“Your English is good enough! You just have all these stories in your head to stop you from creating again!”
“You don’t understand! You are a native English speaker born and raised here in the States. You can’t possibly know what it is like for me to be an immigrant in this country!” I yelled back.
It was not the first time I had the same argument with my husband, Paul. I sat on the floor, looking out the window, feeling powerless. The Texas sun shone unbearably bright even on that winter day, but it was one of the darkest days of my life.
February 2022. I was three months into living in the States as a first-generation immigrant after leaving my home, Taiwan. Before I left Taiwan, I was getting traction with a podcast, an online course, and writing for publications– all in Mandarin. I wrote with radical honesty and showed up in the world as someone I was excited to be – bold, playful, and proudly weird.
I was thriving.
But when I boarded the flight for the United States after I received my marriage green card, I told myself that these creative endeavors needed to be left behind. Unless I could perfect the English language, I would forever be an outsider.
I hired a tutor and sought other resources, which led me to join Write of Passage. I went in thinking it would improve my technical skills, but it showed me that psychological blocks were what prevented me from creating in English.
- My perfectionism convinced me I had no right to create in English unless I could master the language.
- My impostor syndrome tricked me into thinking no one else had any doubts and that I was the only outsider because I was an immigrant.
- My fear of being shamed came from Taiwanese culture, which instilled the idea that I should never be vulnerable.
I was terrified to share ideas in my non-native language, but I faced my fears. I left the course as a confident English creator. Not because I improved my writing or English skills, but because it let me re-write the outdated stories that were holding me back.
Fear #1: Perfectionism
The truth is, I’m actually pretty good at English. I listen to advanced English podcasts, have deep intellectual conversations with my husband in English, and completed my Master’s at one of the highest-ranked sociology programs in the states. People who meet me are often surprised to learn English is my second language. Despite this, I doubted myself. “Just wait five more minutes, and you’ll find out I’m fresh off the boat.”
I never held myself to such a high standard when creating in Chinese because I was already part of the culture. But when I wrote in English, I would obsess over grammatical mistakes. Why? Because it was a way to prove that I wasn’t “American” enough. I assumed native speakers could casually write 1000-word essays with perfect grammar, impeccable logic, and choice of words.
My ridiculous standards for English writing were a useful excuse to not share, so I could protect myself from getting hurt.
“What did I do to myself?”
When I enrolled in Write of Passage, I imagined I would sit in Zoom classes, taking notes and practicing writing on my own. But when I learned I had to share my drafts with four hundred other students in the course, my first thought was, “WHAT DID I DO TO MYSELF?
I had so many doubts before hitting publish in the first few weeks. My inner child, whose English was laughed at ten years earlier, was throwing a fit.
“What if someone criticizes me as a person?”
“What if people think I don’t have the legitimacy to write or share in English?”
“What if today is the day I finally get proof that I WILL NEVER BELONG TO THIS SOCIETY?”
To hide my insecurities and to seem less “foreign,” I used lots of fluffy words and tried hard to impress the other students.
But during the course, I started to see hundreds of imperfect drafts by native and non-native speakers. It was shocking to me that native speakers were also insecure about their word choices and grammar. I eventually realized the ability to show up and write in public had nothing to do with where I was born. I just had to put the work in.
One lesson I learned from Corey Wilks, a mentor in the community, was especially helpful. A group of non-native English speakers, including me, sought advice on overcoming the fear of making mistakes in English. His answer? People don’t care about the English mistakes we make. They only care if we have good ideas to share and how we can help them.
Permission to be human
Through these experiences, I started to rewrite the stories that were holding me back. I realized what I experienced was not particular to me as an immigrant. Everyone faces some form of perfectionism. It’s a universal experience, shared by anyone who has a desire to create and share.
Ultimately, I realized I didn’t need to be perfect to start creating. From a space where mistakes are allowed, I got the permission to be human.
