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  • Gloria Walski

How My Grandparents' Commitment and Perseverance Left a Lasting Legacy for Me

Updated: May 7

As a leader, your actions and behaviors influence your employees, your successor, your colleagues and even your clients. Whether you realize it or not, you're being watched. People will emulate your positive traits, and some may even take on your negative traits, thinking this is the right way to do things.

Legacy is the enduring impact leaders have on the people they work with. It is the way that leadership lasts. It can be seen in the thoughts and actions of the people who have worked with or for you long after your professional affiliation has ended.

This is your leadership legacy.

My grandparents left a legacy for me. Their legacy is intertwined with their immigration story. I've always been inspired by it, and while it's not dramatic or tragic, it's still a part of my family history.

Moving to a Foreign Country without Google

Growing up, I had heard the stories of my grandfather requiring my father, aunt and uncle to speak only English in the house. They had just immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, joining my grandfather at Camas, Washington after he earned his PhD in Forestry from Duke University. He felt an English-only policy was the fastest way for them to assimilate in their new country. “How else will you learn if you don’t practice?”

He wasn’t wrong, but it wasn’t easy. My grandmother did her best to accommodate this. But she also gave the kids moments of reprieve, allowing them to speak Taiwanese after school, before my grandfather came home from work. Shhh, it’s a secret, don’t tell him!

I often wondered what it had been like for my grandmother. She didn’t have an education past eighth grade. I don’t know how much she knew about the United States before she moved here, but the culture shock must have been tremendous. It was the 1960s, before Google Translate was a thing and there were no apps for navigating a foreign country. A family of immigrants from Taiwan was such a novelty in tiny Camas that the local newspaper came and interviewed them about it.

My grandmother picked Effie as her English name, so I called her Effie Ah-ma, Ah-ma being the Taiwanese word for grandmother. She spoke English, but I rarely heard her speak it much. Then again, she was a woman of few words.

As I grew older, I knew I wanted to know more about her immigration experience from her perspective. I finally had the chance to ask her about it in the summer of 1999. That was the summer I participated in a study-tour in Taiwan and I went to Taichung to visit my grandparents after the tour was over.

A Commitment to Learn English

“Effie Ah-ma,” I said, as I watched her heat oil in a wok. Her kitchen was cozy, and the heat from the gas stove piled on to the sticky Taiwanese humidity in spite of the air conditioning running at full blast. She had to maneuver around me to get to the fridge. “What was it like to move to a country you had never been to? To a country where you don’t speak the language?”

My grandmother left a lasting legacy of commitment and perseverance.
My grandmother, Effie, in 1963.

She pulled out a bag of Chinese water spinach from the refrigerator. She shut the door and looked at me with a smile. She pointed to the wall behind the stove. “I had my English book open up against that wall while I cooked.”

She handed me the water spinach to wash in the sink, then moved past me back to the stove. She tilted the wok and watched as oil, shiny and smooth, spread around the curve of the wok. She tossed in some chopped garlic and watched it sizzle.

“Did all of you study English before you went to the US?” I handed her the water spinach.

She nodded and tossed the water spinach into the wok. If this moment had been a scene in a movie, the camera would have zoomed in on the watercress, then panned out to my father as a teenager in the mid 1960s. The camera would then show him and his two younger siblings crowded around the tiny kitchen table. My grandmother’s voice would be heard off-screen, reading English sentences while the three of them repeated the sentences back to her.

In reality, the building had been in my father’s family for decades. When my father lived there as a child, it was a two-story home that housed 7 adults and 10 children. My father was the first-born son of a son, the oldest grandson and the favorite. His grandparents, aunts and uncles all lived there and he grew up with his cousins. So I guess with a multi-generation home, my grandmother wasn’t totally alone.

“I took English lessons so I would be ready to move to join your grandfather," she said, bringing me back to 1999. The building had been remodeled over the years, now a five-story building, but the kitchen was in the same spot. Effie Ah-ma added a splash of soy sauce and gave the wok a quick toss before sliding the watercress onto a plate. I set the plate on the small table, happy she made me one of my favorite dishes: Chinese water spinach stir fried with garlic.

