The Thrill is proud to feature personal narratives courtesy of the Project for Open Voices. Today’s essay was authored by an anonymous writer, and is a new publication that does not appear in the original publication. POV is currently seeking submissions, so check out this link if you’re interested!
Every time I started learning a new language, it is something like the delight of a conqueror within myself that worked, conquering the myths of another culture, conquering the barriers of my up-bringing that try to confine my vision. The experience of learning English really sends me to an ideal in which being able to master multiple languages is like being born in multiple countries and enjoying the kaleidoscopic mindsets they will give me. I’d think of Chinese, my native language, as nothing more than one of them—I’d sometimes loathe it because I know it too well, much better than I know other languages. And that makes me feel like I am not getting there.
In high school I studied English much harder than any other subjects. I’d memorize a long passage, write an essay, watch a couple of english films and speak with my tutor. Seeing myself gradually gain a good grasp of the language made me dizzy with joy. I’d memorize around 200-300 english words every night before I took tests for entering schools in the United States, and make my mom check them. She teared up and told me: ‘You need to stop doing this, this is not right, this is not healthy.’
Before I left home some of my english teachers told me I would be able to trick others into thinking that I am not a foreign-speaker. I left feeling that I’d rock with what I’ve got, and a new world will be born oblivious of the previous one—the world that makes me go to school 12 hours a day, that tries to make me believe that who I am is not as important as what I am supposed to be, a world that tells everyone: ‘Actually, you don’t get to decide your life, and you have no voice to complain.’
The first year seems to be like a rebirth. I made friends, I learnt more slangs, I was able to talk about relatively sophisticated subjects with people, I got away with writing papers. The hidden uneasiness was shadowed by the thrills of learning english contextually and all the other new things that happened in my life. I felt good about myself, and I took two other languages in Kenyon, so that I can carry on my grand ambitions.
Times goes by and I have cooled down from my brand new life. And questions start to surface (they came after incidents that happened in life that makes me look into myself more, of course). The first one is that I realized that I was never to regain that particular sense of humor and personality I had in Chinese; I got some of it across, but mostly, as I recollect from the past, it is simply lost. I’d say ‘incorrect’, ‘sarcastic’, ‘villainous’, ‘jestful’, ‘friendly’, ‘affectionate’…but the combination of these vocabulary simple does not make sense or convey who I felt I was. I tried to relive this feeling in order to know what it is—I remember I was able to play with my words so agilely that every corner of my sentiments pops out whenever I wanted. I tried talking to my friends and family back home—and I was speaking Chinese with English syntax, my feelings as depicted orally were rough and imprecise. I panicked, what will happen to me if I were to be trapped inside like this forever? I began to miss the time when I talked freely, without constrain, when I was able to pinpoint and verbalize all the slight observations I have in life. And I was finally, terribly nostalgic. I asked myself where the first question even came from, and I was forced to admit, during my crisis, that living under another language, as time elapses, can be a constant strain on the mind, embarrassment and alienation. It was a strain on the mind because to speak accurately and precisely I have to always consciously orient myself towards it; an embarrassment because I miscarry what I meant all the time; an alienation because I feel there is a wall, so much more powerful and omnipresent than I thought, between me and the beloved English language, me and other people around me. Sometimes I’d sit in front of my friends at dinner and the horrifying thought would emerge in my mind: these people never actually knew me, my closest friends don’t know who I am, they don’t know that I’ve felt in so many ways that the english language don’t even have words for. I felt dry, suffocated and uprooted. I was reminded of a Chinese restaurant when I visited in Texas—it was so outdated, bizarre, people who work there carry an expression that frightens me. It was neither American nor Chinese. It was an expression of misplacement, a ghostly dream contrived by the two lands who haunted them.
I became unmotivated about my two other language classes. Also, since they are on the same course level, I’d often find my mind stuck with the word I wanted in another language when I try to speak. I wonder: how do other people, who have the similar experience as I do, deal with these things?
I’ve not yet had any satisfactory response to my questions. Sometimes I thought it’s just that I am simply too psychotic and sensitive; sometimes I thought the problem might be the excessive degree to which I disavow my native language (and everything behind it) in order to achieve my goals, which leaves me groundless as a learner of language and as a person—but doesn’t that mean that this assiduously planned path of mine is overall an illusion? Other times I would feel, disheartened, that I am either too old or badly-endowed for it.
Last night, when I was at the international formal, two of my fellow chinese students asked me in chinese: ‘Can you take a picture of us?’ I was inebriated, happy, my head cloudy with all sorts of passing thoughts about what just flashed before my eyes. I did not understand what they said, so I leant towards them and asked in English: ‘What?’
They said in Chinese again: ‘Can you take a picture of us?’
I was a bit annoyed that I could not understand them so I asked again.
They said in Chinese again and I paid attention.
‘Can you take a picture of us?’ They said in English, and they looked at me.
I took a picture of them. My eyes fixed on them as well, and they disappeared somewhere inside.
I wonder if they feel it as well?