Searching by Angela Fan

I will start with a myth with no title and no origin, simply read in some book at some moment in the past.

In times long forgotten, everyone spoke the same language. Communication was thought of as an inherent right. But the people of Babylon thought themselves smart and strong, and so decided to build a tower that thrust towards the Heavens so that they could best God in battle. But what God gives to mankind he can also take away, and so he vanished their ability to communicate. Each man in the city suddenly spoke a different language. Unable to effectively convey their ideas to each other, the construction of the tower to Heaven simply stopped, and God continued to reign supreme.

Today, in times not forgotten, I suppose communication with the rest of the world is a privilege.

I am six. I am new to this school, this school in America.

I have lived in China for a majority of my life, but most recently spent nine months in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. I lived in a mostly Chinese community. In school, we communicated mainly in Mandarin. I spoke some British-American English[1].

I am amused by the chattering of my new classmates. The way they speak seems so precise, so different and so harsh. American English, I think, is weird. Chinese is so much better.

A week later, I am taken out of class. I am brought to a little room, a room with no windows. This new teacher is different. I only see her, Ms. Rita, for three hours each week. Every Monday. She makes me listen to tapes, tapes of the weird words these people speak.

And then I must repeat the words back to her. I must pronounce every letter of the alphabet. I am told that when I do it perfectly, I will be given a sticker to add to my achievement chart. But each time I get to the letter “L,” I stumble. I am told to start again. Apparently I never pronounce it correctly. In my head, I wonder why one letter matters. There are, after all, twenty-five more.

I am told that in Vancouver, my obvious Chinese-Canadian-British-whatever accent did not stand out. I am told that here, I must be able to pronounce “R” and “L” and “B” and “D,” and pronounce them accurately[2]. Each time that I do, I will be given a sticker.

Ms. Rita says she will reward me when I spell things right. She dictates, and I write. We repeat this exercise often. She tells me I usually fail this activity the most.

I am six, and I am in ESL. At the end of the year, when I turn seven, I still do not have a single sticker on my achievement chart. I have said the alphabet perfectly. I have pronounced the differences between “R” and “L” and “B” and “D.” I am sure I have spelled at least one dictation correctly. But I end first grade with an empty chart[3].

Now I am eight. Third grade. Still in ESL. Ms. Rita is long gone. Rumors and whispers reach my ears. Apparently she has been fired.

Good riddance.

I wonder if Ms. Stanley will release me.

I recall my agonizing summer. Each day I sat with a dictionary. Each night I sat with a book. I highlighted all the words I did not understand. When I woke up the next day, I looked up each word in the dictionary.

And I continue the practice as the school year begins. Tonight I will finish Frindle[4]. Tomorrow, I will have no new words to look up. Perhaps I will start a new book. Perhaps I will not have to look up any more words.

I am in third grade, and I am discharged from ESL the first week of October. In the second week, the testing for advanced classes begins. Three days of tests, mathematics the first day. Reading comprehension the second. Logic the third.

I am placed in all advanced classes. When I step into my advanced language arts classroom, I am filled with a sense of pride, boundless and exhilarating. I wish Ms. Rita were still here. I wish she could see me. Maybe I would get a sticker then.

I am eight, and I am the top of my language arts class.

I was nervous. In retrospect, I probably should not have been. But I was. I stared at the clock. 2:58.

In the midst of my long readings of the dictionary, and the amount of work necessary to keep up in language arts, I had chosen to converse only in English. My parents, scared I was ostracized in school because of a language barrier, simply went along with me. They would speak to me in Chinese, but I would reply only in English.

Knowing and being good at reading, writing and speaking English filled my life. In my free time, I listened to the radio and watched the news, hoping to better mimic native English speakers.

Yet I was losing my once-firm grasp of Chinese.

Near the end of third grade, my grandparents from China visited us. And I realized, finally, that I could not speak Chinese. I struggled, managing a quick “hello how are you I’m fine thanks for asking” before ducking in shame to my room. I glanced in annoyance at the much-loved Merriam-Webster’s on my nightstand.

My grandparents left three weeks later. I had spent those weeks avoiding them out of embarrassment and searching for a Chinese school.

I was nervous because everyone at this school simply had to be better at Chinese than me.  I stuttered when I spoke. I could only read about half of a simple newspaper article. I couldn’t pronounce the difference between four (si) and death (si). I didn’t bother to correct people when they pronounced my name incorrectly. I felt out of touch with my culture and identity.

