Throughout my school days in Malaysia, my parents could only afford two pairs of uniforms at once. Therefore, I would wash my uniforms every day after school and hang them outside the house to dry before the sun went down. During the monsoon season, I would leave my wet school uniform to dry underneath the refrigerator vent grill—waking up constantly all night long to flip it so that it would dry evenly, arriving presentable but tired at school the next day. Nevertheless, I enjoyed going to school because it was an escape from the drudgery of home life. Since my father was a fisherman, I almost always had to help him gut fish and devein shrimps instead of doing my homework or playing with friends after school. After cleaning the fish, I not only had to take care of my younger sister but also four little cousins for whom my mother babysat for extra money. By the time my cousins went home. The house was quiet; I was limited to only one hour of study/homework each night to save on the electric bill. I could not read by candlelight because it was too dangerous in our small wooden home.
Despite the difficulties, I was always happy and satisfied. In 2002, I graduated from elementary school and became the first student at my school to achieve a perfect score on the Malaysia National Examination for the 6th Grade. My success story as a fisherman’s daughter attracted the attention of Malaysia’s national newspaper, and I was interviewed and my story published. A plaque honoring my achievement hangs at the entrance of our elementary school.
Poverty can be an asset if one is diligent, clever, and able to recognize the opportunity. For example, in my first year of high school, a new educational policy was introduced in Malaysia. All science and mathematics courses would be taught in English instead of Malay. I was in one of the first batches of students using the new textbooks. I borrowed the five freshman science and mathematics books we were to use that coming semester from my best frie nd, whose family could afford to buy them. Then I copied them all by hand, one by one throughout that summer break preceding the methods. (Fishing was good that year, and I was allowed to have the light in the room to read and write). In this way, I learned in advance from my classmates at the same time that I was able to develop a beautiful handwriting style. While some parents could afford to pay for supplementary English language instruction, my parents could not. It was challenging to understand my science and math teachers in English because they barely understood the most basic of English themselves and were generally as confused as we were. Nevertheless, I not only achieved another perfect score on the Malaysian National High School Examinations in 2005 but also went on to achieve new school records for examinations in the area of Art as well as Math and Science in 2007, with my achievements again published in Malaysia’s National Newspaper.
Next, I was off to study in Singapore on a scholarship that only covered tuition. So I learned to survive independently, spending all weekend working at the Millenium Hotel as a banquet server: incredibly long hours, 14-15 hours a day for two days in a row. Since there was no train service past midnight and we could not afford car service, my coworkers and I slept in the store room using table cloths as our bed and blanket. I studied hard to succeed and earned second place in my cohort and a spot as a representative to USC as a visiting scholar.
I had a wonderful time at the University of Southern California, and this experience greatly enhanced my determination to succeed. I also met the man I would marry later during my time there. Four years ago, I returned to the United States to marry him and build a new life and home, working and studying. However, my husband lost his job, started doing drugs and alcohol, and I had to leave him. For several months, I often used the D-train like a mobile motel, from Coney Island to Brooklyn, to 205th Street in the Bronx, back and forth until the following day when I showed up at the College of Staten Island for classes. I wrote an essay for the Cuny Intercollegiate Essay Competition about racial discrimination against new immigrants and abuse of women - and won first prize.
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