In China, taking English as foreign language is mandatory. I began learning English when I was in third grade, but by the end of eighth grade, I was still learning tenses. Though I could ace every single English test in China, the amount of English I knew was far less than the amount I needed to survive at Horace Mann.
Looking back on when I first arrived at Horace Mann, I’ve realized how easy it can be for people that are not fluent in English in an environment like Horace Mann to remain isolated, unable to become part of the community or understand the culture.
For the first few days, I was basically mute. I remembered walking into Atlantic World History, reading primary and secondary sources, unable to recognize about half of the words which were ordered in a way I had never seen before. Homework that was supposed to take no more than 45 minutes always took me double the time, simply because it took time to put those words into Google Translate, then turn the response I crafted in my brain (in Chinese, of course) into comprehensible English.
Then, I had to read something called Shakespeare, something I could not understand. Every time I read a page, I had to stop and think about what had happened. At first, I couldn’t even tell what was going on. Why “thee” or “thou” instead of using “you” or regular English? Why could sentences begin at the end of a line? What did all of those words mean? But as I got further into the play, I discovered something called “No Fear Shakespeare” (also known as “The Life-saver”). After that, I would always read the summary of an act first, so I could jump into the text with an actual understanding of what was happening.
After a few weeks, I needed less and less time to complete the history homework, and I could understand the readings in history and English better. I gradually became able to express my ideas more clearly. I finally was able to understand what was going on in readings and my writing began to improve as a result. It took me time to learn how to make and support a thesis, however, and I still don’t really understand what is wrong with simple description.
However, to this day, I sometimes have trouble understanding conversations. I know the words; it’s the cultural context that defeats me, whether I am having a conversation with a friend or just listening to other people’s conversation. There are always moments when I just do not know what’s going on—about sports or TV shows or something I don’t even know what it is or what category it belongs to. Maybe it takes more time to understand or become part of a culture.
Gradually, English has become increasingly natural to me. For a long time, I translated everything I heard in English to Chinese, then processed and translated it back to reply. Now, there are moments in conversations when English come out of my mouth without any thought. Even though I continue to be more comfortable talking in Chinese, my English has really come along well, and most times, I’m capable of expressing myself in the way that I want.
To those international students at Horace Mann who are still having problems adapting, I have three words: “It gets better.” No matter how hard or bewildering the first weeks are, I promise you everything gets easier. Speak to your teachers and ask them for help. To this day, not one teacher has ever refused to help me. But you have to ask, and I know that for many foreign students, that can be the first obstacle.
I have to say that no matter the difficulties I had in the beginning, I’ve come to realize that speaking another language is a gift. Being fluent in both languages gives me a better insight into many things. For almost everything happening around the world, I can see news or reviews written in both languages for countries and cultures with different values. The same incident can be narrated differently. With access to different narratives, I can consider events with deeper understanding because I can see more than one perspective. Also, having experiences in two cultures allows me to be more objective. Before moving to the United States, people in China gave me the impression that schools in the US were supposed to be easy and that the workload would be light. It turned out to be the exact opposite. The amount of stress I feel at Horace Mann is way more than what I felt at my middle school, which had the reputation of being one of the most stressful in China.
Moreover, being bilingual allows me to appreciate both cultures better. Over time, I have begun to accept and understand more and more things that are unique to the US such as food, sports, and even slang. At the same time, I continue to embrace those things that accompanied my childhood like Chinese New Year, October 1st (national day, similar to Independence Day in the US), or the traditional dishes and snacks that I still get at home. All in all, I am glad that I have learned to embrace another culture, even if the beginning was difficult and bewildering.