Language has always been a crucial part within a community. From simple tasks such as asking for directions, ordering food, to heavier tasks such as reading the mail, speaking to an authoritative figure, and translating for another person. These were only some of the obstacles that Jiawen had to face during her middle school years and even today. Without the resources and ability to communicate fluently, Jiawen became the bridge between her family and the world around them.
In 2005, at the age of 6, Jiawen moved across the world with her hands tightly wrapped around her mother’s, slightly confused about the move but also excited about reuniting with her father. Her father had previously left to reunite with his father who was already residing within New York and her mother was preparing to reunite with her sister in search of better education opportunities for Jiawen in New York City. Jiawen got on the plane and struggles with teeth pain during her two connecting flights along with her cousins who battled with motion sickness. The moment she got off the plane, she is welcomed by the harsh winter weather of New York City. As she recalls these memories, she laughs saying how she is still not adapted to the cold compared to the much warmer weather in Guangzhou. Besides the cold, Jiawen was also fascinated by the amount of people in NYC that differed both culturally and ethnically because the exposure to diversity within the city was not something she saw “back in China, [where] you would only see Chinese kids.” Additionally transferring from a prestigious and expensive all-girls dance school to a public co-ed schooling system took time to get used to.
Jiawen recalls her memories of school back in China as she compares her experiences to the public school that she went to when she first moved here. She explained how her school “was performance heavy, especially in dancing” and exercising. Jiawen described how the school was “very punishment and reward heavy” especially during naptime where the student(s) who did not sleep during naptime were ridiculed in front of the whole class. She felt that public school here was more lenient and the teachers would be more indifferent about these things. In addition, her public school here was no longer performance based like the dance program that she was part of back in China. After transferring to a whole new school, she found it hard to adapt and make new friends without the ability to speak the same language fluently.
Living conditions were also not optimal when Jiawen first moved over. She lived on the second floor of a cramped apartment in 8th Avenue, Brooklyn, with her cousins and their family, a total of ten to twelve people. However, she did not mind it since her “cousins were [her] only playmates” that distracted her from her dislike of going to school. She found it difficult to communicate in school, other than expressing words such as “excuse me” and “thank you.” Jiawen felt “different [and she] didn’t like it” and felt excluded from her classmates. As part of the “64 percent of Asian elementary/secondary school students [that] spoke a language other than English at home… and [the] 17 percent of Asian students spoke English with difficulty,” Jiawen struggled and was placed into the ESL program for most of her school education. ESL or English as a Second Language programs were designed “to help students to develop their: speaking, writing, reading, and listening skills” by allowing bilingual teachers to interact with students such as Jiawen and others who either struggle with the English language because it is not their first language or just general needed help in the language. This program was made to provide a safe learning environment for the student “to help alleviate frustrations” in not being able to communicate from a language barrier. Despite the perks that Jiawen was thankful for the ESL program for offering, such as extra time on exams and additional help with homework, she disliked how it set her apart from other classmates as she would leave the room to take exams. Although the ESL program provided additional help in English, Jiawen learned most of the language on her own from interacting with others and studying at home and school.
Outside of the classroom, Jiawen also experienced the “inferiority” due to a language barrier within her community, as she recalls a memory of her downstairs neighbor’s daughters who were American-born Chinese girls. She “felt injustice, and felt different from them… [and] saw them as a higher level” because they could speak fluent English but she could not. However, after moving several times within the same neighborhood, Jiawen finally felt settled and at home in her current home in 10th Avenue, Brooklyn where she met her best friend who was also an immigrant. Despite being polar opposites of one another, she made Jiawen feel “relaxed… just hanging out together makes [her] cherish” the times they have together. Other than her best friend, Jiawen is grateful for her mother for being her “moral support” who was there for her whenever she needed help. She recalls the time when her mother purchased an electronic dictionary to help her translate all the words for her science projects. Both her mother and her best friend guided her to adapting to the new lifestyle within the city.
Despite having adapted to the environment here, Jiawen shares that if she had the choice to decide whether to stay in China or move to New York, she would have stayed mainly because of “an economic reason.” Her family had farmland in the countryside and owned a restaurant, however after moving here, her dad worked as a cook and her mom, as a waitress. She realized early on as a child that money was a necessity to live within New York, which has been categorized as a state with a high cost of living and making her more responsible with her savings and finances even as a child. Throughout the interview, Jiawen shows maturity as she recounts on her experiences and memories even as a child who moved to a new country with her mother and cousins, without any trouble. She explains how “when [she] was younger, [her] life revolved around [her] family, particularly, [her] sister and brother,” taking care of them as her parents worked to make money to support the household. As she was “forced to grow up” early, she realized that, overtime, “no one will care about” the language differences that initially set her apart from her classmates and her family from her neighbors, in fact she advises others who are trying to adapt to a new environment to never “feel inferior because of differences.” Instead, she emphasizes that it is important to “stay connected with your cultural background because one way or another it’s going to help you” and therefore you can become literate and knowledgeable in more than one culture and language. Nonetheless, Jiawen grew used to the life in New York since she spent most of her life within this city especially since immigrating at such a young age. Since she only spent a short period of her life in China, she could not compare the two countries and learned to never take opportunities for granted. The time that she got to spend with both family and friends became her outlet of emotional struggles that she faced when her family started from scratch after moving to a new country.
Jiawen feels that these differences in cultures and ethnicities is what makes up NYC “like a giant melting pot” and “from schools to work fields, you can see a lot of different people.” Currently within her community, she describes how on her side of the street, there are mainly Asian families whereas across the street are “all American families, no Asians” and she found it funny to see how all the houses are connected and looked the same across the street whereas on her side of the block, each house stands on its own. This is common within the Sunset Park neighborhood where 52.8% of the neighborhood is Asian where 91.5% of the Asians living there are Chinese. Nonetheless, her community is involved and will interact during block parties or gatherings where they would communicate even if they do not talk on a daily basis. Reflecting on her experience here, she explains that she has never “experienced another country as deeply as America and can’t say something else to compare” it as she grew up within New York. To describe her experience here as a child to her young adult years now, she wraps up the interview with “you will grow to love New York City.”
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