Chinese water spinach stir-fried with garlic.
Photo Credit: China Sichaun Food

It Takes Perseverance

I grew up eating Chinese food - traditional Taiwanese fare like the watercress, not the standard Americanized stuff you see at most Chinese restaurants in the US. I also grew up speaking Mandarin, but my fluency was not remarkable. I majored in Chinese and was a full-time student with no other obligations. Studying consumed my entire life and I still didn't do as well as I wanted. It was enough to make me want to quit some days. Yet, my grandmother juggled English lessons while taking care of her family and preparing for an overseas move to a new country. If she could master English while doing all that, I figured I could persevere with my Chinese studies.

“Was it scary to move to America? Were you scared to fly in an airplane?”

“Oh, I was too busy to be scared,” she said in her self-deprecating way. That Pan Am flight over the Pacific was the first time she had ever flown. But she managed it with three kids in tow.

My grandparents' immigration story was featured in the local paper. Back Row: John (my dad), Effie, Jim; Front Row: Faye (my aunt), Gene (my uncle)
My grandparents' immigration story was featured in the local paper. Back Row: John (my dad), Effie, Jim; Front Row: Faye (my aunt), Gene (my uncle). Photo credit: Camas and Washougal Post-Record.

Children tend to be resilient, but it’s certainly more difficult when they’re older. My dad was 16 at the time and he recalled English as the most difficult part of immigrating to the States. Despite having studied English in Taiwan, his accent was still strong. It was frustrating to communicate with others. Luckily he had a compassionate teacher who spent a little extra time to help with his English.

It took perseverance, but my father, aunt and uncle all graduated from high school and college in the United States. My grandparents were key to their successes. And in my humble opinion, my brother, my cousins and I are excelling in our respective paths in life as well. The legacy my grandparents left for us is an incredible example of commitment and perseverance.

What I Took Away from Their Experience

1. Commitment

My grandfather didn’t just decide on a whim to attend Duke University. He had to demonstrate a mastery of English and dedication to the field. He was selected to attend this program and he knew it wasn’t going to be easy. He was committed for himself and his family. My grandmother demonstrated commitment when she fit in her English lessons where she could before she even left Taiwan.

My grandfather modeled his commitment to improving English for his family upon their arrival to the United States. He only spoke English at home. He didn’t mandate one thing for his family and do something different himself. Furthermore, my grandparents modeled what hard work looked like so their future generations could emulate it.

2. Perseverance

My grandparents set a goal, developed a plan to achieve that goal, and stuck to it no matter how difficult it got. They worked hard and simply never gave up.

When I asked my grandmother about her immigration experience, I wish I had the maturity and world-view to realize just how difficult it really was for her. She framed her answer for me by focusing on the excitement and anticipation of being with my grandfather again, instead of telling me about being anxious and scared. I wish I had probed deeper into how she dealt with the challenges she must have experienced during this time.

Legacy of perseverance.

What was it like for her to raise three children in the new culture? How did she stay connected with her friends and family in Taiwan? Long distance phone calls across the ocean were expensive and sending letters across the ocean probably took weeks to deliver. How did she adjust to her new home?

All I can do now is surmise what it must have been like for her, while holding on to the fun memories she shared with me that let me believe it had been easy. At the very least, I know she persevered and found a way to make an incredibly difficult situation work so she could take care of her family and thrive in a new environment.

3. Legacy

Legacy is defined as what you leave behind. I don't mean money and things in this situation, but values and impact. Life gave my grandfather an opportunity, and he seized it, taking his family with him. Together, he and my grandmother worked hard to turn the opportunity into a new life in the United States and they showed their children how commitment and perseverance leads to success. And the three children took this on and passed it to my generation. My grandparents left us a legacy of commitment and perseverance.

Leaving a Legacy

My grandparents' legacy of commitment and perseverance shines through in the things I do. It's how I approached my educational studies, the way I parent and the way I continue to develop my leadership skills.

Commitment, perseverance and legacy are not just words on a motivational poster. I’m grateful for what the generations before me have accomplished so I can be who I am today. Reflecting on their experiences will always remind me that I have to put forth the effort to see positive results. No one ever said it would be easy, but pushing through the difficult times will make it worth it in the end.

What about you? Are you creating a lasting legacy? Is your influence making the impact you hope to have?

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Hello, my name is Gloria. Welcome to my blog! I have over 20 years of experience as an Air Force officer and health care administrator. I've successfully held positions of leadership at many different levels and I am passionate about leadership development. I enjoy coaching people and helping them achieve their personal and professional goals.

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