Fear #2:Imposter Syndrome
I’m not the only immigrant who believes we must “know our place.” One of my Taiwanese creator friends who worked in a top company in Silicon Valley told me:
“This is just our fate as a first-generation immigrant. We can be as successful as we want in our mother culture, but since we can never speak like a native English speaker and master the American culture, we will forever be a nobody. Just learn to accept it.”
His words hit me hard, and I was convinced they were true. I thought I would never feel like an equal member of this society, let alone be part of a creative community in a foreign language.
I was filled with ideas about the world but didn’t have an outlet. So instead of creating in English, I released all my creative energy in Chinese. To my audience in Taiwan, I was a bold, playful creator who inspired many young souls to pursue their passions.
At the same time, I had a totally different personality in the States. When I first met my husband’s family, I shied away from talking about how I grew up, what my hometown looked like, or what food I liked to eat. I didn’t want them to think I was so “foreign.” I avoided talking about my creative pursuits in art and writing because I didn’t want to be seen as lazy or laughable. To seem successful, I assumed I would need a high-paying corporate job where the Asian immigrant stereotype is more “normal.”
The problem? I was living two different lives. I felt like an outsider who was unqualified and not allowed to express myself. I imagined a faceless mass of people telling me I could only play a certain role. But the more I gave in to the identity of an impostor, the louder the creative urges inside me would shout. I grew restless, desperate to be set free at any possible opportunity.
What will the cool kids think?
As Write of Passage progressed, we exchanged life stories in different mentor sessions and got to know our peers through in-person meet-ups. Students shared intimate stories that they had never told other people before. I felt inspired to share a vulnerable story of my own. In my essay, No One Loves You Like You Do, I detailed how it was futile to expect love from others and that unconditional love can only come from within. I was sure my story could help others.
At the same time, I felt so small and stupid imagining what the cool kids, the successful entrepreneurs that Write of Passage attracts, would think of me sharing stories like this. I could never predict what would happen after revealing my truth. I might lose something, but I would win a truthful life without regret. I took a deep breath and hit publish, hoping those cool kids would never read my essay.
A few minutes later, my worst fear came true. I saw notifications of comments on my writing. I took a quick look and saw several names of the people I’d decided were “cool kids.” My world fell apart. I imagined them pointing out my grammatical mistakes or making cold-blooded comments about my use of language. I slammed my laptop closed. I wanted to drop out of the course.
The next day, after giving myself a pep talk, I looked at the comments. It turned out that the people I thought would judge me as an outsider were unbelievably accepting. The “cool kids” gave me the kindest comments and thanked me for sharing things they also struggled with. They also gave me helpful feedback on improving my essay, not because they thought I was a bad writer, but because they wanted to help me share my story in an even more powerful way.
Freedom to be myself
As the course proceeded, I got to know the different sides of other students. I’d see someone’s ambition in one session as they explained their audience growth strategy. The next day, I’d see them tearing up while sharing a tender story at a mentor session. Because we were given space to express all sides within us, stories of vulnerability unfolded beautifully throughout the five weeks.
These experiences helped me realize that everyone has multiple sides to them. No one fits into a clean box. And through this process of exchanging vulnerability and being accepted by others, I no longer felt constrained by the small identity box I put myself in. I became free to be myself.
Fear #3: Being Shamed
Taiwanese culture is implicitly competitive. This is made worse by what I call a “no feedback” culture. We don’t just avoid negative feedback. We are implicitly told not to risk giving feedback to anyone so that we can ensure people “save face.” The outcome isn’t great – it usually means a lot of silent judgment or passive-aggressive comments.
When I started creating online, it took two years and lots of shadow work to write more authentically in Chinese. But even so, I still had doubts about being criticized. “What if people said nice things to me but laughed at me behind my back?” It was not only fear but a practical reality in a culture like Taiwan.
This fear of being ridiculed was even worse when I was in the States. When I studied abroad in undergrad, I was laughed at for my accent and grammatical mistakes. Those memories haunted me.
