I still remember the day when I first stepped off the plane I had just spent over ten hours in. An unfamiliar cold breeze blew against my face as I glanced around curiously. Despite not knowing where I was, I was certain this was not home. I came to America with my parents at the age of 4. Coming from a country secluded from every culture except my own, I was completely oblivious to the diverse community of people surrounding me. In fact, I did not understand the concept of race at all. I was intrigued by the variety of people around me at that time. Seeing people with different colored skin tones was a completely new experience. Getting accustomed to living in America was difficult; the food here was different, people were speaking languages I didn't understand, and my neighborhood was oddly quiet compared to the bustling streets filled with people outside my home in China.
When I went to school for the first time, I was made fun of by other kids for not knowing how to speak English. Watching them laugh at me and not being able to stand up for myself made me miss China even more. This resulted in my growing reliance on people around me who spoke Chinese, since it was the only language I knew at that time and I was only able to thoroughly communicate my thoughts to them. Whenever someone would try to speak to me in English, I would get terribly nervous and ask for help since I couldn’t understand what they were saying. I refused to open up to others and talk about my feelings, so I usually cried whenever I felt misunderstood or excluded. Thankfully, all my teachers, as well as the adults around me were very supportive of me and tried to the best of their abilities to help me, despite not being able to understand my language. Ms. Lindsey, my Kindergarten teacher, saw me crying by myself in the corner once and encouraged other students to include me in their conversations. It was my first time since arriving in America where I felt welcomed in this new environment and even made me start to think that I could actually fit in.
Over time, my English gradually began to improve, allowing me to interact with other students and make new friends. I started to speak up in class, ask for help, and I even signed up for the talent show to play the piano in front of the whole school! The cold and diverse community I once felt isolated from is now a place filled with welcoming people who always brightened up my days. Making new friends also allowed me to get a better understanding of different cultures around the world. Listening to them talk about their family traditions always amazed me, since it seemed so different compared to mine. I would always be enthusiastic to talk about my own culture as well, talking about what my life was like living in China. Through my classmates, I learned that not all people around the world were as fortunate as us to receive education, or even have a sufficient amount of food to keep them full. I also learned that not all countries around the world welcome people of color like America. Slowly, I came to realize the true meaning of America. It wasn’t just a place filled with people who only spoke English and ate pizza every day. America, unlike anywhere else, is a place with people belonging to all types of cultural backgrounds and identities. Our differences make us unique, and despite these differences, we can still be united as one whole. To this day, I am beyond grateful for my Kindergarten teacher, who was the first person to make me feel welcomed in this new environment.
© Ciney Zheng. All rights reserved. If you are interested in quoting this story, contact the national team through this website and we can put you in touch with the young person's teacher.