English is considered by many to be the dominant language of the world. So many people use it to communicate and interact with people from different countries and all walks of life. While the majority of people born in America grow up speaking English, I did not. I was born in Gardena, California in 1995 and lived there until my parents decided to return to Japan four years later. I lived in Japan for nine years, but I never felt like I belonged in my Japanese pre-school and elementary school. Even though on the surface I was treated just like the others kids, I sensed that everyone saw me differently. Due to the fact I’m half Japanese and half Korean and my family’s circumstances were very different from other kids, I always had the desire to go back to the United States thinking I would fit in better there. I always thought it was a waste not to speak English even though I held American citizenship.
As my elementary school graduation came closer, my desire to come home to the United States became stronger. At the age of twelve, I wanted to find a place where I felt like I belonged, and I thought the Japanese school were really boring. My mother always told me that living in the United States was easier and she felt like she was able to assimilate better. When she was in high school, she decided to homestay at her aunt’s place in Hawaii. My mother was very similar to me; she never felt like she belonged in Japan. She loved America and I wanted to do the same. When I graduated elementary school, I wanted go to the United States like she did, but at that time I was still hesitant about it. However, after the graduation ceremony, my father said something to me that turned my hesitation into determination. He told me
“If you can speak English, you can speak to more than half of the population in the world. You can be a bridge between people who does not speak English or Japanese and help others.”
I felt obligated to be this bridge since I have dual citizenship but most of all, I liked helping others. That was the moment when I decided to go to the United States and study English.
Many people have told me what I did was brave but looking back it, I think it was just pure stupidity and ignorance. I did not realize what it meant to leave my family behind in Japan, and by the time I did, it was too late and there was no going back. My parents never said anything about what to expect. I was on my own, and I did not speak a word of English. There were no ESL programs or any other Japanese students at my school.
My first year in America was hell for me since I did not have anyone I could go to for support. I had no family or friends where I lived other than my host family. The middle school that I went to was a private Christian school in suburban Philadelphia. When I first got to my new school, they only had three exchange students including me. The other two exchange students were both Korean, so they were able to talk to each other in their own language and that made everything even worse. No one spoke my language, but I needed someone to talk to.
I felt trapped, my English was not improving but I could not tell my mother, who trusted me and sent me to the United States, that I wanted to quit and go back to Japan. I could only go forward. The only option I could see was to stay and learn English. I learned there was no easy way out, and that there was no substitute for hard work. I have to say, the first two years I spent in the United States by myself, 7th and 8th grade, were the worst years of my life. I barely remember anything I did during this period of time because I was chronically depressed.
Every day I suffered. No matter how hard I tried I could not do any of my schoolwork or assignments, I could not understand anything that went on in class, and I could not even tell other people how I was feeling. Therefore, I stopped trying and decided to wait until I knew English. However, people thought I was pretending to know English so I would not have to do homework. One of my teachers actually yelled at me thinking I was just being smart and pretending that I could not speak English so I would not have to do homework. The only reason I knew this was because later my friends told me why he was yelling at me: at the time I had no idea why I was being yelled at. I could not even ask for help from my teachers, and even though some of my friends tried to help me, it was difficult because of the language barrier. This instance made me really re-consider my approaches to learn English.
During my first year in the United States, I was really afraid to talk to others. I did not know what to say, and most of the time I could not understand 90% of the things people said, so I became antisocial and stopped talking to people. But one day, I realized that that only way to become fluent in English is by speaking to people, even if it meant that I might be humiliated by them in front of many people. So I kept talking to people. Though I was more than aware of the fact that my English was terrible, I kept talking and talking and talking, and as I talked more, my English became better and better
Every time someone made fun of me for my English, I vowed myself to become a better English speaker. I kept telling myself
“if I quit here, all my hard work would go to waste. If I quit here, how could I overcome bigger obstacles to come in life? If I quit here, I’d be betraying everyone who has helped me get to this place. I’d be betraying my family who believed in me. I cannot get mad at the others for making fun of me; I don’t have any time to waste on them by being mad. Instead, I should use that time to become a better speaker. Someday I will be fluent in English. Someday I will be the bridge between people”.
I learned English by making mistakes—being humiliated by the peers and getting yelled at by the teachers. Getting over the fears of making mistakes really paid off at the end. By speaking English more, I was able to improve my speaking ability and finally make friends. However, even after speaking English for many years, I have yet to become that bridge, so I will keep improving until I do.
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