Contemplating Chinese

Kildeer Illinois, August 23rd, 2017

Manhattan Chinatown, NYC

In the Chicago suburbs, Chinese is no survival skill. You can drive down route 22 without seeing it. You can walk through the mall without hearing it. You can even order Chinese takeout without speaking it.

Yet despite living in an English language world, my friends and cousins learned Chinese from their parents. Parents who kept all their conversations in Chinese and banished their children to Chinese school on Sundays.

My parents didn’t. I don’t fully know why. But I know I resisted and maybe this one time, they gave me a small victory so they could keep their pressure on my piano practice.

And so I went through twelve years of school thinking about math and Cross Country, cello and piano. Girls and videogames, the Thirty Years’ War and The Underground Man. No Chinese.

That changed when I went to China. I had gone before that freshman year summer, but I was a kid then and could run away from conversations without feeling bad. You can’t do that when you’re almost twenty.

I realized too, that you can’t drive anywhere without seeing Chinese. You can’t go anywhere without hearing it. And when menus don’t have pictures — and the good places never had pictures — you can only point and hope for the best as you play roulette with your order.

But what convinced me, what turned temporary inspiration into an item on my to-do list for the next few years, was that I could barely hold a conversation with my grandparents. Grandparents who were delighted just to hear my voice on the phone, and yet I could barely speak to them or ask them about their lives, my parents, or the world they lived through day by day.

So I began to learn.

I started doing flashcards. I took one class at school. I listened to podcasts on my commutes and began calling my parents in Chinese, half to learn, half because I didn’t call them enough despite missing them a whole lot.

I talked to friends’ parents in Chinese. I talked to international students in Chinese. And this summer, I talked to Ken in Chinese.

There’s this Conversation Exchange website that matches you based on the language you know and the language you want to know. You get each other’s info, and then you figure it out from there.

We first met at a CoCo bubble tea shop, and then walked a block over to this triangular seating area on Broadway. We began in English, sharing our backgrounds: I talked about growing up in the Chicago suburbs, and he talked about growing up in Taipei.

After an hour, we switched to Chinese.

He asked me what I did last weekend — I’d gone to The Met. But my Chinese was limited to a few topics such as food or chores or school, whatever I’d talked to my parents about. I never had to describe the painting of George Washington crossing the Delaware or its context within the Revolutionary War. I didn’t know how to say “battle” or “frozen” or “victory” or “ambush”.

I was put on the spot. I had to stop and realize what I didn’t know how to say, and it was only then that I began to really start learning.

We’d meet every week for the rest of the summer, hopping from park to park, spot to spot. Our favorite place was Bryant Park, with its large lawn in the middle where people would do yoga and handstands and read books lying on their backs.

We sat around the perimeter, on those green-painted metal chairs that park staff would chain together in a big bunch at night. Above us were shade trees, though I don’t know what type — I was never a green thumb like my parents.

We talked about work and school and English. About Paris and how it compared to New York. About first and second languages, about the difference between a ‘meetup’ and a ‘meeting’, a ‘gathering’ and a ‘get together’. We talked about our relationships with our families and what we did over the weekends.

In the end, I forgot what parts of our conversations took place in English or Chinese. I forgot what specific grammar structures and vocab words I learned. But I don’t think it really matters. Because at one point, our language became that of two friends in a park enjoying life, and there’s no better language than that.

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