A Valiant Voice
Someone is tugging at my shoulders impatiently. I slowly open my eyes, squinting into the unfamiliar brightness of the airplane cabin, the foreign, motionless faces around me, and the velvety darkness outside my window. A young, resonant voice comes over the loudspeaker, but I can barely understand her. I glance at my mother’s weary, expectant face and happen to catch the arrows on her watch forming 4 a.m. – Omsk’s current time. I cry. I want to go back to sleep and soothe my tired body. A pleasant young man, also Russian, evidently seeing my distress, comforts me from his seat, “Don’t cry, devochka. You’re in America.” That was February 4, 1999. Sometimes I close my eyes and think about that endless journey from eastern Russia across the Atlantic, recollecting the details: my wooly shooba and valenki, my mother’s anxious smile, the two Russian-English dictionaries my father kept in each of his pants pockets, and the endless chatter that I could not yet understand. My memories, though a little faded, help me to recognize how I have changed from that quiet girl of nine to an outspoken American young adult. I look back at the dreams and goals of my past and the hurdles I have overcome, trying to evaluate how far I have come and how much further I can still go. One week after my arrival, my footsteps marked the floors of Anne Frank Elementary for the first time. With shaky knees and sweaty palms, I took my first step toward assimilation. I would almost surrender to the myriad hindrances in my way: my peers’ mockery of my quiet, broken English; my strain to excel in ESL class; and the anguish I felt when I found out that the only other Russian girl in my class, my only guide and translator, deliberately mistranslated my words to others and theirs to me. I spent every free minute tackling grammar or vocabulary, desperately wanting to learn English quickly. I dreamed of the day when my voice would be heard and understood. Two years after arriving in America, I stood in front of 300 students and teachers, and heard the clear sound of my voice spelling sixth-grade vocabulary words at a traditional American spelling bee. Amid the jubilant clamor of kids, the zipping of backpacks and the crinkling of papers one Friday afternoon, my teacher had pulled me aside, asking me to represent my class in the annual spelling bee. That day, as I rode the school bus home, I impatiently counted down the streets to my stop, anticipating my mother’s warm smile when I told her the news. I made myself promise to study 15 words every morning so that when the competition was finally at hand, no anxious thoughts would hinder my performance. Every day for the next three weeks, I woke up an hour early to study before school. I didn’t win the 2001 spelling bee championship, but this seemingly small step gave me courage. From then on, with every small hurdle overcome, the negativity of those around me faded and my belief in myself grew substantially. Last summer, this time without apprehension, as the student coordinator of Team Myanmar in the International Communications and Negotiations Simulation, I began each meeting with poise and confidence. Conveying my opinions and letting my voice glide boldly and smoothly seemed natural. Less than eight years later, I can say that the shy little girl who first stepped off the plane into an unfamiliar world has vanished. In her place stands a young woman who conquers mountains with a calm smile and a resolute stride.