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Featured Story: Multilingual

Access to Education

The story of Emily Taing

As written by Rebecca Stark

From FACING ACCESS TO HIGHER EDUCATION AT UCLA

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The language of Silicon Valley is truly its own. It is a language filled with words yet to reach the general public’s lexicon and ideas that have yet to even become a prototype. However, there is something else inherent in this language.

Something that is harder to pick up on unless you have grown up and gone to school here. It has to do with the fact that Stanford University is 20 minutes down the freeway, Google is 15 minutes north and Apple is just around the corner. This pressure to succeed is inherent in the language and every new conversation has the potential to remind you of what you have yet to or may never accomplish.

In my own sphere of life, both separate from and connected to Silicon Valley, I spoke another language: Teochew. Teochew, a Chinese dialect rarely spoken in America, was the language that my parents spoke. I spent my entire life translating between English and Teochew, and living between the world that my parents grew up in and the world of Silicon Valley where I grew up.

When I was 12 years old, I learned the language of business. My father was born in Cambodia and moved to the United States to escape the Cambodian genocide. While in China for business, he met my mother and the two moved to the United States permanently together. Here, they opened up a family donut shop. Because neither of my parents spoke English as their native language, as soon as I was able to be of assistance, I worked with my parents to file taxes for the shop and organize bills.

My speech became filled with words like “mortgages,” “loans” and “net profit.” As I became immersed in this work, I realized that my family was losing money off of the donut shop. My mother could no longer lie to me about being financially stable; I was fluent in the language of finance and could understand the severity of the situation. With this knowledge, I began to work on my own to finance my needs. I started working two jobs outside of school and, when I was 14 years old, I received my work permit so that I could work at a restaurant. I quickly learned the importance of being able to provide for myself.

When I was 15 years old, I learned the language of strength. At this time, I became involved in musical theater. I loved performing and, at a performing arts high school, I had the opportunity to cultivate this love. At the end of one long night of rehearsal, I was out of the theater, full of excitement and energy, and stumbled into a woman. The woman was trembling in the cold and covered in bruises and blood. I gasped and began choking for air as I realized that the woman was my mother.

I brought my mom to the hospital where I spent the night translating between my mother, the doctor and the police. Through translating, I found out that my mother and my uncle had gotten into a disagreement about finances earlier that evening, and the conflict ended in violence. As I looked at my mother’s shamed and bruised face that night, I learned to speak a new language. When my mother could no longer be the brave one, I had to fill in. I spoke with assurance and strength that I didn’t knew I had until that moment.

When I was 16 years old, I learned the language of death. When my grandmother’s sugar levels dropped so low that she could barely breath, I called the ambulance and reassured my grandfather and parents that everything would be all right.

After five long and stressful hours I returned home to rest for the night and received a call from the hospital that my grandmother was in her final few days. As I sat wondering how to translate my grandmother’s death sentence to my family, I heard my grandfather’s worried voice in the other room. I decided to let them have one more night without the knowledge that my grandmother was going to die, and I kept what I learned to myself. A couple days later, while at school, I received a call from my mother that my grandmother had passed away. My mother drove me to the cemetery where I, as the only one able to speak English fluently, coordinated my grandmother’s burial.

It was only when I escaped to the bathroom with tears flowing down my face that he death of my grandmother finally hit me, but unlike my family, I had no one to assure that everything was going to be all right. I understood the language of my grandmother’s death too well to be comforted.

When I was 17 years old, I learned the language of self-harm. The pressure to succeed that is so ingrained in the Silicon Valley language and the pressure and criticism in my parent’s Teochew collided all at once. My peers in high school were founding startups, leading community service organizations and receiving acceptances to Ivies. Meanwhile, my parents, having grown up in harsh conditions, held me to impossibly high standards and criticized my every action.

Underachiever. Unintelligent. Overweight.

Not good enough. Never good enough.”

There is a phrase that pressure turns coal into diamonds. But the overwhelming, crushing pressure that I felt was not diamond-forming. It is the type of pressure that just turns coal into dust. As I succumbed to it, I began to make myself throw up. This seemed like the solution. Bulimia consumed me.

When I was 18 years old, I learned the language of optimism. In the midst of the tumult in my life, I found that my education remained the one constant and my passion for learning grew. I averted my focus from my eating disorder to my high school classes; school provided me with much needed stability. I gained the courage to seek help for my eating disorder and I began the long process of recovery.

While finding the time to focus on my own well-being, I discovered that I was happiest when investing myself in improving the quality of life for those around me. I led a service trip to New Orleans and helped student volunteers fundraise for the trip. Through my service work, I was able to apply my passion for the social justice issues that I had learned about in school to the real world. As I prepared to leave home for college, I continued speaking this language of optimism and hope for the future.

I grew up speaking two languages, Teochew and English. And not just any English, but Silicon Valley English. Because I could bridge the gap between these two worlds, I had to learn other languages so that I could navigate the English-speaking world for my parents. The languages that I learned, as I made the gradual transition to adulthood, have molded my passion for social justice and then inspired me to succeed in higher education and eventually in a career related to the field.

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To learn more about FACING ACCESS TO HIGHER EDUCATION AT UCLA, visit their Facebook page. To learn how to start a Facing Project in your community, get started here.

The Facing Project connects people through stories to strengthen communities. This movement to share stories and raise awareness is in cities across the United States facing issues such as poverty, homelessness, sex trafficking, and more. Facing Project stories are compiled into books and on the web for a community resource, used to inspire art, photography, monologues and most importantly—community-wide awareness and dialogue. For more information about The Facing Project, visit the main site.  

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