I grew up in a multilingual dreamland.
During visits to my grandparents’ house, dishes were introduced in English and then Russian. Quick conversations between my dad and grandparents would shift from English to Russian and back again. My sister and I would beg our grandpa to say something in Ukrainian or ask for stories about Uzbekistan. We’d call “Я тебя люблю!” to them as we left, trying (and failing) to form the jumping, rolling rhythm of my grandparents’ speech.
My dad never really tried to teach us Russian, but my mom was determined that my sister and I not forget our Chinese roots. Our school had a Chinese learning program, so for most of elementary school I spent half of my days speaking Mandarin. I performed in plays based on wacky Chinese parables and attended the obligatory after-school Chinese program.
Unfortunately, all of that effort backfired. Like every angsty kid, I actively rebelled at learning Mandarin because it was something my parents wanted. I refused to speak Mandarin at home, instead responding to my mom’s questions with some broken mishmash of Mandarin and English (Chinglish?).
After I transferred to an English-speaking school for fifth grade, my half-hearted attempt at learning Mandarin ended. But once I entered middle school I wanted to tuck another languge under my belt, one that was entirely new.
Ever since I was little I’ve dreamed of Paris. Oh, the cobblestone streets, the classy cafes, the bread! So on the first day I padded my way into French 1A with my purple backpack and capri jean shorts, ready to make my dream a reality. Madame hit us right away with a “Bonjour!” and we began.
Immediately, I was hooked. The syllables melodiously blended together, transporting me — in my head, I was already in Paris. I’ve been taking French language and culture classes ever since, continually supported by the Duolingo owl.
Unfortunately, my devotion to learning French bothers my mom. She asks me how I could possibly be so into learning a language that I have no ties to. Wouldn’t I rather take some Chinese classes to cement my fluency?
I just thought French was beautiful; I didn’t see choosing to study French as an affront to my heritage or as leaving my culture behind. But my mother disagreed. Every conversation about French versus Chinese ends with my mom shouting “哎呀!” and both of us fuming, equally frustrated but equally stubborn.
My mom is the strongest woman I know. She’s an awe-inspiring feminist who came to America on her own with two suitcases, $20 and a full freaking ride to study electrical engineering. She was a literal rocket scientist — I mean, come on.
Perhaps it is her stunning drive that makes her hard to approach. But more importantly, I want to be able to match her success, to represent something that was worth all that she fought for, an extension of her American dream.
Growing up, most of our talks were about logistics. When would she pick me up to take me to Chinese school? How soon would I be doing the laundry? Was I ready to take the ACT? Our relationship was strictly professional.
And it stayed that way through middle and high school — unfortunately emotionally distant. But one night as I was watching my way into new parts of YouTube, I stumbled on a video about a polyglot. “Teen Speaks Over 20 Languages” featured a guy wowing the world with French, Urdu, Indonesian and languages that I’d never even heard of.
In the video, he quoted Nelson Mandela: “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language, that goes to his heart.” As the video ended, YouTube autoplay fired up a TED Talk. But I was suddenly lost in thought.
My mom had lived a whole life in China before she immigrated. Her native languages are Mandarin and Shanghainese, the dialect of the city she grew up in. I can barely string a sentence together in Mandarin, let alone handle the entirely separate patterns of Shanghainese. So had I ever talked to my mom’s heart?
My mom taught herself English so that she could study in the United States — speaking to her in English is the epitome of speaking to her head. Stories about her childhood are few and far between, and I only know things about her life after immigrating. But I want to be able to know about all of her, head and heart, and who she is as a person.
So Mom, if you’re reading this, you were right, 我想要學中文. I know we’ve gotten closer over the last couple of years as I’ve grown up a bit (weird for a 小混球), but I want to be able to take the next step. I hope that one day we’re able to banter as much in Mandarin as we do in English; that I’ll be able to really join you in calls to 外婆; and that you’ll be able to tell me more stories about Australian boys, crawfish lakes and living in the big city.