Imagine traveling the world and leaving your home in Taiwan to live with nuns in Brussels, Belgium. This is your chance to pursue your passion abroad. Imagine learning to speak Dutch, French and English. Imagine leaving Brussels for the United States, where you study at five different universities while pursuing your master’s and doctorate degree.
Now imagine that you’re driving down the 10 Freeway and collide with a transit bus and soon you’re being airlifted to the hospital. The doctors tell your mother that if you wake up from your coma you will be, in their words, a vegetable for the rest of your life. All the memories you have made abroad, all three of your foreign languages and years of education are gone in an instant.
This is the story of MohWei “Marge” Chen-Hribar, senior adjunct professor of piano, piano workshop, sight singing, ear training and accompanist.
When she was 15, Chen-Hribar received a full-tuition scholarship to the Royal Music Conservatory in Brussels, Belgium.
“It felt like a vacation the first two weeks,” Chen-Hribar said. “After two weeks, it was over and I thought ‘Oh no, I am here to stay,’ and it was a severely overwhelming feeling.”
The Royal Music Conservatory is an international school dedicated to gifted students of all ages and backgrounds.
Getting to Brussels was not easy for Chen-Hribar since Taiwan required all students accepting the scholarship to be tested on their proficiency in speaking and understanding French as well as be able to play their selected instrument at the conservatory’s level of competency.
“I felt a lot of responsibility because I couldn’t just say, ‘Oh if I don’t like it I’ll just go home,’” Chen-Hribar said.
“In some sense I really didn’t have a regular high school experience,” Chen-Hribar said. “Because it was a music conservatory to begin with, most of my classmates at the conservatory were all in their 20s, 30s and 40s because it was an international school.”
Chen-Hribar stayed at Virgo Sapiens, an all girls’ Catholic school, several miles outside of Brussels.
Virgo Sapiens was operated by nuns, the youngest in their 60s. Chen-Hribar learned and perfected her Dutch under the instruction of a nun who she remembered being 84 years old at the time.
“The Belgium dialect of Dutch is actually Flemish, so this nun taught me Flemish because before I had left Taiwan, I had only studied French,” Chen-Hribar said. “Every Sunday, they would expect me to attend mass, and they actually hoped that I would stay and become a nun.”
When her visa expired, Chen-Hribar did not go back home, but instead went to live with her sister in Pittsburgh, where she skipped undergraduate school completely and applied directly to the graduate program at Carnegie-Mellon University at 20 years old.
She was accepted and continued to study piano performance.
“I wanted to go back to Brussels, but the visa did not work out, so that is why I came to the East Coast,” Chen-Hribar said.
A part of her education at Pittsburgh was learning English as a second language.
Chen-Hribar said she learned more than 120 new vocabulary words each week during her first three months at the University of Pittsburgh.
However, due to a hidden but growing hand injury from her years of playing piano, Chen-Hribar had to take a leave of absence from her studies in Pittsburgh.
When she was forced to receive surgery on her hand, she thought that was the end of her journey with piano performance.
Chen-Hribar said the piano was not the first instrument she learned to play, but it was the one she fell in love with.
“It’s like having a conversation with your best closest friend, you don’t even need to find the words, they just keep coming right back to you through the music,” Chen-Hribar said.
In 1984, Chen-Hribar moved to the West Coast and attended the University of California, Santa Barbara, where she majored in music theory.
During this transition, Chen-Hribar tried to rehabilitate her hand in order to play piano again.
She did this by routinely practicing “The Technique for the Injured Pianist” developed by Dorothy Taubman.
However, even after receiving her Ph.D. candidacy, Chen-Hribar’s mentor and adviser left UC Santa Barbara, and Chen-Hribar’s education came to another sudden and screeching halt.
She taught music and piano performance in the years that followed, but never stopped wanting to complete her education.
In 1997, Chen-Hribar achieved her goal and was granted her doctorate of musical arts degree in choral conducting from the University of Southern California.
It was at this high point in her education, career and life that Chen-Hribar’s world would change forever.
“In the year 2000 I had another, almost fatal, accident,” Chen-Hribar said. “I was alone driving a tiny old 1989 Toyota Camry. I collided with one of those big boxy buses, a Foothill Transit, on the 10 Freeway in Baldwin Park.”
She was driving to Monterey Park to see her mother who had moved to the United States following her retirement.
“I never made it, and my mom called and called and called, and of course I was not home,” Chen-Hribar said. “She kept calling and I didn’t answer. Mom imagined the worst, she imagined that I had been abducted.”
Chen-Hribar said she remembers the moment of the collision, but not much else.
“He was driving an empty bus at 65 miles per hour,” Chen-Hribar said. “When (the crash) happened, there was an ambulance on the other side of the freeway who immediately took the next exit and came around to us, and, also there were two police cars just finishing issuing tickets; so they were all there, no time wasted.”
Chen-Hribar knew she had been airlifted to the hospital and that the doctors had decided to conduct her brain surgery first.
“I guess they took me to USC County Health Center, I don’t know, I was airlifted and I don’t remember exactly,” Chen-Hribar said. “As a result I had to have brain surgery, I had a fractured collarbone, fractured pelvis and a broken ankle.”
Chen-Hribar considers the way her mother and then-boyfriend found out about what had happened a small miracle.
She was supposed to pick up her then-boyfriend from LAX after seeing her mother.
After waiting at the airport for so long, he got a ride from a friend to her house, Chen-Hribar said.
When he arrived at the house, so did the police, and they informed him of her accident.
When the police officer called back to the station, he mentioned the boyfriend’s name and when it was repeated aloud, Chen-Hribar’s mother, who was in the same station reporting her daughter’s disappearance, heard the name and asked to be put on the phone with him.
“I was in a coma for a couple days, and I have no memory of this, and I thank God, because if I had memory I would have so much trauma,” Chen-Hribar said. “I was in so much pain that, my mother told me, I would bite the bedframe.”
When Chen-Hribar woke up after having extensive surgery and days of treatment, she woke up to her mother at her bedside, feeling as though she was in a sort of twilight.
“When I woke up I seemed to understand why I was there, even though I did not know why I was there, it felt like I was still in Europe,” Chen-Hribar said. “And I asked my mom ‘why are you here’ because I thought she was supposed to be in Taiwan, at work, even though she had retired in 1975.”
She was in recovery at Casa Colina Hospital in Pomona for two months, with physical therapy for one hour and speech therapy for seven hours daily.
“The easiest part was the physical recovery,” Chen-Hribar said. “The hardest part was not even the mental, speech therapy, it was the emotional part.”
Chen-Hribar said that she was grateful for her experience in therapy.
“The whole process humbled me and made me think about how blessed I really am,” Chen-Hribar said. “Sometimes I asked God, ‘Why didn’t you take me,’ when I was feeling very down. Of course I never got an answer from God, but I knew I had to start over again.”
In 2006, Chen-Hribar came to the University of La Verne, after she had moved to San Dimas.
“I don’t remember why or how I came to the University of La Verne, but one reason was because it was close and I knew I could get here by myself,” Chen-Hribar said.
Chen-Hribar said at ULV she connects with her students on a human level, rather than on a functional level.
“I think it might be because I can relate to them as to who they really are, rather than just on the surface, and they really talk to me and I really appreciate that,” Chen-Hribar said. “And that is what it is all about, it’s about people.”