Chinese New Year, my dad Skypes his family: two brothers, one sister, and both his parents. None of them are fluent in English–most of them only know a few words–and I’m not fluent in Mandarin so whenever I join my dad, I have to stitch together words to form grammatically incorrect sentences while conversation flows volubly between Dad and his family. My dad has to translate from English to Mandarin and back again as I update them on my life and this process frustrates me, because it reminds me that I’m not nearly as Chinese as I wish I was.
My embarrassingly limited ability to speak Mandarin has created a wound inside me, one that’s been festering ever since I fully realized and felt ashamed at my lack of understanding. It’s a frustrating struggle that makes it hard for me to feel like I belong in China, or even just among my family.
I haven’t always dealt with this wound well. When I was around 11 or 12, I blatantly ignored my Chinese school teachers, threw school supplies across the room, and cheated on and failed every test. I was such an incorrigible student my former teacher, Qian Laoshi, actually berated me in front of everyone: “Why do you even bother showing up? You never listen!” She was right, and I quieted down a little in subsequent classes, but I was still angry and defensive: Of course I never listen! Every time you teach it reminds me of how inadequate I am, how I’ll never be fluent!
I still lashed out at my Chinese teachers in high school, because they, like Qian Laoshi, reminded me of how inadequate I felt every time they threw characters at me or assumed I was better at the language than I actually was. I hated, and still hate, to disappoint people, and failing to speak or read and write Mandarin as well as I did English was an unavoidable way to do so. Not only that, I disappointed and failed myself: I’ve always felt like I’ve had to be Chinese, and in order to be Chinese I need to be proficient, if not fluent, and I was closer to achieving proficiency in Icelandic than I was in Mandarin. I never did anything about this though–I never put extra effort into the class or even thought about treating my teachers respectfully so the wound grew. It festered. It got infected and probably required a few hospital trips, too, but I let it grow and fester because I was too damn stubborn and prideful. The antidote to shame, I reasoned, was pride and fake confidence. I was very wrong and refused to accept that.
The wound finally began shrinking and healing when my new teacher, Lin Laoshi, quietly rejected my arrogance by pointing out how irrational I was being. I was denigrating an assignment he gave us–it was one that only reminded me of my inadequacies, as assignments in Chinese class usually did–and snapping at him for assigning it when he softly told me that I was acting unreasonably and he expected quality work from me. For the first time, he elicited guilt without anger or defensiveness. So I apologized, turned in the assignment, and resolved to actually study, ask questions and use a Chinese-English dictionary instead of letting the wound fester by lashing out at those around me.
That wound has been shrinking ever since Lin Laoshi resolved to hold me to high standards. I can feel it shrinking: I don’t feel the urge to lash out as often anymore and when I do, I tell myself not to, and to complete the assignment to the best of my ability. Sometimes I even go above and beyond by doing extra work or extra translations to either cover for other students or to make homework easier for me to do. I’ve started closing the wound, making peace with my inability, and it’s paid off. Maybe I’m not as Chinese as I’d like to be or as my family is, but I can slowly work towards being more Chinese by studying the language more diligently. And if I never get there, I’ll accept however far I get. I won’t begrudge myself for not closing the wound entirely: that will take a while and require more than just studying Mandarin. But if by studying the language I can begin healing, then I’ll do it. It’s a small start, but a start nonetheless.