Courtesy of PDPics/Pixabay

During my time in the Arts & Life (A&L) section at The Emory Wheel, I was the only section editor who did not speak English natively. I often questioned my editing abilities and whether I had the authority to point out native speakers’ inappropriate writing styles. When one of the A&L writers stacked references to American pop culture in their TV review, I suggested they explain the references for audiences unfamiliar with them. However, I deleted the comment immediately, fearing that it was only me — a foreigner — who couldn’t understand what they meant. I felt like an imposter editing for native English speakers. After all, they would be more familiar with their own language and culture.

Before joining the Wheel, I mainly edited English as a Second Language (ESL) students’ essays as a self-employed writing tutor, specifically working with Chinese students. This allowed me to embrace the role of a teacher, rigorously imparting grammatical rules to students. More importantly, I taught them how to communicate under American writing guidelines — for example, being straightforward about the thesis and avoiding run-on sentences — to make sure their essays satisfied American readers.

As an English major, I also held my own writing to these American standards to impress professors and employers and appear as a native English writer. This is despite my upbringing, which emphasized that Chinese people don’t go to U.S. universities to major in the humanities because English is not our language and humanities degrees cannot guarantee green cards. But I devoted myself to the English major for its potential to investigate how different cultures use English.

However, when I edited native English speakers’ articles for the Wheel, I became hesitant about what my goal was — their language was mostly comprehensible, and I wondered if certain parts challenged me because I was unfamiliar with some native English language standards.

This sense of uncertainty about the English language extended to other aspects of my editorship at the Wheel. When other editors debated excitedly about American celebrities, I dimmed the light of my laptop screen and researched them, trying to decode their jokes. When the A&L section focused on American music, TV and film in our meetings, I felt the urge to rebut that we needed international art coverage as well, but I suppressed the idea. I forced myself to adopt the mindset of a native English speaker, convincing myself it was only natural that a newspaper in the U.S. should prioritize American art instead of international art. 

I’ve blamed myself for being too timid to speak up, but I have stood up for myself multiple times without my voice being heard. I’ve corrected others for misspelling my name — which is non-existent in the English language because my parents selected it without knowing much more than the alphabet — without success. I’ve tried to recommend international art to people by searching for translations in English that usually sound awkward, and my efforts are often met with silence. My mind traces back to when my friend in China said that perhaps my English is just not good enough for me to defend myself against misunderstandings. This prompted me to think that maybe native speakers didn’t listen to my voice because they disliked my non-fluent, non-American English. I hate myself when I can’t help but characterize miscommunication with other editors as implicit discrimination.

To confront these difficulties, I have, unfortunately, imitated native editors’ English word by word. I convinced myself that as long as I try, I’ll be able to grasp their phrases, their countenance and their references to American culture. However, through such imitations, I’ve found myself more confused about who I am and more scared to speak up, because I don’t know what I want to express anymore. I’ve become a machine that copies what others say.

The Wheel’s Q&A session with the Asian American Journalists Association last October confirmed my frustration. When I asked the panelists about the experience of non-native journalists who come to the U.S. after adolescence, they seemed confused, admitting that they did not know anyone with such a background in the industry.

While I thought about ending my journalistic career and returning home to pursue my passion for Chinese writing, I found myself losing grasp of my native tongue as well, feeling strange using Chinese characters due to my efforts to excel in the English language. I’m incapable of talking about news and research in Mandarin, for example, because I don’t have the Mandarin vocabulary for things I experience in college. I felt insecure that my vehicles for expression, English and Mandarin, were both slipping past me. Yet out of the natural instinct of a journalist, I knew I had to write about my confusion for people like me who are stuck between two languages and cultures.

From working in the A&L section, I’ve understood that if I don’t confidently grasp the opportunity to interview a busy singer or cover an event for underrepresented students in time, my pitch is going to be dropped and these unique voices will never be heard. The world doesn’t stop for my insecurity. Despite my challenges working as a student editor, journalism, with its truth-seeking purpose, has taught me that underrepresented voices have to be heard the most. To navigate difficulties as a non-native English speaker, I’ll need to keep writing about my confusion. My two languages that seem divided can work harmoniously to shape my unique voice.

Amiee Zhao (24Ox) is from Shanghai. 

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Amiee Zhao is from Shanghai, China. At the Wheel, she is Emory Life editor and a writer for multiple sections. Outside of the Wheel, she enjoys traveling and reading non-fiction. She is also involved in OxBroadway and Autism Advocacy Organization.