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Helen Gao

For a Chinese Student of English, Learning to Forswear Perfection

In third grade, I had my first private English tutoring lesson. My teacher was a 21-year old English major at Peking University.

“Say ‘Thank you.’ Xie xie—Thank you.”

“S…ank you.”

“It’s not ‘sank you.’” She leaned over, tucking a strand of her glossy black hair behind her ear: “Th—ank you. Stick your tongue out, between your teeth.”

“Th—sank you,” I muttered, my tongue shyly sliding back the instant I stuck it between my teeth.

“Look at my mouth,” she leveled her face to mine, stuck an inch of her tongue out of her mouth and hissed: “Th—th—ank you.” Her eyes fixed on me. 

“Th—s—th—sank you … Sorry!” I felt blood rushing to my face.

My dad, who had been sitting at the sofa behind an opened newspaper, sighed “Why is it so hard?” as he tossed the paper aside. 

The clock ticked loudly. The one-hour lesson turned into a hide-and-seek game between me, and this common but bedeviling English word. By the end, my cheeks ached and the tip of my tongue hurt. 

Dad and mom stood at the door to see off the teacher. “We are so sorry! She is just nervous,” they laughed, rubbing their hands. I was still sitting by the desk with my back facing the door, repeating the phrase to myself: “Thank you, thank you, thank you…” The words were now flowing with ease, but it was too late. I kicked the leg of the chair and bit my tongue. 

Months and years after that first lesson, further along on my journey of English study, I find myself often thinking of that evening, of the girl in third grade struggling to pronounce that alien, yet most basic English syllable. I had left her there sitting by the desk, I thought, as I moved on to recite English passages in middle school, to transfer to an American high school at 17, and to attend Yale, where I wrote papers on Jane Austen and the Canterbury Tales. After years spent flipping through flashcards, I saw the gibberish on novel pages gradually transform into compelling narrative; after hundreds of TOEFL listening practice sets and season after season of Friends, a favorite show for Chinese learning American English, the jumble of sticky syllables now obediently group themselves into meaningful phrases and sentences as they pass by my ears.

Yet there are other moments. At the discussion table in my college English seminar, or in the crowd of a Friday night happy hour, the air suddenly feels thicker, my tongue heavier. I find myself haunted by an uneasiness I remember from my first English lesson, an uneasiness, I’ve found out by talking to others, shared by many advanced foreign language speakers.

*** 

The awkwardness of opening our mouths stalks almost all of us as language beginners. The most mundane utterances take painful deliberation, as we orchestrate our facial muscles to pronounce those new syllables. The daily conversations are limited to short, rehearsed exchanges, the ones we have spent hours memorizing from textbooks. Meeting my American friends for the first time, I wanted to describe to them, say, the delicious jianbing sold in the alley next to my childhood apartment. After groping in vain for the right vocabulary, I shook my head and asked, instead, if they had been to my hometown, Beijing. 

Don’t give up, we tell ourselves, because we know hard work always pays off. Soon enough, tireless repetitions begin to loosen our jaws and relax our cheeks. Confusing sentence structures start to take root in our mind as we apply them time after time in our speech. As diligent practice knocks over the original barriers in language study, our learning starts to race forward. The stock of vocabulary piles higher every day; each new idiom gives our speech a little more native touch. We toy with the new language as if it were a tool, excited with its novelty and eager to test out its functionalities. We search for the right word to spill out the flood of thoughts we’ve been forced to hold back. We toss out phrases and sentences, stumbling, stuttering, but determined to speak.

 “You cut the watermelon skin into slices, burn them in a hot pot of water and wait until they cool down and then you fridge them…” My right hand imitated the cleaver and left hand acted as the cutting board before I cupped them into the shape of a pot—I was describing to my college roommates our home recipe for a dessert made with watermelon rind. It was a Friday evening in the first month of our freshman year in college. We lingered in the dining hall after dinner. Sitting across the table, Julia cocked her head to listen, nodded in understanding as her smile grew wider. Sarai nudged me and laughed: “Burn them in water? Helen, you boil them!”

“Ah, I knew it! It just came out.”

“Also, by fridge you mean ‘put them in a fridge?’” 

“Yeah…”

“Well, fridge isn’t a verb. You put them in a fridge…”

I laughed and shrugged. “Thanks! Anyways, you know what I meant,” before diving back into my rambling.

