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Essay: The Translated Life, From Immigrant to Valedictorian

I came to America from Vietnam in the middle of the 2012 heat wave that swept across California. The heat was almost unbearable, and it reminded me of home. But that was where the resemblance ended. Loneliness had become my constant companion. That was when I took refuge in my love of language.

The English language, or language in general, is my passion. I remember begging my father to let me take Japanese night classes the summer after I graduated from middle school. I saved my lunch money to buy French textbooks and CDs to learn by myself. I used my brother’s computer to practice speaking English with people from all over the world. And it was studying language that kept me from breaking down during my parents’ divorce a year before we left Vietnam.

I never asked my mother why we came to America. I did not need to. Although no one spoke openly about it in Vietnam, everyone knew the U.S. as a land of opportunity. Only obsolete Community Party propaganda would say otherwise. But opportunities here did not fall from the sky. Without skills, education, and experience, neither my mother nor brother could find a decent job. It was mostly their lack of English holding them back. I was a witness to the power of language; only it worked against our family’s favor.

Ultimately, language gave me a clear purpose in life: to help others. In the winter of 2013, using my self-study of Norwegian, I created an online Norwegian course for English speakers. Today, it has 21,000 learners.

A recent phone call — from Norway of all places — clarified my determination to pursue linguistics in college. In the wake of the conflict in Syria, I learned of a refugee family of five who went through an unimaginable journey to reach a safe haven in Norway. They became lost in a foreign land and felt vulnerable because they could not speak Norwegian or English. With the help of a nearby library, they went online and found my course.

The day the mother found a job at a local supermarket and once all three of the children were admitted to a regular academic program at school with other native Norwegian students, they called me. These were not random strangers whom I had helped, it was those who endured the same struggle that my family did.

During my four years at Franklin High School, many individuals and organizations associated with Franklin and the Highland Park community have given me tremendous support. Franklin's Academic Decathlon team helped me prepare for the rigors of college and it certainly came as a surprise that we finished with the second-highest combined score in the national competition — beating teams with greater resources from across the United States. The nonprofit organization, College Match Los Angeles, played a crucial role in helping me win the battle of getting into college. I’m honored that my accomplishments have been recognized by my school and most recently by Congressman Xavier Becerra, who honored me with an award for academic excellence. And I know that these would not have been possible without my family, friends, community, and a passion to guide me.

For those who have recently come to America and feel overwhelmed and lonely, dejected, and disorientated: never lose hope. My aunts and uncles came here on boats 40 years ago; my family came here four years ago on an airplane; and the Syrian family traveled most of their journey on foot and by bus. Being immigrants, we are bound to feel off-balance. But we also have the incredible ability to persevere and to adapt. Director and screenwriter Federico Fellini once said, “A different language is a different vision of life.” Starting a new life is like learning a new language. They both take time, effort, and determination. You make mistakes, but they are a vital part of success. You fail, but you learn to become better. Unlike a new language, a new life opens up a world of not just words, but of valuable gifts — gifts that we can bestow on those who may make the same journey we once did.

Khai Tran is the valedictorian at Benjamin Franklin High School in Los Angeles, California. He will attend Yale University this fall.

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