Nothing lost in translation


Brayden Parker

[heading size=”16″]Learning English 1 word at a time[/heading]
Chung takes notes in her English Language Learning (ELL) class. Photo by Urmila Kutikkad
Chung takes notes in her English Language Learning (ELL) class. Photo by Urmila Kutikkad

Sitting silently in the front row of her last-hour advisory, freshman Chi Chung has pen in hand and school on the mind, completing the day’s homework. Chi, on the surface, appears no different from students sitting to her left and right.

In a school like RBHS and a community like Columbia, it is common to see students of international descent. In fact a handful of other freshmen in the same class are not native to America. Yet when Chi begins to speak it becomes apparent this culture is most foreign to her.
The soft and high-pitched sound pipes out at first, wavering and timid as her voice communicates that English is not her original language. This fact is not uncommon among international students at the school, as international students can often speak more than one language, yet as Chi continues to utter the words on her mind, it is evident that English may not even be a second language, but rather a work in progress.
Chi moved to the United States just three short months ago. The 5’2’’ girl journeyed with her mother and younger sister from their home country of Taiwan and has been immersed, or rather drowned, in a culture flooded with unfamiliarities.
“This year in August I moved from Taiwan because my parents want me to learn English and study,” Chi said in her fractured English, “because they think if my English is good, it’ll be really helpful in my future.”
These first words she utters in her interview are her dream. It isn’t difficult to notice that despite the challenges that are resultant of a major transition such as swapping cultures, Chi is focused on not just getting by on the language but truly being a student of the culture.
“English is a current language in the world so learning the English is very helpful,” Chi said. “I think I’ll go to an American college. I want to study about the language. I want to be an interpreter.”
Despite knowing so little about the language and, besides the Taylor Swift she listens to ardently, being inarticulate in the culture, Chi’s wish to, after just three months, dedicate herself to helping other international people communicate with one another might be strange to some. Yet after understanding Chi’s dedication to learning, it seems obvious she should be dedicated to her future.

This story is the second in a three-part series, in which BearingNews reporters take a closer look at the stories of students’ transitions and journeys into American life. Click here for Part One and check back on Thursday for Part Three. ”

Of course, it would be ridiculous to assume that such a monumental transition would exist without the struggles. For a person so confident about her future, Chi is timid about the present, worried about the difficulties that are associated with fitting in.
“It’s a very big challenge to me because it’s my first time to come here,” Chi said. “So actually I am very afraid to come here. And I don’t think my English is very well so I’m afraid to come here and talk to American people … I saw many videos and movies about Americans, and it had bullying in it. I’m afraid of being bullied.”
Despite the fear of bullying, Chi says she has been warmly welcomed to the midwestern culture. She is still nervous to interact with Americans but understands the necessity of doing so.
“I like to go to the ELL classroom to talk to the teacher and other international students,” she said. “I still feel afraid to talk to Americans so I like talking to those people … But I think people here are all very nice.”
Chi is impressed by not only the people but also the school system. She is excited with the change in how American students learn as opposed to their Taiwanese counterparts and the opportunities that exist therein.
“In Taiwan, they have these classrooms and you just stay in your class always,” she said. “Everyone stays in their classes and for all four years of your high school life, you’re with the same kids. Instead of the kids walking to their classes the teachers switch. Also the testing is really intense and each time a test is given and graded, the scores are posted and listed on a wall where everyone can look at it. If you’re at the bottom, everyone ignores you because you really aren’t that smart.”
Along with the encouragement from her teachers and their willingness to help with her with her future, Chi favors the balance that Americans hold between their schoolwork and enjoying free time. In Taiwan, many people are so dedicated to their future that they forget to take advantage of other extracurricular opportunities.
“In Taiwan, we think studying and going to college is very important to us … You even have to take a test to go to high school kind of like they do here for college,” Chi said. “You can either go to a really good high school or a really bad high school, but either way you have a lot of homework after school. Most kids go to tutoring classes. They go through all the subjects and then come home from that study session and do homework.”
That dedication is something Chi continues to strive for, but she appreciates the balance that Americans maintain and since moving here, has tried to imitate that. She enjoys singing and Taylor Swift, her favorite song being “Love Story.” She also plays badminton and exercises for relaxation. Alongside this, Chi enjoys spending time with her sister, a twelve-year-old who attends Jefferson Junior High School.
It is her sister and her mother who are living in Columbia along with two other roommates. Her mother studies English at the University of Missouri in order to learn the language. Chi’s father and brother still live in Taiwan to help the females in their family have the opportunity to learn the language.
“My father is working in insurance, and my brother is working now. He’s 18 years old,” Chi said. “My father needed to stay in Taiwan and work and earn money so he can pay for the money we used here.”
Chi and her family remain grateful for the opportunity to come to America, especially Columbia. She still misses her father immensely, claiming it is the hardest part about moving to the United States. However, she stays focused on the goal of learning the language. Although she and her family speak Chinese at home, they continue to immerse themselves in English every once in a while in order to further their knowledge and their future.
“Friday, we almost have an hour to practice English where we can’t speak Chinese,” Chi said. “I think it’s funny because my mom’s English isn’t very good and she will be acting and speaking at the same time. We also have a punishment that if you speak Chinese you have to eat chocolate.”
When asked if she didn’t like the standard American candy, she responded that she enjoyed it but that the people of the Asian culture think differently.
“We think that chocolate will make you fat,” Chi said.
American foods aside, Chi remains focused on the task at hand. Chocolate and other American foods, hamburgers included, are the little things she enjoys, yet she is not concerned about when her mother disapproves of fatty foods. She has her eyes set on much more than the American culture of food and she appreciates the American people for the template they provide on how to reach her goals.
While she is in touch with her past and her heritage, Chi is also appreciative of the opportunity she has in the present with the hope that the people and the lessons she learns from them will have a positive influence on her future.
“American people are smart. American people are more creative where in Taiwan everything is step-by-step,” Chi said. “Over here, people are more open but in Taiwan people are more reserved and keep their thoughts to themselves. They don’t express themselves openly and freely where Americans are really loud. I think freedom is important.”
The freedom is what Chi attributes to her goals, her aspirations. The same, timid girl who tried to squeak out the broken English possesses the confidence that will help her reach those goals. In the same words that she first mentioned, her voice holds the same ability to reach for the end.
Danielle Wu, RBHS sophomore, acted as an interpreter for Chi in this BearingNews interview.
By Brayden Parker