This fear of being shamed came with me in every conversation – when I introduced a new person, ordered at a restaurant, or tried to buy something at a store. I became paranoid that someone might laugh in response to anything I did. I projected this fear onto every possible worst-case scenario. And when I joined Write of Passage, I declared that I couldn’t write online without being shamed.
Proving Myself Wrong
After I published the essay about learning to love myself on my website, I hesitated to share my article on Twitter. Write of Passage is a supportive community, but Twitter is open to the world. All I could think was, “Will people laugh at my English?” Or even worse, “Do they even understand my English?” I decided to post the article but added, “I’m not a native speaker. Please don’t be too harsh on my writing.” Yet, to my surprise, the first comment I got was, “Wow, your writing is so good! I would not have guessed English is your second language.”
Uh… what? At this point, I wasn’t even happy or relieved. I simply felt … silly. All these worst-case scenarios were simply stories in my head. What else had I held myself back from?
The next thing that surprised me was the messages I received from people who found my writing impactful and shared my essay with friends and family. This blew my mind. I thought Write of Passage could, at best, help me improve my technical skills in writing in English. It might help me become less foreign and less out of place in this country. But I never imagined it would help me overcome my fear of ridicule.. People weren’t laughing at me behind my back, they were sharing my work as inspiration.
These experiences broke the fortress of protection I had built up, which had become a prison over the years, and now I knew the truth. This power was always inside me.
A Rite of Passage to My New Identity
Before Write of Passage, I imagined my immigrant life to be sitting in an office cubicle and working for a paycheck. I would silently eat my bento box at lunch by myself to avoid engaging in conversations where I would look silly in English. It was a life where I would simply survive and get by. Looking back, my stories were excuses I used to play victim, so I didn’t have to try to reinvent myself.
I joined Write of Passage as a scared soul who deeply believed that the only way to integrate into society was to hide who I was. I thought the course would mainly help me improve my writing skills, but in the end, Write of Passage let me re-write the stories I told myself.
The psychological blocks I had were not unique to me. The course was also transformative for native English speakers because they could be themselves. They dared to express their ideas, tell their stories, and initiate bold creative projects in public. It made me realize that being scared to show up in the world is universal.
Courage is important, but it’s hard to find it on your own. There is power in learning, growing, and taking chances together. In Write of Passage, I was able to feed off of the courage of the community to take more chances that I ever could have alone. I believe this approach to learning can help many others, too. Luckily, there are increasing numbers of creative communities for whatever interests you may have. Find a community where you can be vulnerable and real so you can show up fearlessly in the world.
Reconciliation of identity
By sharing stories that I previously tried so hard to hide from my family and friends, I felt a reconciliation of my Taiwanese identity and my emerging American identity. The more I bravely showed up as myself, and the more I was embraced by the community (including the “cool kids”!), the more coherent my narrative became about who I was becoming. I no longer felt the need to live a double life.
I still have frustrations navigating things in the States – like a new healthcare system, learning to use apps like Venmo, or trying to decode what “IRL” or “TL;DR” mean in group chats. But these struggles do not prove I don’t have things worth sharing.
Write of Passage helped me regain my creative power. It enabled me to be playful in my new identity. It brought me potential life-long friendships with people worldwide that I never imagined I could connect with. I could finally be my weird, wonky self and still be loved.
Continuing to improve my writing in a safe, supportive community helped me overcome my fear of writing in public. I have started sharing again, this time in English. I’ve been sharing my artwork, starting an English website and newsletter, and even creating Youtube videos in English. I was so inspired by my experience in Write of Passage that I’ve started helping other creators facilitate online courses so they can foster the same community spirit that helped me grow so much.
As I described in tears in my last breakout room session, Write of Passage was a rite of passage for my new life as an immigrant. Or, I should say, I’m no longer obsessed with the narrative of me being an immigrant. I am first and foremost a creative weirdo, just like all the weird friends I made in Write of Passage who are kicking ass in the world.
I’m thriving again.