Competition Essay Kaplan Newsweek Turn

Ms. Gokturk


It’s My Turn!

Your task is to write a piece to submit to Newsweek. This personal feature is an essay (expository or persuasive). This should be a personal piece that addresses a topic that is important to you. It can also be viewed as a personal experience or accomplishment piece. You must be honest in your piece and do the best you can to get this published.

  • Review your question log and find a question that you an answer through your own experiences.
  • Or, consider what bothers you about the world and how you would like to change it.
  • Tell us your story of triumph or difficulty.
  • You may use “I”
  • Use vivid language: show don’t tell

“My Turn” submissions should be sent to:
My Turn Editor, Newsweek

fax: 212-445-4120 (attn: My Turn Editor)

The essay should be: a) An original piece, b) 850-900 words, c) Personal in tone, and d) About any topic, but not framed as a response to a Newsweek story or another My Turn essay.

Submissions must not have been published elsewhere. Please allow two months for your submission to be considered; if your story is time sensitive, it may not be appropriate. Please include your full name, phone number and address with your entry. The competition is very stiff—we receive over 600 entries per month—and we can only print one a week. We are fully aware of the time and effort involved in preparing an essay, and each manuscript is given careful consideration.

For an automated message with further details about My Turn, please call: 212-445-4547.


"My Chinese Family of Four"
By Isabelle Kao

At my house, where toilet seats are always down and women do the barbecuing, ESPN is just a channel between Headline News and the Food Network.

Consisting of Grandma, Mom, younger sister Victoria, and me, my purely female family lacks a paternal influence. I haven't seen my father in years; he doesn't know that I could die for chocolate milkshakes, that my mouth hangs open while I sleep, or that I wear flip-flops year round.

Although not divorced, my parents have led separate lives on opposite sides of the world for as long as I can remember. In my family, Grandma is the traditional "Mom" while Mom is the traditional "Dad." Mom works late into the night to sustain us while Grandma cooks and cleans.

Grandma keeps the rice cooker on "stay warm" and starts stir-frying in the wok around when Mom gets home. Grandma fills dinner conversations with remarks in Chinese: "Why won't you eat the eggs? Do you know that when your mother was growing up in Communist China, we were rationed eggs only once a year and saved them as birthday treats? And eat the shiitake mushrooms! They lower cholesterol!"

Grandma offers the wisdom and support of a strong sovereign. With the power and age to lecture and scold, she is Queen; if I seek permission to do something, the matter ultimately ends in Her Majesty's hands.

Mom's "yes" may very well be Grandma's "no," and the Queen's resounding "no" always prevails. Grandma's wisdom is that of a sage; aside from the cultural clashes, she has always pointed me in the right direction and given me the right answer. I've learned that I don't need to lose my sense of values and morals to succumb to peer pressure.

I don't need to eat dinner "on the go," watch Monday Night Football, or attend the prom just because everyone else does. By listening to my problems and conveying a Chinese proverb with each solution, Grandma also helps me see the truth in the various Confucius sayings displayed prominently throughout the house.

Mom has taught me to be strong and independent. Never complaining of her stress level or fatigue, she only strives to work harder. We devour The New York Times each morning to "be aware of global issues and to be free from ignorance." She is not at all embarrassed to take me as her "date" to company functions. Despite the numerous times Victoria and I tell Mom that Buicks are generally driven by ol' folks, she stubbornly refuses to drive any other car.

Mom and Grandma, whom I instinctively call my parents, raise my sister and me in the strict, old-fashioned, Chinese manner. Unable to date, wear clothes of our choosing, or bring home grades lower than A's, growing up as Chinese-Americans can be a challenge.

Grandma derides the innocent Disney Channel whenever watches it because it features the "unacceptable behavior" of girls who wear makeup, have boyfriends, and listen to rap music. Mom chastises me whenever I write with red pen (because red ink symbolizes impoliteness), and when I wear white hair ties (because they symbolize a mother's death). Although frustrated at times, my sister and I generally end up in hysterics when we joke about the things that set apart our parents from other American parents.

We laugh at how our friends are forced to take off their shoes and wear slippers when entering our house while trying to comprehend Grandma's broken English.

American journalist Jane Howard once said, "Call it a clan, call it a network, call it a tribe, call it a family. Whatever you call it, whoever you are, you need one."