***

After years of hard work, the thrill of gaining fluency in a new language can be intoxicating: We giddily accost strangers in street parks, and proudly announce the names of our favorite dishes in local restaurants. Like riding a bike and rushing down a slope, we loose our hands from the handlebars and close our eyes to enjoy a sense of liberation — until the bumpiness of the road sets in, for the first time. 

 “Hey Sarai. Can I borrow some changes for the laundry?”

 “Borrow some change, not changes.” Sarai corrected me as she dropped four quarters in my palm.

 “Oh, thanks.” I repeated the phrase silently to myself a few times, and wondered how it had escaped me for so long.

Sitting in the laundry room, I stared at my clothes spinning in the washing machine. How long has my language study been spinning in circles, I asked myself, rife with petty negligence invisible to me? 

It may take an artist months before he starts to recognize the exquisite brushstrokes on a dazzling masterpiece, or a violinist years before she begins to pick up the subtle chords in a grand symphony. Somewhere along the road of our language study, we learn to use our sharpened senses to examine our own speech.    

Those mistakes, small though they may be, sneer back at us in the mirror of our newfound self-reflection. We avert our eyes, but can’t drive those imperfections out of our mind. Slowly, the realization starts to keep us from light-heartedly throwing the advanced vocabulary we just learned into our speech, or from jumping unreservedly into a fast-paced conversation. The flooding urge to speak dries into a creek, navigating itself meticulously around potential error.

*** 

I sat at the discussion table of my English seminar, my course packet open in front of me, the pages a sea of highlighted passages and scribbled notes. I had spent the night before pondering every sentence in the reading material, weaving together eloquent responses for the discussion questions our professor had passed to us before class. Now, surrounded by the chatter of my classmates, I tried to tune out the noise and rehearse the answers in my mind one last time.

“So who wants to start?” The professor glanced around the classroom, which fell silent for a moment.

I opened my mouth, but no words came out. Is my answer well articulated? Is it going to make sense to my classmates? Having repeated it to myself for so many times, I could no longer tell, not in this stifling silence. I guess I’ll wait, I told myself, and throw it in at an interval between my classmates’ answers. I’ll just jump onto the train after it picks up speed.

But the train flashed by in a blink. 

I hesitated each time I had a chance to latch on, swallowing my words right before they came out. Before I knew it, the discussion was over, and I walked out of the classroom feeling like I had just lost a battle against myself. 

Once again, I was my third-grade self, sitting next to the tutor and tripping over the simplest syllable. This time, however, it was not the tutor’s gaze that tied my tongue. Once deaf toward the difference between my speech and those of others, my trained ears can now hear the language on a more nuanced level. It is an ability that can be exhilarating as well as intimidating for advanced language speakers, for it motivates us to strive for more precision in our speech, but also shackles our mind by overloading it with rules and restrictions: As we aim to be correct, each attempt to communicate becomes a minefield to cross.

I miss “burning the watermelon skin in water,” I murmured to myself.

***

In the evening after my first English lesson, as my parents stood at the door apologizing profusely for my disappointing performance, the tutor shook her head: “It’s OK. The first lesson is always a hurdle. I’m sure next time will be better.” 

Hearing her heading down the stairs, I jumped off the chair, dashed to the door and squeezed myself through my parents. “TH–ANK YOU!” I yelled to her back, biting the tip of my tongue hard between my teeth.  

She stopped on the stairs and turned back, a smile blooming across her face. “Thanks. Thank you!” She waved. I stood there as she walked away, the rhythmic click-clack of her heels echoing in the hallway. 

41 Comments
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Helen Gao

Helen hails from Beijing, where she spent the first 17 years of her life before heading to the US for high school and college. After a one-year stint at The Atlantic magazine, she is currently back to her home city and working as a freelancer. She constantly craves for hot pot while in the US, and for New Haven pizza while in China.
  • coplansinchina.wordpress.com

    I really liked your work at The Atlantic & am looking forward to your dispatches from home. I was betting they were going to hire you. Their mistake.

    • http://twitter.com/Yuxin_Gao Helen Gao

      really appreciate the support :)

  • coplansinchina.wordpress.com

    I really liked your work at The Atlantic & am looking forward to your dispatches from home. I was betting they were going to hire you. Their mistake.

