Lost at Sea

Natalie TaiMarch 7, 2022Time and SpaceHelping Hands

Artwork by Caroline Kuo, age 16

There was a time when I was lost at sea.

Drowning in a deep pool of people whose waves crashed so loudly, I could hear nothing and everything at once. Stranded in the waters where my blood ran free but my legs dared not leap forward, I was so ironically bare in a place I called home.

I was nine when I first moved back to Taiwan. Big brown eyes and slick black hair (perhaps a little bit tanned under the Singaporean sunshine, too), I looked like just about all the kids around me. Although this superficial disguise gave me a soothing sense of cultural belonging, it very much remained an insignificant facet of my identity and would later prove futile as I navigated my way into academia in search of true connection.

As a bilingual Singaporean who is fluent in Mandarin with a Taiwanese accent but spends most of the day speaking British English in an American accent, I guess you could say that I was the manifestation of an identity crisis. If you were peeking at this little nutshell of me from the outside, there might have been a few cracks here and there, but I was happy, happy with the way things were, happy with the way I was.

Looking back, I was very much naive to the world and naive to myself, and perhaps that is the case for most nine-year-olds. And perhaps you could say that “ignorance is bliss,” and I admit it, too. I had the absolute time of my life! But when that fantastical world of clear skies and smooth seas could no longer stand true, wouldn’t the crash sting more in a backlash?

Entering fourth grade as a non-citizen in a public Taiwanese school, I was eager to fit in. Having just graduated the third grade with a reputation for perfection, I just needed to keep things up.

But one problem stood in the way, the huge language barrier that just could not be ignored: I could not read or write in traditional Chinese. The implications of this gap extended far beyond the scope of peer-to-peer communication. It meant that I could only understand three-fourths of what the teacher said, half of the conversational language around me, and nothing, absolutely nothing, from my textbooks.

I had never felt more out of place in my life. And admitting, accepting, and facing this sense of alienation was something I dreaded. I was truly defea —

But before I could make that claim, I entered fifth grade.

Carrying a backpack of red-inked 30s and Fs into a new school year, I was mortified. But little did I know that that coming semester, I would be lucky enough to have someone, a little lifeguard, floating at sea with me.

My fifth grade teacher was a short woman with thick rectangular glasses. She didn’t speak English, but you know what she did speak? Patience and kindness, two of the hardest universal languages to master, ones I’m still learning to perfect every day.

A few weeks into the new semester, English and Hokkien classes quickly became one-on-one supplementary tutoring. Going through every subject she could — from social studies to mathematics — she read aloud every word of every page and every question, just for me to finally decipher the printed characters in my textbooks.

I finally understood the language of my country. Though there might still have been a few Fs here and there, there was a visible improvement in my academic performance, and most importantly, my attitude toward life.

The respect I was shown changed the way I respected myself and the way I respected others. The endless patience dedicated to a single child’s learning taught me just how much value helping one single person holds. The kindness my teacher demonstrated to me continues to kindle the light of kindness that shines with me everyday, one that blazes a boundless torch of universal love, raised high in the air to light up the deep waters and ever-so-tugging currents for those in need of a little brightness and warmth, lost at sea.

In fifth grade, I bade farewell to a mode of life built on the idea of social success and greeted a new, universal vision built on personal growth and social impact. With the fundamental values of respect and kindness, I learned to navigate my way into adolescence and paved the path to the person I want to become. Although rough seas still make me stumble here and there, and that candle of kindness wavers to and fro, I keep in mind that smooth seas don’t make skillful sailors, and that this turbulence only makes me stronger in the face of greater challenges. From debating the global issues of racism, homophobia, or sexism, to understanding the interpersonal disputes of families, friendships, and strangers on the street, the decisions I make today and tomorrow hold marks of the kindness I was taught more than half a decade ago. And from the passions I pursue, dreams I chase, and small gestures I extend to those around me, I am continuously humbled by the infinite power one small act of kindness can hold. And today, as we reexamine the relics of the unsung heroes of human history, victorious warriors in literature, and celebrated figures in current events, we see a pattern that demonstrates just how timeless and extraordinarily magical these values can be.

Natalie is a young social issues blogger and an aspiring writer who works in and out of school to polish her craft. She is also an editor for her school's newspaper and a writer for her school magazine.