NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
A 17-year-old Malaysian immigrant in Orange County, Calif. has stunned everyone with her extraordinary achievement of getting acceptance letters from eight Ivy League universities.
Cassandra Hsiao’s application essay played a big role in her acceptance into the universities, where she wrote about learning English while growing up in a house of immigrants.
She has received acceptance letters from Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Dartmouth, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, and Pennsylvania.
She told a local NBC television station that she found the entire experience completely surreal. “I opened them one after another, and they all were saying, ‘Congratulations! Congratulations!’ And I know that is something special.”
In addition to the eight Ivy League schools, Hsiao also got accepted to Stanford, Johns Hopkins, the University of Southern California, Northwestern, New York University, Amherst, and many others.
Hsiao, who immigrated to the United States when she was 5, said her essay about learning English had impressed the universities.
The Orange County School of the Arts (OCSA) student has an impressive 4.67 GPA and an excellent 1,540 SAT score.
Hsiao is also an accomplished playwright, poet, writer, and journalist. From a poem dedicated to Syrian refugees, to her interviews with Hollywood stars like Morgan Freeman and Chris Evans, her work has been featured in many publications, including TeenReads, Jet Fuel Review, and Los Angeles Times High School Insider.
The essay that got Hsiao into all eight Ivy League colleges
In our house, English is not English. Not in the phonetic sense, like short a is for apple, but rather in the pronunciation — in our house, snake is snack. Words do not roll off our tongues correctly — yet I, who was pulled out of class to meet with language specialists, and my mother from Malaysia, who pronounces film as flim, understand each other perfectly.
In our house, there is no difference between cast and cash, which was why at a church retreat, people made fun of me for “cashing out demons.” I did not realize the glaring difference between the two Englishes until my teacher corrected my pronunciations of hammock, ladle, and siphon. Classmates laughed because I pronounce accept as except, success as sussess. I was in the Creative Writing conservatory, and yet words failed me when I needed them most.
Suddenly, understanding flower is flour wasn’t enough. I rejected the English that had never seemed broken before, a language that had raised me and taught me everything I knew. Everybody else’s parents spoke with accents smarting of PhDs and university teaching positions. So why couldn’t mine?
My mother spread her sunbaked hands and said, “This is where I came from,” spinning a tale with the English she had taught herself.
When my mother moved from her village to a town in Malaysia, she had to learn a brand new language in middle school: English. In a time when humiliation was encouraged, my mother was defenseless against the cruel words spewing from the teacher, who criticized her paper in front of the class. When she began to cry, the class president stood up and said, ‘That’s enough.’
“Be like that class president,” my mother said with tears in her eyes. The class president took her under her wing and patiently mended my mother’s strands of language. “She stood up for the weak and used her words to fight back.”
We were both crying now. My mother asked me to teach her proper English so old white ladies at Target wouldn’t laugh at her pronunciation. It has not been easy. There is a measure of guilt when I sew her letters together. Long vowels, double consonants — I am still learning myself. Sometimes I let the brokenness slide to spare her pride but perhaps I have hurt her more to spare mine.
As my mother’s vocabulary began to grow, I mended my own English. Through performing poetry in front of 3,000 at my school’s Season Finale event, interviewing people from all walks of life, and writing stories for the stage, I stand against ignorance and become a voice for the homeless, the refugees, the ignored. With my words I fight against jeers pelted at an old Asian street performer on a New York subway. My mother’s eyes are reflected in underprivileged ESL children who have so many stories to tell but do not know how. I fill them with words as they take needle and thread to make a tapestry.
In our house, there is beauty in the way we speak to each other. In our house, language is not broken but rather bursting with emotion. We have built a house out of words. There are friendly snakes in the cupboard and snacks in the tank. It is a crooked house. It is a little messy. But this is where we have made our home.