Speaking English is like…
I taught my mom how to say “thank you” when she stayed with me in Minnesota.
Flatten your tongue, then let the force of your upper and lower teeth stabilize the soft flesh and gently squeeze it to burst the air out, as the “th” sound. “K” is a comma between “than” and “you,” it’s easy but don’t forget- it does make a difference. And finally consider “you” as a nice and cozy ending of a song, smooth and long. If you look at the person’s eyes and have the “you” sound pretty enough, no one will criticize your accent. Make “thank you” as big and fat as possible.
It’s hard for her. She doesn’t understand why she can’t just say the word. I tell her speaking English is tricky that you have to train your tongue for years to make a beautiful transition between words and sentences. She gave up immediately, and was proud that her daughter could speak American English for her.
Not really though. I often mistake “chicken” and “kitchen,” or “restaurant” and “restroom.” I can’t really tell the difference between “micro” and “macro.” And I avoid saying “girl” “sun” or” citizen,” if it’s possible.
The sound of a language is an elaborate game machine. Being a master of this game does not guarantee you would learn to play that game fast. Before you enter this game, the machine is bigger than you can imagine. After a while, you learn its limits as well as yours. One of my friends helps people with speech problem. She once played the note “do, re, mi, fa, sol” on the piano and asked him to sing with it. He said he couldn’t.
She encouraged him, saying that this was a safe space and any sound he made would be okay. He tried, in the end. He opened up his dry throat, waited and waited, and abruptly pierced some weird noise in that empty room. Then he cried, without knowing why.
Speaking English is like that.
Speaking English is like dancing at a masquerade. Matching familiar faces with unfamiliar names. Twenty-six characters, they fall in love, break apart, reconcile, and say goodbye. Knowing where they live, having appropriate conversations with each family and at the same time, minding your own step, one, two, three, four, oh backwards now, one, two, three, four…it’s nonstop words after words, talking of the talking.
Speaking English is like trying to have a good appetite every day. Voiced consonants are the crunchiness of the chips, or the crispness of your first biting of an apple. Voiceless consonants, on the other hand, are some unclear chewing noises in your mouth when it’s full of all kinds of nuts. Vowels should be some meaty grease main course, codfish maybe. Of course, I should love eating them all and have a very strong healthy stomach to support every meal I need to take. The hard part is always the question of how to eat the burgers, chips and donuts all at once while your mind is thinking as a kung pao chicken.
My favorite words to say are authority and authentic. There seem many layers within the sounds like the ups and downs in a roller coaster, and I get a secret excitement when I pronounce every part of it. “Walk with authority,” I tell my friend, “I give you this permission.” “Minneapolis doesn’t have any authentic Chinese restaurants,” I comment. I praise things that I like by saying it’s authentic with authority. It feels like narrating a little creature’s life. It starts with an ordinary “au” sound, next reaches to its proudest moment in life- “thori”/”then” –high, clear and has a straight power in it. The end “ty”/”tic” has a beauty of suddenness. It doesn’t need more explanation when it ends. That’s a person’s life I admire.
My least favorite words to say are rain and pain. The sound of these two words from my voice is plain, pale, no passion. They are the elegy of English.
A word of a day – Ajurania
I write down my goal: learn five new words a day.
But it’s never enough. It’s never enough to express what I mean, what I want and how I feel.
So I created a word my own.
Noun, verb, adjective
- Holding lots of secrets in the dark: decide to tell or not to tell
- Waiting for the phone call: even though you know he won’t call, even though you want to call
- Wanting a soup to warm your heart, also wanting a salad to cool your mind. One choice, between a soup or a salad, as a side
- Following the instruction A®B, B®C; suddenly ask where do A and B and C come from
- Wondering if we see the same yellow when there is a giraffe
- Failed the road test, twice. Failed relationship, zillion times
-When after studying seven ways to prove God’s existence and writing down eight methods to prove the absurdity of God’s existence, still figuring out the key point is how he learned so many languages to understand different prayers, use Ajurania.
-When daydreaming you become a bird, at night you can’t tell if you’re still you or a bird. Tomorrow early morning when you even doubt that if thinking itself belongs to you, use Ajurania.
-Ajurania is a letter “H.” You stand in the middle. Afraid of going up nowhere, disappointed by ending up anywhere. Hesitating, crowded, carefully, standing in the middle.
He walked me to the subway station before it’s getting dark. I told him I felt really sad that I had to be the one who was leaving. Leave—Step outside of his apartment, take the subway, sit on the train for 45 minutes and be away. 60% of melancholy fell on my body, injected in my blood and when it ran through my heart, something kicked in my left atria, that’s when—feeling hurt.
He said, no it’s not true. Don’t you notice that many love songs and stories are about the person who’s left behind? The one who’s being left suffers more.
The one who’s being left weeps, whines, wishes and waits. He or she or they mark their time by singing and telling stories so their life stays and flows and stays and goes.
Who knows anything about the story of a leaving person?
I leave home for a boarding school when I was nine, and leave from one school to another, to the next, to now, where I am still laying on a bed school provides and wakes up in the middle of night and don’t remember which school I am at.
My family moves every three years and eventually I move myself out of their moving and leave them, leave my country when I was eighteen. From one city to another, to the next, to now, when I don’t know how to answer— “where are you from?”
