Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Pioneer Girl Goes to California

This is Part 6 of a story that starts here.

After six years in Virginia, Phi-Phi’s father secured work in California. Phi-Phi had completed parts of ninth and tenth grade at Washington-Lee High school (alma mater of Shirley MacLaine, Warren Beatty, and Sandra Bullock), but she left mid-year. Together she and her father drove across the country in an old car, during the first couple of days of 1988, so that Phi-Phi arrived in time to begin her second semester of her sophomore year at San Gabriel High School in California.

They had been attending two smallish congregations of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—both an Asian branch, where her dad had served in various capacities, and an English-speaking congregation. Phi-Phi had friends from both of these congregations, but it was a lot of church, often 6-hour Sundays.

Shortly after their move to California it became difficult for Phi-Phi and her father to remain active in the Mormon church. They were living in San Gabriel. Her dad was very busy and ended up having to work on Sundays (he had a number of different jobs) and Phi-Phi always felt like she was imposing when she had to ask someone for a ride. She didn’t have the young women leaders she’d become so close to in Virginia, and their family didn’t have visiting teachers (women who stop by monthly to check on them and see if they have any needs and leave a spiritual message) because she didn’t have a mother in the home. So even with the church’s extensive infrastructure, the Changs eventually just slipped through the cracks.

Phi-Phi attended off and on during her junior year, and attempted to do seminary, but wasn’t consistent—not for lack of faith, but because it became so complicated and inconvenient. There weren’t cell phones or texting or many of the easy ways we stay in touch with people now. She didn’t have a car or a telephone answering machine.

During her senior year she completely fell away and didn’t attend church at all. Phi-Phi credits her good friends for the fact that despite not being active in her faith, she didn’t fall into drinking or smoking or other bad habits. Many of her friends were also immigrants to this country. They were hard-working, conscientious and dedicated students. Phi-Phi was undoubtedly a good influence on them as well.

During high school Phi-Phi always held a part-time job and earned her own money for clothes, make-up and other expenses. It was a constant balancing act between work, studies, and extracurriculars. Phi-Phi kept herself very busy with multiple activities. She loved school and loved being involved. She was elected as one of six Homecoming Princesses.

She was also voted Vice-President of the Mexican-American Student Organization, the first time ever for a non-Latina to serve on the executive board. She was affiliated with several other clubs as well. For her extensive involvement in the community, she was awarded a scholarship by the Latino Peace Officers Association. These were important personal accomplishments, acknowledging her ability to cross racial lines. It is very much in her nature to be inclusive of everyone.

At this point Phi-Phi’s father was living most of the time in Orange County, where he managed a motel, and Phi-Phi was essentially living on her own, seeing her father just a couple of times a week. It was 1990. Her senior year was wrapping up, she was preparing for A.P. exams, and involved with a boyfriend, whom she cared for deeply—her first love.

Phi-Phi's father in his 20's.
Suddenly, on a random Wednesday in late March, while Phi-Phi was experiencing a normal, stressful day at school, Phi-Phi’s father suffered a stroke. He was rushed to Hoag Hospital in Orange County, where he underwent brain surgery that evening. The surgery was successful, in that they were able to remove the clot, but he was unable to wake up afterward. He was in a coma for several days, and eventually passed away, on April 6, 1990.

Phi-Phi was completely alone. She had just lost the only parent she had known since the age of seven. They were not particularly close to their neighbors or church community in San Gabriel, things were becoming complicated with her boyfriend, and Phi-Phi didn’t know who she could turn to for help or advice. These were dark and terrible days, extremely difficult, and she strongly felt the powers of the adversary attempting to drag her down. But something inside her refused to let go.  She had always known the truth, and she said, “the truth is always inside you.”

She searched her heart and picked up the phone to call someone she knew still loved her and cared about her.

Read Part 7.

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