Taste freedom by removing language barriers | Jan Hallahan

On Sunday, July 4, we celebrate the birth of our country by attending picnics and fireworks shows such as Federal Way’s all-day event at Celebration Park. Everyone will be attired in some form of the red, white and blue colors — hopefully not as demonstrative as the overzealous American fans at the World Cup soccer games, but proudly patriotic nonetheless. Personally, the Fourth of July is not my favorite holiday. I will never understand the pyromaniac’s need to light dangerous (and illegal in Federal Way) explosives.

Independence means freedom from control. Our graduating high school seniors just experienced their first taste of that freedom when they received their passing report cards in the mail. They now have the freedom of choice to further their education, join the everyday work force, or travel the world in a gap year. It’s redundant, but the phrase, “We are so lucky to live in the United States!” is an understatement.

Learning about other places in the world where freedom is limited is an important aspect of being an American citizen — not just to better appreciate our democracy, but to understand other cultures, and thus continue the process of peace. Awareness and acceptance of the differences include acknowledging our commonalities. We may think we are a superpower today, but which foreign investors are buying up U.S. real estate? It might not impact us today, but maybe tomorrow.

The biggest obstacles in the world are language barriers. It’s egotistical and unrealistic to expect the entire world to learn English. There are strategic languages that should be taught in our schools for a variety of reasons, one being national security. My daughter, Kelsey, wrote an article for Bellarmine Prep’s newspaper supporting the need for Arabic and Mandarin Chinese language courses to be taught in all high schools. She based this on the fact that “China dominates production, and the Middle East monopolizes the world’s energy supply.”

Young adults are our leaders of tomorrow. It is critical that our children be equipped to handle the explosion of the rapidly growing languages in America. Federal Way has a growing Korean population, but how many English-speaking citizens can speak Korean? If we can accept their American dollars from overseas to build up our future, we should respect diversity and try to bridge the language barriers.

There are approximately 500 American teenagers who have been chosen from all over the country to become United States youth ambassadors this summer. While researching her above-mentioned article, Kelsey learned about this amazing opportunity to study a foreign language abroad. She excitedly applied last December for this National Security Language Initiative for Youth (NSLI-Y) scholarship. The possible destinations included Turkey, Egypt, China, South Korea, India, Russia and Tajikistan. It felt similar to the waiting game of college acceptances: Just when I had assumed she didn’t get it (to be honest, with a bit of relief), the communication came in an e-mail. Being overwhelmed with the college and scholarship application process, I didn’t pay much attention to the location she had requested. Opening the e-mail, we were shocked to learn that Kelsey had been awarded this highly competitive United States Department of State language scholarship.

She will be studying modern Tajik and Farsi, two of the Persian languages, in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, with 11 other American teenagers. My first ignorant impression left me scrambling for a map as I sputtered, “She’s going to go to Tajikistan? I can’t even pronounce it or spell it. And exactly where is this place?”

She leaves on July 4 for almost two months. The significance of her patriotic act, on this most patriotic of days, is not lost on me. Elizabeth Davis from the U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, wrote in a letter to Kelsey: “As a youth ambassador you should conduct yourself in a manner that reflects well on your country and local community. By doing so, you convey a favorable view of your local community and culture, promote a positive image of the United States abroad, and facilitate mutual understanding between the people of the United States and Tajikistan.”

Those words were cause for concern. I began to dissect my reaction to the meaning of the words in front of me. There are other mothers in the world who feel the squeeze in their hearts too, when they must release control over their 18-year-old children. It’s a gift to raise a child who is not afraid to go out into the world and try to make a difference. Ultimately, that is a worthy goal to grasp: Teaching our children to be secure in our love of them, which enables their desired quest for education even far from home. The cultural differences in Tajikistan are tremendous. However, I’m positive that the Tajiki mothers feel the same as me when it’s time to give their children whatever freedom they can. In that respect, we’re not so different after all.

Preparing for Kelsey to travel to “the poorest of the former Soviet republics in Central Asia” is monumental, and finding appropriate gifts from Federal Way to give to her host family is challenging. Gifts from Washington are more plentiful, but I’m sure the Saturday Federal Way Farmers Market will yield something made here, and our youth ambassadors will make us proud!

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