard and compete with hundreds of people on tests.” Yao said.

While the education system is vastly different, another difference Yao noticed was the diversity in California. In China, he was accustomed to a homogenous society where everyone looked like him.

“The first thing I actually noticed was how different everyone was from each other,” Yao said.

Yao came to the US in part because his mother started working here, but standardized testing in China also motivated his relocation.

“The first two years of middle school really wore me down and I didn’t have the energy to work hard for a good score on the testing,” Yao said. “I thought it would be easier to come to the US, which is true because I have so many different options here.”

With the issue of immigration being a frequently discussed topic, Yao believes that his experiences have changed his views.

“I do think it is a nation’s right to protect its borders,” Yao said, “Legal immigration should be encouraged, but illegal immigration should be limited, and there should be law enforcement. However, I do think that if we made laws easier, it would be more convenient for people to come in legally.”

California is typically known as an accepting and diverse place; however, Yao believes that he has had experiences where he felt not unwelcomed, but somewhat alienated.

“When I’m having conversations with teachers at school, we’re talking about modern politics, and I receive all this Western propaganda from them,” Yao said. “People in the US paint modern China as an Orwellian society.”

Yao says that he often discusses what it’s like to live in modern China with his peers, and due to the single view they have on China, there are occasions where he feels alienated because of his differing views.

“Our younger generations here in the US grow up associating China with ‘authoritarian’ and other negative terms,” Yao said. “What do you expect these children to believe after they grow up with these negative terms around a country?”

While the immigrant experience is shared among many Acalanes students, no two stories are exactly the same. Students encounter both unique and similar adversities, but all share stories of resilience.

The eclectic backgrounds of immigrant students at Acalanes succeed in creating a campus culture filled with diverse faces and global perspectives.

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