[lg policy] New York: English, Once a Barrier, Opens a Door

Harold Schiffman hfsclpp at GMAIL.COM
Sun Dec 18 18:28:54 UTC 2011

December 16, 2011
English, Once a Barrier, Opens a Door

For Hui Lin, 17, English has been something of a lifeline. Five years
ago, she could barely speak the language, struggling to count to 10
even after finishing seventh grade at a school in Chinatown in

“Every time I learned a new vocabulary, I would forget the next
minute,” she said of those early days.
Hui said she often felt “frustrated.” “I feel like I have a lot to
learn,” she said. “There are so many words I don’t know.”  English
words may not tumble quickly from Hui’s lips, but in a recent
interview, she barely hesitated when asked to translate certain
questions into Mandarin, the language of her parents.

At 3 years old, Hui watched her father, Hua Wu Lin, leave their home
in Guantou, a small rural village in Fujian Province, for New York
City. Three years later, her mother, You Di Lian, joined him. As a
butcher in China, Mr. Lin barely made enough to cover the fees for
Hui’s schooling there, and Ms. Lian, a homemaker, had few
opportunities to work. Neither had been able to afford to complete
middle school.

The United States, her parents had decided, held more promise. There,
they would be able to educate their daughter. There, they would have
the means to support themselves. But it also meant leaving Hui with
her maternal grandmother until they could scrape together the money to
bring her to the United States, where Mr. Lin found work as a cook,
and his wife, as a waitress. “It was really difficult at first,” Hui
said, tears springing to her eyes as she recalled the separation.
“Little kids want their parents, not their grandma.”

What is more, when Hui finally immigrated, she leapfrogged around the
country, landing in New York, North Carolina, Alabama and then back in
New York again as her parents sought better schools for her. Hui
remembers her first day in eighth grade at a school in Asheboro, N.C.,
where her mother had moved the family after realizing Hui had picked
up little English in the seventh grade in New York.

“When I first got into the class,” Hui said, “I sit in the back.”
Nervous and intensely aware of being the only Asian in her class, she
kept to herself, knowing that when peers approached her, they were
more likely to poke fun than to try to have a conversation.  Language,
she said, was the barrier. But with intensive tutoring, she started to
notice a shift.

“At first they just ignored me, but now they try to be friends with
me,” she said.  These days, Hui is an A student at the Secondary
School for Law in Brooklyn. Determined to strengthen skills like
public speaking and financial literacy, she has also enrolled in
afterschool programs, including several at the Children’s Aid Society,
one of the seven agencies supported by The New York Times Neediest
Cases Fund.

Through the agency, Hui was selected this fall to participate in a
German exchange program in which students spend 10 days in Burg
Hohenzollern, an 11th-century castle in Hechingen.  But just as it was
in China, money is still tight for her family. Hui could not pay for
the clothing required for the trip in September. Her parents travel
two hours each way to their jobs at a Chinese restaurant in upstate
New York — her father is still a cook; her mother, now a cashier. Hui
and her parents share a three-bedroom apartment with another tenant in
Chinatown, paying $400 a month for a room and dividing a bed among the
three of them. Mr. Lin and Ms. Lian together earn about $1,500 a

The Neediest Cases Fund provided Hui with a $200 gift card to ensure
she had what she needed. Months have since passed, and the experience
has only affirmed Hui’s interest in traveling abroad while in college,
perhaps even returning to Germany one day. She would also like to
visit Japan, or China, which she has not visited since leaving in

Hui’s struggles to learn English, she said, are the reason she wants
to pursue a career as an interpreter; the experience has given her a
chance to succeed. Many of her friends in China have dropped out of
school, she said, and they cannot believe college is even a
possibility for her. That most likely would have been her path, too,
had she stayed.

“I just suddenly realize language is so important to communicate,” she
said, adding, “I want my future to be the brightest.”


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