Common App Essay: A meaningful background, identity, interest, or talent | Grace

Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, please share your story.

X was an ugly letter. It was a cross-out, an error, a rebel. Nothing started with X except for xylophone and X-men. And my name.

It was in first grade, in my third year living in the United States, that I realized how ghastly “Xinxin Zhang” sounded on American lips. The teacher pronounced it “Zin-zin Zang,” and my classmates followed suit. My name was supposed to mean “warm-hearted,” and was to be spoken in a soft tone: “Shin-shin Jahn.” But the letters hardened on the English tongue, and along with them, my heart. I alienated the name that had alienated me, attempting to anglicize myself with the name “Grace.” I left Xinxin behind; she belonged to China, not my new life in America.

Over the next few years, Xinxin was systematically purged from my identity. I pronounced my last name in the same, calcified “Zang” that my American classmates did. I put aside Chinese characters in exchange for English letters. I suppressed anything that associated me with my heritage, repudiated anything that forced me to acknowledge my immigrant status. After gaining citizenship in ninth grade, I even took the opportunity to legally change my name to Grace, confining Xinxin to be a little-mentioned middle name. Mostly, it would appear as a singular letter ‘X’ when I signed my name—if I signed with it at all.

It’s impossible for me to pinpoint an exact moment when cultural pride occurred to me: it was a gradual phenomenon, starting with a transfer to a new school where international students gossiped and argued and joked and complained in Chinese. Even the girls’ laughs and gestures seemed distinctly Chinese, quietly graceful in a way that I longed to imitate. But there was no way to gracefully join a foreign conversation by speaking English; the warm-hearted Xinxin and my nearly-forgotten Mandarin vocabulary was my only way to connect with these new students. So I found myself fighting for the “warm-hearted” girl I had lost, speaking Chinese in a tongue that felt too thick to pronounce the delicate language. I wrote shaky characters in a hand unfamiliar with Chinese radicals and downloaded WeChat, China’s biggest social media platform. From then on, I insisted on communicating solely in Mandarin on WeChat, texting both my new friends and my parents in their mother language, despite my messages being littered with homophonic errors.

Now, their mother language is my language too. Not only can I carry a conversation, but I can also banter with the international students, trading quips and insults as they do. When I traveled to China in the summer before senior year, no one suspected of me being anything other than a local. I have even begun to pick up on reading basic characters (though my parents insist I stop texting them in Chinese until I learn the character difference between “prostitute” and ”clock”). I am no longer “Grace,” but “Grace Xinxin Zhang”—pronounced “Shin-shin Jahn,” of course.

My acceptance of my background is an integral part of my coming-of-age. I am not just Grace, but neither am I just Xinxin. My identity is more than just who I choose to be at any given time. It’s a legacy that’s been passed down through generations in China, from forefathers who served as generals in the Han dynasty, to grandfathers who secretly learned English during Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution, to me, a girl whose first memory of her parents was through a computer screen, separated from them by the Atlantic Ocean as they pursued doctorates in the United States. Xinxin would unite with them at four years old. She would reintegrate into the Zhang family at age 16.

X is so much more than an error. It’s a bridge between America and China, between Grace and Zhang. X is an embracement of my identity. Published in Common Application Essays, Successful College Essays, Successful Cornell Essays

Grace

Cornell University (The Dyson School) 2023
Top Rated
About the Author 🎓
Major: Applied Economics and Management
Accepted Universities:
Cornell University, Fordham University, SUNY Binghamton
Hometown: Benxi, China
Grace is a verified Squired mentor from Cornell University (The Dyson School). Sign up to connect with Grace and other mentors from top schools including Stanford, MIT and the Ivy League. Whether you’re looking for advice on your essay, program selection or application planning, Squired’s mentors are here for you.

Grace

Cornell University (The Dyson School) 2023
Top Rated
Grace is a verified Squired mentor from Cornell University (The Dyson School). Sign up to connect with Grace and other mentors from top schools including Stanford, MIT and the Ivy League. Whether you’re looking for advice on your essay, program selection or application planning, Squired’s mentors are here for you.

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