    • http://twitter.com/Yuxin_Gao Helen Gao

      really appreciate the support :)

  • Terry

    Excellent piece Helen. Thank you

  • Terry

    Excellent piece Helen. Thank you

  • Ross Archibald

    Thank you for this insightful piece, Helen. As a Canadian adult learner of Chinese language, I find your comments mirror my own experiences. I hope some day to achieve a comparable competency in your first language as you have in mine. I also hope to learn the skill of teaching English as a second language. 我对你的洞察力感谢。

    • http://twitter.com/Yuxin_Gao Helen Gao

      Thanks! I admire that. have to admit that I feel grateful not having to learn Chinese as my second language…

      • 高恒義

        我特别同意!I always tell my Chinese friends that if Chinese characters didn’t exist then Chinese would be one of the easiest languages in the world to learn :)

        • eeeee

          Yup Chinese characters are a big roadblock…after that let’s get rid of all the 同音字 please!

  • Ross Archibald

    Thank you for this insightful piece, Helen. As a Canadian adult learner of Chinese language, I find your comments mirror my own experiences. I hope some day to achieve a comparable competency in your first language as you have in mine. I also hope to learn the skill of teaching English as a second language. 我对你的洞察力感谢。

    • http://twitter.com/Yuxin_Gao Helen Gao

      Thanks! have to admit that I feel grateful not having to learn Chinese as my second language…

      • 高恒義

        我特别同意!I always tell my Chinese friends that if Chinese characters didn’t exist then Chinese would be one of the easiest languages in the world to learn :)

        • eeeee

          Yup Chinese characters are a big roadblock…after that let’s get rid of all the 同音字 please!

  • http://twitter.com/zhubochubo zhubochubo

    In australia you most certainly can (and indeed must) “fridge” things!

  • http://twitter.com/zhubochubo Andrew Chubb 朱波

    In australia you most certainly can (and indeed must) “fridge” things!

  • Lina

    I can’t think of a single person of my generation who *didn’t* rely on Friends to help learn English. : )

  • Lina

    I can’t think of a single person of my generation who *didn’t* rely on Friends to help learn English. : )

  • Pingback: » Mid-Week Links: Chinese seduction of Western businessmen, Shenhua FC’s hot streak, and translation, like love, is a slow simmer Beijing Cream

  • ClausRasmussen

    Beautiful piece and a pleasure to read.

  • ClausRasmussen

    Beautiful piece and a pleasure to read.

  • JulieAnne

    Wow, this is beautiful. Thank you so much.

  • JulieAnne

    Wow, this is beautiful. Thank you so much.

  • Dax

    Great piece. I’m going to share this with my Chinese students.

  • Dax

    Great piece. I’m going to share this with my Chinese students.

  • ethanjrt

    同感…
    I look forward to the day when my Chinese friends correct me for such minor errors as the ones you write about making in your freshman year. If you come to New Haven this year, stop by Davenport!
    ~Ethan

  • ethanjrt

    同感…
    I look forward to the day when my Chinese friends correct me for such minor errors as the ones you write about making in your freshman year. If you come to New Haven this year, stop by Davenport!
    ~Ethan

  • facts

    Little-known fact: Even Americans learned to speak American English from “Friends.”

  • facts

    Little-known fact: Even Americans learned to speak American English from “Friends.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/eli.bildner Eli Bildner

    beautiful piece, helen. so glad to read it!

  • http://www.facebook.com/eli.bildner Eli Bildner

    beautiful piece, helen. so glad to read it!

  • Sun

    Funny story, remember to me my first Chinese class …

  • Sun

    Funny story, remember to me my first Chinese class …

  • Sun

    hahahaha sorry I need some English class

  • Sun

    hahahaha sorry I need some English class

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100004091319958 Jennifer John

    today English learning is necessaey

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Nikitha-Roy/100000578870423 Nikitha Roy

    Learning english is interesting.I am also learning english with videos like this one http://youtu.be/FxLRGOnRlvg

  • Maria Smith

    Skills in English is important for IELTS WRITING

  • http://twitter.com/sho_me_2000 shomade sule abiodun

    This is how I overcome my English Lang barrier in American school. http://bit.ly/10broeU

  • Ye Shou

    Almost cried after reading this article.

  • cindy

    Being a member of the Chinese diaspora myself I really feel your work. Great writing and insight, you’re an inspiration to me and I hope I can produce pieces like yours in the future.