Imagine waking up one day, and all of a sudden everyone around you is speaking a foreign language. All of your friends are on another continent--a world away. Your parents, too, are on another continent. They thought that being in this new country would give you more opportunities--but they must take care of business back home in order to support you here.
In science class, you know some answers, but you keep quiet, afraid people may laugh if you cannot express your ideas in perfect English. You go from class to class, not knowing anyone in the hallways. You try to sit in the back of the room so you won’t be called on. You know your teachers will never get to know you in 45 minutes a day. “Just as well,’' you think. “What will I have to say to them anyway? And what will they have to say to me?’'
You feel alone. Your parents want you to succeed in school. They know you are a good student, but, suddenly, you are not passing your classes, and you have no social life. They come visit you once every three to six months. You wish they could always be here with support and love, not overseas.
Teachers have heard that children pick up languages quickly, so you are expected to do well in class after only three months. You know your parents have placed all of their hopes in you. The pressure is on, but no one understands just how pressured you feel.
There is no one to talk to. You begin wondering whether there is something wrong with you for not being able to succeed academically and make friends. Deep down, you want to go back to be with your old friends and to speak your own language. But your parents tell you that this is best for you; there is no turning back.
All your teachers and classmates at school have heard that people who speak your language are naturally good at math and are outspoken. It so happens that you love photography, hate math, and are the quiet type. So now they think you’re lazy, when, in fact, you are trying your best.
One day, you see another student who speaks your language and looks like you. When you talk to each other, you think it is the most beautiful language you have heard in months. You hang around this new friend all the time, sharing your thoughts and problems. You confide everything that has been bottled up inside you because no one else is interested or has the patience to listen to your broken English. You notice that as kids walk by you and your friend, they make funny sounds. You know they are not comfortable with your speaking another language around them. But you can finally communicate, and you finally have someone to share things with.
Soon, however, you realize that you have little in common with this new friend except the language and the immigrant experience. You grow apart emotionally, but you feel the need to be around someone who understands your experience. You wish that someone else would reach out to you and become your friend. You wish that someone would look beyond the skin color and language barrier to see that you are a human being, just like they are.
You have feelings, and you have pride, but your self-esteem is slowly crumbling. You have two ears that hear hurtful comments. You have two eyes that cry salty tears. And you have a heart that bleeds red blood, just like everyone else.
You wish people would ask for your help developing pictures in photography. You want to reach out and make new friends, but your cultural blunders have intimidated you. You need a friend to invite you in, to be patient with you, and to teach you the culture you are so unfamiliar with. Yet you also need someone to be interested in you and to respect your unusual background.
What you want most of all is someone who appreciates you for what you have to offer--someone who realizes that people, despite differences in language and appearance, are more the same than they are different.
--Tzymei Alexasia Shih
The author immigrated to Claremont, Calif., from Taiwan at age 12. She is currently a doctoral student in education at the University of Washington in Seattle.
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1996 edition of Teacher as Worlds Apart