“When You Hear the World” by Tram Ho Ngoc Bao

I put my plate on a table, stuck in my headphones, and pretended to focus on my phone. I did not want anyone to stop by my table and talk to me…

As I am the first generation to go to college in my family, my parents were not able to give me a comprehensive college preparation. Coming from a small province in Vietnam, where English in high school is an unimportant subject, I just focused on learning a second language only one year before coming to America. A typical Vietnamese student may spend six to seven years preparing for their education abroad. One of my relatives introduced me to an American counselor, who could help me on my application for college in the United States. However, he gave up after two sessions, upset when he could not understand what I said. Also, he advised me to set up a backup plan for a university in Vietnam in case all the American colleges, which I had applied for, rejected me. Even my friends teased me that if a miracle happened, I would be deported after the first semester for my insufficient English.

Therefore, while being happy that I had been accepted to American colleges, I kept wondering if the colleges had made a mistake in their admissions by accepting a student like me as a recipient of one of their most prestigious scholarships. More surprisingly, I was invited to join an honor program, which is offered only to high-achieving applicants to deepen their experiences and research in their four years of college. However, I did not dare to send an email to ask them out of curiosity. The college scholarship requires students to earn a minimum GPA of 3.4 to maintain their scholarships and honor status. I was nervous that I would not able to get the minimum GPA, and lose my financial aid. How would my family afford my expensive education in the U.S.? Even when I completely accessed the American Dream, thousands of terrible scenarios rose to the forefront of my mind.

Soon, the day to come to the U.S. finally came. My school sent an old shuttle driver, who was waiting in the airport to pick me and three other international students up. On the way, he tried to relate American culture with our own cultures. While other students excitedly introduced themselves and told him about their home countries, I tried to avoid talking as much as possible. I was afraid that people could not understand what I said, and that they would realize my weakness in English. Suddenly, an awesome idea had arisen into my mind. I took headphones from my bag and put them into my ears. Pretending to be deaf, I did not need to understand the voice of people; I did not need to talk; and I did not need to show my mistakes. The driver and those students continued their conversations. No one asked me anymore.

I avoided all parties and non-mandatory activities during my orientation week. I expressed myself as an unfriendly and phone-addicted person, always being with headphones, so that no one wanted to approach me. In addition, three of four Vietnamese students at my college had come from the same high school in Hanoi capital, which has a long tradition of sending their students overseas, while I had just graduated from a small town. They had also all passed the English placement examination, while I did not. Thus, I became more insecure in comparing myself to such English-proficient and well-educated students. All of the people at the school were awesome; I was not in the same level and felt I had no way to catch up.

One day, I left my headphones in the dorm lounge. When I was trying to find them, I heard the mournful cries of an American girl, who lived near my room. Curiously, I approached her and asked what happened. She was desperate for the third time in this semester, getting a C on a math test. I held her book and found out that this section was the one that I excelled in at the high school, receiving the highest score in my class. Since I lacked  confidence, I neither expressed my capacity nor proposed to tutor her. However, I realized that the girl, although being proficient in English, was stuck in other subjects. Also, if I wore the headphones that day, I would have missed the story and forever misunderstood that I was the only one who had troubles. Instead of desperately waiting to die, I decided to find a way to survive.

Since then, I have intentionally left my headphones behind. Instead of having lunch lonely as usual, I came to other tables and talked to my friends. I heard about their problems and talked about my own, which were, though different, typical for college students. In fact, I completely could overcome my limitations when I was willing to open my mind.

Taking out the headphones, I heard advice from people when having problems. On my first formal paper, I was stressed out because the academic writing in the U.S. is significantly different from that in Vietnam. For example, American citation styles were completely strange to me because in high school, I was free to use other sources without giving credit to authors. I was overwhelmed with a bunch of requirements that my professor gave to the class. My English grammar and prose were also thought to be weak. However, I came to everyone to get help. I asked my professors, my peer teacher, and librarians about the academic essay format and resources. On my first appointment with the writing lab to proofread my paper, the staff said, “Not too bad. I just fixed some small errors.” I was extremely glad although I later reminded myself that Americans are generally polite; they never say bad things to let you panic. I was doubly nervous when the first presentation in my life was in a second language and I  did not know PowerPoint. Nonetheless, I asked someone to teach me to create a PowerPoint, and someone to sit in front of me to hear me practice my presentation. People are willing to help, but only when I am willing to share myself.

Gradually, I become more confident in my ability to communicate in English. I volunteer to talk about my viewpoints in every class, which was a big deal for me before. I can catch up with the conversations of my friends, instead of being silent and distracted as I used to. I courageously participated in the school newspaper with an expectation to improve my writing skills. Also, I no longer get into a state of panic with my formal papers. I asked for every single word or grammar, which I do not know, instead of trying to hide my weakness to people.

Stepping out the world of headphones, I eliminate the self-suspicion of my ability and am able to make improvements. The headphones, which were supposed to protect me from fear and worry, turns out the biggest barrier in the new environment, holding me in my own weakness. If you keep yourself in fear, no change happens. When you put on the headphones, you do not interact with people. In the same way, people would mind coming to you. Only when you are willing to hear the world, you can access kindness.

Posted on April 21, 2017, in Short Stories Spring 2017 and tagged . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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