By Sandra Cheah
Shuttling between two neighborhoods, Flushing, Queens, and the Upper East Side, this story follows a girl’s journey to school. Along her commute, she discovers her identity and the meaning of hard work and perseverance.
Oxford Languages describes middle school as “a school intermediate between an elementary school and a high school,” but to me, middle school marked the realization of my identity.
Little did I know, my daily route to this small, predominantly white school would provoke years of internal conflicts. It wasn’t just the difference in socioeconomic backgrounds between my hometown of Flushing, Queens, where I lived with my Malaysia-born mother and older sister, and the Upper East Side, one of New York’s most desired neighborhoods. On my commute, I saw mothers frantically holding their children as they tried to sell fruit and churros to nearby commuters, and women running to catch their six a.m. buses—barely making time to eat breakfast. I saw the daily rush onto the train to grab a seat; if you didn’t find one, you might sleep on your arm while gripping onto the metal poles. As I traveled to the Upper East Side, I saw my neighbors’ livelihoods and hard work, the sweat and tears of working nine-to-fives.
My days began with my daily amNewYork newspaper, which informed me about the frequent house fires across the city or new street fairs and upcoming events. I took two trains, including a transfer, to get to the Ninety-Sixth Street subway station nearby my school. First, I took the 7 train, which ran overground, where you could look at the morning sunrise and see the skyscrapers in Manhattan, even from Queens. After a lengthy twenty-minute express ride from the first stop, Flushing Main Street Station, to almost the last, Times Square, I’d get off and head towards the Q train. I’d meet my friend, Sarah G, one of the people I could relate to as a student who also came from a district that was far from where our peers lived. Sarah was one of the few Mexicans in my middle school and became my friend after we bonded over a game competing against tough eighth-graders. The Q train was always packed at the first two stops uptown. People pushed, shoved, and yelled to get others off and their acquaintances on. At about Seventy-Second Street, though, you could finally stand or find a seat to breathe. It felt rather calm and peaceful after minutes—which felt like hours—of being packed like Poland Spring bottles in a case.
Taking a train was the leading factor behind finding other friends who would understand me and relate to some of the uncomfortable situations I faced on a daily basis. I guess it’s just a New York thing. Out of the 500 kids in my middle school, only one took the 7 train. She lived in Elmhurst, a neighborhood in Queens not too far from Flushing, and was the only friend who could relate to the packed trains, constant shifts in transportation, and most importantly, the cultural differences. Every day on my way home from school, I saw the heads of people next to me coming closer as they fell deeper into sleep, the kids around me with their heads on their backpacks, snoring.
The little details: train stop, a game, and even my middle school played a huge role in developing my story. From a New York perspective, taking the train was more than just a way to get to school; it was a daily reminder of my life, my differences, and the extra effort I had to put in each morning. To label these differences as weaknesses is false. While they felt like barriers in the beginning, enduring and adapting to these changes helped me realize that they were my strengths. They made me a strong, independent girl from Flushing, Queens.
My mentor, Natalie, and I began each weekly session with a writing activity. This story was sparked by the prompt, “Tell me about a time you were lost.” While my original intent of the story was to depict my first day of middle school and navigating an unfamiliar neighborhood, I found that being lost was more than my way to school. My story of being lost led to self-discovery and enabled me to uncover my identity as a low-income Asian-American from Flushing, New York. It led me to reflect on the two neighborhoods where I spent time: Flushing and the Upper East Side, and to better understand my people, my neighbors, and my friends. My first draft started with about 350 words. I began to think deeply about what made me feel lost on my way to school. Little details began to emerge as I remembered details like my daily newspaper, the people on the train, and my friends back in middle school. Finally, the ending served as the outcome of my middle school journey.
Sandra Cheah is a high school sophomore from Queens, New York. She is a proud first-generation, Asian-American student with a passion for gender equality and women’s empowerment. She runs Dear GlobalGirls, an organization and digital magazine with a mission to empower girls to unlock their potential and break barriers in male-dominated spaces. Her advocacy efforts have been recognized internationally, as featured in Plan International. In her free time, she enjoys coding, drawing, trying new dishes and playing Chinese poker with her family.