Find­ing my voice

Global Times – Metro Beijing - - TWO CENTS - By Au­drey An­lin Shi

Like any de­cent love story, my re­la­tion­ship with Chi­nese has many folds. It be­gins or­di­nar­ily enough – a girl born to Chi­nese par­ents liv­ing in Amer­ica. Then comes the cri­sis. As my mother tells it, I came home from school one day and was en­tirely un­able to speak Chi­nese. Hor­ri­fied, she took ac­tion. Chi­nese be­came the of­fi­cial lan­guage of our house. I gained flu­ency in the lan­guage of din­ners and gos­sip, al­though the Chi­nese nightly news re­mained only half-in­tel­li­gi­ble.

When I was old enough, I at­tended Chi­nese lessons at a lo­cal mid­dle school on Sun­days. In a room for the first time with other chil­dren who, like me, were caught be­tween two cul­tures, we plod­ded through work­books. We fol­lowed the charm­ing pro­tag­o­nists Ding Ding and Fang Fang through their jour­neys to mu­se­ums and book­stores. My teacher or­dered my pen­cil strokes from left to right, from top to bot­tom, to com­pose an ac­cept­able men­piao (tick­ets) or chezhan (sta­tion). But Sun­day af­ter­noons ran up against the lessons of Mon­days through Fri­days. At school, I dis­cov­ered that dresses I’d pur­chased over the sum­mer in China would be greeted by my friends’ mock­ery. When I ex­pressed my cu­rios­ity about Chi­nese po­etry, my clos­est friend ridiculed my in­ter­est as be­ing “so Chi­nese.” At that age, it was a heart­break­ing thing to be Chi­nese, let alone to speak it.

So, I chose to let go. As an un­der­grad­u­ate, I threw my­self into a de­gree in English lit­er­a­ture. Weeks and years were given over to the pages of Woolf, Joyce and Chaucer. Still, for all these worlds I gained, I felt a twin sense of loss. Like those Sichuanese tourists who say they ate and ate in the US but never felt full, my love was something left be­hind. Over time, I be­gan vis­it­ing the Chi­nese stud­ies depart­ment for lec­tures be­cause I needed a space where I could hear the sounds of Chi­nese. I started to read Chi­nese po­etry with a tu­tor. And now, I keep Chi­nese lit­er­a­ture in my life as I study it at Pek­ing Univer­sity.

I used to be­lieve a life in­side the English lan­guage would sat­isfy me. I be­lieved the “twoness” in my­self to be ir­rec­on­cil­able, and so I chose to cut away my Chi­nese past. But I’ve come to un­der­stand these worlds as com­ple­men­tary – I am in­ca­pable of nav­i­gat­ing the pub­lic world with any sense of mean­ing if I lose the pri­vate world that made me.

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