When a Malaysian-born 17-year-old teen got into eight (yes, not one or three but eight!) Ivy League schools in the U.S., many were curious how she did it. While she did have an impressive resume, it was her essay about her mom that made her stand out. (By the way, she was also accepted in other non-Ivy League schools, too.)
In her now famous essay published on The Tab, Cassandra Hsiao, who emigrated to the U.S. from Malaysia when she was just 5 years old, talked about fitting in her new environment and learning English as a second language. Pronunciations did not "roll off their tongues correctly," she wrote in the essay, yet her family understood each other perfectly.
It was a different story in school. Cassandra's teachers corrected her pronunciations while her classmates laughed. Cassandra felt she needed to reject the English "that had never seemed broken before, a language that had raised me and taught me everything I knew."
"Everybody else’s parents spoke with accents smarting of Ph.D.s and university teaching positions. So why couldn’t mine?" Cassandra wrote.
That was when the next paragraphs of Cassandra's essay became a tearjerker. To answer Cassandra's question, her mom told her the story of how she learned English.
"When my mother moved from her village to a town in Malaysia, she had to learn a brand new language in middle school: English. In a time when humiliation was encouraged, my mother was defenseless against the cruel words spewing from the teacher, who criticized her paper in front of the class. When she began to cry, the class president stood up and said, 'That’s enough.'
"'Be like that class president,' my mother said with tears in her eyes. The class president took her under her wing and patiently mended my mother’s strands of language. 'She stood up for the weak and used her words to fight back.'"
At this point, the 17-year-old student wrote that she and her mother were crying. Then her mom had a request.
"My mother asked me to teach her proper English so old white ladies at Target wouldn’t laugh at her pronunciation. It has not been easy. There is a measure of guilt when I sew her letters together. Long vowels, double consonants — I am still learning myself. Sometimes I let the brokenness slide to spare her pride, but perhaps I have hurt her more to spare mine."
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As her mother's vocabulary grew, Cassandra began to work on improving her English.
"As my mother’s vocabulary began to grow, I mended my own English. Through performing poetry in front of 3000 at my school’s Season Finale event, interviewing people from all walks of life, and writing stories for the stage, I stand against ignorance and become a voice for the homeless, the refugees, the ignored. With my words I fight against jeers pelted at an old Asian street performer on a New York subway. My mother’s eyes are reflected in underprivileged ESL children who have so many stories to tell but do not know how. I fill them with words as they take needle and thread to make a tapestry."
Cassandra closed her essay with this:
"There is beauty in the way we speak to each other. In our house, language is not broken but rather bursting with emotion. We have built a house out of words...It is a little messy. But this is where we have made our home."
It is no surprise that the 17-year-old, who is school president and editor in chief of her school paper, holds her mother on a different pedestal. In an interview with Afterschool.my, she says, "My mom is my role model. I love her passion for life, her boldness, her compassion and her honesty. She keeps me grounded yet inspires me not only to dream big but also take action to make those dreams come true."
As of this writing, Cassandra has not chosen a school, yet but she is certain she’ll pursue a course that involves storytelling, like English, film or theater. We bet this won't be the last we'll hear from Cassandra.