“I was trying to be normal, natural, but it wasn’t easy. I sat there like wood,” said sophomore Mandy Li recalling her first few weeks at an American high school.
After traveling thousands of miles to immigrate to the United States, she knew few words in the English language when she arrived. Just sitting in the vast cafeteria with a strange language babbling all around her was isolating, to say the least.
“I do feel lonely, but when I was in China I felt lonely too,” Li said, “I cared too much for academics and not socialization.”
But what had kept Li from socializing in China proved to be the key to her involvement in her new school, Penn Manor, and her new life.
Li left her home in China last April for a Lancaster County home, where her mother would marry her soon-to-be husband, an American, whom she had met online.
Although Li’s voyage is not unique -about 100,000 teenagers immigrate from their home countries to America each year, 917 immigrants (both adults and teenagers) moved to Lancaster County in 2009 – it can be treacherous.
Many foreign-born students have a difficult time fitting into American culture and keeping up with typical economic standards enjoyed by teens here, according to the Urban Institute, a non-partisan economic and social policy organization.
Children of immigrants, according to Urban Institute research, tend to be isolated in their new schools because of language, economics or ethnic stereotypes, hence dropout rates are higher for immigrant teens than ones who were born here.
In other words, moving to the “land of opportunity” is not always a positive experience for everyone.
Li spent the last six weeks of school last year getting acclimated to social situations and hearing the English language at all times, as she already had enough credits from school in China to complete her freshman year, said Penn Manor’s English as a second language teacher, Wendy Letavic.
“I was nervous in [the] classroom. I didn’t know what to do. Sometimes I have no words. It could get a little lonely,” said the 16-year-old.
“I believe that when immigrants come during their teenage years, they are missing some valuable tools that are essential for social adaptations to our culture,” explained Letavic. “Many have difficulty adapting to being a “teen” in America, as well as the cultural differences in our country as compared to [Mandy’s] native country. They want to fit in right away and become Americanized. The food and the mannerisms of America are so much for them to take in and they don’t want to seem any different than anyone else.”
Letavic said Li was quiet and reserved in the beginning, as is customary of her Chinese culture.
“I was a little frustrated. I kept falling asleep when the teacher was teaching and I didn’t understand much English at that time,” said Li of her early days.
Fortunately, Li had the piano to turn to when things became difficult, saying that piano is a form of expression and a “very good mental relaxation.”
Shy and soft spoken, Li appears to gain confidence as she sits at the piano. Her shoulders become straighter and her chin higher. She seems to transform as her hands fly over the keys.
While she plays, Li also lets her imagination wander, visualizing different scenes and stories each time she plays a song.
“You come to be like that [changing and imagining]. You have to change sometimes because life changes,” Li said.
“Playing makes me feel less stressed,” she said.
Observers of Li’s music say she tends to play strong pieces, and she agreed.
“I hurt my fingers by playing so hard. My teacher suggest I play a soft song,” Li laughed.
“I had very few friends in China, but I’ve made friends [here],” she said.
Li’s many talents and positive attitude helped her connect to people here, which made things less lonely.
“People are just interesting. I love to meet all kinds of people,” Li said.
She left a lasting impression on the first new friends she made and the teacher who discovered her talent at the piano.
But the challenge was to explain her skill and her interest when she had very few words in her vocabulary to do so.
“[Mandy] came into my Piano I beginner’s class. I passed out books and they started playing. Soon, Mandy came to me and said, ‘this too easy.’ So I got her a Piano II book and she started playing. Soon she came back and said again, ‘this too easy,’” recalled Melissa Telesco, a music teacher at Penn Manor.
It was in her first few months in Lancaster that Telesco discovered one of Li’s hidden talents.
“I asked her to unplug the headphones and play for me so I could see where she was at. She went into some amazing piece and I was like, ‘oh, okay, [you need] other books,’” Telesco said.
Her amazing musical talent drew other students to her. It made them want to get to know her better.
“I heard epic Chopin and I was like, ‘Whoa,’” said senior Henry Stewart, who takes piano lessons from the same Millersville teacher that Li does.
Click on this link to listen to Mandy Li play an excerpt from Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini: Mandy Paganini Excerpt.
“One day at lunch I said ‘hi’ and she taught me how to say some things in Chinese. She’s so nice,” said sophomore and music student Brendan Kincade.
Not only did Li face a world of new cultural experiences and a foreign language, even the atmosphere and daily schedule were vastly different.
“China [was] busy and crowded. U.S. [is] more social and relaxed, even at night,” Li said.
She described a day in China as waking at 6:15 every morning and not ending sometimes until midnight. A school day lasted from 7:10 a.m. until 6 or 6:30 p.m., when Li would walk home to complete her homework.
She explained that the architecture in her home country is different than that of America but she said she appreciates the beauty of both.
“We have small bridges and traditional houses. It’s more European style here, with big bridges and fresh air,” said Li.
Besides having a knack for piano, Li also has a very special aptitude for math.
Li started math at Penn Manor in Algebra I. That, much like the Piano I book, turned out to be too easy. Mandy progressed through Algebra II, Geometry-Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus and has now completed Honors Calculus.
Angela Stiklaitis, Li’s calculus teacher, also said Li would take homeroom periods to tutor other math students.
“Sometimes I can be careless, but I like math,” said Li.
Stiklaitis disagreed that Li is careless though and said that Li is a bit of a perfectionist and that she excels at math.
Stiklaitis said in the remaining two years of Li’s high school career she will be taking Linear Algebra and Calculus III at nearby Millersville University.
Li began her piano journey as a first grader when she and her mother walked past a piano store in China. She continued to practice as she found time and in summer, when school work was not an obstacle.
When Li arrived in Millersville, Pa., she practiced the piano six to seven hours a day on an electronic keyboard. She would pick out Bach and Beethoven pieces from the Millersville University library to practice, said Li’s stepfather, Michael Chermack, a retired geography and history teacher.
When Li’s second year at Penn Manor began this fall, she was just as dedicated to her music as ever, practicing on one of the music department’s pianos each day after school.
“She practices everyday ’til 5 or 6 o’clock,” said Telesco, to whom Li is grateful for providing her with an actual piano, rather than the keyboard she has at home.
“It’s always better [to play] with real keys. My teacher [Telesco] created opportunity. My piano skill improved. I feel so good, so excited,” said Li.
In April, Li performed at Entertainment Penn Manor, the yearly talent show.
“It was my first time on stage, my hands were shaking,” said Li.
Though Li’s nerves may have been jangled, the audience was impressed.
“Whatever she plays, people are blown away,” said Stewart.
With so many talents, Li’s future is certain to be bright.
“I like traveling, after I graduate, I will visit China. I will eat a lot [of Chinese food],” Li said, adding that she most misses her grandparents and her grandparents’ cooking.
Li said here in America, her mother usually prepares traditional Chinese food or, if there’s not time, sandwiches. She said they never eat typical “American” Chinese food because it’s just not the same. Authentic Chinese food has unique flavors to each area of the country.
“I am definitely going to college. I don’t know what I will major in, maybe music or math or art a double major,” said Li, who hopes to gain entry to an Ivy League school.
She also wants to learn to play the violin.
“I just love instruments. I like the beauty of art and the beauty of music.”
Li talks about possibly learning a third language, such as Japanese, Korean, German or French.
“I have lots of things I want to learn,” said Li.
With Li’s dedication and determination, learning all she wants could be just the beginning.
Story by Sarah Schaeffer and Dessie Jackson
Videography by Cody Erb and Taylor Groff