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06 April 2009 @ 03:09 pm
on language and appropriation: a story told backward.  
Here in the United States, there is an English as a Second Language exam that they administer to multilingual students. I have always had a certain facility with languages; even though I moved to America two years before I was enrolled in kindergarten, my familiarity with English was so far beyond my peers that I never had to take it. I was reading chapter-books and learning dinosaur names by the time most of my classmates were learning to spell. I have no memory of even being approached on the subject of ESL, although eighteen years have passed since then and my memories of elementary school have always been rather hazy and attached to a feeling of general boredom/isolation.

I speak, I write, I read English as if it were my first language because I love languages, yes. What the ESL test and the American school system don't recognize: I do so also because I lost my mother tongue when I was three.

My clearest memories of my early childhood are these:

I never went to Chinese school on Saturdays with all the other children in our area. My mother tried to take me once, but I was so intimidated that I cried inconsolably until the teacher called her to take me home again, not an hour later. I never set foot in that school again. My mother tried to teach me herself, for a while: there were a few times that she brought out her brush pen and ink and wrote strokes for me to copy on paper. I dreamed of music though, as a child, and because my parents loved me and were indulgent, I spent all my weekends thereafter learning to play the piano and the violin, until the pens and inks were eventually put away.

I went to kindergarten, curious and very small and as shy as I was eager to make friends. At the age of five, I wanted to be like everyone else, so much so that on my first spelling test, I misspelt "apple" deliberately so I wouldn't stand out too much. My teacher knew that I knew better, so she confronted me in front of my parents. My mother shouted at me then, not understanding, I think, my need to be liked; was it not better to excel? Was it not better to learn more, better, faster than everyone else, so that I could go somewhere, become something? Something beyond all the other (white) children, she didn't say; somewhere I would be recognized and lauded despite the color of my skin. I realize these things only in retrospect, of course. Back then, I simply nodded and turned in test after perfect test, and mostly sat alone reading my books during recess.

There are Chinese picture-books that I remember reading before I ever set foot in an American school. I had a set of books about a family of mice, beautifully illustrated; I had a set of Chinese folktale books. I vaguely recall a book with animal butts as well, though the subject escapes me now. I even had an audio version, in Mandarin, of Journey to the West, which my parents played in the car sometimes when we were driving long distances. I'm certain there were many others, lost to time and circumstance. My parents read to me on occasion because it was a thing we all enjoyed, but I spent many afternoons sitting by myself, happily devouring page after colorful page, word after beautiful word.

My mother likes to tell these stories: how she taught me over 2,000 characters when I was a baby, using flash cards, and how I pointed to each word with perfect comprehension as she spoke. How I read piles of books voraciously- both silently and aloud- all by myself. How I once recited flawlessly all the Tang poetry I'd heard from my mother. How I once spoke Mandarin with a perfect Beijing accent, that curl of the tongue which neither of my parents possess. How the sum of my knowledge, at three years old, was greater than the pieces left now to crumble slowly in my hands. If I picked up one of those picture-books today, I wouldn't be able to read a single page, in its entirety.

There are some losses that I cannot now remedy. I am ten years past the optimal learning period, and though my language skills are not entirely lost to disuse, the grace by which I learned during childhood, at least, is long gone. I have tried both in high school and in college to reclaim my language; both times, I had to prioritize absorbing science over re-absorbing my mother tongue. But even if I started, at this very minute, to learn Chinese again, I could not now recreate the wonder of reading those picture-books for the very first time, or ask my grandparents- three of them now dead- to tell me their family stories. I could not now think or dream in Chinese the way that I do in English, the thought-patterns of my early childhood irrevocably overwritten. Even if I started now to learn the poetry of Du Fu and Li Bai, most of the nuances and secondary meanings would still be filtered through the knowledge of my tutors or of my parents, absorbed secondhand. Even if I reclaimed my mother tongue today, I would always have these caveats, my mastery always fragmented and not-quite-complete.

