While Chih was in middle school, a friend's father advised that if his grandparents adopted him, he could become a U.S. citizen. But Chih's grandparents weren't sure what to do. Chih's mother was in distant California, his father behind bars, so they were not much help. Chih tried to raise the subject several times, but the Chinese Confucian ethic prevented him from questioning his elders when they demurred.
Eventually, when Chih was 13, his grandparents sold their Boulder restaurant and moved to California. Chih stayed in Boulder several more years, living with an Anglo friend's family. When he was 17, his own family moved him to Southern California, so that he could establish California residency, with the goal of enrolling in the University of California system, preferably at Berkeley or UCLA. He lived in El Monte and attended Rosemead High School, which was basically half Hispanic and half Asian.
In metro Los Angeles, Chih didn't fit in; it was a culture shock after Boulder. "I felt weird there," he says. "There weren't any white people." He returned to his surrogate family in Boulder and spent his senior year at Fairview High, playing cornerback on the football team. He also ran track and wrestled. His mother married a U.S. citizen living in Virginia, and she and Chih's sister also became citizens. Chih tried to get his new step-dad to adopt him, too, but he hadn't lived with the step-dad, wasn't even all that close to his mother after so many years apart. "For reasons unknown," Chih says with a resigned shake of his head, that second possibility for adoption -- and citizenship -- also fell through.
As Chih applied to colleges, he knew that many would exclude him, but he "jumped through a loophole" that allowed him to pay in-state tuition at the Colorado School of Mines. His grandparents cashed in some of their retirement money to help him, and he tended bar at a friend's Denver bar and grill to make rent. He joined a fraternity and was elected treasurer, but he couldn't sign on the bank accounts, so he settled for being the pledge coordinator and scholarship chair. He made the college football team as a freshman and still proudly wears the bulky "Orediggers" championship ring from the team's big season that year, even though he didn't play in the games.
Civil engineering was a demanding major, and because of his status, Chih couldn't qualify for financial aid of any kind. During his junior year, he fell into a funk about his bleak prospects, started drinking, gained weight, and watched his grades crater. He worried that he was just wasting money going to school. Then he pulled himself together, started working out again, became a "gym rat" and played intramural sports. The two matching tattoos on his ripped triceps are the same lions that guard the Forbidden City in Beijing.
But after college, Chih discovered that he couldn't work as an engineer, and he was unwilling to spend his life trapped in the service sector.
On a sweltering July day, Chih sits at a table at the Glacier Ice Cream store on Baseline Road, near where he has lived for 20 years. Wearing a "Hang Ten" T-shirt and a backwards Colorado Rockies cap, he looks exactly like the fraternity boy and jock he once was.
He went to elementary school a mile from this spot, middle school a half mile from here, high school three miles from here, and college 20 miles from here. Had his first kiss, his sports successes, his first MIP (minor in possession of alcohol -- another Boulder rite of passage), just up the road.
And Chih is done hiding. "It's gotten worse," he says. "I'm not trying to be negative, but it's pretty trying to run into brick walls all the time. ... I can't do anything. I can't contribute to society due to this lack of status. (Most) people don't really understand how much they do in their life depends on these documents."
He's made a decision. His "uncle" -- really some sort of second- or third-cousin once removed -- has offered him a job and a place to live in Taiwan. He thinks he'll face mandatory military service there, as well as the confounding challenge of being a foreigner in the land of his birth.
Most of Chih's Colorado friends think he's just going on an adventure, and some are envious. Only a handful know the real reason he's leaving. "We don't talk about it much," he says with another self-effacing shrug.
Later, in his bedroom, he stuffs mementos into a suitcase, trying to put a good spin on the next turn of his life's wheel: A flight from Denver to L.A. and on to Taipei. "This is an opportunity for me to start a life for myself."
He spins the white football signed by his Oredigger teammates, packs it along with the two snowboards he may never use again but refuses to leave behind.
His surrogate family hosts a sort of last supper the night before the flight, with his friends and a high school guidance counselor gathered in stunned disbelief.
He tries to put on a brave face, but the enormity of it all hits him.
"Yeah, it sucks," Chih says, bowing his head in resignation. "This definitely sucks."
* With the exception of Chih, none of the undocumented people in this story wanted their full names used, or in some cases even their real first names, because it would heighten their risk of arrest and deportation.
Daniel Glick is the author of Monkey Dancing: A Father, Two Kids, and a Journey to the Ends of the Earth, and a co-founder of The Story Group, a Boulder-based independent multimediajournalism company.
This story was funded by a grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and is supported by contributors to the High Country News Enterprise Journalism Fund.
For more information: