Finding my voice
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.