“The girl in the red coat went to the store and bought some apples with five dollars.”
As the words left my mouth, the need to roll my eyes was so fierce, I swear my body shook with it. The woman on the other side of the table didn’t even bother to look up as she wrote my words down on a piece of paper. A tape recorder rolled on and on and on next to her elbow.
The story didn’t end there. I’m pretty sure the girl in the red coat did something with those apples, but I can’t remember. I do, however, remember the anguish I felt at being the only student called out of class to be tested in the English language. I was a junior in high school and hadn’t been in an English language development class since elementary school. This felt like someone decided to wage war on my identity, and it wasn’t the first time.
The “other” identity
The last time it felt like someone was waging war on my identity, I was in ninth grade and our class was preparing to take a state test. My friend and I couldn’t find “Hmong” under the ethnicity question, so we went up to the teacher and asked what we should put instead.
“You’re not Hmong,” he said.
He was so confident, it made my friend and I pause. Then we snapped out of it and looked at each other, and what passed between our eyes was a mutual understanding that this guy, who happened to be our teacher, was not only wrong, but he was crazy.
“We’re Hmong,” I said.
“No, you’re Vietnamese,” he insisted.
And he grabbed my friend’s paper and bubbled in the circle next to the word “Vietnamese.” Shocked, because it felt like an assault on my identity, I went back to my desk and conferred with the other Hmong students. “We’re not Vietnamese,” we all whispered back and forth, but some of us weren’t sure if we even knew what we were talking about. We didn’t have a country. Maybe we were Vietnamese. Some of us, out of fear, out of confusion, out of lack of knowledge, bubbled in “Vietnamese.” The rest of us bubbled in “Other.”
It was the year 2000, the Hmong had been in the U.S. for 25 years, and I was still getting questions like, “Are you from Mongolia?” from my white peers. We were, obviously, still a mystery to everyone and not important enough to include in the pre-exam survey from the Department of Education. We were just the “other” people.
The next day, our teacher announced to the class that we were, indeed, Hmong, but by then he had already done damage.
Some memories leave only a whisper of what happened, but some memories hang on. Their details are vibrant and noisy. For me, this memory serves as a reminder that passivity is the same thing as acceptance. If we don’t stand up to tell our stories, if we let others tell our stories, then we are accepting those stories as our own. And in the same breath, we are accepting their definition of who we are.
Tell your story before someone else does.
And they tell it wrong.
Winston Churchill said, “History is written by the victors.” This tells me that history and the stories we often hear are very one-sided. Indeed, when we hear the same story or the same type of story over and over again, it becomes the norm. And when the silenced continue to stay silent, the victors’ stories become the truth even if they’re not.
I remember the story of America, and I remember it well. It’s the story of one people’s destiny to expand “from sea to shining sea.” It’s the story of courageous settlers battling the wilderness and illnesses and natives so they could build America. But there’s also the other side of this destiny, the side that makes people uncomfortable. The side that said the fathers of America created a story that made it okay for them to take what isn’t theirs. To rape and kill a whole people. That story is a story of aggression and pain and great loss, but it is often the story that doesn’t get told.
Your story creates your identity. Your story creates your truth. So don’t be afraid to stand up and tell it yourself.
Stories breed connection
Which breeds understanding, which breeds empathy, and finally relationships. Princeton University neuroscientist Uri Hasson found that when people listen to the same story, the activity in their brains align. No matter who we are, our brain activity aligns with the brain activity of the storyteller. We are able to experience what the storyteller experienced, which gives us better insight into what happened to him or her.
Stories have the power to change the world.
But telling your story can be very scary. It can mean admitting something you don’t want to admit, going back to a place you don’t want to go back to or facing a truth you don’t want to face. It can mean opening yourself up to criticism and many times even danger.
Maybe you don’t have the skills. Maybe you don’t think you’ve ever been a good writer or a good speaker. Maybe English is your second language like it is mine. But like all other skills, storytelling is a skill that can be learned. Plus, your only other option is to let someone else tell your story, and you have to ask yourself if you want to take that risk.
The storyteller chooses what kind of story they want to tell.
That’s why the story of America’s birth and expansion is often a story of destiny and courage. The victors told the story and the story became the norm and the norm became the truth.
Sometimes a power greater than ourselves creates the frame for our story, but that is when we mustn’t go “gentle into that good night” as Dylan Thomas wrote. We must “rage against the dying light.” We must tell our stories, and in the telling of our stories, build our identity and the frame for a new story.
It’s been a long time since I called myself an ESL student. I never pretend that I was born speaking English, but I also never let the fact that English is my second language be the core of my identity. And I think that’s why I felt such anguish when I was identified as an ESL student long after my last ESL class. Being an ESL student was a season of my life that helped shape me as an individual, but it didn’t define me. My story isn’t just an ESL story. It’s that and more. It’s a story of growth and creativity and quiet rebellion, and I will not go “gentle into that good night.”
Wanna uncover your story? My free worksheet walks you through a few simple steps to help you find your story.