“To Forgive the Choice of Writing in These Very Words”
Second Place for College Prose
“When one remembers in an adopted language, there is a dividing line in that remembrance. What came before could be someone else’s life; it might as well be fiction.” — Yiyun Li
In the spring of 2018, I spent a week in a hospital. I was not allowed to use my phone, so conveniently I did not inform my family of the news. After a few days’ persuasion from my ward-mates, I decided to give my mother a call. A nurse took me to an office and gave me my phone. Cracked screen. Many unread messages. Already anxious, I initiated a voice call with my parents on WeChat. She picked up. “喂，妈妈。” As soon as those words came out of my mouth, a shield was erected between me and the nurse watching over me, who was American and couldn’t understand what I was saying. This shield only protected me from one side. On the other side, I was left bare with my own voice speaking in my mother tongue. I heard myself telling my mom what I was supposed to tell: I was admitted to a hospital because of my mental condition. I was okay. The school officials knew. I was being smart about it and I would be out soon. Piecing these words together in Chinese and pushing them out of my throat gave me a visceral discomfort. In English, saying these words would be liberating. I might even feel proud of how under control I was doing it. It wouldn’t make sense to use English in this conversation. I must use Chinese to expose my ill, true self to my mother. I spoke like a nervous 15-year-old who made a shameful mistake.
I was 21 years old. I had been an exile of my own language for almost six years at that point.
When I was first learning English in elementary school in Beijing, my mother, who was working for a British firm at the time, told me that the mastery of a language is achieved once you can dream in it. For a long, long time, my goal was to be able to dream in English.
I was sensitive to power since a young age. In middle school, I decided that I wanted to go to America for high school. I am still curious what gave that child such ambition. Perhaps the competitive culture in the public education system in China. Perhaps all the signals I had been receiving insinuating that America was number one—the most gold medals in the Olympics, the most atomic bombs and aircraft carriers, etc. Perhaps a legacy of colonialism. Who knows? But I do remember that desperate desire for power — whatever that meant to me at the time — and in response to that desire I decided I wanted to go to America.
I started studying English like crazy. Everything in English, I took it in. I watched all the American movies and TV shows I could pirate on the Chinese internet. I bought vocabulary books and tried to memorize every page. I even paid special attention to memes, not for fun but for the knowledge of humor. Later in life I would learn that humor comes hand in hand with social capital. But at the time, humor just seemed like another thing I had to learn to assimilate into the American culture.
I did make it out. I applied and got into an elite high school in America. The moment of enrollment felt like a moment of emancipation from a far-away, inferior Eastern country. I did not immediately arrive at a new home, however, and I was reminded of that in every aspect of life. From my first three years in America, among all the memories that stuck were the shame from asking the teacher how to say “two to the third” after pre-calc when every other student had left the room; and the fear and loneliness of not understanding why everyone in the room was laughing at a joke that I didn’t realized I made. I did everything I could to force myself to feel at home. Finding a home in America meant studying the Western canon. It meant treating writing like a science before it became anything remotely expressive and cathartic. It meant using my English name so comfortably that my Chinese friends would call me by it too.
One time in junior year of high school, a friend told me that she didn’t even know I was from China until I told her — a statement I would hear many times over — and I took it as the greatest compliment.
What seemed like emancipation at the time would turn out to be a strange kind of exile.
I spent my formative years in America reconstructing a new me in a new language. I developed the emotionality and sophistication of an adult who speaks English. Since I so drastically switched my language of comfort, my ability to use Chinese language stopped developing at age fifteen. I matured and am maturing in the American way. Right now, I am able to think these thoughts, write these thoughts, only in English, not in Chinese. The shield of the American language keeps me protected as I write about my rage and depression. If I were to write these emotions in Chinese, I would not have the right words, and I am not sure if I can handle the brutality in such remembrance.
Right after graduating from high school, per request of my counselor, my parents took me to a psychologist who was also a family friend. I guess they thought it was best to meet with someone they already knew well. The four of us went to a restaurant near where she lived. Lunch started with catching up and soon turned into an involuntary therapy session. I realized I could not explain what was “wrong.” When she asked me her questions, I simply cried. It frightened my father. Years later, I still wonder, have I forgotten how to be sad in Chinese?
During my hospital stay, I met a Chinese American woman. She often spoke Chinese to me. She just had a baby and suffered from postpartum depression. Her husband admitted her to the hospital without her consent and she refused to take the drugs that her psychiatrist prescribed her. Perhaps she thought I was more comfortable speaking my mother tongue, so she told me about her life and expected me to tell her mine. She told me she supported herself through Yale medical school. She taught herself Chinese during college because her family didn’t speak it at all. She often spoke to the nurses on my behalf. She told me Western doctors tend to overmedicate. She warned me to never marry a white man. I ran from her. Her language made me feel naked. In the hospital I was trying with every bit of my will to build a shield and that shield was American. The Chinese language would erode it to the core so I ran away from her whenever she got close. I ran from the kindness — or the desperate gesture to connect — of a woman who thought she could bond with me because of our shared origin. What she didn’t know was that this origin, this distant, mythical place that she wanted to find, was a place that I abandoned and also abandoned me in return.
The price of erasing the presence of the Chinese language during my formative years was the erasure of an identity. Not sure since when, I don’t dream in either language. My body made the decision for me. It can’t make up its mind. I wonder who I am right now. I often have trouble choosing from the glorious terms one could use to describe one’s mixed background because I don’t see my background as a peaceful synthesis, but a brutal, forced replacement of one for another. Calling myself a hybrid of any sort feels inaccurate, reductionist, irresponsible, and straight-up lazy. Hybrid sounds more like a superior existence than the different things that constitute it, but I feel more like a half-ass. My fluency in English is associated with the abandonment of my mother tongue. This association is something to blame and regret, but also something to forgive. Perhaps it is only through the forgiveness of self that I will ever be able to call my internal battles to a truce and see beauty instead of brutality in the co-existence of languages.
When one is in exile, all one wants is to go home. I think of James Baldwin’s famous quote: “Perhaps home is not a place but simply an irrevocable condition.” No matter how hard I tried to rip this condition off my skin, I cannot. But home is also generous and kind. It waits as I slowly crawl back.
My Taiwanese friend recently gave me a book, 《孽子》 by 白先勇. Every night, I read its words, right to left, top to bottom. Each character hides an attempt at redemption.