Amy2

 

Amy Zhao

Chinese American from Boston, MA    

“When I was in the 3rd grade, my mom decided to switch me from bilingual class to a regular English speaking class so that I could improve on my English skills. When she switched me, I couldn’t speak a word of english and it was my worst year in elementary school . . .

I was known as the shy girl until the 6th grade not because I was really shy, but because I wasn’t confident enough to speak English. ” 

Amy is my friendly and super talkative sorority little sis from Kappa Phi Lambda at Northeastern University. When I interviewed Amy in the Boston Commons, I was also very surprised to learn that she didn’t speak English confidently until after the 6th grade. Amy shares with me her struggles with learning English in elementary school, her passions, and her experience growing up in Boston’s Chinatown, a neighborhood that is now feeling the heavy pressures of skyrocketing living costs and gentrification.

 

“I lived in Boston’s Chinatown my entire life. It’s my home and Boston is my city. As I was growing up, I didn’t feel like I had that much. My parents arrived in America the year before I was born and they weren’t around a lot because they were always working. My dad worked maybe 10 or so hours everyday just to feed the family. And then my mom basically worked too.  It was my grandparents who took care of me.”

“I care a lot about the issues around Chinatown because I live here. I see what Chinatown is missing in comparison to the other neighborhoods and even when I was younger, I saw that it wasn’t really being cared for. I saw the struggles of the Chinatown community because everyone I knew had the same struggles – their parents were working a lot and as kids we were told to go to school so that we could become better educated to sustain our family in the future. I think that’s why everyone works so hard in Chinatown, we just had to.”

Amy shares her experience attending elementary and middle school in Boston’s Chinatown and her struggles with communicating with teachers in English . . .  

“In Chinatown, we have Josiah Quincy which consist of an elementary school, middle school, and the ‘upper school’ that is considered their high school grades. Everyone who lived in Chinatown went to Josiah Quincy or they were from nearby neighborhoods. The elementary school was mainly full of Asian students and there were bilingual classes and regular classes where you only spoke in English.  I was in the bilingual classes and didn’t speak English until the second grade because I mainly communicated with my teachers in Cantonese. When I was in the 3rd grade, my mom decided to switch me from bilingual class to a regular English speaking class so that I could improve on my English skills. When she switched me, I couldn’t speak a word of english and it was my worst year in elementary school.”

“I understood my teacher but I couldn’t form sentences. I never raised my hand in class and my participation grade was always what my teacher complained about. One time she asked me to go up to the front of the class to read a passage and I couldn’t read it. I just stood there. After about 2 minutes she asked me to sit back down and she called my parents. My grandmother came because my parents were at work and she explained to the teacher that I had just transferred into a normal english speaking class and that I didn’t speak enough english to read. It wasn’t because I didn’t want to participate but I just didn’t know how to. I was a very lost child in that class.”

And shares her frustration with people misunderstanding that her inability to speak up was not because she was shy  . . . 

“Between 3rd grade and 5th grade, everyone else was reading chapter books and I was still transitioning between picture books. Slowly I started talking more with my friends in English because after that incident, I really wanted to be better. But I was known as the shy girl until the 6th grade not because I was really shy, but because I wasn’t confident enough to speak English.”

 

“I made a lot of friends who were on the same boat as me – the ones who knew enough Cantonese and English to get by but were still very uncomfortable to speak it. When people asked me what were my struggles growing up and when I tell them about my language barrier, they would be surprised. When people speak to me now, they wouldn’t think that I grew up not knowing how to speak English. People would actually assume the opposite and that because my English is so great I probably don’t speak Cantonese.”

 Amy’s resilience drives her passions toward becoming an Engineer. . .

“Deciding to major in Engineering was a struggle with my mom.  My dad believed in the philosophy that if there’s something you want to do, you should do it. But my mom wanted me to be in a field that was relaxed and sustainable which in her mind was Business. She didn’t want me to go into Engineering because she thought Business was safer and that Engineering might be too hard for me.”

 

“But I chose Engineering because it is what I love. I wanted to try it and if I failed, I wanted the satisfaction in knowing that I at least gave it a chance. I knew I had a chance of failing out but I knew that if I didn’t do it, I would regret it. It’s cliche but you just have to follow your gut feeling. Sometimes you think a lot about what if you don’t succeed. But what if you do? I’m 6 classes away from getting my degree and it was one of the best decisions that I made. Halfway through I thought about dropping and getting a Business degree but I knew I wasn’t going to be happy. If it’s something that you want, you should try it and make sure you have given your best shot.”

 

“I knew I wasn’t going to be the best in chemical engineering but what makes me who I am is that I might not going to be the smartest cookie in the jar but I will be the hardest working cookie. I might not invent the next greatest thing but I will be the one to get to work early and leave the latest. I am so dedicated to the things that I am involved in and if I decide to do something, I give 110% or I won’t do it at all.  This mentality really came from how I grew up. It wasn’t easy to get what I want when I was younger. They never gave me an allowance. Everything that I wanted, I had to work for. So that carries with me – if I really wanted something, I need to work for it.

Lastly, some advice that she’d like to share . . . 


“Because I’m so driven and want to give 110% in everything, I didn’t have that much fun growing up. If I were to give my younger self advice it would be to think more about the big picture and just have more fun. I was so work driven but now I’m taking the fun part a little more seriously.”

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