Ask Stella Elder and Joel Chan what’s new, then get comfortable. You’ll be listening to this mother and son for more than a couple of minutes.
Since 2003, the dynamic duo has experienced a new husband and stepfather, a new country, new green cards, new schools, new career paths, even a new tibia.
Meanwhile, they’ve connected with a whole new life in Broken Arrow, Okla., far from their native Singapore.
“I remarried, and we relocated here,” Elder says. “My husband is American. We met on the Internet in May 2003 and got married in July 2003. He came to Singapore. It’s crazy! And, we’ve been married almost six years now. It’s awesome.”
The former teacher adds that Chan and his biological father were never really close, so her son often asked, “When are you going to give me a real dad?” He met his stepfather, Donald Elder, when the man arrived in Singapore for the wedding.
“I was excited about it,” Chan says.
“Because he wanted a new dad!” Elder interjects.
“And, I wanted to go to America!”
Chan and his stepfather hit it off, and according to his mother, “They are so alike, it’s uncanny. People think he’s really his son. His mannerisms, his habits — exactly the same.”
Coming to the United States in 2004, Chan remembers, “was hard initially, because I had a bunch of friends, and the idea of moving … it was terrifying.”
However, he found himself better suited to the American education system. According to Chan, Singapore’s system catered to the gifted students.
His mother compares it to a pressure cooker. “If you’re not in the top 10 percent, you’re considered low average.”
After their move, Elder, who had 20 years of teaching experience, found out she couldn’t keep working in her chosen field without two more years of college to get her American credentials. She decided to enroll at Tulsa Technology Center’s Lemley campus to try out culinary arts. Elder had started cooking with her grandmother at age 5 and grew up loving food and preparing it.
At Tulsa Tech, the student was drawn to SkillsUSA’s competition program and how it reached from local to internationals. “My teacher, Mr. Michael Yip, he knew I loved to compete, and he said, ‘You will be great in SkillsUSA,’ ” she remembers.
He was right, and Elder advanced to the 2009 SkillsUSA Championships as a postsecondary Culinary Arts contestant. Chan, by then in high school, also made it to nationals, but in Advertising Design.
“It’s just amazing that the two of us are ending up in the same place,” Elder says of the championships. “He has done so well. I’m just so supportive of Tulsa Tech and the technical schools.”
“I’ve always wanted to do graphics instead of traditional art,” Chan explains. “I had a chance to do AP [advanced placement] art my senior year.” He took the AP classes but found them lacking. “AP is great for fine arts, but our classes did not have the computers or equipment.”
Chan grins. “Touring Tulsa Tech, it was, like, amazing. Through Tech, our program is connected to SkillsUSA. Because [SkillsUSA] provides the materials for us at Tech — the reason I joined was because my teacher said you don’t get this stuff unless you join SkillsUSA.”
Returning to Singapore
Even now, Elder occasionally gets homesick. “I’ve been living in Singapore almost all my life,” she says. “I’m good here, but I’m good there, too.” Her son however, has become “Americanized.” After fulfilling the residency requirement, he’s looking forward to applying for U.S. citizenship in two years.
However, since he is still legally a citizen of Singapore, Chan had to go back last summer to begin two years of mandatory service in the military.
“All my uncles, my dad, everybody has done it,” he says. “It’s kind of like a rite of passage. There is no war going on with us, because we’re so tiny.”
Elder went with him, but problems with his enlistment and the Singapore military’s capacity constraints prevented Chan from fulfilling his obligation.
“We did our part, but the authorities made it very difficult for us,” Elder explains. “And, we decided that it was not worth the two years for him to serve when he has no plans to live in Singapore anymore. It was a complicated experience for all of us.”
Without the mandatory service, Chan will never be able to reside in Singapore again. But he loves living in the United States, and the trip has emphasized how much he’s changed.
“He had a hard time understanding his own people,” Elder remembers. “He could not take the hot tropical weather, and he even contracted the swine flu when he was there. He is extremely happy to be back home in the U.S. He does not want to go back to Singapore anymore. To him, his growing up and formative years were here, and I agree with him.”
“As for me, I shall continue to hold on to my Singapore citizenship, as I still enjoy medical benefits there,” Elder says. During the summer trip, she worked in a visit to a surgeon about a leg injury. “I had surgery to remove the nail in my left tibia, and gum surgery as well, while I was back in Singapore with Joel,” she explains.
Just as the Internet changed the family’s life years earlier, it again proved useful. The orthopedic surgeon was one of Elder’s former students who had connected with her on Facebook last year.
Back in the States, she recently was offered a sous-chef job after being recommended by someone who saw her working. Elder surmises it’s because when she does something, she puts her heart into it — a trait she’s tried to instill in her son.
Chan is continuing his graphic arts studies at Oklahoma State University in Stillwater. (To see some of his work, visit: www.jcgraphicarts.com.) He hopes to work as a creative director.
Of his SkillsUSA Championships experience, “it was an awesome experience for my mom because I doubt she expected to do this together,” Chan now says. “I had just a blast knowing this was taking me somewhere.”