English was my second language, but it might as well have been my first. Even though I was never tested, these are the scars that I will always bear.
Amysuch_heights on April 6th, 2009 10:29 pm (UTC)
This is really powerful - thank you for writing it.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on April 7th, 2009 12:07 am (UTC)
&hearts! haha, i always seem to have more to say about stuff like this than i think i do.
vanishing_cakevanishing_cake on April 7th, 2009 01:33 am (UTC)
Oh, that's sad.

I've heard it's easier for us to learn other languages than for non-English speakers to pick it up, because we borrow words and phrases from so many places, have so many colloquialisms that make no sense. I don't know if it's true, but it is a pity we don't start teaching kids different languages earlier. We had a Spanish teacher in first grade for a few weeks, but when funding was cut, that was the first thing to go.

The US school system doesn't handle languages well, and I'm sorry you ever had to be so aware of being not like everyone else just because of your skin color.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on April 7th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
i think there are a lot of factors besides the school system that force immigrant parents to choose what to pass on to their kids, language being one of those things. there's just not enough time, for one thing, and it's often difficult enough for kids/families to adjust to life in the US without the added... burdens? that's not quite the right word, but i honestly don't know if there is one. there are no easy answers.

also, the claim about English speakers being able to learn other languages more quickly is something i am automatically wary of, because despite the complete weirdness and the bastardization/co-opting of other languages into English, it just... sounds like a Western Brit-American pride kind of thing, you know?
(no subject) - vanishing_cake on April 7th, 2009 05:33 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 7th, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC) (Expand)
elsaneelsane on April 7th, 2009 04:28 am (UTC)
This is deeply moving. Thank you for sharing.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on April 7th, 2009 02:30 pm (UTC)
thank you! &hearts
Rwanderlight on April 7th, 2009 05:50 am (UTC)
This is lovely and moving. It makes me want to cry, in a way.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on April 7th, 2009 02:31 pm (UTC)
&hearts &hearts!
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glass_icarusglass_icarus on April 7th, 2009 02:41 pm (UTC)
ah. Chinese has only one writing system (well, technically two, thanks to the Cultural Revolution, but the simplified character system is a bastardization of the traditional system and erases much of the history behind each word- why yes, i am bitter and have a thing about memory/history, why do you ask? :P), but the words are pronounced differently in each dialect- Mandarin, Cantonese, etc.- although the meanings remain the same. quite ingenious, really. :D my family speaks Mandarin, and the older generations speak Taiwanese, which i understand only bits and pieces of- my parents talk to each other in Taiwanese when they don't want us to know what they're talking about, but even though i can often decipher the gist of their conversations, it's a comprehension that doesn't quite involve the understanding of what each individual word means, if that makes any sense. *g* i don't know how to explain it beyond that.

i have tried to pick it up again, but i had to give up both times because of all the other demands on my time- the AP track in high school and the biochem major requirements in college had to take priority in terms of Grand Learning Plans. learning Chinese takes a lot of work and memorization- each word has a different character, sometimes characters can be read one way (meaning and pronunciation both) in one context and a different way in another, stroke orders are important, the sheer amounts of vocabulary- yeah. there was just no room in my head/no time in my schedule to learn Chinese and, say, biology, chemistry, physics, etc. at the same time.
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(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 7th, 2009 05:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dichroic on May 26th, 2009 04:16 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on May 26th, 2009 04:57 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dichroic on May 26th, 2009 05:31 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on May 26th, 2009 07:22 pm (UTC) (Expand)
secretsolitairesecretsolitaire on April 8th, 2009 11:57 am (UTC)
I'm really enjoying these posts -- they're always moving and eye-opening. Thanks for sharing with us.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on April 8th, 2009 02:12 pm (UTC)
thank you! :)
drelfinadrelfina on April 12th, 2009 01:22 am (UTC)
Your briliant post prompted me to write this.

