TEAL and Me: An Initial Language Autobiography Part I

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Ever since I can remember, my father has always pushed me to learn English. I was born in Shanghai in 1992, and when I was old enough I was sent to a boarding school where our class was taught with both Chinese and English. Every weekend, my family would watch the show “Family Album, USA”. It was based on a book written by George Lefferts in 1991 and later became a television English teaching course, more specifically, the American way of speaking English. The video series consists of characters with a strong American accent. My father would always insist that I need to mimic the pronunciation in the video. On the other hand, I would also study my school books very hard and try to memorize the dialects presented in each chapter of both the episodes and my school books. It is amazing that I can still recall the contents of this video series so clearly.

My father insisted that I need to pronounce things as American so that people can consider me to have a “standard” English speaking level. It is on his wishes that I have tried to learn English so well, even though my father is not fluent in speaking English. He does, however, have a very strong vocabulary foundation. It is off this foundation that I began to build off my skills. In order to keep my father proud, and for my own achievement, I would regularly receive top marks for my English class compared to the rest of my classes.

After living in China for 14 years, I moved to Canada by the year 2006. My family decided to move there and I was extremely excited after landing on that piece of land. In order to get started on my new life in Canada, I went to the Vancouver School Board to take a placement test which tested my English proficiency. With the marks that I received, I ended up going to the Lord Byng Secondary School in Vancouver which is close to where I live.

Honestly speaking, my family’s decision to leave China was mostly because my parents believe North America has a better education system than China. I was reluctant at first to move, but then I was excited at the opportunity of a new phase in life, a new adventure. I was ready to be learning English in an environment where a lot of people spoke the language, and well!

However, my first day of school was not very pleasant. Even though I was a grade 9 student, I did not take classes as other regular grade 9 students in the school. Most of my time was spent in the ESL class studying basic English, much of which I had already learned in my primary studies in China. I found that I wasted a lot of time in my ESL class. I would become distracted, daydreaming of other things to do with my time. It was frustrating to be set back a few classes because of what other people thought was a lack of understanding in English. It felt like the school system was not able to recognize that I had more strengths than I may have presented at the time of testing. I wish I could have taken regular classes as the other students. I tried to talk to the counselor but he thought I am not yet capable of taking regular classes because my language barrier prevented me from doing as good as other students.

In 2007, during summer school, I made a big decision on my own. I registered into grade 10 English class without my school’s permission. I knew if I could pass the grade 10 provincial exam in the summer, then I would definitely get rid of the ESL class and get into a regular session without being turned down by a counselor. As I expected, I got a high mark on the provincial exam and was able to start my regular class in the coming fall term. This decision and success allowed me to gain further confidence in my own ability to learn English. My family was also pleased with my test results, and my father was eager for me to continue my education.

In 2010, I began going to the Simon Frasier University as a Psychology student. Unlike high school, undergraduate study is more academic. I was struggling in the first semester there. I found it very hard to keep up with the professor in his lectures, and there were too many academic terms that I could not understand. But I have continued to work hard and I have improved my understanding of the English language through practice. I have taken on reading books, reducing the reading anxiety I once felt, and writing more and listening and practicing speaking English whenever possible, especially with my family. I feel that my journey with the English language will allow me to take my family farther in life as well, helping them learn the language and access the opportunities that North America has to offer.

I look at my father now and find it hard to imagine him ever striking out with his family to Canada like that but I suppose age makes you less reckless. While they did not take the usual path of making it as IT gurus in the US, they did manage to land near Vancouver where many Asians have made their home.

The best way to describe my cultural upbringing in this country is to share a particular tick/professional skill both my parents possess, in this case, chameleon superpowers. They morph and change at will, their accents sounding American when speaking with somebody from Best Buy and changing to Chinese with another Asian. They have had to adapt, making themselves neither completely Chinese or Canadian. The balance they have attained is messy and rubs me the wrong way at times now that I recognize it. Possibly because I see it in myself. But it is a function of having to assimilate to get what you want. Is it possible to know oneself if all you do is reflect your current environment? The nature of the North American cultural identity is shifting as it is, throw in a billion other people and you have a mess.

I didn’t hang out with other Chinese from Canada because I found them to be ‘fake’. I got over myself eventually. When I went and lived in China, I found myself to be extremely attached to the culture. Mainly because I could identify with the thought processes my parents had ingrained in me. It was not North American which appealed to me.

When moving to the Vancouver area, my parents tried to find the best public schools, and they did. Ever heard of Asian Pride? That started around my area, a way for Asian kids to display power through their academics in Advanced Placement classes. 99% of my high school class graduated, with 90% going to a 4-year institution after high school. I played tennis and was a debate nerd, played computer games and read too many books for my own good. These were all things that I thought would lead me to the golden path of lawyerdom and an 80K salary out of law school. I knew what was expected of me as I followed my brother’s footsteps. But my actions did not reflect the duality of my thoughts. I did not want to follow the prescribed plan for this particular model of an immigrant. I wanted and needed to make both cultures my own. This makes me only search for another outlet. In this case, writing and the English language. Or maybe even exploring other cultures.

