“More?” I saw Ma Ma narrow her eyebrows in the front mirror. “That’s the only English word you learned at daycare?” She seemed both wary and amused by my first day at KinderCare, my first day away from familiar settings. Now four-and-a-half, she could not keep me home any longer. “Yes!” I chimed in my native Mandarin. “If you tell the teacher ‘more,’ then she will give you more sauce! Apple sauce!” I giggled, traces of my baby fat shaking. The next day, I tried the word again. “More! More! More!” I laughed as another scoop of apple sauce happily settled upon my lunch tray. “More! More! More!” Briefly, my delight for this magical word had overshadowed my poor English and my lack of friends. Then, on the third day, I learned a word even more powerful than “more.” This time in the car, I was not giggling. With tears in my eyes, I whispered, “Ma Ma, I asked for ‘more’ today, but then the teacher said ‘No. No more!’” I wanted to tell the teacher just how hungry I still was, but because that explanation required more vocabulary than “more” and “no,” I remained sad and hungry for the rest of the afternoon.

As ludicrous as the anecdote may seem, this was the first time I realized the divide between my Chinese and American heritage. At that moment, I learned the power behind English words, and how without them, I was silent. And I was not going to stay silent.
Up till that point, I spoke Mandarin solely, and I saw no need to learn English. I did not think of that as a con, for Ma Ma had provided me with a curious mind for learning and a proclivity for story-telling, better than any American daycare could have done. Every day, she would read me Chinese stories, some fables and poetry thousands of years old, some modern science fiction or adventure books. My appetite for more stories to feed my imagination was growing exponentially, and eventually, my mother told me that learning English would open up a whole new world of fiction. I had still been too afraid to step out of my comfortable mother tongue, but my dissatisfaction at lunch had pushed me past my limits. I refused to have my voice ignored.

Luckily, when I finally dared to learn English, I found that the language that had once divided me from my teachers, from new stories, had become my strength. Reading and listening to both Chinese and English tales, jumping from Li Bai to O. Henry, from the Terracotta Warriors to Abraham Lincoln’s beard, I began to accept both cultures as my own, a Chinese-American story. I fell in love with English, my greatest adversary.

I believe that we are shaped, and consequently limited, by what we read. Language differences are often seen as barriers that separate “us” from “them,” when in truth, they should be embraced as the passage to a new wealth of culture. We are often scared and surprised of the unknown, as those within Plato’s cave had been of the shadows. When people grow up in different political, socioeconomic, cultural, or geographical environments, differences in linguistics and ideas are to be expected. Furthermore, even among people who speak the same language, I see disputes arise because they have difficulty seeing matters from another’s point of view. For example, I founded a robotics club at my school, which has attracted a diverse group of people, yet there is a clear separation between STEM-oriented students and humanities-oriented students. The former focuses solely on the technical proficiency of the programming, while the latter thinks only of the marketability and presentation, and the two sides always butt heads. In reality, both perspectives are incredibly important parts of the whole.
I have thought for a long time about how to bring about true inclusivity. In America, there is often a facade of “the melting pot,” but I believe that people cannot truly appreciate one another until we understand others’ perspectives. I have learned that reading a variety of topics, especially topics that I am not familiar with, provides me with multiple perspectives to view a problem, and many once one-dimensional issues become complex and intriguing. Reading brings people together, but only if students are willing to read outside their comfort zone, just as I once had to learn English to appreciate the sharp, witty dialogues of Jane Austen. However, when we read in solitude, it is quite difficult to know what lies beyond our knowledge base.

I believe reading can, and should, be a communal activity. Through the National English Honor Society, I founded Epilogue, an online, open-access book review magazine in which students can share their honest opinions on different works and genuinely explore different interests. Epilogue allows math students to know what history buffs are thinking about, literature lovers to see through how a physics lover might approach The Great Gatsby, and nurture a comfortable environment for intellectual exchange. Our editorial team has grown from two to 16 students, and we publish around 10 out of the 30 submissions per issue. Multiple authors were happily surprised when their readers reached out for further discussion. When students have the opportunity to read what somebody else is reading or how they are thinking, there is a bridge for understanding and ideas are running free!

My American experience? No, my Chinese-American experience. In my case, there simply cannot be one without the other. Both English and Chinese stories are my histories. But most of all, rather than being divided by the two cultures, I am excited to be a part of a new wave, a new generation, a chance for me to be me because my experiences are unique. I want to close not only cultural divides, but also between STEM and humanities. And, most of all, I will never be silent, for I have both Mandarin and English, my Chinglish, to keep my voice ringing.

DISCLAIMER: The content of this essay does not represent the views of the contest organizer CAPA NOVA.
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