Being Illiterate and Getting Laughed At – Part I

If you read my other post on traveling solo as a kid, this post is about what happened afterwards. 

My native language is English. When I was 10, I couldn’t speak another language fluently. I knew basic mandarin – I need the bathroom, hungry, I want…, yes, no, etc. 

My first week of school 

There’s a lot of immigrants coming into the US as a child. The child gets ESL and many other support. But what about the other way around? I can tell you you get zero support. My mom just arrived and helped me get myself to school. Before going to school, we went to get a chicken sandwich as my lunch. (Sounds normal right? It’s not, I’ll write about this later.)

I was arranged to go to a 4th grade public school. Remember, I can’t read or write. The school was nothing I’ve ever seen in nyc. There was a large fountain with two koi fish statue. I don’t think anywhere in the US you can find a public school with a fountain as a decor. Hallways were open space; they were balcony. Everyone wore uniforms, except me. I felt I didn’t belong here. 

The teacher was waiting for me by the classroom door. She greeted my mom and I. Then she commented (my mom had to translate this for me), “she’s only this tall? I’d expect western raised children to be much taller.” Well, that’s a bummer. I though I was normal height. After some exchanges from my teacher and mom, my teacher walked me into class. She pointed to a podium and said something I did not understand. Based on her gestures, it probably means I need to do some self introduction. I got on the podium and I just stood there. I couldn’t do it. In my little mind, all I can think of was in English “I don’t know what you’re saying. I don’t know how to self introduce.” I stood there for a few seconds in silence and the teacher finally told me to come down. 

She guided me to my seat and asked if I brought my lunch. I showed her my chicken sandwich. She laughed. “This is not lunch, this is breakfast. Let me show you what lunch is.” She asked one of the kids to go to this metal heater and there the kid pulled out a warm lunch box. It was a proper meal. The lunch had rice, meat and vegetables. I’ve never seen anything like this!


A couple of days went by with me just totally lost. I was constantly speaking to myself in my head- why did I sign up to this? There was this one day we had gym class. After class, all the kids surrounded me and asked me questions. 

One unforgettable question was, “Can you read what’s on your shirt?” I was wearing the school’s uniform. On the upper left corner, it had my name and school ID. But he wasn’t asking that. He asked me what does it say in the center? I stared in silence. 

“She doesn’t know what her school name is.”

Oh man. That’s my school name? What’s a school name? Coming from NYC, our schools are all numbered- I went to PS 162 in Queens. Yes there’s name for the schools but we mostly refer to our schools by number. This was embarrassing. What is my school name? The kids laughed and walked away. 

Not only did the kids laughed, the other teachers in other subjects were getting frustrated by me. One history teacher she wrote down phonetics ㄅㄆㄇㄈ. This is used in Taiwan only. Each traditional character she wrote on the board, she also wrote the phonetics. Reading phonetics is just as hard for me as reading traditional letters. But it was somewhat helpful. But after a week of writing the phonetics, she came up and said, “I can’t do this anymore. You’ll need to learn the characters on your own.” 😭 how?! 

Everyday after school I’d watch tv. I don’t enjoy watching tv but tv has captions. The people spoke and I tried to read. As days turn into weeks and weeks turn into months, my reading improved because I watched tv. I also tried to read store signs. There were two words I remember clearly I messed up and kept referring to the wrong one. It was 與 versus 興. Don’t they look alike?! But they mean two different things. For some strange reason it took me about 2 months to realize I’ve been reading it wrong. Lol 

There are many more incidents that happen after. Including beatings and bullying but I’ll save that for next time! 

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