She opened the window cover so that I could see the mountains and palm trees. Our plane touched down at Los Angeles International Airport. We came from Bush Intercontinental (Houston, Texas). The woman who had been so kind to me the entire ride wished me luck with my competition. She was from Sugarland, Texas.
I waited for my host family to pick me up. A Japanese couple approached me. I recognized them from the emails we exchanged. They spoke in Japanese to me the entire time. I was very happy.
How do I say this diplomatically? I can’t. I was coming from a low-income household. My mother had driven us to Lousiana before. We had even gone to San Antonio. But that was all before she walked off her job. After that, a “trip” meant going to the grocery store. Food stamps.
So when the Japanese Society of Houston (JASH) gave me a $1000 check and an all-paid expenses trip to California to compete in the All-USA High School Japanese Speech Contest, I was excited. I cried when I won. My sensei and I had worked so hard. I had never been in first place before. If I won this competition, I’d be able to go to Japan for free.
The flight was surreal. I had not been on a plane in ages. What was familiar was the transition from home to what was not home.
In Houston, I got up every day around 5:30 A.M. to get ready to catch the school bus at 6:04 A.M. That bus would come to pick me up from Cullen Middle School, where I self-studied Japanese in my Spanish class much to Ms. Castro’s and Mr. Martinez’s chagrin. It was a predominately Black and Latinx school. Houston also has a large Vietnamese population, so the signs were always in English, Spanish, and Vietnamese. (As opposed to Minnesota, where I live now. The signs are always in English, Spanish, Hmong, and Somali.)
I’d stare out the window of that bus and watch my black neighborhood, with boarded-up houses and sketchy corner stores, transform into the mansions and malls of Bellaire, Texas. Where does the money come from, I would wonder. My classmates had parents who were doctors, lawyers, the whole list of what people want their kids to be when they grow up. I never went on school trips or anything because frankly, I couldn’t afford it.
But I digress. I was determined to win with my words, even if they weren’t in my native language. I had practiced my speech a thousand times. I’m not exaggerating.
Looking back on those three to four days that I spent in California, I marvel at the fact that my words and effort was able to take me to another state. I would not win this competition.
In fact, I came second place to Maria Campos (I believe that was her name). She cracked the judges up with her speech about her mother killing chickens—or chasing them, I can’t remember—in the morning for breakfast. I remember thinking, “why the hell is that so funny?” Being so competitive clouded my judgment. I wish I could meet Maria again and congratulate her properly. But I was so heartbroken that I had lost to her that I looked at her unfavorably.
I even went out of my way to look up footage from the international competition that she advanced to. She didn’t win but she got to have an awesome experience in Japan. I was jealous, to say the least.
Going back to the day that I had lost the competition, I sat in the car of my host family ready to cry. I opened the envelope addressed to “the second-place winner” and saw a check for $500. I felt better.
Where did those $1500 go? I think I bought a new computer or something. My friend Max, who was in my Japanese class and had even gone out of his way to cheer me on, texted me, “you can basically buy your own ticket now!”
“I can’t,” I texted him back. “I spent all of the money.”
On the plane ride back, I shared a teary goodbye with my host family. I boarded the plane and heard someone calling my name. It was the woman from before. “How’d it go?”
“Second place!” I shouted back to her with the fakest smile I could muster. Please don’t talk to me. I lost and I just want to sulk forever! I’m a damn loser.
But she came up to me after we landed back in Houston and gave me her card. “Maybe we can go fishing this summer!”
I threw her card away immediately. I took my second-place plaque home and cried some more. Then I realized that I would be entering my last year of high school. I had one more chance to win this damn thing. Plus I had to start applying to colleges, applying for scholarships, studying for exams. All that on top of filling out my FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
My win was someone’s loss. Someone’s win was my loss. The point, however, is to walk away from these experiences as a better person. I had the wrong mindset for years. Even when I finally won a speech contest, I still felt like a loser. What was going to make me feel fulfilled? How do I help myself get ahead?
I only saw myself as a loser because I didn’t realize the wonderful things that I had won. It never feels good to lose something, I can say that with confidence, but it’s worse to not move forward.
I’m so happy that I lost. I’m glad that I won. In both situations, I realized that life goes on either way. I shouldn’t close myself away from connections and opportunities just because I feel rejected.