(File pix) 17-year-old Malaysian-born Cassandra Hsiao. Pix courtesy of South China Morning Post

At first glance, it might be hard to imagine how a girl who just got accepted into every Ivy League school would somehow feel like she didn’t fit in.

But over the years, 17-year-old Malaysian-born Cassandra Hsiao’s personal struggles helped spark a university admissions essay – a poignant take on the importance of acceptance and diversity – that made worldwide headlines.

Hsiao chronicled her story, not unfamiliar to many or most young immigrants, that won her a ticket to every one of the eight most elite universities in the United States.

The essay that swayed admission officers along the East Coast as well as at Stanford and the University of California at Berkeley, told of Hsiao’s push-and-pull with the English language within her own Malaysian family and in the outside world at the same time.

She moved to the US when she was five years old, but Hsiao remembers growing up feeling guilty for continuing to associate herself with Malaysia and Taiwan, her mother and father’s home countries.

“I didn’t feel authentic enough, like I didn’t truly belong there,” she said. “But as for America, I’m not what a typical American should look like, either.”

More alienating for Hsiao was the feeling that, compared to the American-born Chinese kids, she was still different.

“I felt like I didn’t have an excuse, not like people born in the US,” she said.

“Growing up, I had close ties with Malaysia and Taiwan because of my family, so I don’t have a reason to not be able to connect with these places.”

Hsiao found strength and solidarity over time in discovering that her story, though unique, holds elements of immigrant experiences shared by people across the world. And ever since her Ivy League acceptances became the focus of media attention and her application essay circulated on the internet, even more people have reached out with their own immigrant stories.

“I hope everyone will realise that there is no one immigrant story,” she said, but rather an intricate tapestry of diverse experiences and ideas weaved together by immigrants and non-immigrants alike.

“There are small difficulties in everyone’s story; everyone has their own struggles.”

However, the sudden swell of media coverage over Hsiao’s Ivy League acceptances has also been a double-edged sword, adding insult to injury and opening old wounds. “Some Malaysians say I’m not even Malaysian because I moved away when I was so young,” Hsiao said, triggering familiar feelings that she still doesn’t belong.

The question that Hsiao carries through her journey – “what is it like to be the outsider in a place that’s supposed to feel like home? – is one that concerns more people than the term “outsider” would suggest.

An active entertainment journalist, Hsiao had the chance to pose this question to one of her idols, Harry Potter and Beauty and the Beast actress Emma Watson, whose college experience was markedly different from the norm.

Her answer, Hsiao said, is one that will inspire her for years to come: “There’s a big wide world out there, with so many different people with diverse opinions and perspectives and interests,” Watson told Hsiao.

“Go out there and find your tribe.”

She is passionate about arts and culture, and their roles in promoting diversity. As editor-in-chief of her school’s magazine and reporter for the Los Angeles Times High School Insider, Hsiao has spoken to a number of big names in Hollywood, including Chris Evans and Lin-Manuel Miranda.

“I’m an entertainment journalist,” Hsiao said proudly.

“Some may see it as a lower form of journalism, but I think it should be held up to all other types of journalists,” she said.

“We can frame celebrities in a light that will inspire followers to follow their dreams.”

For the young, media-oriented generation, the soft power of celebrities and their millions of fans can have an undeniable effect shaping public opinion on social and political issues.

“Hopefully, someone will be encouraged by their stories and say, ‘

if this person can do it, I can too’.”

Asked what she will major in, Hsiao rattled off a string of options: film, theatre, English, creative writing. “Anything with a writing emphasis, because I want to learn the proper way to tell a story, to tell the best story possible,” she said. One day, she hopes to make decisions in movies and TV shows in the entertainment industry that really matter, and tell even more important stories.

The young journalist has not yet chosen which university she will attend in the fall, but hopes to find in one of them a platform to speak her mind.

“I want to flaunt diversity,” she said. “I want everyone to tell their stories. This world needs more storytellers.”

To read the original article, go here: http://www.scmp.com/week-asia/society/article/2087046/malaysian-taiwanes...

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