Patrick Marion Bradley is student pursuing his Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at American University. He also works as the Web Communications Coordinator at the Office of Campus life, where his day to day duties include talking to students who have stories to tell. But his duties as a Master’s student and communications writer came together when he met Daniel.
“He immediately sat down, and told me that no one has ever asked him to tell his story before,” said Bradley, who had called Daniel into his office for a web article. “And I thought, oh wow. Whatever thoughts I had for work went out the window and I told him to tell me his story.”
Daniel Chen, a student at American University who was the first in his family to attend college, sat down in Bradley’s office one day, and shared his untold story, which led to Bradley’s published piece, “Learning Chinese to fix the language barrier that leaves parents and son near-strangers,” in The Washington Post Magazine.
The story describes Chen’s struggles with communicating with his parents, Chinese immigrants who solely speak Shanghainese. Throughout his childhood, Chen’s English improved with substantial effort, while his Shanghainese eroded. On the other hand, his parents struggled to file taxes and be involved in Chen’s schooling because of the English-only situation that was foreign to them.
The frustrations and inability to hold a conversation with his family prompted Chen to begin learning Chinese at AU. It’s not ideal—Chen is studying a different dialect than the one his parents speak at home—but it has been a pathway to simple conversation.
This story isn’t unique to Chen. In diverse societies like the United States, many children that come from linguistic minorities learn the language of the society – in this case, English— to participate in available opportunities. A nationwide study conducted as part of the Early Childhood Research Quarterly shows that this can create interference between the first and second language.
Moreover, Chen’s parents working long hours also kept them apart. Data from the U.S. Census Bureau shows striking poverty rates among Asian Americans and other minority groups. This can be attributed to English being used as a determinant of status, leaving immigrants with lower-wage jobs, according to Linda Light, a linguistic anthropologist quoted throughout the story.
Although Bradley didn’t originally publish a web article of Chen’s story, he saved the audio and transcript, because the story stuck with him. And he’s glad he did because it came in handy during his literary journalism course.
“I wrote the article as an assignment for the course and we had to pick a publication to target our story to,” he said. “My idea was originally for This American Life, but I didn't get a response, so I just thought because it’s a Washington story, it made sense to pitch to [The Washington Post Magazine] and I’m glad I did.”
The article was published in the magazine Nov. 1, 2013, and received a lot of kind feedback and responses from people who have experienced similar situations, according to Bradley.
Bradley had no problem getting sources and experts for this story. He went to New York to meet Chen’s family, and a quick Google search led him to an array of experts. But that’s the problem. With countless numbers of studies and research on the issue, Bradley said this is an issue that is “not fully explored” in the media.
“I think it probably does need more attention,” said Bradley. “I think what the powerful part of narrative journalism is that you get to know a character or a person rather, and understand an issue has how it’s actually affecting them.”
He also suggests that journalists covering issues related to children of immigrants should target legislatures and laws that can affect fringes of populations in an effort to give the population a voice.
“With Daniel and with his mom, they were both so gracious and thankful that somebody was interested in hearing what they had to say, and I think that’s a lot of responsibility that the writer has,” Bradley said. “My professor always stresses, you can have a great story like Daniel’s, but you need to have a connection as to why anyone talks about it now.”