While culture is one side of the coin, the other is passion. I seem to have this ability to become excited at just about anything life has to offer. It comes through in the form of compassion as well, which many mistake as a sign for weakness or passiveness. Whether it’s learning about a new geopolitical landscape or the next dubstep song or the latest tech breakthrough I’m pretty much an experiential omnivore. It sounds a bit like a Ken Kesey trip but I genuinely have passion. For just about anything. It is this passion that allows me to continue learning, and continue my studies with the English language. It also allows me to continue my studies with different mediums. I especially like stand-up comedy. There is one artist, Margaret Cho, who is an American comedian, who is both ridiculous and funny. I think that my personal reaction to Margaret Cho as a comedian probably taints the effectiveness of the message she was trying to put across in her videos. Yet her comedic style was incapable of screwing up this message. It was quite clear what she was trying to get across, that if you aren’t white or black in this country you are Asian adjacent. Being described as an Asian is such a broad blanket term that your ethnicity could be one of 50. In a song, she points out several stereotypes that Asians have almond-eyes and that they are all recent immigrants with no real history in this country. She goes on to highlight the fact that it is noticed by white friends that Asians’ manners are decent and they always appear eternally young.

Initially, my reaction to the video is that it was pretty funny and accurate. What really got me into the message of the video was the verse “You got one of those faces//And almond-slanted eyes//You could be from lots of places//Like Alaska or Ha-Ha-Hawaii” This illustrates the kind of superficial reasoning behind North American categorization of certain ethnicities. The cultural message of the video is simple and effective. However, it is voices like Cho’s that turn people away from the race debate. She serves to divide and further estrange communities with her comedic acts. The racial ambiguity of Asianness and her own identity crisis with her heritage (well-documented in her own work) only serves to lessen the effectiveness of the message. People don’t take it as seriously because they don’t believe ethnicity to actually be an issue. They feel that it is something constructed by minorities in order to justify any hardships they might face in their life. And by ‘they’ I mean the socially dominant group or ‘white people’.

I applaud Cho’s effort to tackle a tough subject in a way that’s funny and accessible. Asian Adjacent is a brilliant term for today’s American understanding of the word Asian. It captures the idea that if you’re not white or black that you must be Asian or ‘something like that’. I hope that she continues to try and tackle the problem of ‘Asian otherness’ in refreshing ways like her video.

I believe this to be a relevant and important as Asians are becoming one of the more over-represented minorities in the media. There has always been an Asian presence in this country with the importation of laborers to meet agricultural demand. Has the mainstream media been more mindful of the community since then? If so, have they utilized ethnic media as a tool for sources?

I care about the media a lot. I believe that there other important issues to discuss in the English language like how the media portrays Asians in everyday incidents. One important issue is domestic violence. The printed media sensationalize problematic incidents and often revert to stereotypical representations to enable readers to process information easily. Frequently, this results in distortion, factual errors, and more seriously, the suppression or marginalization of some critical aspects that may be relevant to the problem. This media coverage of domestic violence is particularly disturbing as it can often cause further problems for Asian women. When the media trace the causes of domestic violence to certain practices in a culture, without looking at other factors, the community is often offended and may even ostracize the woman for talking to journalists. Blaming the culture and not paying enough attention to other issues can only encourage apathy towards these problems. The media also fail to be socially responsible in their urge to exoticize these incidents of domestic violence and to portray women as victims of their culture. The media should be careful in attributing violence in the family only to cultural practices that exist within the community.

After eight years in Canada, I feel more comfortable reading and writing in English than I do in speaking and listening to it. I think that this is because reading and writing are more individual activities that I can do that without an audience. This gives me time to think about what I want to say and to very carefully write out my thoughts and ideas. Although I used to write out my school assignments in Mandarin and then translate them into English, I have gotten quite good at writing only in English. The same cannot be said for my parents, who have had a very difficult time acclimating to an English-speaking world. This is made even more difficult because they live in a neighborhood that is primarily Chinese. Therefore, they do not need to make much of an effort to learn a lot of English because they can go grocery shopping, make new friends, and find employment entirely within the Chinese-Canadian community. There are sometimes situations where my parents are unable to communicate properly with English-speakers such as doctors and people at certain government offices. In such cases, I have often acted as a translator for them. Although I believe that it is my duty to help my parents at all times, I wish that they would learn more English so that they could be more independent and not so reliant on me.

My academic goal is to pursue a Master's degree in psychology. I would like to work with both English-speakers and Chinese-speakers, and I am interested in learning more about how language shapes our social activities at both an individual and a group level. I know that many of my social experiences have been influenced by language and culture. For example, during my first year at University, I spent time primarily with other students whose home language was Chinese, especially those who were also recent immigrants. It was much easier, and much more familiar, to befriend people who already shared many similar characteristics with me than to try and seek out people who might reject me because of my accent and difficulty with speaking English. I hope that I will have the opportunity to broaden my understanding of linguistics during this class so that I can improve both as a student and as a member of society.