Throughout the years, friends have called my family the network of "the four chicas," the tribe of "the three generations," and the clan of "Grandma's children."

I don't need a high testosterone presence in my house to make me a better person, and I wouldn't trade my unconventional family for any other in the world. After seventeen years, I have come to realize that today's households aren't powered by the traditional mother and father, sister Jane, brother John, and dog Spot; rather, they are powered by love.

I have come to realize that the typical American family I once wished to have is unnecessary in guiding the family's prized vehicle down the road of life. All I need is our Buick, driven by Mom's will, steered by Grandma's protection and support, and fueled by all our love.

KAO, a student at () High School, was the grand-prize winner in the 2004 Kaplan/Newsweek "My Turn" Essay Competition. She receives a scholarship of $5,000.

I am so accustomed to people's getting my name wrong that I will answer to almost anything. I have been called practically every name that begins with J, from Joanne, to Jana, to Juana, and even many names that do not, like Shauna and Yohanna. Sometimes, though I am most certainly not male, I am called men's names, like Jonah or John. For everyone who reacts to my name with pleasant confusion, there is someone else who furrows her brows and exclaims, incredulously, "What did you say?!"

As names go, mine is phonetic and really quite simple. But I know that each time a Starbucks barista picks up that pen and points it at that plastic cup, there's going to be trouble. I suppose I really should invent myself a "Starbucks name," something easy that everyone can pronounce and spell, to avoid the lengthy conversation that always stands between me and my iced grande nonfat mocha. But I can't do it. I guess I feel as if some tiny but important part of my identity would be lost if I stood at a counter and cheerfully said my name was Jane.

When your name is even slightly out of the ordinary, people think they can talk down to you about it. I have been asked, with a sneer, "What kind of name is that?" I have had people correct me, as if they know my name better than I do. I have had people assume my name must be a typo, even when I wrote it myself. I have been asked more times than I can count, by people who think it is the most original thing anyone ever came up with in the annals of comedy, if my parents really wanted a boy.

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I had one boss who simply could not comprehend that my name was not Johanna. After a few months she managed to get the pronunciation down, but the spelling continued to elude her. I worked for her for almost a year. I e-mailed her probably 20 times a day, and each time deliberately designed my e-mail signature so that my name appeared in a distinctive font and a pretty shade of blue. Still, she always replied to Johanna. When I quit I stifled the impulse to tell her that Johanna would have to do her bidding now, because I was leaving.

And that's just my first name. My last name, being common and rather boring, should provide a respite from the confusion. It doesn't. My last name graces the façades of law firms and delis nationwide, as well as one of the major college test- prep centers. And yet my last name is almost as much of a stumbling block as my first. When asked to provide it on the phone, I quickly add "with a K." Despite the fact that I see the name Kaplan everywhere and have seen the name Caplan precisely twice, the person on the other end invariably spells it with a C. It's not only the K but the a's that throw them. They want to spell it Kaplin, or Kaplon. To my knowledge no one has ever used either of those spellings, but that doesn't stop strangers from trying.

Recently it took me months to get the result of a routine medical test because somewhere between the doctor's office and the lab, my last name got so mangled that my medical history essentially belonged to someone else. On more than a few occasions I have received bills addressed to Ms. Kalpan and wondered if I was legally obligated to pay them. I was once handed a plane ticket on which the misspelling of my last name was so spectacular that I wondered if I was really taking off and crossing time zones, or if the true me was stuck abroad and this "me" returning home was another person entirely.

I sometimes think I would have a different personality if I hadn't grown up knowing that each introduction might demand a lengthy apologia of my name, and by extension, myself. Despite all the hassle, though, I would not want an ordinary name. I know of one other person in the world who shares my name, first and last. I know nothing about her except that she lived in New York at the same time I did, and that she and I subscribed to a few of the same publications. I found myself in the surreal position of having to explain to circulation departments that I was, in fact, me, and not that other version of me on the West Side. I can only imagine how many times that would happen to someone named Jennifer Smith. I would rather keep spelling my name and repeating that my parents did not really want a boy. Even if they'd had one, I doubt they'd have named him something normal. Which reminds me, my middle name is a little unusual, too. But I won't go into that.

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