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Awards Outside of the Classroom
Awards Outside of the Classroom

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Lee how ma…

My friends often speculate about why I became fluent (or semi-fluent) in five different languages. My answer: “It’s my nature.” Armed with an inquisitive personality, I treasure the artistic and mystical makeup of different languages, along with the benefits of learning about other cultures.

My passion was publically rewarded in December of 2001, when I received a Citizen’s Gold Star from New York City Mayor Rudolph Guiliani. Following the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, I responed to an urgent call for volunteers who spoke Japanese, French, English and Vietnamese. A rare “quadruple threat” in languages, I received permission to leave school and answer the mayor’s call. For five days, I served as a translator for surviviors, rescue workers and family members who were interrogated by the police and FBI. Immersed in a horrific situation, I fought valiantly to hide my emotions. Although I couldn’t eliminate the terror, my ability to speak the same language as the family members seemed to bring them comfort during those bleak hours.

Ironically, my own bi-lingual lifestyle originated in fear. In September of 1990, my mother forced me into a first grade classroom, ignoring my plaintive cries. “Mama…don’t go…Mama…don’t leave me!” Armed with only a few basic English phrases (“sorry”, “please”, “hello”), I began my formal education in an English-speaking school. Although I didn’t appreciate it at the time, I had a gift for languages, which became my salvation. Within a year, I became fluent in English, while maintaining my fluency in Chinese. By the time I reached high school, I was ready to embrace the French language and culture. In subsequent years, I studied Vietnamese and Japanese, which preserve my connection to my Asian roots.

Occasionally, I am overwhelmed by the five languages that compete for space in my brain. As I sleep, a verb that I want to conjugate in French may manifest in Japanese! Yet I am motivated by the opportunities available to those who speak multiple languages and appreciate different cultures: the more people I meet, the larger and more satisfying my world.

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