Introduction: The goal of my paper is to explain how obstacles in life, whether that be your background or something that comes up during your life, can actually bring about a better version of yourself. In my essay, I talk about how being an English learner didn't discourage me from the learning the language, but instead, encouraged me to work harder. I am proud of my use of descriptive language and implementation of quotes, but I did go slightly over the word limit. Next time around, I will try to be more concise.
Wendy was behind the wheel and Shihong was in the passenger seat. Jeffrey, Lina, and I sat in the back as the car drove through the suburbs of South Jersey. It was a glistening day, and the azure blue sky was sprinkled with puffy clouds like cotton balls. To each side, we were surrounded by forest thick enough where we couldn’t see where it ended.
Wendy began talking. She was the wife of the boss at the Chinese restaurant that my parents worked at. While most of the employees couldn’t even form complete sentences in English, she stood out as the “special Asian” as she was a fluent speaker and even attended college in the United States. She had this aura of condescending arrogance, always looking down on the others at the restaurant. She was very proud of her literacy, and made sure to let others know. In Mother Tongue by Amy Tan, she talks about her mom’s broken English and how people “did not take her seriously” because of it (Tan). Wendy would always talk down on the employees, including my parents, and she knew they couldn’t understand her insults anyway.
“William. Do you have an accent? I think I remember you having an accent. Say thanks,” she said. The request was very unexpected, but I did as I was told.
“Thanks,” I said.
“Say it again,” she replied, with a hint of excitement in her voice.
“Thanks,” I said again, this time with less confidence.
“I think I can still hear an “s,” actually. It sounds like you’re saying sanks. You definitely have an accent.”
I noticed a strange smirk on her face through the rear view mirror, as if she felt like she achieved something through that exchange. It was either anger or disappointment that I felt. Maybe it was both. “There was no way I was saying it wrong,” I thought. Thanks, thanks, thanks, I kept repeating in my head. “Could I really still have an accent?” I was in denial. In Mother Tongue, Amy also brings up this idea that her mother’s inadequate English “had an effect on limiting my possibilities in life as well” (Tan). Like Amy, I felt that my parents’ shortcomings in the dominant literacy of America also made life more difficult for me.
My parents are both Chinese immigrants who dropped out of school at a young age to attain financial stability. I was born in the US, but when I was only a couple of months old, I was sent to China to live with my grandparents for about 4 years. Back in China, I spoke Fuzhounese with my family, and learned Mandarin in the local pre-school.
When I came back to America, I couldn’t speak any English. Having parents who were illiterate in English didn’t help either. Not having parents that are English literate meant that I never had help from them for homework. It meant that at a very young age, I had to learn do things on my own, like write checks for the bills, apply for health insurance, set up doctor’s appointments, and fill out all paperwork sent home from school.
In my early years of schooling, I struggled to understand what my teachers were saying, I struggled whenever I tried to read, and I struggled to communicate with my English speaking friends. I couldn’t relate with experiences many other kids had, like having pets or traveling, because I never had those experiences myself. I’ve spent countless nights staying up late, reading books at half the pace of other kids, rereading the same paragraphs to understand the material. In Superman and Me by Sherman Alexie, he mentions that when he was teaching himself English, he “read with equal parts joy and desperation” (Alexie). Despite our shared disadvantaged backgrounds, we knew that English was the best tool we had to success. I was afraid that I may end up like my parents, not knowing English and working backbreaking, low paying jobs.
While most people will find illiteracy as disadvantage, it can potentially create a more ideal circumstance for success in literacy. This disadvantage gave me more reason to work hard. I felt the need to have neat handwriting, good desk organization, and good grades. The standards I set for myself are higher than many friends of mine who are Native English speakers. The work ethic I’ve developed became the reason why my academic career since has been so much more successful. I’ve had many responsibilities that kids my age don’t, and have experience doing many things that most people my age didn’t. Not being proficient in the dominant literacy became an incentive for me to improve myself. Although English is still not my strong point, what I have gained through learning it has made me a better reader of the world.
Baca, Jimmy Santiago. A Place to Stand: the Making of a Poet. Grove Press, 2001.
Tan, Amy. “Mother Tongue.” Google Drive, "https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B8Cvq7ioloJpZGNkYTM0ZjUtNDczZC00NWE2LWEyMTQtMjgzZDRhYTAzNTBi/view"
Alexie, Sherman. “Superman and Me”.