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By Tiffany Chang
It is almost always an unpleasant experience for a teenager to move away from the familiar environment, well-established social circle, and a place that has been called home for more than a decade. Now add a foreign language and a completely different culture to that kid’s relocation package, nine days before her 14th birthday -- then you’d have me.
As if high school life was a piece of cake for any average American kid who speaks English fluently, I entered mine as a mute, awkward, and at times very lonely ninth grader.
I knew I was different. My hair was big, lingering in the late 80s even though the year was 1993. My outfit was questionable as well, given that back in Taiwan I wore only uniforms to school. Still, nothing made me stand out more than the inability to communicate. The word FOB was the label I wore in classes and hallways -- the quiet, newly arrived one with a pitiful sense of fashion.
When I did speak, I kept everything to a minimum, not wanting to get laughed at or criticized or, my most dreaded, asked to say it again, please, “because I just can’t understand you.”
My PE teacher would talk to me at an extremely slow pace with dramatic body language in front of a group of giggling classmates. I wanted to tell her that we used to play volleyball in Taiwan, too, and the fact that I couldn’t serve the ball had more to do with my general sucking at all sports, not that I couldn’t speak English.
And the math teacher, albeit a very nice woman, treated me as if I were a five-year-old. Every time I finished a problem before other students in class, she would clap for me, as I stared back at her wordlessly. She probably thought that I was an idiot savant.
Although patronizing at times, the teachers at least meant well. The worst treatment came from some of the students. Two girls (Stacey Anderson and Amanda Denton -- I will never forget their names), after a whole class period worth of verbal taunts that I coldly ignored in silence, decided to “bump” into me on their way out of the locker room.
Full of rage and grievance, I wanted to report the incident to the school counselor: These two losers pushed me in the locker room because they are soulless bullies who pick on people new to this country, people who try hard every day to learn a new language and to fit in. I want them to be punished for pushing me and I want them to stay away from me, forever.
Instead I said, choking up on every word: "They are mean. They push me. I don’t want to see them." Then I broke down sobbing, realizing how violated I felt, both physically and intelligently.
The counselor issued a restraining order that the two bullies agreed to sign, smiling and joking throughout the entire process. They did not receive any detention, and I am pretty sure their parents were never notified of what they did.
Of course, life was not all bad. I did manage to find friendship, from my fellow ESL (English as Second Language) classmates.
They came from all over the world, speaking just as little English, feeling just as rejected and isolated in this strange world called American high school. We were in the same boat, the one we freshly hopped off, then right back in, where we had our moments of respite and little joys.
I remember one boy from Yemen started dating a girl from Venezuela, communicating their admiration for each other mostly through miming. I also remember watching a Vietnamese student and a Korean student work on their science assignment together in broken English.
Despite their initial struggle to understand each other, they ended up becoming great friends who would have never met if it weren’t for that melting pot of classroom in a small town in Northern California. The ESL classroom was our safe haven: We ate lunch together, told jokes with various accents, and took a break from the reality outside of that classroom.
As much as I did appreciate the friendship in the insulated environment of an ESL classroom, I also made a commitment to myself to get out of it as soon as possible. After all, English is the language of the country my family moved me to -- I must learn it, no excuses.
I wanted to use proper grammar. I wanted to read books. I wanted to recite poems and write short stories. And I have done just that and a little more: I have unexpectedly fallen in love with the very language that once gave me so much grief.
Today I am proud to say that I am bilingual. I once worked as a legal interpreter for the law school immigration clinic back in college, providing oral interpretations as well as translating written statements. I read literatures in both Chinese and English.
To many native speakers, I still have a slight accent. But that’s fine compared to where I was with many years ago; not only I can convey my ideas in this language called English, I have even attempted to make art in it.
Not to mention that I will always be patient to those who are new to English.