Thank you so much.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on April 12th, 2009 02:06 am (UTC)
... omg, your post. &hearts especially the part about grandparents, because- yes, that. thank you for sharing it!
(no subject) - drelfina on April 12th, 2009 02:15 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 12th, 2009 02:25 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drelfina on April 12th, 2009 02:28 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 12th, 2009 02:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drelfina on April 12th, 2009 02:50 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 12th, 2009 03:01 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drelfina on April 12th, 2009 03:05 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 12th, 2009 03:22 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drelfina on April 12th, 2009 03:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 12th, 2009 03:56 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drelfina on April 12th, 2009 04:04 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 12th, 2009 04:27 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drelfina on April 12th, 2009 04:40 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - dichroic on May 26th, 2009 04:33 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drelfina on April 16th, 2009 10:26 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 20th, 2009 04:02 pm (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - drelfina on April 20th, 2009 04:58 pm (UTC) (Expand)
Yuanwingstodust on April 12th, 2009 01:48 am (UTC)
Hi! Um, I'm here from after reading your 'personal etymologies' because I've liked everything you wrote for the remyth project, so I thought I'd check out your lj and reading this post made me go *.*

Because this is just... This could have been me, except that I wasn't great shakes with languages and it took me a long time to gain mastery over English, and French, and my Mandarin and Cantonese speaking knowledge (forget *reading* chinese characters...) fell apart and got buried in the process. I didn't regret giving up my Chinese in favour of English and French back when I was young, because, um, if I had to be honest about this, my poor handle on English and French was one of the main reasons why I was harassed for about two years of my early elementary school life. ^^;; Um, this kind of makes me sound cowardly, and I'm not proud... And I want to reclaim my language but it's just, it's not the same. =/

^^;; *coughs* but yes, I love this post. I may want to link it in the future, if it's okay with you? =D;;
glass_icarusglass_icarus on April 12th, 2009 02:15 am (UTC)
hi! :) haha, i just saw your other comment. i'm glad that these posts are relatable to you, even though at the same time it kind of sucks.

I want to reclaim my language but it's just, it's not the same. =/-- yes, i kind of know what you mean. when i think about learning a new language, like Russian or Japanese or even reviving my five years of French, it's really exciting, you know? but whenever i want to go back to Chinese, it feels almost like a drag- it sort of makes it harder when you recognize even 0.01% of the vocabulary, or know how things should sound/be pronounced, you know? and then there's this huge weight of guilt/frustration/shame and shouldn't i already know this?, and just- ARGH. :\

... er, so. i do have a whole lot of baggage relating to this, a lot of which has recently crystalized, yes. *sheepish* anyway, link away if it pleases you!
(no subject) - wingstodust on April 12th, 2009 02:40 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on April 12th, 2009 02:51 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - lesstraveled on June 1st, 2009 04:47 am (UTC) (Expand)
(no subject) - glass_icarus on June 3rd, 2009 07:04 pm (UTC) (Expand)
slasheuseslasheuse on May 23rd, 2009 10:05 am (UTC)
Thank you for this, it was extremely moving.

I just want to say, don't give up on relearning your language. Not because you can recapture the grace/facility of childhood language-learning, but because you can find something that is emotionally and intellectually fulfilling for you.

My best friend came to Britain a Mandarin Chinese speaker at 5. She has always spoken Mandarin at home, but - so she explained to me - much less fluently than her parents. Sometimes their way of speaking it was a weapon.

She did Mandarin GCSE alongside her others at 16; she said she could probably get the meaning of a standard newspaper article, but not a lot more. I know she found it incredibly difficult.

But actually, her speaking has come back a lot since university, she's now very involved with http://www.dimsum.co.uk .

The other example is my grandmother. She had two Welsh-speaking parents, but was born in England. They spoke a mix at home. Then, at four or five, she was evacuated back to her mother's family in Wales, with a host of Welsh-speaking aunts and cousins. That became her first language whenever she was at home. Then she went to a boarding school back in England: goodbye Welsh. Then back to Wales every holiday. Hello Welsh again.

