by Doan Trang Laura Vo Ngoc
A vast amount of scintillating stars wink upon the sleeping City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. Or so it seems. On closer inspection, it is noticeable that a few lights are still on in a cross-shaped building. Some students in the Girls’ Dorm are still up, studying late at night for a test, or finishing up some homework. Some of the best experiences to recall after a few years in Developing Virtue Secondary School are the all-nighters spent on Calculus, Chinese, or English. All stories must start at the beginning, however, even if it is the story of a young girl’s life in a very special place. Therefore, let us return to the start of this tale.
At the age of ten, everything is fairly simple, as long as one’s surroundings are known. It is an age before the difficulties of puberty, but after the juvenile muddle of infancy. Yet, my life at the age of ten was none of these. At that youthful age, I had landed in a strange country, in a bizarre school, with odd customs, surrounded by a mostly Chinese community in America. Before I had arrived at this school, however, I had been semi-proud that I was going to go to an American school. I had yet to learn that many obstacles blocked the road to my future, and that no matter how I tried to avoid them, I would still have to face and overcome these hindrances.
The first difficulty I faced was one of language. In this City of English and Chinese speakers, I had no one to talk to but the few teachers who knew enough French for me to know what they wanted to get across. At first, during the first two weeks of school, I had a cousin who knew sufficient English – having been taught by her mother – to translate for me. Because her own English was limited, however, it was a struggle for her, and one for me, as I tried to understand wisps of conversations, in order to facilitate her task. After that, however, she had to go back to Luxembourg, and I was left on my own to study this so-called International Language.
Gradually, with ESL classes two to three times a day, the patient lessons teachers gave me, and my attempts to communicate with my classmates, I entered the flow of the English Language. In addition, I tried to read as many books as I could, and still do, in order to obtain the highest level of mastery possible of the common usage of the language. A semester after my arrival, I joined my classmates in the regular Language Arts and Social Studies classes. I had jumped that hurdle in a semester, and had a year and a half to prepare for Junior High School.
Not long after my triumph over the English Language, however, I had to face my next problem: self-reliance. Because I am the youngest child in my family, having two older brothers, I have always been somewhat protected at home. Because the law in Belgium states that a child under 12 years of age cannot be left alone at home, I never learned to take care of myself, or to be away from my family. I used to cry just because I spent a couple of nights at my aunt’s house in Luxembourg, away from my mom. In CTTB, however, I had to spend a month, without any family members closer than the Bay Area, with a family friend. That month taught me, the hard way, how to take care of myself, and how to be able to continue my studies and such without my parents’ presence nearby.
The year that hit me the hardest, however, was during my first year in High School. Not only was I somewhat frustrated at what I felt was the ineffectiveness of a couple of my teachers that year, but the addition of new responsibilities and a few big events turned my life around. I had mixed feelings for my English class, for example. Because I am such a “bookworm,” a fanatic of reading, that year, I felt that we did not cover enough books, or rather, enough challenging books in the class. What I did enjoy, in my Freshman English class, however, was the training I received in writing essays. Although the format seemed ridiculous at first, I noticed that, without putting too much effort, I could still write fairly good essays.
Most of my frustration, however, before the life-changing episodes occurred, budded from my responsibility as the Freshman Representative in the Association of Student Body. One reason, I felt, was because some of my classes – Biology, Chinese, Pre-Calculus – were different from my classmates’, which caused my less-than-perfect relationship with them. Also, our class has always been a wild group, with very different opinions. Therefore, when I tried to get something across to them from ASB, such as projects or ideas, I felt that I was ignored, as some of them did other things or chatted. That frustrated me to no end. The worst news for me that year came to me after an ASB meeting. Heng Yin Shr came to me and asked me if I knew that my aunt wanted to leave home. Of course, I had known that she had wanted to leave home for quite a few years, but it had never occurred to me that she would want to do it while I was still a teenager. I was devastated.
To some people, I owe an explanation as to why I felt so miserable as a result of this news. During that time, some people assumed that I should be happy, as it would allow my aunt to cultivate better. What they did not seem to understand, however, was that she was basically like a mom to me. She had taken care of me since I was just a bag of chemical reactions without any thoughts beyond “I want food.” In fact, she is my godmother. Her decision to leave home led me to plead and beg her to wait for four more years; just until I graduated. After a week of such conversations, I skipped two days of school to accompany her to the City of Dharma Realm, where she left home. Because there was no one to take care of me, after Winter Break that year, I moved into the Girls’ Dorm.
This period of time was the peak of my development into the person that I am now. That first year, during the second semester of school, I had a very hard time adapting to life among so many other teenagers. My studies started slipping: I simply decided not to do my English homework for the last two months of school, and I had gotten a C on my Introduction to Buddhism test. How I managed to keep a 3.8 GPA, I do not know. I cried every night in bed, but as my friends comforted me, I started to get stronger.
Besides the petty obstructions during my time at the City, such as friendship break-ups, conflicts, and such, these major obstacles that I have overcome have shaped me into the person I am. Even though I sometimes have to stay up all night in order to finish my Calculus homework, I am able to complete smaller assignments half an hour before they are due with enough quality to get a good grade. My English has grown proficient through all the reading I do. I can stand to be away from my family for quite a long period of time, though the comfort of family life is essential to me during difficult times.
As for my aunt, well, either the authorities pity me or they pity her, for they have allowed her to remain in the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas despite having spread the other newly left-home people across the branch monasteries. Thanks to this, I can still see her on a weekly, if not daily, basis. Although I still undergo harsh times that cause my academics to fall, I can still confidently walk through the hallways and keep my grade point average around the same. When I have problems, I can easily talk to my friends, my cousin – who came back from Luxembourg to study here – and the teachers, when I cannot ask my parents’ counsel. I have basically grown up in the City, and its basic principles are engrained so deep within me they are like the plasma in my blood. Therefore, even if my light is still on when the stars twinkle down on us, I can proudly say that in order for me to grow up and become a better person, my innate abilities and the CTTB principles lodged deep in me will keep me going through, no matter what type of walls I encounter, and no matter their size.