Personal Essay

By Jolin Chen
Mattituck High School

Crossing the threshold into the colorful classroom for the first time in kindergarten, I didn’t feel the same warmth that radiated from my home or family restaurant where I spent my childhood days. Groups of laughing children replaced the familiarity that I had sprawled on the carpets, as I masked the obvious fact waving in front of my face: nobody looked like me here. Barely knowing English, the communication barrier further isolated me from my peers. I couldn’t ask them to play with me when I wanted to the most. For weeks, I kept to myself, thinking that if I was too different, I would stand out even more than I already did. I hid my Asian snacks and lunches that did not look like the typical peanut butter jelly sandwich because I feared ridicule. Eventually, I had enough. I hatched a plan, a plan that would be in operation for the next couple of years: to fit in. Giving away my Ticonderoga eraser caps became a token of trying to get people to like me. When everyone had white Crocs, I got my own the next week. I only joined activities based on the approval of others. It was a relentless cycle of pleasing others and losing myself.
Ironically, it was the very same food that I was embarrassed about and hid away that eventually connected me with the people I felt disconnected from for a long time. My friends fought over the Asian snacks in my lunchbox and were curious about the food that I ate during my vacations to China. On lunch lines, they asked me to translate everyday objects into Chinese, even asking if they had a Chinese name. And to this day, I have been supplying my best friend since third grade, who was the first person to make me feel included at school, with all types of snacks I picked up from Queens from pints of kimchi to packs of seaweed. But, most importantly, my parents’ Chinese restaurant played a role in an important realization. Here, my classmates gathered after long days at school, people from the community asked how I was doing, and my dad’s friendly nature was contagious and adored by many of my classmates. Through food and the restaurant, I realized this: my community was always accepting of me, it just took a while to accept myself.

Now, I can say that I’m grateful that I grew up in a community that has shown me inclusivity and compassion. Being so, I have aimed to be the most authentic version of myself. I’ve realized I can’t confine who I am to a box built by the things I can’t control but, I can control how I expand my horizons and the person I want to be.
I believe in the power of listening, where it is more than just hearing someone talk, it’s the act of validating for the other person what you are hearing because you care about their story. Listening is a gesture I value: the way I show sympathy and respect. At school and in the community, I am passionate about creating a space for people to be heard through the organizations I am involved in. As the President of the Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD) Club, I have been given the opportunity to present to third, fourth, and seventh graders about the importance of being an upstander by acting out fake scenarios of possible bullying situations and then providing advice and different methods on how to stand up against bullying in various circumstances. Being aware of what exclusion feels like, I strive to be inclusive and kind because I believe that our differences are what make us stronger. So, to celebrate kindness, acceptance, and inclusion, I have helped organize the school’s Unity Day, where we encourage students and community members to wear orange in support, stick post-it notes with positive messages on lockers, and create a banner for students to pledge to be inclusive. As I move forward, I want to continue to be someone who is a role model for younger students, advocates for change in the school, and broadens diversity.

“We are all given two hands, one for helping ourselves, one for helping others,” is the motto behind Kait’s Angels, the nonprofit organization that I volunteer for. At every event, we show up wearing pink to sell raffle tickets for the lottery tree and perennial collection, carry in two hundred gift baskets for the Chinese auction, and deal out cards for the poker run. All the proceeds go back to our community, a community that I’m grateful to have called my home for the past seventeen years. We have helped people fighting cancer and their families, built buddy benches in our parks to bring kids together, and implemented Narcan stations in schools to combat the rise in fentanyl-related incidents. On the same note, I am a part of my school’s Mental Health Awareness Program, an initiative to educate younger kids about mental health and break the negative stigma surrounding it. I began going into classrooms to talk to underclassmen about coping with anxiety, relieving stress, and educating them on several mental health disorders by talking from my own experiences. We hoped that our openness would encourage them to talk to someone, to know that they are never alone, and to come to us for support when needed. I want to continue to be someone who gives back to the community and creates an environment for all to express themselves.
And like Anne MacKay, I want to be remembered as someone who led a passionate and committed life that benefited those around me.