See it from my side
Walking through the wrong gate into a new school as a student from a different country. Walking into the wrong classroom and not understanding what your teacher means when she asks for you schedule. This is sophomore Amy Shen’s first experience at a school in the United States.
Shen grew up in Hengyang, a city in the southern Chinese province of Hunan. There, she lived as an only child with her parents until she was 10 years old. When her father’s friends invited him to start a business with them, Shen moved to the United States with her father, leaving her mother and her other relatives behind.
“I really miss them. I haven’t seen them in three years already, but I talk to them [using] Facetime,” Shen said. “You know there must be at least a little bit of change, like how you’re never going to see your old friends ever again. You have to meet new friends, and that’s pretty fun, [but] I didn’t realize how big the change [was].”
When Shen arrived in the United States, she first lived in Rancho Cucamonga and attended Day Creek Intermediate School for a year and a half. Toward the end of seventh grade, Shen moved to Walnut and transferred to Suzanne Middle School.
The first major difference Shen noticed about the U.S. and China was in the education systems. Shen recalls thirteen-hour school days and long lunch breaks when students were allowed to return home to eat in China. Grades were also a crucial part of her life. However, in the U.S., Shen saw that, instead of mostly focusing on letter grades and percentages, teachers focused on students learning the material they needed to know. By doing different kinds of projects in classes, she was able to apply skills she learned to her life and utilize her creativity.
“In China, we learn everything in the book [and] memorize it, [but] most of [the material] we’re probably never going to use in real life at all. There are just [different] things in American culture, like how they care more about what you actually learn and how can you use what you learned,” Shen said. “My dad cares for my grades, but he cares more about what I learn. If you really get a bad grade [because] you just don’t know [the material] by that time. But if you actually learn from mistakes, it’s fine, instead of [in] China where it’s just [about] grades.”
The difference in the environment and the surrounding perspectives also affected Shen’s relationship with her mother back in China. Ever since she started attending drama class, her dream was to become an actress. However, Shen’s mother wanted her to pursue other careers in the medical or law field. Disagreements like this reflected the conflicting mindsets Shen and her mother had.
“There are a lot of times that the things that I think and the things that my mom thinks are just completely different. I told my mom that I wanted to be an actress but she’s like ‘No.’ That just broke my heart. Things like that kind of hurt me because when your dreams are not accepted by your family, you feel like they’re never going to come true,” Shen said. “We get into fights because that’s what happens, but most of the time, we just talk through things, and if [she] really won’t accept it I’m like, ‘Okay, fine.’ This is what I think, and I’m living my own life, but if this is what you think, I’m probably going to consider it too.”
Shen was one of the only Chinese students attending Day Creek, and she often found it difficult to communicate with others in English. In addition, Shen had multiple encounters with bullying and racism at Day Creek. She remembers a bully who consistently insulted her appearance and pushed her during lunch.
“It happened quite a few times, like two or three times every month. Usually when I saw him, I ran away a little bit because I didn’t want to get in trouble or anything. Even if I got in trouble, I didn’t know how to explain things. I felt really bad because I was the only one who was different in that school. It was a little bit overwhelming because [at first], I felt really sad and angry, but then there were a few times that I [wondered], ‘Am I the person that did something wrong?’ because it just felt like no one was actually helping [me],” Shen said.
When she moved to Walnut and attended Suzanne, most of the people she met were already in pre-established friend groups. As a result, Shen found herself becoming more reserved and closed-off at school.
“When I lived back in China, I was super talkative. I still am right now, but when I just came, because of language and difficulties, I just became more shy and quiet,” Shen said. “There [was] a time I didn’t want to talk to other people [because] if I talked, I think [they’d] laugh at me. It’s also very hard to fit in again into the environment of native speakers. I just feel this little distance between me and kind of everybody else.”
Shen also had problems with transitioning into the cultural lifestyle of the United States with the language barrier. She was unable to understand what many of her friends would talk about at school.
“[My best friend’s] friends would be willing to hang out with me but because of the language barrier, when they discuss homework or just anything happening around the school or internet, I just stand there thinking, ‘What are they talking about?’” Shen said. “Also, I didn’t know any celebrities so when they talk about celebrities, I’m like ‘Oh, that’s nice,’ but inside I’m thinking ‘Who are they?’”
However, Shen was determined to adjust the best she could to her new life. She would improve her English by practicing speaking daily. Additionally, she turned to online sources and media websites such as Walnut High School’s The Hoofprint, Twitter and Google to research and further expand her knowledge of English.
“I just had to force myself to speak English and to practice it, or else I couldn’t understand anything. Hours and hours just passed, and I would go out from [my room] only to go to school and eat. My dad would tell me, ‘You’re always inside that little room learning English,’” Shen said.
Her perseverance and progress in adapting to a new lifestyle extended to her school life as well. When given the choice to join either drama or choir as a freshman, Shen decided to choose drama class and continue her acting route that she started at Suzanne. The decision led her to open up and express herself more to her friends.
“The second time [our drama teacher] said that we were doing improvisation, I was just like, ‘I’ll try it,’” Shen said. “[When] you want to break through, you just need a little step. If I just said ‘I’ll try’ the first time and did it, the second time there wouldn’t really be an obstacle in front of me.”
Ultimately, Shen views her transition from one lifestyle to another as a positive change in her life because of the different perspectives it brought into her life.
“The thing that I really just want to say to my past self is ‘I know you have the potential to do a lot of things. Open yourself up to talk to more people and make more friends. Just give it a shot, try, stop staying there and being scared to move forward.”
By Alison Ho and Joy Wang, Feature editors
Photo courtesy of Amy Shen