If you read that title in a mocking accent, then you may be guilty of this. Somewhere along the timeline of immigrants spilling into America, English became the landmark of culture and intelligence; accent a caricature for heathen and lazy. If you thought of that title with derision, then you might be unconsciously harboring society’s draconian eye.
It seems that English has grown into a necessary component of intellect. And while I have only had fourteen years of experience with this, I know that there are thousands more who have had lifetimes.
When I first came to America, I didn’t speak English. The few words I knew–“hello,” “goodbye,” “sorry”–came out in chopped bits, the words lurching on my tongue like clumsy rocks.
I flushed red with embarrassment when the teacher asked me to read passages aloud. My kindergarten classmates stared and whispered. Their English was perfect: smooth r‘s, quick l’s. When I sat with my friends at the round blue tables, they would ask me, “Why do you go to this school, anyway? You just came from China. English must be hard for you.”
They’d laugh like it was a joke, but I could sense the question simmering beneath their smiles.
I’d tuck a hand under my uniform skirt, picking at my Lunchable, and try to laugh back.
So I worked. I borrowed novels about time travelers and fairies from the library and took them home. In my free time, I’d thumb through them until they were so full of dog-ears that the librarian told me to just keep them. I’d whisper the words to myself until they felt like smooth pebbles. At home, my Mandarin came rapid-fire.
During the summers, we visited my father’s hometown in China, Zhijiang, where I had grown up, and I could be another Chinese girl picking at the roasted oranges that her aunt prepared for her. The dialect spoken there, zhijianghua, charged forward at twice the speed of Mandarin and rose in different cadences. I could converse freely in both Mandarin and zhijuanghua, interchange Mandarin and zhijianghua in sentences, and mesh the two dialects to create a hybrid that only my relatives and I understood. I came back from China each year with a mouth full of the language.
In America, most of my closest friends were Chinese. We wore our culture with pride on the sleeves of our red silk qi paos and laughed while our parents fought over the bills at cheap restaurants. And at school, I had finally smoothed out my English. Nobody snickered when I read passages out loud anymore. My best friends through my early life switched from being Japanese, Vietnamese, and then Indian—but none seemed to last, because they didn’t really understand. They ate their spaghetti with forks and watched football on the television.
By the end of elementary school, I had won a few small school-wide awards for my writing. My parents promptly encouraged me to apply to a private school in the area, and lo and behold, their middle school campus accepted me. But this was different from my public elementary. This school was intensive when it came to language arts; the grammar training was breakneck and ruthless, and the teachers treated essays with hawk-like, iron-fisted attention. In the first few months of school, I helplessly lagged behind. The only grammar I’d learned from my public school consisted of ‘noun’, ‘verb’, and ‘pronoun.’ I knew how to write with things like appositives, subordinate conjunctions, and dependent clauses, but I didn’t know how to name them.
Everybody at this school was white: in my eyes, they were big smiles and confidence and American flags flashing in their eyes. Subconsciously, I pushed myself twice as hard to catch up to everybody else, and I began to float to the top of the rankings every time we had a grammar test.
As we labored away on our expository essays, my thesaurus became my Bible. I could use words like undermine, insouciant, and apparatus. Nevertheless, I floundered helplessly when it came to words like dais, linebacker, and Kanye West. I realized that if I wanted to speak—not just write—like an American, I was going to have to be friends with more Americans. I watched my first football game and started using forks to eat my spaghetti. By the end of sixth grade, I published my first novel and won my first cash award for writing.
In the summers, I still visited Beijing, my mother’s hometown, and Zhi Jiang. My uncle spoke to me in zhijianghua. I asked him to slow down, please, and I forgot the taste of roasted oranges. Avoid stigma, earn respect: I traded my qi paos for Brandy Melville sweaters, my Chinese for my English, and it was—is—infinitely more painful than any cut or incision I have ever experienced. This is the price I am still paying to fit in at a white-majority school: dissect the Chinese parts of me and make them accessories rather than organs.
In eighth grade, I was awarded the prize for the best English in the grade, out of all my white classmates who were born and raised with it. People respected me—but the question was buried deep in their throats. I could feel it simmering under their skins again, even though they never spoke it out loud. There were big smiles and confidence and American flags flashing in their eyes. But they respected me, and that was all I wanted: to perfect my English so I could earn their admiration. In the summer, I visited China, and I realized that it had been years since I could understand zhijianghua. When I started preparing for the AP Chinese exam, I found that now the rocks wobbling in my mouth were Mandarin.
Today, I have made a sort of turbulent peace with the split inside of me. It almost never comes out anymore, but in Chinese class and in Zhi Jiang, sometimes it’ll rear its ugly head.
At his farm in China, my great-uncle will ask me a question, beckon me to squat and feed the chickens in his pens, pluck the plums from the trees. My cousins with sun-hardened hands do this perfectly, and I struggle, because my fingers, suited for the cold metal of a pen, fumble with the pulpy pits of fruit.
There is always a moment of blank, white-hot panic—and shame, too.
My great-uncle will smile patiently and guide my fingers forward, but still, I would not wish this on anyone.
Now I’m a freshman at the same school, and a boy came this year. Just arrived from China. And when he introduced himself, I saw the words like heavy rocks on his tongue, lurching into each other. The class was silent, and after class, my friend snickered, “I couldn’t even understand him. Could you?”
In literature class, the teacher asked him to read a passage from The Odyssey, and I saw his face turn red. I saw myself. Slowly, he began to read, tripping over the Greek names and Homeric terms. The class was silent.
“My English not very good,” he had said afterward, face burning.
At the end of class, the girl next to him spoke.
“Hey,” she asked him curiously, “why do you go to this school? Why don’t you just go to a math school—or something? It would be lot easier for you.”
Because this school is too hard for you, was the unspoken end.
The bell rang. His eyes dropped to the ground. He put his copy of The Odyssey into his backpack and laughed back, but I saw myself. I saw every child with yellow skin and brown eyes who wanted big smiles, confidence, and American flags flashing in their eyes.
The boy is a genius at math and physics, and yet all people can see is his crude English—coming out in chopped bits, the words lurching on his tongue like clumsy rocks.
I try my best to help the boy. I cheer the loudest for him after he presents his literature project, even when the teacher sharply corrects his pronunciations of Telemachus and Ithaca. I laugh the quickest when he stumbles through a joke in English, and I always say hello to him when he walks into the classroom.
We are not close friends, and I can’t be sure if he’s thinking of shedding his skin or burrowing farther into it. But at a white-majority school, birds of a feather have to flock together sometimes. So when he lowers his literature book and says, “My English not good,” I tell him, “No. Your English is very good.”
Please. Don’t let English become a landmark of culture. I don’t want the boy at my school to have to do the same thing I did.
Sarah Feng is a freshman at Pinewood School (Los Altos, CA), where she is studying the chemical composition of words. Her works have been recognized by the regional Scholastic Art & Writing Awards, the California Coastal Commission, the Write the World Novel Writing Prize, and more, and are published or forthcoming in TAB: A Journal of Poetry & Poetics, Moledro Magazine, and Write the World Best of 2015 Anthology, among others. She reads prose for Glass Kite Anthology and reviews for Write the World.