However, I was placed in the most advanced class the school offered, filled mostly with students from fifth and sixth grade. I was apprehensive, scared I would be ridiculed for my obvious inability to speak, read, and write Chinese. More and more, I began to regret my decision to sign up for the class in the first place. I was clearly way in over my head. I wished I hadn’t been American enough to use Google. Perhaps a search by word of mouth would have taken substantially longer.

2:59 p.m. One minute until the start of class. I shivered, glancing again to make sure I had all the required school materials.

3:00 p.m. My teacher was young and college-student looking. I prepared myself to admit to him that I could not possibly keep up with the course. It would be embarrassing, but I could handle it. He would forever look down upon me and my lack of Mandarin knowledge, but it would be okay.

But the first greeting he gave us was in English. In fact, as a class, we were expected to speak English.

I wondered how I was supposed to learn Chinese in this class. He would point to a character he scrawled on the board, something complex I didn’t recognize, and define it in English. 舞蹈. Dance. He would tell us to make a sentence.

Sure, I understood the instructions, but I could not complete the task. When called that first day to read my sentence, I simply said “我舞蹈.” I dance. Everyone else shared paragraph long stories about dance classes, dancing in the rain, ballet dance performances, all in perfect Chinese. I sunk in my seat.

He continued on. Another word, another sentence. Eventually, the first page of my notebook filled up. I dance. I wish. I swim.

We were given five minutes to practice speaking Chinese with a partner. Liza started first. She told me that she had gone swimming yesterday, with her friends at the YMCA on Haverford Road. She told me she was training to be a lifeguard, and was going to take CPR classes in the summer. All in English.

I glanced at her notebook. Pages were filled, paragraphs written about dancing and wishing and swimming. This class was a farce, I decided. It was obviously for those students who already knew Chinese. The people here didn’t care about learning, or getting better. They spoke English at a sacred place we were supposed to be learning and reviving our native language. I fumed silently. When it was my turn to speak, I read my short sentences to Liza. I dance. I wish. I swim. I continued, attempting to describe my wishes in Chinese. Liza raised an eyebrow quizzically. Nearby students glanced over. My teacher made a surprised sound.

I guess they wondered why I was attempting to speak Chinese in a Chinese class.

I left the class a week later. I decided that learning at home, the talking and observing and with a dictionary way that made me so good at English, was the only way.

I am sixteen, and I can speak Chinese. I talk with my grandparents often. I volunteer to translate during parent-teacher conferences. I own books in Chinese. I don’t dance because my childhood was spent reading the dictionary and I wasted away in the struggle to reconcile both parts of myself. I wish that Ms. Rita had not completely ruined my childhood in that dark room without any stickers. I swim on the weekends with my friends, in the pool at debate camp at Dartmouth over the summer, and at the local YMCA in Staten Island with my family.

I am sixteen, and I take AP English.

I wish Ms. Rita could see me now.

angela fan sitting at picnic table in grassy parkAngela Fan attends high school in New York City. She doesn’t find herself interesting enough to blog about, and so cannot provide a link for people to click on (which makes her feel rather uncool), and for that she apologizes. She’s previously been accepted for publication in teen-based magazines.


[1]British Canadians speak mostly American English, but there is a distinctly Canadian accent.

[2] Here’s a game I used to play in ESL: write down a column of random B’s and D’s, and read it really fast. If you do at least 50 letters correctly, meaning Ms. Rita can distinguish between your B’s and your D’s, and it doesn’t sound like “beedeebeedeebedebidibidbidi,” you get a sticker.

[3] I think I have been traumatized by my young self’s strive to earn stickers. I currently have a small (or not so small) obsession with them, especially if they are earned. One of my favorite places is the Dentist’s Office, because when my teeth are clean, he will always give me a “good job” sticker.

[4] In retrospect, I find it ironic that my eight year old self would have chosen to read Frindle, a book about a child making up words, at a time when she was attempting to learn real English.

Print Friendly
  • Amna Fa

    Nice perspective on culture, very interesting.

  • Yanxu

    It is very interesting experience, I wish this experience would help her positively.

  • Anonymous

    Mmm I came from Russia to Canada when I was 7 and I can’t for the life of me remember my ESL teacher in 2nd grade, but I know that my desire to write came from that move and the difficulties I had fitting in at that age. I totally relate. I still feel like my 2 parts aren’t reconciled.

  • Amalia Conrad

    This reminds me of the sad stories of Native American kids in boarding schools, and all the foreign immigrants in America who had to forget their languages of origin.
    I wonder why America is a country that prides itself on ignorance rather than knowledge? 
    I am bilingual and I think this makes me a much richer person!