And then English, French, German, travel, her job, marriage to a scientist, three linguistically inept little boys.

She started learning again around her 70th birthday, and it is, honestly, coming back. She struggles with the written grammar, but her speech is very fluent and she does sometimes think in Welsh. It's not perfect, it probably falls short of the ambitions she had, but she does find it satisfying. And has learnt huge amounts; optimal learning periods aren't absolute, really.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on May 26th, 2009 04:08 am (UTC)
thanks for stopping by! :)

it's not so much the actual relearning process that bothers me as it is the feelings associated with it. i love learning languages, but a big part of the shiny is that it's something entirely new to me. if i started to learn Finnish or German or Japanese or even continued my study of French, i'd be excited and motivated by the newness, whereas Chinese has been part of my entire life. it's not new to me, even though much of it is still unfamiliar; there's a lot of guilt and shame attached to not knowing for me that is pretty much inescapable. so yes, maybe one day i'll be able to break through that wall again and reclaim my tongue, but the process of hurling myself at it is going to be a real emotional drag.
braver_swallow on May 23rd, 2009 03:09 pm (UTC)
(here via a friend.) this is so intense, my heart's in my throat. thank you for sharing.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on May 26th, 2009 04:09 am (UTC)
thank you for stopping by! :)
sheafrotherdon on June 9th, 2009 03:00 pm (UTC)
♥ thank you for this wonderful post, sweets.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on June 9th, 2009 07:16 pm (UTC)
&hearts! thank you! :>
Eisoj5eisoj5 on June 9th, 2009 03:17 pm (UTC)
Thank you for writing this--this is so close to my experience that aside from not having started with the books and flashcards in Mandarin, this is my Chinese (...or lack thereof). My mom brought out the flashcards in English when I was two, instead.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on June 9th, 2009 07:18 pm (UTC)
i'm... well, not glad, exactly, it's kind of a painful thing to resonate with, but i am glad that so many of us are managing to find each other and talk to each other about this. thanks for stopping by!
Jhafantasyecho on June 10th, 2009 12:01 am (UTC)
Thank you for posting. My parents spoke to me in English when I was a child, thinking I would be able to pick Chinese up later since I was surrounded by a Chinese-speaking environment most of the time. I never did, and they regret it now. I did attempt to learn Chinese for a brief period, but it was a frustratig exercise and I gave it up. I think now, older and having more understanding of how to approach language (I took an intro Arabic course and did fine in it) I would have a better experience, if I had the time and the right teacher.

=/ Not being able to speak the family's mother tongue is hard. I'm glad to know I'm not alone, and yet sad to know there're so many others sharing the pain.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on June 12th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
I'm glad to know I'm not alone, and yet sad to know there're so many others sharing the pain.- yes, this. thanks for stopping by!
Good grief, it's a running gag: lotuslady_ganesh on June 10th, 2009 02:05 am (UTC)
This is beautiful and heartbreaking; thank you.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on June 12th, 2009 03:39 pm (UTC)
thank you for reading!
Keilexandrakeilexandra on June 12th, 2009 06:08 am (UTC)
How the sum of my knowledge, at three years old, was greater than the pieces left now to crumble slowly in my hands. If I picked up one of those picture-books today, I wouldn't be able to read a single page, in its entirety.


Being an English major, I can't bring myself to regret learning English as a native language; there is so much beauty in it, some of it a beauty that can only be appreciated with the ease of native fluency. Yet I look at Chinese poems and struggle to understand even the most surface meaning, and I glimpse the beauty that I have lost there, that I gave up, and I wonder if it was worth it.
glass_icarusglass_icarus on June 12th, 2009 03:40 pm (UTC)
yes. i love English a lot, but i still wonder if the rate of exchange- Chinese for English, family history for survival in the US- was even.