“Any interest in refreshing Mandarin with me?” I text my friend Mark on a whim that’s gained momentum.
Between the two of us, we have three parents born and raised in Taiwan. Mark and I were born in the United States—Honolulu and San Jose.
We are a product of our generation: language is commonly lost between immigrants and their children.
To remedy this, we agree to practice Mandarin at our next hangout, and in the meantime, we download a language app.
Generously, it slots me at a fifth grader’s proficiency.
As Origin Story.
Any story about my mother language seems fated to be a story about my mother.
This is one of her favorite stories; she tells it to every friend I bring home to visit.
“When Richard and Sarah were little, they were speaking English in school, and their Chinese was getting worse—terrible. So, one day when I was driving us home from school, I had a good idea. I said, ‘你一定要跟我說中文, 要不然我不回答 (Nǐ yīdìng yào gēn wǒ shuō zhōngwén, yào bùrán wǒ bù huídá).’ I am only going to speak with you if you speak with me in Mandarin.
“And then Richard—乖 (guāi), good Richard—immediately starts to say, slowly, ‘我 (wǒ) . . . 今 (jīn) . . . 天 (tiān) . . .’ Today . . . I . . .
“Sarah is sitting there in her car seat. She’s very quiet for a few seconds. I can tell she’s thinking about something.
“Then, Sarah looks over at Richard and says, in English: ‘Richard, we don’t have to talk with Mom—we can talk with each other!’
“And then Richard—he’s four years older than her—begins to talk with Sarah in English! 氣死人 (qì sǐrén). Made me so mad.”
Listening to her tell this story, everyone laughs.
She laughs the loudest.
As One-Sided Conversations.
As a kid, I heard my mother’s friend Tracy ask her, in Mandarin, “你這樣, 她這麼黑, 胖像她爸爸—確定嗎 (Nǐ zhèyàng, tā zhème hēi, pàng xiàng tā bàba—quèdìng ma)?” She’s so dark, and fat like her father. Are you sure she’s yours?
As an adult, I think: rude, Aunty Tracy. But then, I didn’t know how to respond to what was spoken in front of me, if not to me.
Mandarin was the language of my mother, her friends, and the Sunday Chinese school she mandated I attend.
Growing up in Honolulu around mostly fourth-generation kids meant everywhere else, English.
I don’t think much about memories I have that are in Mandarin, though I wonder sometimes if that’s because I have a complicated relationship with one language while living in a country that privileges another.
Later, I learn the term “receptive bilingualism”: a passive speaker who has enough exposure to a language in childhood to be fluent in comprehension but who has little to no active command of the language.
Later, I wonder what it might be like to be an active speaker, to respond to conversations that seem to exist for me within this language.
As Imposter Syndrome.
When I got to college, knowing a language besides English somehow went from annoying Sunday Chinese school chore to cosmopolitan flex.
With my passing pronunciation during the verbal exam and my dumb luck on the multiple-choice, I tested into CHIN 411: Modern Chinese Literature, a classroom full of Chinese Americans who were mostly born in China and moved here when they were young, plus that one signature white guy in the front row who has “always had an interest in Asia.”
While poetry in English is challenging for me, in Mandarin it is nearly impossible. Languages are rich with metaphors and combination words—root words or characters that when put together mean something else.
In Mandarin, I often focus on the wrong details, reading as poetic what is typically considered mundane.
心 (xīn) means heart
擔心 (dānxīn), which I find evocative in its literal translation, burden heart, simply means worry.
開心 (kāixīn), open heart, means happy.
開心果 (kāixīn guǒ), open heart (happy) fruit, means pistachio.
Perhaps more unfortunate, the reverse is also true: I fail to read poetry where it is intended. The artful metaphors confuse me. I miss almost all the allusions, dropped, as I am, into a canon that demands familiarity, even if I’m unfamiliar.
I switch to a three-hundred-level class with Chinese and Taiwanese American peers who were mostly born in the States.
The class is still difficult.
Calls with my mom, more frequent than ever, help get me through.
I review her résumé, in English. She reviews my class assignments, in Mandarin.
We’re both amazed, annoyed at what the other doesn’t know.