How to answer, how to speak, what to say, what? I quickly pull out the choices of words, syntax in my head, with the appropriate manner to smile, to respond, to joke, to let you know—I do fit in your conversation. Who are you? It doesn’t matter, I can always behave. My German friend told me the English word “mask” in German translation has two meanings: one, a physical mask or cover putting on your face; two, you make a face to distort your original expression so no one can see the real you anymore. I don’t see the distinction here. The boundary is blurry.
Just like leave and being left might feel the same. I leave the past behind, yet the past is being left within me. Only I know the story of a leaving person because that story is left on me. I leave for a new language, a new world with the hope for a new kind of communication connecting the new me. Now the new me see nothing is new and the transformation doesn’t change me to a complete new person but split into two minds and bodies. What’s left between is the coexistence of leave and being left.
One of the first rules I learned about English writing is to avoid using passive tense. My grammar teacher said her sounds not as pleasant as she, and being feels passive while doing makes it dominant. But in Chinese, the active or the passive are merely two different voices, like yin and yang. No one is always stronger than the other. When you say, “I miss you,” does it always make you feel you are in control because I miss you—you becomes my subject? Do you ever feel vulnerable when you are the first one to say—I miss you—and you wait, until the quiet moment to be broken?
Is this why, I am the one who leave, but always felt I am the one who’s being left again and again? Being left from home, from the culture and the country who made the history of me that I can never erase or change? When you ask me where am I from, do you mean how did I leave to be here or who left me here?
I don’t know how to explain so I said I am sorry this is not the language I speak.
No language can I speak to explain the space between leave and being left. When I open my mouth, there is nothing I can explain.
I thought popcorn, by definition—popping corn, should be sweet. That’s why when I went to a movie theater in California for the first time, I couldn’t believe the taste of the popcorn in my hand, salty, plain, no sweet laughter, no happy memories. I asked him if you have other kinds of popcorn—like the one I had in China, pure honey sugary kind. He looked at me as if he heard the word popcorn for the first time. That’s the only POPCORN we have here. He said. It left me to wonder if I said the right word for the thing I had in mind.
Years later when I took a college class on philosophy of language, we questioned whether any word in any language could explain the things we are thinking of, as it should be, as it’s expected to be, such as crazy, respect, hurt, God, and the popcorn.
I don’t speak English
My grandpa said this to me when I was six:
Do not speak to Japanese. Do not trust Japanese. Do not make any Japanese friends. If you do, I will break your leg and lock you down in a room where ghosts live.
He told me he’s seen how the Japanese army invaded villages, robbed everything, raped our women, killed children and elders, and set fire to people, houses and our land. Since then, a Japanese solider often walks in my sleepless nights.
I was sixteen and lived in Gosford, Australia for one semester of studying abroad program. My school took all the international students on a cruise trip, to watch dolphins jumping in and out of the sea, which local kids no longer felt excited for. While I was laughing, clapping, taking pictures, a boy came to me and asked, “Are you from China? I am Japanese. My name is…”
I remembered my grandpa’s warning. So I said this:
“I don’t speak English.”
The exact words.
I like apples.
I called him yesterday.
I learned English by starting writing down sentences like these. It’s terrifying— the only sentence I could start with were always “I…” but growing up in a communal cultural and society, you are not supposed to say “I” want this or need that. I sounds so much smaller than we.
We serve the people.
We are the people.
For thousands of years, “I” never have a name—Wang’s second wife, Gao’s first daughter, the Beauty, the Mother…We always use third person to look at ourselves, to tell others who we are—some uneducated stupid women.
“I learned…” when my teacher asked me to finish the rest of part in class, I still didn’t know how to say “I did this.”
But I continued writing down sentences starting with “I.” So from the women to we, I am the one here who still writes about “I.”
The subjunctive is an irrealis mood (one that does not refer directly to what is necessarily real)—it is often contrasted with the indicative, which is a realis mood.
The thing that I wish my mom could say to me was “I love you.” She loves me by taking me to private piano classes; by sending me to a prestigious boarding school; by paying all my college tuition and letting me choose what kind of car I want. It could be an inappropriate thing to say, such as meeting your boyfriend’s parents for the first time and expressing your opinions on politics, religion and sex. Mostly, it is embarrassing. Growing up in a family where no one ever said I love you to each other, you would wonder what reactions she would have if I said it first. Maybe she would’ve said, “I love you, too.” Maybe she would’ve asked me, “So what do you want?” Maybe she would’ve pretend she didn’t hear it and silently had tears in her bedroom at dark.
The thing I wish my future partner could’ve understood were both my left and right hemisphere. On the left, I try to pronounce the perfect “L” sound; I drink ice-cold water, go to Gay 90s, use tampons, wear a skirt in subzero weather, proud walking on the street for a late night party, read Nietzsche and Foucault, watch Sex and the City, write papers about third-wave feminism and how “personal is political”. Turn right, my fragile heart is made of Gushi, Dream of Red Chamber and Eileen Chang. Eileen Chang says, “The greatest happiness in the world is to discover that the person who you like happens to like you too.” So I believed it. I secretly wish I could’ve been melted into a piece of milk chocolate. Being sweet, happy and lovable would be my ultimate label. “Are you being a g-o-o-d girl?” Yes, yes, I am working on it, don’t say ugly words, don’t poke your tongue out, smile, be thankful, love, don’t be sick…
No matter what side that person sees, he knows both. So when I live, we will move far away, hold hands to fight this fucking world together. When I die, he will dial my home number, speak the language my mom understands, say, she loved you. She was happy. And I think she is waiting for you somewhere to be a family, again.
I wish my mom would’ve remembered to say, thank you.